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Interview: Michael Chabon on Travel

The author of Telegraph Avenue, Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay talks about big family trips, working on the road, and erasing ignorance.

Even without publishing a new book, Michael Chabon had a busy 2015: He provided the lyrics for musician/producer Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, which went gold in the UK, and completed the first draft of the script for the film Bob the Musical, directed by Michael Hazanavicius and starring Tom Cruise.

During the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, the 52-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist discussed how travel fits into his work and family life.

Do you travel primarily for events and business or do you get to go on vacation, too?

Both. I travel a fair amount—a lot for work. My work, being what it is, normally that means either going to New York or L.A. from my home. I go to colleges and universities a lot to do talks. But I’ve had to do some international travel, promoting foreign editions of my work, and I worked on a screen project that was set in China. I went to Beijing and Hong Kong for that.

When I travel with my family, we travel for pleasure. We have a house in Maine that we go to every summer. The last several years, we’ve been trying to take big family trips. My oldest just turned 21 yesterday, and so the period of family vacations could be coming to an end fairly soon. If that’s what’s going to happen, we want to go out with a bang, so we went to Paris, and we went to London, and last December we all went to Morocco. And we’re going to Sri Lanka this December.

How do you deal with luggage—a bunch of suitcases, or just throw on a backpack?

We try to travel as light as possible. Everyone has, generally speaking, his or her own small suitcase and his or her own carry-on and is limited to that.

What about working on the road?

Often. It’s pretty rare that I’m totally free from obligation to do any work at all while I’m traveling. Usually I have something that’s getting interrupted that I try to at least keep my hand on.

So does that mean you just go back to the hotel room and get on with it?

If it’s someplace like this [Bali], it all gets completely thrown out of whack. It’s usually a few days, at least, before I start feeling like I have even the ability to work. And then, when that happens, the overall effort to stay on a normal schedule would include going back to the hotel at night and putting up at least an hour.

A lot of writers employ what I’d call shorter, “low commitment” avenues for expressing themselves online, using apps such as Twitter and Instagram. Is that the same for you, and does that have any affect on how you document your travels?

Increasingly. Absolutely. Instagram is the first of any social media that I’ve really understood. I like to take pictures, and it becomes a kind of journal. I enjoy looking back through my own feed and saying “Oh, yeah, I remember when I went there. I remember when I met that person, or when I was caring about that record.” I never really enjoyed reading people’s Facebook posts, and the whole Twitter thing didn’t interest, ever. But I actually do enjoy the people who I follow on Instagram—seeing where they are, what they’re doing, what they’re into.

How do you listen to music when you travel?

On my phone, primarily. I have Spotify and Tidal, too. All the music that I’ve ripped or otherwise acquired is in my Dropbox folder, and there are various players that let you play from Dropbox.

I’ve heard you talking about what it’s like when you’re traveling and you walk out the door, hear the music of a place, and try to track it down.

Yeah—and there are better tools for that than ever before. I went to a baseball game in Milwaukee about 20 years ago and, between innings, they played this song in the stands. It sounded really cool, but I had absolutely no idea of ever finding out what that song was. By a weird chain of coincidences, through Spotify one day, I found my way to that song. I had never heard of the band or anything. Even in the absence of the ability to Shazam a song, I was still able to use the Internet—inadvertently—to find out what song that was.

Do you find that you use travel to collect bits of inspiration, or is it rather that you’re able to recharge yourself by getting out of Berkeley and seeing a little more of the world?

I don’t know about recharging, exactly, but I have definitely gotten ideas for projects or elements of projects from travel. It happens all the time. But that’s not really why I do it. I actually don’t enjoy traveling, in a sense. I don’t like leaving home. I hate airplane travel. And, usually as a trip is getting closer, even one that seems awesome objectively, I start to feel like I don’t want to go! Why did I say “yes”?

But the reason that I do it is because I really enjoy—enjoy is the wrong word—the experience of realizing that I don’t know something, that there’s this whole world I don’t know about, the whole world of this or that, whether it’s Balinese culture or Italian agritourism. That just triggers this desire in me to know, to find out, to learn. The ignorance isn’t pleasurable, it’s the erasing of the ignorance I find pleasurable.

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