Michael Chabon: The Complete Unedited Interview

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How old were you when you first read Burroughs?

I think I must have been about twelve, when Ballantine issued the complete series with those new fantastic covers by Gino D'Achille, and they had them in my local bookstore [in a pile]. All 12 or 15 of them, with these beautiful covers and a big piece of art on top. It was just this incredibly arresting object [that had] materialized in the bookstore in the mall in Columbia, MD, where I grew up. Without explanation, you know — it's just how things happen when you're a kid.

[And these new editions were presented as though] it's this incredibly important thing, that one ought to know about: John Carter. I recognized the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I hadn't read any of his work yet. So I just started with the first book.

What appealed to you about these books when you were a kid?

For me, it was a combination of two things. Obviously, Burroughs was a narrative machine. He really knew how to keep a story going, and he knew how to use cliffhangers, and really propel you through the story. He had that great "pulp novelist" narrative drive. He also had a really fertile imagination, in a way that reminds me of Jack Kirby in comics, where he would just toss off one concept after another, in many cases never to return to them again...Just continually dreaming up new amazing vistas or societies or creatures whatever they may be. [There's] kind of a heedless quality to that imagination.


I got caught up in all of that, but even at age twelve, I was aware that there was a historical importance to this material. It had obviously been the forebear to lots of other science fantasy adventures. There was just this sense that you ought to know about this, this is important — it is culturally important to people who share your culture. I had a slightly dutiful sense toward it. I don't want to imply that it wasn't pleasurable, but I did some how feel like it was my duty to immediately master this material. At the same time, the science fiction book club, as I quickly discovered, was doing these hardcover 2 for 1 deals with those much more famous covers by Frank Frazetta. If anything is associated with John Carter, it's those Frank Frazetta covers.

I think that Frazetta is a big reason why people even know about John Carter.

I think in a way up until this movie, it's sort of the last remaining reason — which is kind of sad. Not to knock on Frazetta... I know Andrew [Stanton] constantly tried to step back from Frazetta a little bit [in visualizing the movie]. He just felt like it had period associations. The period being the 1970s and the side of vans, spray painted custom fans. To me, there is more of a [Michael] Whelan feel to the look of the film. I think it even harkens back [to earlier sources.] Andrew had a strong sense of the period on earth in which the film was taking place in the latter half of the 19th century and there's even evocations of the original artwork from the series, which was being done by this guy Frank Schoonover. There's a real, rich depth to the visuals in the film.


I was re-reading A Princess of Mars, and one of the things that jumps out at you is just how much aplomb John Carter has. He's just so matter-of-fact. "Oh, I'm on Mars." He barely blinks.

He doesn't waste a whole lot of time on the impossibilities. In the book, he's already this bizarre guy who's immortal – [and] people make so much of that whole element of it, people who are discussing this book. It's so clear to me that Burroughs was just writing by the seat of his pants, and started with that idea, thinking he was going to be writing about this immortal guy. And clearly, he thought he was starting with that, and then he got this other idea and went with it instead. And he was probably trying to keep his word count up, because he was getting paid half a penny per word. So he left that in there, but it plays no role in anything that happens thereafter.


Just like the telepathy and a lot of other stuff.

Yeah, like the telepathy too. The thing to remember about Princess of Mars is, it was his first book and the first thing he ever tried to write. It wasn't just the first John Carter book. It's a real learner's book, and he was a gifted amateur when he started writing John Carter of Mars. By the time you get to about the fifth book of the series, I think it's Chessmen of Mars, then you're in the hands of a true professional.


So the Martian Agent was a screenplay that you wrote almost 20 years ago.

Getting close. 17, 18 years ago.

And what's in the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is just the first chapter of the novelization of your unproduced screenplay. Why did you give up after just one chapter?


Just time. I would love to someday, but I never found the time. It's not like there was an ovewhelming demand, I didn't get an avalanche of letters from people, begging me to continue the story. On the contrary, I didn't even get a snowflake of letters begging me to continue the story. I did it as an experiment. It was really fun to do, and I thought well, it could be cool. But I never got back to it. And then it sort of got continued in this other way that I could never have dreamed.

Do you think that there's any of the DNA from your Martian Agent screenplay in John Carter?


Not really, no. I think my approach to writing characters of that period — adventuring characters of that period — is probably similar. Whatever it was that made me think I knew how to write an American military adventurer of the middle 19th century transplanted to the planet Mars in The Martian Agent, I drew on that same internal resource — compounded by books I've read and movies I've seen, dealing with adventures of that period. I definitely drew on that, when I was trying to imagine how John Carter would talk, and the type of things he would say. Burroughs himself is not the best guide in that regard because his dialogue is typically very stilted, and his people don't talk like people really talk. So I didn't turn to Burroughs for guidance, when it came to writing dialogue.

In The Martian Agent, you relocate the British Empire to Mars. How does that change things from just one lone American showing up there?


Well, yeah that's true. I think the original idea for writing The Martian Agent was probably inspired by some remarks that Brian Aldiss makes about the Burroughs Mars books in The Billion Year Spree. He really focuses in — and gets a little overly concerned with, I think — the imperialist racial elements of the Mars books. I actually think you could argue he misreads Burroughs' attitudes towards imperialism and colonialism and different colored people. I think it's a simplistic reading, but it impressed me in the moment I was reading it in the mid-nineties. I started thinking about colonialism and imperialism, the British Empire, and the idea that the sun never sets on the British Empire. What if the sun of the British Empire was extended beyond our world, to another world?

One thing led to another, and I found myself concocting this Martian adventure story. It's kind of a riff on the John Carter Mars books, with the apparent colonialist and imperialist agenda — which is undoubtedly there. It's a part of almost all classic adventure fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. There's no question about that. If you look at H. Rider Haggard or Robert E. Howard, or any of the classic writers of adventure fiction from that period, it's pretty stark. John Buchan, there are some very ugly examples in Buchan's work, a writer that I otherwise admire. It's fun to play with.


When you get Carter — yes, you are dealing with just one man on Mars. To the degree I was writing about imperialism and colonialism in The Martian Agent, I needed there to be the British empire, and I needed there to be the army. That isn't really what John Carter is about. The colonialist, imperialist elements of the John Carter books are not explicit, and in fact I would even argue are not really that important. That's just not part of what's going on. What you have is much more of a classic, heroic fantasy structure that goes back to The Odyssey, of this solitary wanderer, this solitary traveler, encountering strange beings and creatures as he makes his way across the strange world he finds himself in.

The thing that is most in common with The Martian Agent is the European guy who becomes a leader of the natives, and leads them to revolution or helps them to become nobler/better. And it looks like that's in John Carter too, judging from the trailers.


Andrew and I were very strongly aware and really, I think, hoped to avoid that as much as possible. [That theme] is unquestionably inherent in the source material. The vital American coming from this young nation, who kind of revitalizes this aged and decrepit society or series of societies on this planet that is in decline. That wasn't a story that necessarily interested us in telling.

I hope it's the case when you see the film to suggest that Carter's really just a catalyst for change — that the characters on Mars that he encounters, Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkis, are already seeking change. They are already actively working for change, and the appearance of Carter is a catalyst that makes it possible for the Martian characters to continue to act on their own behalf, and bring change for the planet Mars. It is not so much, hopefully, that he's the savior or that he knows things they don't know.


He's pretty clueless. He is a lost soul, in our version. John Carter is a lost man, he has lost his moral compass, and he has lost his sense of what matters. If anything, Mars saves Carter as much as, if not more than, Carter saves Mars. It is the wisdom and the caginess and the opportunism of the Martian characters when they see what he can do and what he's capable of, that forces him into a position where he has to act on their behalf. It's always unwillingly, and it's not because he thinks, "You people are doing it all wrong." He's just trying to get home. It's much more of a Dorothy and Oz scenario.

In The Martian Agent, the brothers have a formative trauma where their father is hanged. That kind of shapes everything that happens to them. In the books, John Carter doesn't have that.


Carter's kind of a cipher really. He starts out in the books with not a whole lot of personality, and he never really acquires much more. He's really a vehicle for action, more than anything else. Without any kind of political agenda or sort of movie-making agenda where you feel like no matter what your source material is, you have to somehow do something to it, more than anything else, we need to come up with someone we're interested in as writers in telling a story about. Edgar Rice Burroughs helped us, to a certain degree, by creating this character who was potentially quite ambiguous, in that he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil war, and we encounter him after that experience. There were elements and seeds of an interesting character in Carter. We tried to take those seeds and grow them, and not impose anything of our own that wasn't at least suggested in the source material.

You've talked about Burroughs as a satirist. And the humor in this series seems to be really important. How do you keep it from turning into a straight-up comedy? Is it sort of the Indiana Jones style of humor?


We have not quite, in this film, the satirical element that is so strongly present in Burroughs' work. That is so grossly overlooked. That sort of closes the loop for me, with the question of imperialism and colonialism. To accuse Burroughs of being an apologist for colonialism or imperialism is to utterly miss half of what he's doing in the books.

Something that increases as he writes his way deeper into the series is, he continues these portraits of dysfunctional societies that have some element that is grossly out of balance in them, in ways that unquestionably (sometimes a little too obviously) reflect American society and American culture. I feel really a strong kinship between Burroughs and L. Frank Baum, in the ways that they use fantasy and the narrative structure of heroic adventure to satirize the period that they lived in, in a very talky, American deadpan kind of way. In The Gods of Mars, the second book, it's almost too brilliant a critique of the brainlessness of organized religion. That's not really what you think of when you think of Edgar Rice Burroughs — but if you're not thinking about it, then you don't understand Edgar Rice Burroughs.


There aren't a lot of laughs in Edgar Rice Burroughs, but there is a steady supply of them. I don't think in this book, we're really drawing humor from the same sources as Edgar Rice Burroughs. I don't think John Carter is a work of satire, certainly not in the way that Andrew's previous film was. But, there is humor. I think we felt a compulsion to at least provide as many laughs as Edgar Rice Burroughs does, if not more.

When you have Andrew Stanton, you're talking about someone whose humor is clearly a component of his artistic vision. He's a funny person, and he thinks in terms of gags, like all those Pixar guys. When I say 'gag,' I mean something more noble and artistic than merely a joke. It's like a whole setup and payoff structure, that are used as building blocks for telling that story. Humor is very important to me in my work, too.


Indiana Jones is maybe a fair comparison. The humor is arising in John Carter primarily out of the characters and the ways in which their personalities either fail to equip them for the reality they're confronted with, or the ways in which those personalities come into conflict with each other. They're wired in different ways. You see that in the first Indiana Jones film. I think Taylor Kitsch has more than a little Harrison Ford in him, in his ability to generate humor by looking really serious. The more he seems to mean what he says, the more ridiculous sometimes it can feel, and that's part of what makes Harrison Ford so charming. Taylor Kitsch has a little of that, too.

How do you go about rewriting a screenplay by Andrew Stanton? Is the temptation there just to say "this is perfect, don't change anything"?


Before I could really start, I had to get a sense from Andrew and Mark [Andrews] that it was really okay for me to have criticisms and express those criticisms. That was something they took care of in the first two minutes of our conversation. I didn't want to waste Andrew Stanton's time. He invited me onto this project — if he was inviting me to rewrite him and Mark, it must be because he wanted me to do that. My job and my responsibility was to give him his money's worth. They had done so much of the heavy lifting already. They had made a lot of the hard decisions about who to cut, and what to cut and which characters to combine — to take three characters and combine them into one. [They had decided] which elements either wouldn't work because of budgetary reasons, or just felt creaky or unbelievable or unnecessary... [And also] what we might take from the second book and use in this book, or from the third book. There was also how to conceive of this story as the possible first of a trilogy. That's the really hard stuff, and they had already done a lot of that.

When I came on, it was mostly a question of "We don't know if we're telling the story in the right order," "We're not sure we even have all the right elements in here to tell the story regardless of which order we tell the story in," [and] "We're not sure if the characters are coming through clearly enough." There's Dejah Thoris, and [whether] she has enough of a story. We're not sure about John Carter and his backstory, and what's driving him. Are their motivations clear? There were questions of dialogue and tone.


The movie's both a period story, and a lot of the early part of the story kind of takes place on Earth and Carter's making his way to Mars. There's that element that has to be reflected in the dialogue, and when you get to Mars, how do you tell this historic adventure? You don't want to have historic anachronisms and people saying, "'Sup, dude?" How do you do that without veering over into the kind of stilted, affected dialogue that Edgar Rice Burroughs succumbs to a little too often? We want these people to sound like they're speaking naturally — but at the same time, we're dealing with kings and princesses and warriors and evil entities with mysterious agendas. There is a kind of required or expected way for those people to speak, and you want to meet that expectation without going overboard, and you still want to make it sound fresh and natural. I put a lot of effort into that.

Has there ever been a good Tarzan movie, in your book?

I'm a fan of Greystoke. It's a little long, and the casting doesn't quite work, but I think Christopher Lambert from Highlander, I think he's a great Tarzan. There's a kind of marvelous, Conradian feel to the opening sequences as Tarzan encounters colonial white civilization for the first time. The apes are really well done in that movie, it's touching, it's poignant, John Gielgud is really good. I saw it again and I didn't love it as much as the first time I saw it — but I still think of all the Tarzan movies, that's probably my favorite.


Why do so many of these stories show the meetings between formerly technologically advanced civilizations and rising ones?

I think partly because we are haunted by that prospect ourselves. We can see evidence. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century and archeologists started to press deeper in to the jungles of Central and South America and into the deserts of Mesopotamia and India, they began to encounter clear evidence of many civilizations that had attained some level of technological greatness. You look around at these places and you see the living descendants of these people living without the incredibly sophisticated caliber of technology that their forebears had invented. I think it's a very haunting, stark memento mori for a representative of any civilization.


That begins to permeate the thinking of 19th century Europe and America and produces works like The Decline of The West. The rise and fall of civilization is this inevitable process, to which we must all eventually succumb. Nobody's going got be more haunted by that thinking than a parvenu, an ariviste who's kind of new to it all. The person who's most worried about losing everything is the person who's had it the least amount of time. You find that kind of anxiety haunting American popular fiction. You see it in H.P. Lovecraft, you see it in Robert E Howard. In fact, it's probably one of the key tropes of a lot of pulp fiction of the 20th century, that notion that it's all bound to end someday.

That helped determine the way the astronomer Percival Lowell, it helped determine what he saw when he looked through is telescope at the planet Mars. He saw these lines that looked like man-made structures. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli referred to them as canalli, and [Lowell] thought that meant canals. In fact, it meant channels. His mind, prepared by the 19th century experience of the fear of decline, the gotterdamerung — he just made that imaginative leap and thought, "Now I can see Mars is far from the sun, and it looks cold, and it probably doesn't have much atmosphere and seems to be mostly desert. What I'm going to infer from that is that there was this once great civilization that built these mighty canals that criss-crossed the entire planet. And why were they there? They must have been trying to save their world by spreading water from the polar ice caps." This is a man of science, and he just made one wild inference after another. Those were all driven by the gestalt of that, and Edgar Rice Burtroughs had the brilliant pulp narrative wisdom and transform into this rich world of Barsoom, which is in this long, slow, gradual decline, having once reached this mighty pinnacle.