Not too long ago I got an email from Michael Chabon’s PR firm asking if I’d like to interview him before an event described in an accompanying press release:
“Oakland’s Park Day School will host an evening in conversation with literary luminary and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, Wednesday, October 2, 7:00pm, at the beautiful Julia Morgan Theatre (2640 College Avenue, Berkeley.)”
How could I refuse? One of my daughters spent a couple of fine years at Park Day School, a welcome refuge in a period when her assigned Berkeley public elementary school was being earthquaked and all classes were jammed into vintage portables. We decided to temporarily jump ship from BUSD when her classroom teacher sobbed continuously throughout the parent-teacher conference about her many problems with this situation (and with no mention of our daughter).
Today Park Day School’s web site mission statement says “We believe a successful learner is one who is confident, caring, and creative. We believe success is measured by a student's ability to define his or her place in the world, guided by intellectual skills and a social perspective.”
From our experience, this philosophy worked then and it’s likely to be working now. It’s a fine objective, and one I’m happy to support.
And how about the famous author? Again, per the press release:
“Michael Chabon is known for continually reinventing conventional genres and entertaining readers while gently provoking self-reflection. His writings are widely considered the “cutting edge” of conventional fiction, with Time Magazine declaring “you can almost see the future of literature coming.” Called “An amazingly rich, emotionally detailed story” by the New York Times, his newest book, Telegraph Avenue, is a big-hearted and exhilarating novel that explores the profoundly intertwined lives of two Oakland, California families, one black and one white, delivering a bravura epic of friendship, race, and secret histories.”
What’s not to like about a guy like that? Wouldn’t it be fun to talk to him?
Here I must confess, shamefaced, that I haven’t actually read Telegraph Avenue, though I’ve been intending to. In fact, though Chabon seems to have written a whole bunch of novels, I haven’t read any of them—somehow contemporary fiction always slips to the bottom of my reading list, edged out for the most part by political journalism about the never-ending crises which seem to beset this country. I have read a couple of his magazine essays, and I did meet him at a candidate’s fundraiser co-hosted by his wife. He seemed like a nice person, Mr. Mensch himself. This could be a painless way to learn more, I thought, even perhaps an incentive to crack at least one of his books before the interview.
Didn’t happen. In part, this is because the significance of the requested interview shrunk as the event approached. I happen to live three or four blocks from the Chabon family home in Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood, and so I suggested talking at one of the many neighborhood cafes. But, per the PR person: “he's getting ready to go out on tour (Telegraph Avenue is about to be released on paperback) so we might not be able to do an in-person interview.”
Fine, phone it is. His personal assistant will be in touch, the press agent said. And she was: “I can make Michael available but I'm afraid I only have ten minutes. He is going out on book tour and the schedule is rather packed.”
As is my schedule, which is why I don’t have much time to read novels, but never mind. Ten minutes would be time for one or two questions, and clearly wouldn’t require any preparation.
Last Thursday was the big day, so I did at least make a Googled attempt to figure out what I wanted to ask. The recent novel, soon to be in paperback, seems to celebrate the East Bay’s vigorous diversity, especially the Oakland version, as I read the reviews. But the experience which I share with Chabon, which hasn’t been talked about much in what’s been written about him, is bringing up kids in a complex urban environment and deciding how best to get them educated under the prevailing circumstances.
My own daughters are by now in his age bracket, and I have a generation of grandchildren being educated. I was curious why Chabon’s a Park Day School parent, since he and his family live a couple of blocks into Berkeley, which still has well-regarded public schools which provided my own daughters with an excellent education in the last generation. Oakland schools have always faced many more challenges and don’t have as rosy a track record, which is why many desperate Oakland parents register their kids from Grandma’s Berkeley address.
Turns out ten minutes is even less than I thought—I’ve never done a ten-minute interview before. I had just time for what turned out to be one question with variants: What’s the value of the kind of education your kids get at a progressive private school like Park?
His answer: The entire institution knows the child at every level, keeps that individual child’s strengths and weaknesses in mind at every level. The school is always trying to strike a balance between the needs of the individual child and the needs of the community as a whole, he said.
He and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, another writer, have four children, three of whom have attended Park Day at some point, and one is there now. He told me they’d gone to a lot of different schools with different education styles, all of which have their virtues. He called having the ability to choose among all of these, “a luxury, no doubt about it.”
Asked what he thought about the Oakland schools, he blamed lack of money because Proposition 13 destroyed the tax base, not a surprising answer. In typical contemporary fashion, his cell phone died just as I was asking him why they had not chosen to send their kids to Berkeley schools, and by the time we re-connected the question was lost, never to return.
But if you yourself want to ask a follow-up question, your big opportunity will come on October 2.
Again from the press release: “The venue’s intimate setting will allow for a personal and authentic experience for those in attendance to hear from the accomplished author on a variety of topics and ask questions of their own. This incisive and candid conversation with Chabon and Park Day School’s Zach Wyner will benefit the school’s academic and financial assistance programs.”
It’s a good cause. Park Day has always tried to provide as many kids as possible who couldn’t otherwise afford the tuition with the kind of excellent education that the Chabon-Waldman family have been able to choose for their own kids, and your ticket purchase will help.