Photo credit: Benjamin Tice Smith
Michael Chabon is the award-winning novelist behind The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
, The Final Solution
, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
, Wonder Boys
, and Telegraph Avenue
, in addition to two short story collections, a YA novel, and, with Dark Horse Comics, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
. Chabon’s work is notable for his masterful use of language and ability to blend literary and genre styles to create highly imaginative worlds that reveal emotional and historical truths to the reader.
Chabon’s newest book, Moonglow
, is a sly, quasi-autobiographical novel posing as a memoir. Based on the stories that the narrator, the fictional Mike Chabon, hears at his dying grandfather’s bedside, Moonglow
investigates the horrors and ambiguities of WWII, the rise of the American space program, the nature of testimony, and a grandmother’s madness. A love story that questions the value of storytelling, Moonglow
is a thoughtful, funny, and engrossing novel.
A trace of nostalgia for mid-20th century America and the Greatest Generation runs through much of your fiction, and Moonglow
is no exception. What is it about this point in American history, and the particular characteristics of the people who came of age in the shadow of World War II, that keeps calling you back?
To some degree, I think it's simply a function of the fact that I was born and grew up both very close to World War II and yet at a complete and unbridgeable remove from World War II, as well, in that I was born well after it. I was born in '63, so 18 years after the end of the war.
In that sense, it was all over. All there was for me to know about it was what I could read in books, or see on television or in the movies, or hear people around me talking about. I'm sure this is true of kids of my generation all over the world, in parts of the world that got consumed by the Second World War. World War II was probably the single most dominant cultural motif and historical narrative of my entire life.
It wasn't simply that it was a fairly frequent subject of conversation among adults who I grew up among, who had either served in the war in some way or another or had memories of either their childhood or their adulthood living under rationing, Pearl Harbor, and all the home-front stuff.
It was also just completely dominant within popular culture. World War II movies — in a way they were more than just a genre. They were an entire continent of films throughout my childhood, either with older war films that were being shown on television or with the new ones that were being churned out all the time. We played World War II when I was a kid. We played Germans and Americans. We played Iwo Jima. That was the substance of our games. We watched television shows like The Rat Patrol
and especially Hogan's Heroes
, which in hindsight is an absurd television show, a comedy about a POW camp in Germany in World War II. That was an incredibly important chapter for me, getting some kind of imaginative access to World War II as a kid.
Then of course the Holocaust, which wasn't called the Holocaust at the time. That term didn't really come into popular use until the '70s. Anne Frank, let's say, and that part of the story that hadn't really quite been shaped into an overarching narrative called the Holocaust. That was still very much there.
And comic books, too. The entire Marvel comic book mythos was founded both in actuality in the comic book company itself and the characters that had been created, and also within the narratives of the comics written in the '60s and '70s, with World War II as the signal event. You had Captain America and how he survived in a block of ice, being thawed out in the '60s. That film was like a perfect metaphor for my experience of World War II. But it was so pervasive and I found it fascinating. I kind of loved it all, and wanted to know more about it. I read books about the war, and I read biographies about famous generals and books about famous battles, and all that kind of stuff. So it was really important to me, but in a sense I sort of felt like it had to be important.
The Cold War was another dominant narrative of my childhood. It was really just sort of a fruit of the tree of World War II. Everything seemed to be traceable back to World War II. The civil rights movement in America, when you looked at the experience of black GIs serving in the armed forces in World War II, and then coming back and still facing all that same discrimination after the sacrifices they had made and the ability they had shown, that was obviously a precipitating cause of the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s.
World War II was probably the single most dominant cultural motif and historical narrative of my entire life.
It sounds less like nostalgia guides your work than that midcentury history is very much present in the way you think about things.
Exactly. I was going to say it's not really nostalgia. First of all, I think nostalgia gets a bad name. I think nostalgia is a valid human emotion just like any other. It is liable to be manipulated. It's liable to ways of excess, and kitsch in art, and so on.
Of course, so are all the other human emotions. Anger is just as liable to be manipulated, but nobody would say anger is somehow a lesser or ersatz kind of emotion. I never had this thing where I was like, Gee, I wish World War II were still happening.
I never had that thing like, Gosh, I wish I could live under occupation.
Or, Gosh, I wish we had rationing now.
I might have had nostalgia about other things, other family stories I heard. For example, my dad's memory growing up in Brooklyn, that's kind of fun. It didn't really have anything to do with World War II, so that was something that might inspire a certain nostalgia for the period that I can experience.
For me, World War II was always frightening and dark. I always had this sense of relief, like, Thank God it ended the way that it did, that “the good guys” won.
Maybe part of what made it so inescapable was the fact that it felt good, almost like a hair's breadth escape from complete disaster, and that's always compelling to read about.
And you talked about the Greatest Generation. That's a term that I understand, and I have felt the feeling that led whoever it was to throw that appellation on the people who were alive at that time. I get that. On the other hand, they did just happen to be alive. Some of them were incredibly strong, brave, heroic, and admirable, and overcame incredible odds and difficulties or overcame incredible racism. You have the example of all the loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry, whose families were interned in California here and across the West, and yet nevertheless enlisted, served bravely, and were decorated and all that kind of stuff.
All of that is the case, but we have no reason to believe that there is something particular about those people that made that happen. It might seem that way in hindsight, but I don't have any evidence for it. In fact, I think the older one gets and the more one...
Let's take that example I just gave. Yes, that was incredible when Japanese American volunteers enlisted and served, but let's just stop right there and back up a second. You're like, Wait. What was that part about the internment camps?
You know who did that? Which generation was it that put the people in the internment camps in the first place? It was that Greatest Generation, right?
Who were the people who made the decision to accept a huge number of Nazi scientists and engineers, many, many of whom were clearly implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity? Not just protect them from prosecution, not just protect them from imprisonment, but actually cause their records to be expunged, have new identities created for them, and to be brought to America to live in the utmost safety, comfort, and material prosperity, making great money, working good jobs, becoming Americans?
Becoming, in a case like Wernher von Braun, a hero, a widely admired television personality. Who made that decision to do all that and ignore the horrible war crimes and the guilt of these men, the blood that was on their hands? That was the Greatest Generation.
One of the things I really admire about your fiction is that your explorations of the Holocaust and the concepts of witness and survival never feel trite or manipulative; instead, the characters’ experiences complicate the black and white moral universe we tend to associate with World War II. Could you talk a little bit about how you use the Holocaust as a narrative device?
It's just so tricky. It can be a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Or maybe sometimes it can feel like simply a "damned if you do" situation. We even have, still echoing ever more faintly down the decades, that famous dictum of Theodor Adorno
, back when he said, "After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry.”
God bless him. He was a brilliant man, but I think that’s a really dopey thing to have said and self-evidently false. The proscription on speaking is always going to be a little bit of a step backwards, in my eyes. Should we limit testimony? Should we limit documentation or narrative or speech about the Holocaust to those who experienced it? Obviously that can’t be. There aren't enough of them, and there never were.
Somehow, all the speech by those people, as incredibly moving and harrowing as something like, say, Primo Levi
's work is, is that enough? Are we done now? Should we stop that? I wouldn't say so.
That gets to the heart of Moonglow
Right, exactly. That’s partly what Moonglow
is about. And the stories of the grandmother, the shifting ground that not just the reader but the narrator and the grandfather are on with her as well. Not just in regards to the content of her stories, what happened to her and what she went through or didn't go through, and how she managed to get to America and all that stuff. Her entire being is a part of the shifting ground — her personality, her moods.
In a way, you never quite know which grandmother's going to show up at any given moment, no matter how the kid — the narrator — feels about her. In a way you might argue it's a demonstration, in one sense perhaps, of what Adorno said — if you gave him a more generous interpretation than I did a minute ago. Maybe the Holocaust can't be represented, but its un-representability can be represented.
One of the major tensions in Moonglow
is between choosing to tell one's story and remaining silent. The novel seems to lean firmly on the side of telling, but there's this fascinating moment when Mike says, "When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable."
Do you consider it the moral responsibility of the writer to take over when speech is no longer possible? And to tie this into what you were just saying, if that’s the case, then imagination becomes a necessary tool for illumination and empathy.
I think so. I don't know. I don't have an answer, but in a way, all there is ultimately is imagery. You have to try to find ways of imaging what can't be shown. At least for me, that's how I've approached the Holocaust in my work, by not attempting to show it in a direct way, as if I had had some kind of firsthand access. I could never do that. I wouldn't want to and I wouldn't be able to.
I try to find ways of creating images of what cannot be imagined of the unimaginable. For example, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, there are things like the letter Joe Kavalier gets from his mother. He knows it's from his family who he's left behind in Prague, and he doesn't open it. He just carries an unopened letter around in his pocket because he has this feeling like, There's nothing in this letter I want to read. It's going to be bad. I can't face it.
He never opens it.
I believe the narrator cuts the letter open and lets the reader see what it says, but for Joe, it's this unopened envelope. There's also the boxful of dirt that comes towards the end of the book that once supposedly held the body of the Golem that is now just full of dried mud.
Maybe the Holocaust can't be represented, but its un-representability can be represented.
Then in The Final Solution
, this parrot is randomly rattling off a string of numbers. It’s not grasped by any of the characters in the story, even the mind of the character that’s modeled on Sherlock Holmes, who has this incredible mind that could crack any puzzle but fails to crack this puzzle. Of course, it turns out that these numbers are a strong image of the Holocaust and the trains of the Holocaust. I’m trying to find ways to figure what can't be figured, I guess.
And that's the idea with the grandmother and her story, and her mind and her moods, and that shifting ground I was talking about. She seems almost hyper-interpretable in a way that then leaves you with no clear interpretation at all. That's another way of trying to get at that.
This idea of imaging what can’t be shown takes a different form in the theatre scene at Greystone, the asylum where the grandmother stages her moon play for Mike’s mom. It’s an amazing scene — at first the reader shares the daughter’s suspension of disbelief, and then we see the stage for what it really is — tinfoil costumes and repurposed kitchen tools — but the act of converting some element of the grandmother's interiority into drama allows Mike's mom to see through to an essential, previously hidden part of her. What you write is, "This was not the moon at all. It was some other world, some other mother, uncharted and hitherto unknown." It's so powerful that Mike's mom passes out.
I thought, That's incredible
. Because that's the goal, right, to be able to see the Other in a way that’s excised from one's self?
Exactly. I worked really hard on that. I felt like it was a really important part of the story, but I could never quite explain why. Also, at the same time, there's this whole question of the authorship of this play. There's this mystery of authorship, with some people attributing it to this weird, old man who can't talk and probably could never have done it, and yet there are a lot of people around who seem to believe it's the case that he wrote it.
I was interested in that idea of the provenance of stories and the credentials of stories, and why some stories become believed when they aren't true and other stories that are true may never be heard at all or, if they are heard, they're disbelieved. And how a combination of memory flaws and the desire for self-justification, self-rationalization, and just the natural human tendency to embroider begin over time to distort the truth in ways that can sometimes almost transform it entirely, while other truths people lock up inside them, carry around, and never let out at all.
I think some of that also is emerging in a way because the ultimate source material of the play is an incident in The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen
. The Baron goes to the moon. Well, that raises the question of, Wait. Does the grandmother know that the source is
Baron von Munchausen?
According to the footnote, it seems to be clear that she did. So what was she saying when she sourced her work from this story?
We know that later in her life she will draw heavily on things that she's read and movies she's seen to tell the stories that she tells to the narrator with her cards. Then what is she saying about her story, about herself, in sourcing something from The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen
What does it mean when we then learn that she gave the narrator a collection of those stories when he was a boy? What was she trying to say to him, if anything?
Everything you’re saying about the grandmother seems to go right to the heart of Moonglow
being a novel in memoir form, which is that it ultimately doesn’t matter if what you’re telling is a true story or just a story that reveals the truth about you.
Exactly. That's the thing about fiction. It's a cliché. We say it, but it's the lie that tells the truth. All the scrupulous fact checking, note taking, and research in the world can't guarantee that a story is true because that idea of truth is in itself so slippery and often so hard to justify. Trying to communicate truth simply through a recitation of facts, dates, and figures can often produce something that's not only lifeless, but may actually be false on some fundamental level.
All the recent cultural emphasis that has been placed on the literary memoir as the standard of truth-telling in contemporary literature, with a greater claim to the readers than a work of fiction — if that's an accurate formulation of the situation, then I think it’s greatly mistaken. I say that in full recognition that I'm biased because I'm a fiction writer myself.
I think you have two kinds of distortions; you have two kinds of writing. When I say memoirs are lying I’m going to immediately hedge and issue the disclaimer that I'm not saying people who write memoirs are liars at all. I mean, some of them are. Famously. But it's not a deliberate act of deception. In the best-case scenario, it is a completely involuntary, unwilled act of deception that, if the extent of it were revealed to the person practicing it, they'd be really horrified because it was not at all what they intended to do. But we all know perfectly well any time you attempt to re-create the past as you remember it, either in speaking or on the page, you are introducing distortions, exaggerations, inflations, illusions. You're forgetting somebody who was there, was there. It happens to me all the time. You’re saying things happened in a slightly different order than they actually happened. You might be increasing your own presence in the story. Sometimes you hear a story often enough, you feel like you were there when you weren't.
We all know that happens, and all of that enters into the work of memoir writing, insidiously I think. And again, despite the strictest intentions or the most scrupulous attention to the record, it's still going to happen.
To me it's not a choice, but I feel like if you’re looking for truth, on the one hand, you have the avowed statement of truth with no intent to deceive, which is in fact a work of fiction to some extent or another, and on the other hand, the avowed work of fiction that is being deliberately practiced to deceive, but with the consent of the person being deceived, of course, which is very important. I go to the latter, because in that case it's like magic being performed by a stage magician: I know the lady is not really being sawn in half, but I'm still amazed at what my eyes are telling me they're seeing.
I read that Moonglow
is loosely based on an experience you had with your late grandfather. Did writing Moonglow
reveal any truths about your family history or yourself that you might not have accessed if you had tried instead to write a factual account of your grandfather’s life?
Yeah, absolutely. That was the biggest surprise for me. I just started with a few little pieces of factual records, let’s say, but even so, some have a greater claim to factuality than others. One of them was a short period I spent with my actual grandfather, who is mostly nothing like the grandfather in the book, right before he died at my mother's house. He went on painkillers and he did talk a lot. He remembered things to me that he had never remembered before. I heard stories that I'd never heard before. There was nothing particularly earth shattering. He was never one to reveal emotion, even though he was a big talker, unlike the grandfather in the story. These were just things I heard, and I was like, Wow, I've never heard of these stories before. I’m surprised to find they're all in there. What else is in there that I'm not hearing, still?
What might I have heard if he had lived longer? Maybe if he had recovered and I had had more wherewithal so that I could have focused in my questions to him a little bit more. I just let him run and let him talk.
There was that experience, and then there was this ad I found on eBay that had been in the back of an Esquire
magazine in the late '50s, for something called Chabon Scientific Company that sold model rockets. This was like a marvel to me. I'd never heard of the Chabon Scientific Company. I had no idea how it was connected to me. It must be, because everybody who has my last name is related, somehow or other. This is part of my family, distantly, presumably, since I knew nothing about it and my father knew nothing about it, but still it's rockets and model rockets. I was into model rockets when I was a kid. I was into the space program.
There's nothing better for a writer than feeling like you've strayed into relatively untrodden territory.
Here's this thing: What is it? What was it? Then, I did what anyone would do under the circumstances. I googled it and I got nothing. All I got were more ads. You could see Google Books has all those old magazines scanned in the back. That's all there was on Google. There was no other information to let me integrate the stats of this company or something like that. It was impenetrable, even by Google, kind of a mystery, and that just charmed and fascinated me so much, because that's almost unheard of now, for something to be un-google-able.
Before Google, I had to accept what writers said with this kind of pleasurable doubt. That's almost disappeared as part of a writer's toolkit. You just have to accept, Look, if somebody is going to go ahead and google this, then they're going to know I'm lying
, and, Oh well
Is that why you included the footnotes in the novel?
Yeah, that's part of it. I did that in Kavalier and Clay
, too. You want to try to create the sense, You know, this is actually a truthful, factual document — look, it has footnotes.
So I had the ad. I had that time with my grandfather. And then I had this one little anecdote I remember having heard a few times about one of my grandfather's brothers who was fired from a job to make room for Alger Hiss on the payroll.
It was just those strange, glancing encounters of my family, those three bits of "truth," with the dominant course of postwar American history, the Cold War. I started without any real sense of why or what it was going to mean.
To get back to your ancient question — what kind of truth was I able to learn about myself, or anything — it was not really until I finished writing the book that I took stock of it and realized, Wow, in some way what I've created here is not a...
It's obviously not a memoir, because I made it all up. [Laughter
Yes, it is a novel, but in a way that I didn't expect, it's a self-portrait. In some ways this book gets to the truth about me and my wife, Ayelet, and our marriage, and the circumstances of our emotional life that I didn't intend. It’s like if you started to hold up what you think is a photograph you've taken or a painting that you've painted, and then you hold it up and it turns out to be a mirror. I was not expecting that.
I want to ask about the way you write female characters. The narrator of Moonglow
, and in your other books, as well, is deeply respectful of women, balancing desirability with a clear sense of each woman's individuality. Moonglow
also depicts middle-aged and elderly women in lustful ways, which is really unusual and wonderful. I was wondering if that's a conscious choice of yours.
In a way, yes, it definitely is. I really came of age as a preadolescent, a teenager, in the 1970s, which in my view was unquestionably the most liberated moment in American history. I grew up with that kind of Free to Be… You and Me
equality, absolute gender equality, gender parity. Boys could play with dolls and girls could be truck drivers. Yet in spite of having received a fairly strong dose of that, outside and around that consciousness, all the old structures were still very much in place. I observed a lot of sexist conditioning through television, movies, peers, watching the way men in my family treated the women in my family, and so on. Maybe from having grown up in the '70s, I was given the gift of being able to see and notice it. And if I miss it, I have my wife to call me on it, and my daughters now, and even my sons, I'm happy to say.
When I'm proceeding to create female characters, there is a certain amount of consciousness, of care that I take and effort that I put into it, to be careful to make sure that I'm overcoming some of those inherent biases that I might have. I feel like it's gotten easier as I've gotten older, and maybe a little more natural. I trust myself to just sort of go at it and worry less about it.
With the sexuality of older women, in a way one answer to that is that's where I am in my life. I'm 53. My wife's almost 52, so that's where I am in my romantic and sexual life, and that's totally good with me. Also, I recognized as soon as I started to write some of the scenes that two different, funny things were happening. One was writing scenes between the grandfather and Sally, and these are people in their 70s having sex. In a way, I just jumped into that scene thinking, Look, these people are hot for each other, so they're going to want to fuck, right?
Then, I'm like, Hold on, wait a second. These are 70-year-olds. Wow.
I didn't have the thought like, Oh, never mind, I can't do it.
Or, No, they won't do this.
Or, They wouldn't do so.
I didn't have those thoughts, but I felt like I hadn't really seen this before in a work of fiction or literature. I'm not saying I'm the first person who ever did it; it's just that I don't have a whole lot of experience as a reader with sex scenes between 70-year-olds. And I love that. There's nothing better for a writer than feeling like you've strayed into relatively untrodden territory. That felt exciting to me, to have stumbled into this so-called virgin territory. It wasn't a big part of the story, but still, I had to think. It was like, Oh my God, this is so cool that I get to do this, and I want to make sure I do it right.
The other thing that almost threw me for more of a loop is the scenes where I'm writing about the narrator's grandparents having sex when they are relatively young people, like the scene after the grandfather gets out of jail. Where it was weird for me is I was using words like “grandmother” and "my grandmother's body" and "my grandmother's breasts.” Writing a scene about a woman's body and framing the description of desire and sex, and having the subject of those sentences be "my grandmother" was such a strange sensation.
I was really struck by it. I found the passion between the grandparents incredibly touching.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
, A Model World
, Wonder Boys
, Werewolves in Their Youth
, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, The Final Solution
, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
, Maps and Legends
, Gentlemen of the Road
, Telegraph Avenue
, and the picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man
. His most recent novel is Moonglow
. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman
, and their children.