A wonder boy grows up
What were the origins of the new novel?
It started as a failed pilot for TNT that got shot down in flames. I put that project aside and worked on other things like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and my children’s novel Summerland, but I found myself continually thinking back to the characters and world I created for that show.
What inspired you to write primarily about African-American characters?
Telegraph Avenue began as an attempt to address a dissatisfaction that crystallized in me the moment the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. If I’d been more connected to the black community, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by the celebration that went on, but I was astonished. That brought home to me how disconnected I’d become. Many years later, I walked into a used-record store and the guys hanging out there were a racially mixed group, and that was a powerful, poignant space for me to find myself in. To me, Brokeland Records [the store in the book] is a descendant of Huck [Finn] and Jim’s raft — this impossible space that ought not to be, and yet it is, at least for a short while. It’s only when they get off that they have to contend with stark and brutal realities.
Were you concerned about writing African-American characters?
Of course. I knew what I was potentially getting into, both artistically — my own difficulty in just trying to do this — and the possible external consequences in terms of the reaction or response. Whatever doubts and anxieties I had were absent while I was actually writing. It was just as hard and just as easy as writing characters who superficially bear a stronger resemblance to me. But when I was lying in bed at night fretting, that’s when I did entertain those kinds of doubts, and I wondered if I had way too much chutzpah.
You’ve always championed genre fiction. Do you see Telegraph Avenue as a continuation of that exploration?
Yes! Before, I set out on a semi-accidental journey to have my writing reflect my taste, predilection, and upbringing as a reader. I plunged consciously and wholeheartedly into hard-boiled detection, sword-and-sorcery fantasies, Lovecraftian horror, all that kind of stuff. What I’ve done with Telegraph Avenue is finally incorporate genres into the whole so that this book combines a family saga — which doesn’t have a privileged genre-free status just because Tolstoy wrote it — and other elements: kung fu, blaxploitation, crime fiction, a zeppelin theft, and a semi-sentient parrot. [Laughs] The genres are all nourishing and feeding each other in this book.
Music is essential to the novel. What did you listen to while writing?
I listened almost continuously to the music that [lead characters] Archy and Nat are obsessed with — I call it backbeat jazz. The signature songs for me were the Johnny ”Hammond” Smith version of ”It’s Too Late” and ”Midnight Theme” by an obscure ’70s funk outfit called Manzel. This music ultimately led to the Kenny Gs of the world and the kind of smooth jazz limo drivers listen to. But at its best, it’s much funkier, nastier, and more fun.