Michael Chabon: A Life of Fact & Fiction

By | Mar 21, 2017
2017 March-April, Arts & Culture

A conversation with novelist Michael Chabon can easily jump from Michael Jackson song lyrics to the history of spaceships. And while his love of all things quixotic can be a lot to digest, his intellectual openness and curiosity have resulted in a compelling and innovative body of work. Despite their intricate plots, Chabon’s novels are accessible, with dense but beautiful sentences that unfold in intriguing ways. Chabon also embraces topics that are off the beaten track. His bestselling first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)—published when he was only 25—explores the sexuality of a young mobster, and The Wonder Boys (1995)—adapted into a movie starring Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr.—humorously delves into the pitfalls of creativity. Even his 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, ostensibly a celebration of the golden age of comic books, turns out to be a nuanced epic about the human struggle for individual freedom.

All this creative adventuring is anchored by Chabon’s 24-year marriage to Israeli-born author Ayelet Waldman. The two work together daily at back-to-back desks in their home office in Berkeley, California. The couple has written unreservedly about their marriage, sex life, Waldman’s struggles with mental illness and the challenges of parenthood. Chabon speaks with Moment about his passion for genre fiction, his relationship with Waldman and the exhilarating sense of freedom he finds through writing.

You’ve been a champion of genre fiction and of many literary forms that are generally less venerated. What drew you to them?

It goes back to my reading. I am a reader first. My taste as a reader runs in many directions. When I was younger, I was more likely to seek out science fiction and fantasy. As I got older, I started to incorporate crime fiction and detective fiction into that diet. At this point, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the packaging that is trying to persuade me that a book is mainstream fiction or science fiction. I just read a book’s first sentence, first paragraph and first page and then decide if it is worth reading the rest of the book. I want to know if the book will take me places that language hasn’t taken me before. That could be into the mind of a middle-class housewife in 1950s San Francisco or the consciousness of an alien being on another world. It’s all about the sentences; great sentences exist irrespective of genre boundaries and distinctions. That’s what I am looking for as a reader. Over the past 15 years, I have felt increasingly free to allow all the genres I’ve experienced and enjoyed as a reader to enter more fully into the world of my writing. I’ve felt a real sense of liberation as a result. I believe other writers would feel the same way. This cordoning off of “literature” as something that must be kept pure from the taint of genre fiction is a very recent phenomenon, and I hope it will be a transient one. The sources of great writing have always lain in crime, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, gothic romance and Westerns. Those were not even considered separate genres for a long time. I would like to eliminate the prejudice against certain genres.

You challenge genre categorization again in your new book, Moonglow. On its title page it is called a novel, but in the author’s note you write that it is a memoir, and in the acknowledgments you refer to the book as a “pack of lies.” Is any one of these a more accurate label than the others?

A pack of lies and the word “novel” are synonymous in my mind. They can be used interchangeably. The word “memoir” is used within the confines of the novel itself. Therefore the memoir is simply part of the pack of lies and/or novel itself. It should be taken as such.

In what sense, then, is Moonglow, in which “Michael Chabon” is the narrator, autobiographical?

In the same sense that all my novels are autobiographical, which is to say, somewhat. Moonglow explores the interrelationship between fact and fiction, between the so-called truth and the actual truth, how family histories and family stories evolve, and the relationship between memory and story-telling. I’m interested in knowing why readers have this kind of question. What is it about approaching a work of fiction that puts a reader in a frame of mind to want to understand or know how much of it is “true”? Conversely, what is it about approaching a memoir that makes a reader want to accept as true so much that is obviously fictionalized? Moonglow is essentially about those two questions.

This cordoning off of ‘literature’ as something that must be kept pure from the taint of genre fictions is a very recent phenomenon, and I hope it will be a transient one.

In Telegraph Avenue, you write in the voice of an African American. Was it a challenge to develop an authentic voice for a member of a group you are not part of?

To me it is written from the point of view of several different fictional African-American characters. It is only within the confines of a fictional construct that I would feel comfortable trying to do that. I could never claim I was writing from a black sensibility. But when I start to imagine an actual human being and try to bring that human being to life on the page for a reader, then it becomes a matter of specific details of place, period and the sensory world surrounding my characters—the way things are heard, seen, smelled, touched or tasted. I’m trying to sustain the illusion of having a sense of their consciousness. That is a difficult and tricky job, but it’s also difficult and tricky when I’m writing about a white, middle-aged Jewish man. I still have to get all that right, and it’s very easy to get it wrong. It may be easier to get it wrong when I am reaching in some ways to write a character who is very different from me. The most challenging occurrence of that in Telegraph Avenue was trying to imagine being an African-American woman giving birth. That is a whole sheath of experiences I never have had and never will have.

So how did you, as a Jewish man then in your 40s, imagine the voice of a young pregnant African-American woman?

That’s where preparation and research come in. To pull a novel off, you have to expand the scope of your knowledge and information. It is a little like the preparation an actor might do before stepping into a part that is very different from the actor’s own life and experience. I was very fortunate that on the internet there is a vast trove of women’s first-person narratives about giving birth. By reading lots of those, I started to see some common perceptions and sensations. I was able to absorb enough information to pull off the trick of pretending to be somebody that I could never possibly be. That’s part of the fun of doing this. That is also part of the power of both reading and writing for me and for so many of us: We read fiction because it gives us the illusion of being someone else, of living someone else’s life. Ultimately it is an illusion; we still remain forever trapped within the prison of our own skull. But it’s through reading that we can sense what it might be like to be another person and also to connect with the mind of the writer. Even across thousands of years, through reading, you can have a sense of connection with an author who has been dead since Roman times. That’s a powerful kind of enchantment. As a writer, I am stretching in the same way and trying to reach into the life, the experience, the mind, the imagination of another human being, potentially someone who is very different from me. It’s an illuminating and entrancing process and one that I try to approach with due humility and a sense of my own limitations.

Why has cultural appropriation become such a hot-button issue?

Cultural appropriation doesn’t actually happen all that often. Most white writers are very leery of doing it. Some feel it would be so appropriative that in a way, it’s simply impermissible—they would never want to do it. For other writers, they are afraid of stepping into a hornet’s nest. So beyond a few authors, you have to look to the world of crime fiction to find it, which is telling in itself. There you find white authors such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and the late Elmore Leonard writing black characters and from a black point of view with apparent relative ease and a sense of freedom. I was certainly aware of the issue of cultural appropriation when writing Telegraph Avenue, and I tried to find ways to signal that awareness to my readers.

Let’s turn to where your professional and personal life intersect. Do you and Ayelet edit and read one another’s work?

Completely, from start to finish. From the moment one of us gets an idea or the vaguest seedling of a possible project all the way through the final copy edits, we are always there, each for the other. From initial conversations, plot assistance, editing, reading drafts to book reviews and everything that comes after a book is published, we give one another our full support.

We read fiction because it gives us the illusion of being someone else, of living someone else’s life. Ultimately it is an illusion; we still remain forever trapped within the prison of our own skull.

Are you and Ayelet currently collaborating on any projects?

Yes, we are working on a book called Kingdom of Olives and Ash. It is a collection of 25 essays by writers from all over the world, from every cultural tradition and every continent. Each of them was brought, usually in a small group, to the occupied territories, primarily the West Bank. We worked with an organization called Breaking the Silence, which is a group of former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied territories or in support of the occupation who have come forward to testify about what they did and saw, and also to create a safe way for Israeli soldiers currently serving in the occupied territories to testify about what they are seeing on a daily basis. This group acted as our guide to every corner of the occupied territories. Each writer was given a very thorough tour of many different kinds of places in the West Bank, and then each writer focused in on a particular area that was of interest to him or her. We had one Israeli writer who was interested in soccer, and he wrote about soccer in the West Bank. Geraldine Brooks, who was a Wall Street Journal correspondent in the Middle East for a long time and who was already interested in the legal system and court system in the occupied territories for Palestinians, wrote about a particular court case that drew her attention. An Iranian-born writer wrote about hip-hop in Palestine. It’s a wide range of pieces by a very wide range of writers. None of them was submitted to any kind of political litmus test. We asked them to do this because they were prominent and successful writers in their languages of origin.

Controversy erupted in 2005 after Ayelet wrote in The New York Times, “I love my husband more than I love my children.” Were you surprised by the level of reaction?

Yes, very much. She originally wrote the essay as part of an anthology that didn’t seem likely to be widely read. I didn’t think there was going to be any reaction, positive or negative. Then when the husband of one of the other contributors to the anthology turned out to be the editor of the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, he stumbled on this piece of hers in the book and wanted to publish it. One thing quickly led to another, and suddenly there was this unexpected and unanticipated situation. I was surprised there were any reactions at all, let alone such vehement ones. I understood people’s reactions—what she said was unquestionably provocative, and she was trying to be provocative. She was attempting to address her own feeling that she was doing something wrong by putting our marriage in the center of her emotional map and universe and having our children be satellites. That felt true to her but it also felt wrong. Initially, she was trying to provoke a response in herself by posing it so starkly. The purpose of an essay is to get a reaction from the reader. She thought that might occur in some way, but she was just as surprised as I was by what happened.

Twelve years later, how has this conversation evolved?

The situation has changed, and what she wrote has become a much more mainstream position. There is a sense that people’s lives, particularly mothers’ lives, are out of balance. Women are often prone to sacrifice themselves to their children in ways that are warmly rewarded by prevailing cultural narratives. But this is not always ultimately fulfilling for the mothers themselves and may well be harmful to their children and is not necessarily in the children’s best interests. It’s possibly good for children to grow up in a house where they know their parents’ marriage is the center of the household and the family and that there is a secure foundation of mutual respect, love, desire, affection. When all of those qualities are at the center of the family, that can be empowering for children and give them a sense of strength and security.

There is a kind of death of desire in many marriages. Maybe it has nothing to do with the children, or maybe it does.

Research has started to bear out the benefits of what Ayelet wrote 12 years ago. Now the extreme position would be more like one in an essay I recently read in which a woman argued that she had made a mistake by having children and she regretted becoming a mother. That’s something Ayelet would never have argued or written. She didn’t feel that way. That’s where we are now in the ongoing “mommy wars” that never seem to end. There is a growing sense of the problems that can happen in a marriage after the children have grown and left the house if one partner, particularly the mother, has made the children the center of her existence. Where is the marriage at that point, after having been sidelined and pushed into the shade for all those years? Ayelet may have overstated her case for rhetorical purposes, but in many ways, she was really onto something. There is a kind of death of desire in many marriages. Maybe it has nothing to do with the children, or maybe it does. This is still not being sufficiently addressed or talked about, but more people are willing to acknowledge that it ought to be.

Aside from your work with Ayelet, you’ve had other interesting literary collaborations. How did your experience of writing the text for comic books illustrated by others compare with your earlier experience of writing about a team of comic book writers in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?

It was a very different creative process, precisely because it was so collaborative. Writing a comic book script is completely different from writing a novel. It’s not even like writing a screenplay; it is its own separate form and a lot of fun. You are not just writing what the characters or actors are doing or saying; you can be really detailed and descriptive about the setting and what is happening in each individual panel. When I collaborated with [graphic artist] Matt Fraction on his comic book Casanova, I actually had to play with his toys, and that was weird. I kept asking, “Is this okay?” because I was now writing his character that he made up. It was an odd feeling. Even the escapist comic book stories in Kavalier & Clay were really just me, adapting myself. I only had to argue with myself, get permission from myself, or discuss things with myself. Collaborating is exhilarating; there is real beauty in it.

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