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Monday, November 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Books
Historical 'what-ifs' key to Chabon novel

By Stuart Eskenazi
Seattle Times staff reporter

Michael Chabon
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Michael Chabon stumbled on the stranger-than-fiction basis for his next novel when he read about a proposal to provide a home in Alaska for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.

"I came across it within something else I was reading," he said. "There was a passing mention to an 'ill-fated 1940 proposal to resettle Jews in Alaska.' I remember thinking, 'I've never heard of that.' And it just sort of stuck in the back of my mind."

Chabon returned to the Pacific Northwest last week to inaugurate the writers series for Nextbook, a new initiative to promote books on Jewish culture and ideas from a secular perspective. Chabon was introduced as leading the pack of a new generation of Jewish-American writers, following 20th-century literary icons such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. He entertained a packed Benaroya Hall by reading from an embellished memoir revealing the boyish curiosity that sustains him today.

In his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Chabon adapted his lifelong fascination with the Jewish legend of golems — artificial beings made of clay that possess mystical powers — to give life to a tale of two cousins who create comic books in New York City. In the murder-mystery novel he is now writing, tentatively titled "Hotzeplotz," Chabon considers the obscure plan for a far-flung Jewish settlement and imagines a far-out Jewish destiny.

It would seem far-fetched, too, if it were not rooted in reality.

In 1939, the U.S. Interior Department recommended that the Alaskan territory be developed through importing skilled laborers from around the world, including Jewish refugees from Europe who were escaping the Nazis. President Roosevelt backed the plan, but opposition in Alaska was enough to persuade Congress to reject the bill.

In Chabon's "Hotzeplotz," the bill passed.

"And since it did, Israel did not happen," he said. "So the book explores the idea of a world with no Israel, where Jews are moved completely onto a side track of history, unlike now, where ... this little country of 5 million people, dominates the headlines and gets an insanely disproportionate amount of world attention — and grief."

In this alternate universe, millions of Jews are tucked away within the Alaska panhandle, or Hotzeplotz, which is a Yiddish expression meaning the "back of nowhere" or "ends of the earth."

In researching the novel, Chabon spent a week in Southeast Alaska to absorb its landscape, climate and milieu. He said his familiarity with the Pacific Northwest environment — he once lived on Vashon Island — helped him appreciate Alaska's relationship to mountains and water (Chabon's recent novel "Summerland" is set in the Puget Sound region).

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"It was fascinating, it was strange," Chabon said. "I spent most of my time mentally erasing things that were there, because nothing would have been the way it was. I felt like an advance man for a planned invasion."

Chabon, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., also has written "Wonder Boys," "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and the screenplays for a yet-to-be-produced "Spiderman" sequel and "Kavalier & Clay" movie. Chabon said he hopes to finish the first draft of "Hotzeplotz" by February. Scott Rudin, who owns the rights to produce "Kavalier & Clay," has bought the film option on "Hotzeplotz."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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