Interview with Michael Chabon

Posted by Goodreads on November 7, 2016
The beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon whose works include The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys, and Telegraph Avenue, is back with his highly anticipated "speculative memoir," Moonglow.

This novel in memoir's clothing crisscrosses decades and continents and drifts in and out of true American history and the author's own family stories. As Chabon's narrator sits with his grandfather on the elder's deathbed, the pain meds ease his final hours and loosen his tongue.

The grandfather, notoriously curt and private in life, begins to tell his grandson of his life in South Philadelphia, his work during the Allied invasion of Germany, his adventures in a Florida retirement community, and his imprisonment in Wallkill prison. Chabon's Moonglow recalls Tim O'Brien's oft-quoted missive: "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth."

Chabon spoke with Heather Scott Partington about Moonglow, the importance of family mythology, and how he came to believe this story.

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Goodreads: The narrator's grandfather is interested in analyzing failure, especially as it relates to the Challenger explosion. At one point he says "and there was meaning in the inquiry." I was wondering what the most meaningful part of this inquiry was for you. Was it the source material and the inspiration, or filling in the story and creating the fictional part of it, or was it some blend of the two?

Michael Chabon: These days, where I'm still very close to the writing of the book itself, the meaning of the book is not super clear. It takes me a while to figure that stuff out.

The main thing always was the writing itself, the daily work of writing, and the effort in this case to find and maintain the right kind of narrative tone, the right voice…to try to sustain the feel for the reader of a work of nonfiction, of an actual memoir, and sort of maintain that fiction convincingly…to create convincing portraits of my characters who—aside from the relatively few bits and pieces of actual real relatives—I didn't know those characters at all.

GR: Did you always envision Moonglow as something that defied traditional ideas of genre? Was this an imagined memoir from the beginning, or did that idea come as you worked on the novel?

MC: It came pretty quick. Pretty early on in the process. When I started writing Moonglow, I hadn't started another book yet, but I was thinking of starting another book, and one day I went out in my office and my memory had been jarred somehow or another, and I was thinking of this story of my great-uncle: Somehow one of my paternal grandfather's brothers had been supposedly fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss on the payroll after Alger Hiss got out of prison.

And it stuck in my mind for whatever reason—I don't remember anymore—like, wow, that's so cool, it's like this totally surreal, interesting brush my family had with the most dominant plot strand of the 20th century, the Cold War. And this crucial figure in American postwar history is this sad-sack loser who takes a job away from an even sadder-sack loser. There was just like, wow—there's something in that story, and I just started writing.

I didn't know why or where it was going, but immediately, almost instantly, I made the change from "my uncle" or "my late uncle" to "my grandfather" because that just makes it feel immediately more relevant, more important.

Immediately I felt as though the character was my grandfather. I thought, I'm just going to pretend this whole thing is true, that it really happened, and of course that's all you're ever doing when you're writing. You're pretending the whole thing is true, and you're asking the reader to pretend with you.

But from the beginning, novelists have employed all kinds of tricks of the trade to foster that myth and encourage that sense, from the very first modern novels that pretended to be packets of letters or those devices like "the names have been changed to protect the innocent" or "in the town of V—, in the year 18—." They purported to be nonfiction. That's what the novel was. And even the name, "novel," means news. Like, the news. You pretended you were interrelated from the provinces where a gruesome murder occurred, and it was all a hoax, in a sense.

So those tools are there, [though] they're not used as often anymore because everybody kind of knows what a novel is now. It just felt like the right way, first, to get myself implicated. I really saw this very personally; it was a very turbo way of doing this. And then hopefully for the reader as well.

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GR: Did you find yourself thinking differently about truth as you went further into this conceit of the imagined memoir?

MC: Absolutely. I guess you can say I sort of knew what I thought, but I didn't want to just write it down in just five bald sentences and say, you know, "Families make shit up."

Or sometimes they make it up out of self-defense, sometimes they make it up out of self-aggrandizement, sometimes they make it up out of simple distorting effects of memory and time, and it's totally unconscious.

Sometimes they make it up because part of what a family does is to mythologize stuff. I mean, I could have just sort of written all that stuff down, but that's boring and uninteresting. What I wanted to do was sort of feel it. And live through it. And to document it, that process in this one almost entirely imaginary family. Not to prove any particular point, I just think anyone who comes out of a family knows everything there is to know about the truth and lies and the interrelationship thereof.

GR: Can you talk about your approach with structuring the book the way that you did? With different, concurrent story lines?

MC: Again, kind of magically. Within the first week of working on the book, I hadn't gotten all that far. Whatever the elements were, I knew them very soon.

It was apparent I was going to have these parallel story lines. And I could have had a narrator who started in the beginning and started chronologically, but that didn't feel right given the condition that the grandfather's [in], being medicated and being on painkillers…. It felt much more organic to have it come in fragments.

It was actually kind of true to the experience that I had had in real life with my actual grandfather when he was actually dying. There wasn't any particular rhyme or reason to anything he had to say, although they were all things he remembered. There was nothing earth-shattering, but I heard a lot of things I hadn't heard…. I never forgot that. Thinking like, Wow, all this was in there and I never knew. And then you think, Well, what else is in there? What's the stuff he's not telling me?

I mean, you go through life knowing that every other person around you is a complete mystery. A black box. And the thing is, if you get to know the things they let out, whether it's voluntary or involuntary, there's going to be some portion of what's in there [that's] edited and curated in many cases as well. That just kind of stuck with me. So the fragmentary approach just felt like the right approach.

GR: Do you have any routines or habits related to writing? Goodreads user Mark asks, "How has your ability to carve out time for writing changed over the course of your career?"

MC: I've been very fortunate in that I've been able to support myself by writing almost since the beginning. So in a way, "carving time out" for writing is all I can do because that's my job and there's nothing else competing.

Although I do have four kids, and they're getting older now, so they don't take up the kind of time they used to. We had a lot of little kids around…. It wasn't so much a matter of time as the kind of focus I could bring to bear during the time I had. There seemed [to be] more distraction, and that has eased up as the kids have gotten older.

I work at night, and that helps, and that always has helped. I work in the really small hours of the morning. So distractions are fewer. The other thing I need to do a lot, still, is go away. I rely on those in terms of getting that kind of immersion in the work when you're busy doing all kinds of daily life stuff.

My work setup is a little unusual because I don't work at a desk. I prefer working in an Eames chair. I lean back, and I have a keyboard in my lap and my laptop up on a stand at eye level. So I'm one for unconventional posture when I'm working, but other than that, I don't do anything unconventional. I don't wear a fuzzy pink bathrobe or anything.

GR: Goodreads user Vickie asks, "Do you see a common idea or truth that connects your works?"

MC: I think there are a lot of sort of fairly common motifs or themes in my work. A lot about relationships between fathers and sons, a lot about other relationships between men, whether they are creative partners like Kavalier and Clay, or comrades, colleagues, detectives, like in the Yiddish Policeman's Union, or swords for hire, like in Gentlemen of the Road, or lovers like in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or best friends, as in Wonder Boys, and in Telegraph Avenue they are both best friends and business partners.

Also, families of choice versus families of origin. People making their own families [and] rejecting, or having lost, their families of birth. Identity, inventing yourself, ways of inventing yourself or finding yourself…the quest of redefining yourself, the power of imagination…Jewish identity, Jewish history and themes…the Second World War, the Holocaust.

GR: What books or authors would you say are your greatest influences?

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MC: The really important, strong influences happened early. Some of my earliest, more important, influences [ranged] from Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ursula K. Le Guin, fiction and fantasy writers, too; at the other end of things, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Barry Hannah, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov.

A lot of it was about being affected by the literary style of the writer. Being affected very strongly and then trying to imitate that writer. And learning by imitation I really do think is the single best way to learn how to write. Just by frankly, freely, and openly imitating the writing of writers who get you going. The writing that gets you going, that gets you excited. Passion and enthusiasm come and go and influences fade…what you're left with is how to put sentences together from imitating a writer who is really good at knowing how to do that. After a while, that issue of being overly influenced fades away.

What's left for me is enthusiasm. There are writers whose books I will still pick up—even Edgar Allen Poe, or Barry Hannah, or some more recent writer like David Mitchell, even if I've read the book before, just to read a page or two and kind of bring back to me the excitement of their prose. Like The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, I love that book so much. I don't think I write like Michael Ondaatje at all, but I can sort of prime the pump for myself of writing by just picking up that book and reading any paragraph or two. I want to make something that makes someone as excited to read as me reading that. It's so reliable. It's become less about influence and more about enthusiasm.

GR: What are you reading now?

MC: I just finished reading Zadie Smith's forthcoming novel, Swing Time, which is just wonderful. She's such an amazing writer. And I love that book so much.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Jane (new)

Jane Great interview.

message 2: by Mark (new)

Mark Berger I loved reading "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" so much as a 19-year old that I was inspired to write. Great writing, like any great art, inspires others to achieve the same, if at first through imitation.

message 3: by Ronald (last edited Nov 12, 2016 10:15PM) (new)

Ronald Fantastic interview! It was quite candid and illuminating to learn about how many of us dedicated writers have imitated the literary style and admired prose of our favorite writers at one point in our lives to guide our own work into its own unique style. Once a writer has explored that approach and read a diverse collection of books in several genres, a writer will write and truly develop his or her distinct voice and become assured and comfortable churning out a marvelous amount of beautiful, solid, and undeniably memorable prose. With my own work, as a writer, I've been tremendously influenced by the elegance and complexity of Edgar Allen Poe too. I just love "The Fall of the House of Usher." Also, it's almost universal for many writers to have Flannery O' Connor as a primary influence. Overall, Michael Chabon is a top-notch writer. I'm confident to say that the new volume, "Moonglow," is likely to dazzle us, as all his other literary gems.

message 4: by Denise (new)

Denise Louise Really good interview

message 5: by Océanegr (new)

Océanegr Really interesting interview, thank you.

message 6: by Crash (new)

Crash Chabon is super! Thanks for GREAT interview!

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