Don't Have Children

At a literary party the summer before my first novel was published, I found myself alone with a writer I admired, on the deck of our hosts' house along the Truckee River. People came and went with blue Mexican wineglasses and bottles of beer, but I sensed that, for whatever reason, I had the man's attention.

“I'm going to give you some advice,” he told me, a warning edge in his voice.

I said I would appreciate that. I was curious to hear what he had to say, not because I felt in need of advice but as a clue to the mystery of the great man himself. He presented a smooth surface without chinks or toeholds, the studied amiability of someone unaccustomed to giving himself away. Advice might be the only clue I was going to get.

The great man said that his advice was going to be painful—or maybe that was just in his tone—but he knew what he was talking about, and if I wanted to make a go of it as a novelist, I would do well to pay attention. The guy was nearly twice my age, but he was not old. He was young enough, for example, to wear black Chuck Taylors. He was young enough to smile ironically at himself, laying the Polonius routine on some raw hurler of metaphors out of U.C. Irvine.

“Don't have children,” he said. “That's it. Do not.” The smile faded, but its ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. “That is the whole of the law.”

I was due to marry my future ex-wife in under a month; my book would come out the following spring. It turned out that this conjunction of circumstances, in the view of the famous writer, was cause for alarm. Now, marriage was fine—in fact, all of the guy's books were dedicated to his wife—but if you were not careful, you would run a serious risk of damaging your career. After this novel, he patiently explained, there would be a second one to write, and second novels were notoriously thornier and more unwieldy than debuts. Following the inevitable sophomore cock-up, if I were lucky and stubborn in the proper measure, I would go on to tackle the magisterial third and fourth novels, and then the quirky fifth, the slim and elegant sixth, the seventh that, in some way, would recapitulate and ring the changes on all its predecessors, and so on, for as long as my stubbornness and luck held out. Unless, of course, I made the fatal mistake of so many young hotshots before me.

“You can write great books,” the great man continued. “Or you can have kids. It's up to you.”

MICHAEL CHABON, father of four