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Wonder Boy: Michael Chabon

Kavalier & Clay's Chabon racks up new deals for movies, books, and comics.

It's the literary equivalent of hitting a trifecta: Michael Chabon, whose most recent novel was the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has just scored a two-book deal valued at more than $2.5 million. Movie rights for the novel, Hatzeplatz, have gone to Scott Rudin for $250,000 ($1 million if it gets made). And Miramax has a first-look deal on the second book, a short-story collection called Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

And neither book has even been written.

That's because Chabon has been busy honing the massive Kavalier & Clay into a screenplay that Sydney Pollack may direct. ''The screenwriting side of me is irritated with the novelist side of me, because now I'm wrestling with an ungainly beast of a book, trying to get it into shape,'' he says. He's just made a deal with DC Comics to bring the Escapist — the comic-book character created by the fictional Joe Kavalier — to comic-book life (''They said I could be as involved or uninvolved as I want to be'') and finished a children's novel, Summerland, for Talk Miramax Books. The baseball adventure story — due in the fall — already has what the industry calls ''buzz,'' plus a first printing of 250,000. Talk Miramax editor in chief Jonathan Burnham claims it's ''guaranteed to be a best-seller.''

If that sounds audacious, it's nothing compared to the way Chabon works. He sold Hatzeplatz (about FDR's idea to grant Alaska to Europe's Jews) on a mere one-and-a-half page proposal, a technique he admits can create pressure. ''But, on the other hand,'' says the 38-year-old writer in a phone call from his Berkeley home, where he is busy preparing gefilte fish for a Passover seder for his wife, Ayelet, and children Sophie, Zeke, and Ida-Rose, ''I could easily imagine being halfway through this crazy novel about — as my wife calls it — an alternate Yiddish universe and lying in bed wondering, Is anybody going to want it? So all that doubt and anxiety is gone.''

Which leaves maybe a little anxiety for his new publisher, the British-based literary house Fourth Estate, which is launching in the U.S. The company prevailed in a lively auction for the books; Random House, Chabon's old publisher, did not bid enough to make it into the final round. In fact, sources say, the marriage between Chabon and Random House was not happy. ''There was just no support for Kavalier & Clay,'' says one. ''[Random House] printed a very small first printing and did just one ad.'' (''I'm truly sorry we're losing him,'' says Random House publisher Ann Godoff.) For his part, Fourth Estate's U.S. publishing director Clive Priddle says, ''He's one of those writers [about whom we thought], if the opportunity ever arose to become his publisher in the States, we would be crazy not to try to do so.''

And they may not be spending crazy money after all. Says a high-ranking executive at another house: ''It's conceivable, but highly unlikely'' that a short story collection and a novel would sell enough copies — roughly 100,000 and 500,000, respectively — to make money on a $2.5 million advance. But the paperback edition, particularly a movie tie-in, could make all the difference. ''And if you're a brand-new imprint in the U.S. and you want to make a splash as a literary publisher,'' he says, ''it makes sense beyond the economics.''

Given Chabon's track record, it's likely he'll win, place and show.

Originally posted Apr 12, 2002 Published in issue #648 Apr 12, 2002 Order article reprints
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