Michael Chabon on 20 years of Kavalier & Clay, from its origin story to its TV future

By Shana Naomi Krochmal
September 18, 2020 at 01:57 PM EDT

When The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was published 20 years ago this week, there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe, no Watchmen. The 639-page novel, which inserts two young cousins’ fantastic tale of Jewish immigrant struggle and a sexual identity crisis into real-life comic book history — Stan Lee even gets a cameo here — was both a literary love letter and a sweeping, myth-making manifesto about the importance of heroes on and off the page. 

“When I started writing the book, and I would tell people what it was about, it was a conversation killer,” says author Michael Chabon. “Comic books are as important a part of American art as jazz, a Hollywood film, or rock and roll.” 

Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and after two decades of fitful development, an adaptation — penned by Chabon and his wife and writing partner, Ayelet Waldman — is finally set at Showtime for next year. 

Chabon talked to EW from Maine in late summer about the book’s seemingly never-ending journey to the big or small screen, the best friendship between a queer and straight man at its core, and which of the many, many actors who have been considered for the lead roles still stand out.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The 20th anniversary of Kavalier & Clay is approaching.
MICHAEL CHABON: I was wondering if anyone was going to notice.

I took a look through the EW archives — we’ve written about you and this book quite a bit over the years. At one point we even published a page from the script adaptation — 
Oh yeah — it was this thing about the hottest script in Hollywood that's unproduced, or something like that. I remember that.

EW called it “The It Script.”
Yeah, I remember that. I guess that was the kiss of death!

Well, not quite. Before we do our annual check-in on the state of the script, let’s talk about the book. Does it feel like it’s been 20 years? Or 100?
When I just consider the number, I'm surprised that it's been so long, but I have so many benchmarks associated with it in my life around it. For example, right now I'm sitting in the car next to my 19-year-old daughter, who was not yet born when that book was published. So, it's weird. It is surprising to me that it has been such a long time since the book was published, and when I think back to writing it, actually writing it, it doesn't feel like that long ago. But then when I reflect on everything that's happened in the interval — in the culture at large, too, not just in my life. 

When I first started writing that book, this whole vast comic book, superhero explosion that we've lived through — none of that had happened yet. I would tell people what it was about, and either they would look mildly nauseated, or just really pitying of me that I was wasting my time on such a dumb topic. It was a conversation killer. I remember the first time I went to the MacDowell [writers retreat] in 1996 to work on that book, and at dinner, we'd be sitting around the table and people were like, "What are you working on?" And everybody [else] would be like, "Oh, I'm working on this novel about a fugitive slave..." There'd be these incredible stories and narratives. I would say, "I'm working on this book about two guys who go into the comic book business in 1930s New York." People would be like, "Oh. Is that coffee cake for dessert? I have to go."

There's a great mythologizing about the history of comic books woven in there. Do you think the book helped legitimize the genre? After you won the Pulitzer, did you hear people talking about comic books in a different way? 
It's hard for me to say. I absolutely perceived some kind of correlation, but I don't know if it was causative in any way. But there's no doubt, the change had already begun. I think one of the big landmarks unquestionably, undisputed landmarks, was Maus winning a Pulitzer [in 1992]. The culture wasn't yet ready to award the Pulitzer for literature to a graphic novel yet, so they created a special one. But even so, that was such a cultural milestone. It was so clearly a work of art, and a serious work of literature. That was really a big turning point.

I think Kavalier & Clay coming a few years afterwards, it was just helping to advance the case that comic books are as important a part of American literature, as important a part of American art as jazz, a Hollywood film, or rock and roll. Comic books were sort of the last popular medium to be given that kind of prestige or esteem. And the battle's far from over, I would say, still. But, I think it was a part of a movement. I think it did help push things a little more in that direction. Kavalier & Clay reflected the fact that I grew up in a time where people were starting to take comics more seriously, so I took them more seriously.

You’d already written two novels with queer characters, or men questioning their sexuality — The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys. Here you have a very affectionate and egalitarian friendship between Sam, who is gay, and his straight best friend, Joe, which I don’t recall seeing much before 2000 in mainstream fiction. How much do you feel like that has changed?
I think the situation more closely resembles the situation in other popular media, for better or worse. There's more representation, unquestionably, and there's more openness, and there's more liberty on the part of creators to tell queer stories, to look at the full spectrum of human sexuality through comics, the way it is also much more possible to do in other popular media than it used to be. There has been a lot of great work done by queer creators and creators of color in the past 20 years in the graphic novel field, and in mainstream comics too. Increasingly, I think you see more diversity, much more, than you did certainly when I started writing Kavalier & Clay. But, I think there's still a lot of conflict around it. There's still a lack of acceptance. There's still obstacles, and there's definitely, always to this day, in some ways I think a more militarized component of fandom that is sort of vehemently opposed to anything like that, not just in comics but in films. Whether it's representations of women in more empowered roles than they had been in action films, or the role of, and the presentation of, women in hip hop music. Whatever it might be, there's always this kind of core contingent of increasingly toxic, misogynist, homophobic so-called fan out there. And that's still very much present in comic books too. It's just slow and by fits and starts, the progress, but I do think it's better than it used to be. No doubt.

You also introduce the larger question about what a queer creator meant for comic books themselves and how queer-coded they were, even drawing scrutiny from Senate hearings.
It's tragic and fascinating, and sometimes strangely charming and funny too, in a campy way, to see the kinds of contortions that people had to engage in to conceal their sexuality or slip it into the cracks of their works of art. Take the...let’s say unconventional sexuality presented in the original golden age Wonder Woman comics, where her power is she can tie you up and compel you to tell the truth with her magic lasso. When Charles Moulton Marston was writing Wonder Woman, every issue ended up with her being tied up somehow. So it wouldn't be accurate to tell the story without the contortions people had to put themselves through, especially somebody like Sam Clay, and the way that he gets exposed at the end in those hearings. It just seemed like it was going to be part of the story from the beginning.

Okay. So let's have our apparently annual EW check-in on the adaptation of Kavalier & Clay. I have read about the Showtime series, but what is the current status of this book making it onto some kind of screen?
The current status is that my wife, Ayelet Waldman, and I, right now, we are at work. She's done a draft of the pilot script and I'm now doing my draft of that script, and she's moved on to do a first draft of the second episode. Our plan is to have a season ready by the end of this year. So depending on what happens with the coronavirus, we'd like to sort of start work, actual production, in 2021.

Is this a writers room of two, in quarantine?
Yeah, it's a writers room of two, essentially.

How many episodes do you anticipate that this will go?
We anticipate, initially, two eight-episode seasons. That's the current plan. And ideally we would like to carry on, if it all works and everyone enjoys the show, beyond the book itself into another season, at least maybe two more.

That's so exciting.
I've had a lot of thoughts over the years about writing a sequel, maybe a novel, and you know, never quite brought myself to that point of doing that. So this would be a way to do that. That might be really fun.

Was there a moment when you definitively decided this should be a series and not a film?
Well, it was complicated. We had done this film adaptation with Scott Rudin and Stephen Daldry starting before the book came out — up through 2005, I wrote a script for that. I worked on it for five and a half years, a two hour-plus feature film. Then this moment of peak TV that we've been living through started to happen. It was immediately appealing as a possibility. And I remember talking to Stephen Daldry about it years after the movie project had fallen apart and saying, "Well, you could do that HBO series. Wouldn't that be cool?" 

But there were a lot of various legal issues that had to be resolved. Paramount was the studio for the film. Finally all the things kind of lined up beautifully in that Ayelet and I have a deal at CBS Television and suddenly CBS, [Showtime,] and Paramount were back together again [after the ViacomCBS merger], and they had been united. The movie project was [now] in the same place essentially as a potential television project. It became possible to make a lot of those legal, contractual settlements, to smooth those over. 

A rare argument in favor of all of the studios becoming one.
Yeah, right. I don't know what all the other impact of that is, but it's definitely good for Kavalier & Clay.

You’ve often said you’re not precious about how the text would be adapted — but what is the scene you knew you would never cut from any version, that absolutely was essential?
The Empire State Building scene between Sammy and Tracy Bacon. The weekend that [Sam and Joe] first create the character The Escapist, and I have all those guys they've recruited all working together to create that first issue. Even the Antarctic passage of the book, it was always clear that there were a lot of different ways you might approach that. We tried various ways of doing it. We'll see what we end up seeing with our series, but some version of that also felt like it always had to be there too, I would say.

But when I look at that [feature film] script now — I worked on that script for five and a half years. So much of what I was doing was trying to pull it away from the book and let it exist in its own right as a screenplay for a feature film. I think it could have worked as a film, but when I look at that script now, I had to do so much violence to the story to the time, especially to the passage of time. There’s this huge leap in the center of the book where we skip over about nine years. And just when I look at that script now, I'm like, wow, it's almost more like a guided tour of the novel. So I'm glad we're having a test to do it this way.

Any kind of adaptation presents you with these problems, and with Kavalier & Clay, there's a lot of narrative elements that are presented only really in summary. You'll hear about an episode in a character's life that is kind of important, but it's handled in a page and a half of narration. So if you decide, no, we actually need to see that on the show, it has to all be written anew. There's no dialogue that you can nip out from the book and piece into the script. It's not written as a scene and you have to write it as a scene. Then there are other things that are scenes in the book that maybe you don't need to have as scenes at all.

Is there any of that script that you picked up outright to put into the TV pilot?
So far, every time we try to incorporate something from the script, we end up tossing it. The pacing is so different.

Can you tell me anything about casting or potential casting for the series?
I would, but we're not there yet.

There've been so many actors who, over the course of the last 20 years, have been named as potential people you wanted or who other people wanted.
I know, I always say like entire generations of great actors have aged out of the parts. Adrien Brody, for example. When Adrien Brody first appeared, he seemed perfect for Joe Kavalier.

Was there anyone who was mentioned for Sam who in your heart, you're like, "Oh, why did you have to grow up?”
Not so much, not really, not in the same way as with Joe. Joe is a voice that sort of has been more apparent. I think Rachel Weisz, when she was young, would have been great for Rosa. In fact, Natalie Portman was going to be in the film version back in 2005. And she would have been good. We actually did screen tests — I wish they had them, I wish I could see them again. But there was one screen test that was Ben Whishaw as Joe Kavalier and Andrew Garfield as Sam Clay together on a screen test.

Whoa.
And they were babies. I had never heard of either of them — they were known on the stage in London at that point. I think neither of them had done any movies, you know? I'm like, God, these guys are incredible. And then, yeah, 10 years later they're everywhere, ubiquitous. There's a screen test with Ryan Gosling, he was amazing. 

What!? 
He did a Czech accent [for Joe] that was beautiful. So now, in a way I'm kind of agnostic about it. I'm a little like, oh well, whoever it is will be good. I've been through it so many times. It's been so long that it's like, "Oh my God, this guy, he could be Joe Kavalier." Now he's like a grandpa.

Maybe you can get Adrien Brody, age him up even more, and he can play Joe’s magic teacher, Bernard Kornblum.
Yeah, exactly.

Is there anything else you want to say about this 20th anniversary moment?
One of the things I think about now is a moment about a year after the book came out. The book came out at the end of September in 2000 and just a little under a year later, the paperback came out. It had the Empire State Building on its cover, a sort of old picture postcard of the Empire State Building lit up, from the 1930s. So many people told me they bought the book right after 9/11 and that part of what attracted them to it, made them want to read it and carry it around, was that image of the Empire State Building. When the World Trade Center went down, the Empire State Building once again became the tallest building in New York. It almost took on a different place in New Yorkers' hearts after that, so to have that image coincidentally be on the cover of the book, I think for a lot of people in New York especially made it a little bit of a totem, which I always found kind of moving. It was just a terrible coincidence in a way.

The other thing I just remember just being so tickled about in the interval was there was the way that the book was in pop culture. The TV show, The O.C., loved the book. In particular, the character of Seth, do you remember him? It was his favorite book. So he was always talking about it. There's this famous episode, the Chrismukkah episode, and it was the perfect Chrismukkah present. Not just a glimpse of a character reading it on a subway train or something in the background of a TV show, but actually to have a character on a popular TV show love your book so much that they're telling everyone in their lives about it was a pretty great feeling.