BOB GARFIELD: How to become a character in a novel. There used to be only one way, to be acquainted with a novelist and then be enough of a jerk or a wretch or a weirdo that the author expropriates your quirks to immortalize in fiction. But now there is another way. Submit the winning bid in an eBay auction next month, and some of America's most famous novelists will name a character in one of their upcoming books after you. All proceeds will go to the Oakland based non profit group The First Amendment Project, a cause close to the heart of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. Inspired by a similar but smaller name auction by novelist Neil Gaiman, Chabon successfully, to use his phrase, "roped in" 15 other authors for the fundraiser, including Steven King, Dave Eggers and John Grisham. Michael Chabon, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, thank you. It's great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Artists don't typically like to surrender any control over their creations. Was it difficult to do the roping?
MICHAEL CHABON: I ran into a little resistance here and there. There definitely were a few authors who just could not bring themselves to surrender even that relatively small degree of control. And that's something I sympathize with completely. You know, names seem relatively insignificant perhaps to the reader, but most writers I know take a lot of time with their characters' names. And, in fact, a character's name, if chosen properly, can really enrich a novel, can add a dimension of, you know, symbolism.
BOB GARFIELD: I think they can actually inform the personalities of the character.
MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Grady Tripp, to use one of yours, this self destructive and irresponsible novelist from The Wonder Boys.
MICHAEL CHABON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, let's say some guy named Howard Rutstein had bought the name. Could Howard Rutstein have been such a self indulgent stoner? What about Uriah Heep, Tom Jones, Don Quixote?
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHS] Uriah Heep. I mean, when you cite that, you know, Charles Dickens - I think Dickens might be the perfect place to look for a kind of instantaneous understanding of just how important characters' names can be. They're just perfectly named in almost every case, you know, Micawber, Pickwick and so on. It is important. I think that's part of the reason why this auction is in a sense worth doing, in that it's not like auctioning off the rights to, I don't know, have the spine of the book be colored to the choice of the person who's the highest bidder. I mean, you actually are winning something that is at least modestly meaningful. It does mean something to me, and it obviously meant something to the writers who, in spite of their love for the First Amendment, still weren't willing to give it up.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think you'll create a character out of whole cloth just to accommodate the auction?
MICHAEL CHABON: You never know. I mean, I know Amy Tan has told me that when she did this for a local fundraiser, originally she intended to bestow this name on a relatively minor character, but the name that was the winning name, she loved it so much that she ended up turning into a significant character in the novel.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you know, I myself am a very literary person. And last year I was watching Desperate Housewives?
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And there was [CHUCKLES] a scene in which out of just nowhere, for no apparent reason that had anything to do with the plot, a brand new Buick showed up in a scene because General Motors had paid for the product placement.
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Now you see where I'm going with this?
MICHAEL CHABON: Are you asking me like what if Steve Jobs is the winning bidder and -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] For example. I mean, just how do we avoid the total non sequitur aspect of a winning entry altering the novel in an unsatisfactory way?
MICHAEL CHABON: Well, that can happen too, and I think most of the authors have been careful to reserve the right to, in some way or another, use the name as they see fit. There is a slight open endedness to this because it's entirely possible that you might get a name that in itself is a fine name for a character but just can't possibly work in whatever it is you have going right now. I'm writing a novel now that's set in a hypothetical Yiddish speaking district of the United States that was created during the Second World War. You know, all of the characters have names that are typical European Jewish names. So if, you know, Jim Johnson or something were the winning bidder, I would have a really hard time fitting him and his name into this book I'm working on now. And in that case I will just save it for the next one.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, if this is successful, raising funds for the First Amendment Project, is there a logical next step? I mean, I'm thinking of FedEx Field, and the Staples Center. Do I have to worry about a Delta Airlines Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
MICHAEL CHABON: This has been tried, as you may be aware. Not so many years ago, Fay Weldon wrote what I believe was a short novel more or less at the behest of Bvlgari, the perfume and jewelry people, in which the names of Bvlgari and its various products were liberally salted through this novel, and Bvlgari paid Fay Weldon to do this. And so what you're talking about has already been attempted. I think it suffers from one really grievous conceptual error which is, you know, that works of fiction have the prominence and ubiquity to make them really effective and viable means of advertising products. You know, I can remember the era where paperback books had ads in them. There would be an ad for True Cigarettes, for example, right in the middle of the paperback book. And I don't think readers responded very favorably. Or else perhaps, proving my theory, it just was a totally ineffectual way of trying to advertise something because those ads disappeared and you don't see them any more.
BOB GARFIELD: One final thing. Speaking of names, more or less by accident, I discovered that our daughters are both named Ida Rose. What are the odds?
MICHAEL CHABON: You're kidding me? Your daughter's name is Ida Rose?
BOB GARFIELD: You know, every other Ida Rose in America, apart from your daughter and mine -
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - are 99 and a half years old.
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: We have the only two Ida Roses under the age of six, I'm sure in the world!
MICHAEL CHABON: [LAUGHS] I think you're right. That's amazing.
BOB GARFIELD: All I'm saying is with respect to Ida, keep her name out of any future novels, will you, bud? [LAUGHTER] Michael, thank you so much. I appreciate your joining us.
MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, thanks a lot, Bob. Good talking to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay. The auction for his character's name begins September 1st. (THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER)] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Sarah Dalsimer and Rob Weisberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org, also on the iTunes podcast directory. And you can mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.