Updated at 2018-03-25 17:46:24 UTC
Michael Chabon on His New Book, Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize, and President Trump’s America
Chabon, 54, spoke to New York about how much memoir needs to be in a memoir and saying a reluctant good-bye to President Obama. (We also followed up a week after the election for his thoughts on President-elect Trump.)
Good morning. It’s nice to get to talk to you. Thank you.
You know, we may be very distant cousins. I was doing some genealogical research, and I have the name Kachka way back in my family tree.
Really? So you’re into genealogical research.
There are certain fundamental mysteries that I was always hoping to get some kind of answer to. Like, what the hell was my last name really? I was able to find out my great-grandfather’s last name was Czaban. Apparently there were Central Asian people who call themselves Czaban who wereshepherds.
Michael Chabon: I’m very sorry to see him go. He’s a president and a person of really incomparable intelligence and poise and thoughtfulness and consideration.
Family history is the inspiration for this book. But first, in light of recent events, I wanted to ask about an important historical cameo in your last one --
President Barack Obama. What are your thoughts about seeing him go? I’m very sorry to see him go. He’s a president and a person of really incomparable intelligence and poise and thoughtfulness and consideration. You don’t have a sense that he does anything important without having considered the implications beforehand. He honors the people that he’s talking to even if he doesn’t agree with them. One might tend to say that’s how a president ought to act. I think the truth is those are extremely rare qualities. All politics aside, just in terms of temperament and character, I’ve never seen the like. So I’m gonna miss that.
And what was it like to watch the election last week and find out who was going to replace him?
Well, complete shock and an inability to accept the reality of what I was seeing. And the next phase was just horror and embarrassment — seeing the words “President Trump” and just having this spasm of revulsion which still has not completely passed. A certain amount of clinging to tiny scraps of hope that it might turn out not to be definitive, and those are snuffed out one by one, though now it’s pretty clear to me that Hillary really did win the election — not just the popular election, but it seems there were shenanigans in key states in terms of suppressing the minority vote.
What do you think the future holds?
I don’t think it’s gonna be good, but we don’t know just how bad, and one of the things we don’t know is who our leaders are going to be. The thing I’m taking the most comfort in, to the extent I can, is that when I think about the things that I’m most proud of in American history, they are always movements that arose in the face of terrible darkness and evil — whether it’s abolition or women’s suffrage or the labor movement or civil rights, the defeat of fascism. Those were bad, bad times, and out of those bad times, the things that I most admire and love about America were born. I think we’ve had it easy in many ways for a long time. And now it’s going get hard and I think that increases the possibility that we will have some real transformative movement arising out of it — if we don’t bite each other to death.
What did you think about Hillary’s campaign? I’ve never been a super-enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, and I definitely had doubts and reservations about her. I was always kind of excited just by the idea of the first woman president and had a sense that she was clearly competent and skilled and qualified and thoughtful and well prepared. But in those last weeks, basically starting with the Access Hollywood thing, I felt like women and men, but especially women, were feeling like a moment arose that she had the opportunity to embody and to take hold of. Except for the fact that it looks like we’re going to have Donald Trump as the president, my optimism was actually justified. The women in my world, I feel, are now more galvanized than ever. And again, this is not a mandate. It was not some overwhelming landslide victory of the Nazis and racists of America. We’re looking at multiple millions of votes in Hillary’s favor.
But look at the voices that were allowed to flourish during the campaign and now might be heading the government. Except they’ve always had a voice. Those elements of this supposed silent majority—the forgotten, the neglected—that’s just bullshit. They’ve been talking nonstop for 200 years. One thing I’m not surprised by is that those people are out there doing and saying vile and contemptible things. The level or the intensity might be changing, but the intensity of everything is increased by the technology, but that’s just as much reason to be optimistic as pessimistic.
So back to the history in this book. When your grandfather told you those deathbed stories in the ’80s, did you always know you were going to use them?
Quite the contrary. Wonder Boys [Chabon’s second novel] happened in exactly the same way: I sat down to work at my computer one night thinking that I was going to be working on whatever I thought I was going to be working on. In the case of Wonder Boys, it was a book I’d been working on for five years.
In the case of Moonglow, I was starting a new book and I woke up that morning and this story that I’d heard a few times about one of my mother’s father’s brothers—he was working as a salesman selling office paper, based in the Puck Building, and he got fired from his job one day because they hired Alger Hiss,
who couldn’t get a job doing anything else. The first time I’d heard the story, I thought, There’s this huge, gigantic component of 20th-century American history poignantly intersecting with my family. I quickly remade it from my great-uncle to my grandfather, and within a couple days, I had this whole fake-memoir structure. And by having the narrator be a fictionalized version of myself — I mean, you’re always looking for a shortcut into the heads of your characters. In some ways, it’s a really old-fashioned literary trick.
What happened to your actual grandfather?
My actual grandfather did have bone cancer. He was in Florida in a retirement community, and then my mother, who was in Oakland, had a hospital bed put in, and he flew out and lived for a few more months. Right before he died, I spent a lot of time sitting with him, and there was something about being on the painkillers that seemed to open up some boxes in his brain. I started hearing stories I had never heard before. They were nothing at all like the stories in the book. One thing that I actually drew on was about dropping a cat out the window.
So it’s mostly made up, but you’re still playing a game with readers.
Okay, it’s a game. That’s the theme of the novel — the consensus history versus what actually did happen and if there’s ever any way of reconciling those. But I’m not trying to trick people. I have an “author’s note”
at the beginning, which I hope will alert the reader from the get-go.
The book is also a speculation on history, not unlike The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Kavalier & Clay — only a more personal kind.
There is a kinship. The books that I loved to read most growing up were ones that either invented a kind of fantastic history, like The Lord of the Rings, or even the kind of thing you see in a book like Ragtime, where actual figures from history are incorporated into a fictional work in a way that somehow makes the characters feel more real. A book that was really important for me as a young teenager was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,
by Nicholas Meyer. The conceit of it was Sherlock Holmes needed to turn for treatment for his cocaine addiction to Sigmund Freud. It was thrilling to me, like a conceptual breakthrough. You see it in Kavalier & Clay with characters like Orson Welles and Salvador Dali intermingling.
Why are the grandparents and mother in Moonglow unnamed?
You know, it’s a memoir. So I started by just saying my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother, because that’s what you would do in a memoir. I don’t think when I’m talking about my actual mother, whose name is Sharon — I never think of her as Sharon, ever, right? It felt natural and organic. But when I was well into the book, where I was like, “Okay, but these people do have names,” I couldn’t say their names were what my actual grandparents’ names were, because that would be a lie and a dishonor to them. On the other hand, if I say their names are Joe Schlabowsky, then it’s not a memoir anymore. And who is this Mike guy? Is he Mike Schlabowsky? And I didn’t want that either. I was working on a Frank Sinatra project for a while, and I read Tina Sinatra’s memoir
of her father. She called him “Daddy.”
Were you working on a script about Sinatra?
It would’ve been so cool. Scorsese was going to direct it, and I wrote the script.
What happened? The usual thing?
Yeah. The usual.
You have this sideline doctoring scripts, right?
Yeah, yeah. I tend to do a lot of rewriting at this point.
Is it hard to feel invested in somebody else’s script when you’ve written all these novels?
It can be a relief in a lot of ways. You don’t have any amour propre that’s preventing you from seeing the flaws in something. You’re not too close to it to notice that this or that or the other thing is completely confusing or fucked up. They’re paying you well, too, so that helps. And the health insurance.
You’re a credited primary screenwriter as well — on movies including John Carter and Spider-Man 2.
I imagine that as a huge comics fan growing up, you might have mixed feelings about the boom in comic-book-based movie blockbusters. Many writers accuse them of bastardizing the form.
Bastardizing! I mean those are fighting words. There’s really no relationship between a movie of a comic and the comic book. There are plenty of comic books out there that bastardize Spiderman, you know?
But the mainstreaming of fandom must be a bit of a shock to you.
For sure. You know, I went to see the Guardians of the Galaxy movie with my son. At some point, he turns to me like, “Did you ever think you were going to be sitting in a movie theater watching a movie that has Drax the Destroyer and Thanos?” And it’s incredible! All I wanted in 1976 was for there to be a movie of this stuff, and it’s a pretty good movie, too—obviously made by people who cared about the material. When you love something that is not widely loved, it’s very easy to get possessive about that thing. You meet other people in your life who also love that thing and that’s okay, too. Then you feel you have this little tribe that you belong to and also a sense of ownership. And you go from that to this sort of mass exposure of the thing that you thought was this little tiny island you were living on.
Isn’t it also that huge corporations are turning it into a money machine?
Absolutely. It’s just that that’s all it ever was to the people who owned Marvel Comics or DC. It was trash to them. The corporate overlords are always going to look at it as selling or not. It’s just happening on the same mass scale that everything happens on nowadays.
After Kavalier & Clay, you spent years working in genres — writing books for children, medieval adventure.
Your last novel, Telegraph Avenue, was considered by many critics your return to realism (or let’s say “literature”), which continues with this novel. Why have you come back?
It’s not so much a return to realism as a reintegration. So my work in this book and Telegraph Avenue is more like a dialectical process. I came out of the UC Irvine M.F.A. program, where I was very quickly disabused of any notion that I could try to write “literary genre fiction” without just being flat-out told, “We’re not set up to handle that.” Okay, Fine. I can adjust. I love John Cheever and Eudora Welty. I get it. I just set a lot of that aside — what made me want to become a writer in the first place. But then Kavalier & Clay, where I first opened the gates to all that stuff — the highbrow people liked it. I got a Pulitzer Prize. So what about this? I’m going to try writing a hard-boiled detective novel, but it’s also counterfactual history, and here’s a historical-adventure thing set in the year 1000. I was trying to really make up for lost time, make up for lost books. So that was the antithesis, and now I’m in the synthesis phase, where I just feel like it’s all there.
Where does Moonglow fit into that?
It’s blurring this distinction between literary memoir and novel. And to me, it is sort of science-fiction-adjacent, to use L.A.-real-estate-speak. Let’s put it this way: The idea of a “secret history” is a frequent element in science fiction, the true history of something where you think you know how it happened — that is a strong element in a lot of classic science fiction. It’s not just a secret history of my “family,” but it’s also, Here’s the truth about what really happened with Wernher von Braun.
Yes, the Nazi mastermind of the V-2 missile whom the U.S. conscripted to develop the technology that got us to the moon. And an inspiration for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Was Pynchon a big influence?
He’s one of my favorite writers. I have at least one Pynchon Easter egg in every one of my books going back to Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
What was the one in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh?
There are two Japanese characters who make a very brief appearance in a party scene. They have the same names as the two Japanese soldiers who are stranded on this island in the Pacific just before the detonation of the bomb in Hiroshima in Gravity’s Rainbow. Takeshi and Ichizo.
And how did it play into this book?
I had always been fascinated by the history of the space program. I had known about Wernher von Braun the way a lot of people did. His Nazi past was certainly not a secret. And then reading Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time and not being sure how much was based on fact — actually it turns out it’s heavily based on fact. So when I suddenly realized I’m writing about rockets and this grandfather and knowing also that he had served in Army Intelligence in World War II — a brother of my grandmother’s served in Army Intelligence — it kind of sounds like you might be heading towardWernher von Braun territory,
and then I’ll be able to play with Gravity’s Rainbow. It’ s a part of my basic motivation of writing, which is that fan-fiction impulse. The first thing I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story — a piece of fan fiction. This book is in some ways fan fiction on Gravity’s Rainbow.
Did you ever get to meet Pynchon?
I met him one time. Out of the blue, I used whatever secret channels I could avail myself of to invite him to lunch.
I said I was coming to New York and I had just read Against the Day, which I completely loved — my second favorite of his books, or maybe even almost a tie with Gravity’s Rainbow. I said, Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? He won’t answer or he’ll say no. And to my surprise he accepted my invitation through many, many intermediaries—cutouts, they call them in spy novels. I took him to lunch at a steak restaurant down on the West Side. I don’t know why I thought he would like the steak restaurant. It turns out he was not a super-big meat-eating kind of dude.
Was it a fun conversation?
It was a very curious conversation. It was very much like having a conversation with a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. There was a lot of talk about made-for-television movies of the 1970s.
Another reclusive touchstone in Moonglow was Salinger. You’re a pretty public personality. What do you think of the “outing” ofElena Ferrante?
She wants to stay private. Do you understand the impulse?
The impulse to ferret her out, or the impulse to stay private? I understand both actually. What I don’t understand is the impulse to make public what one has found out. I would’ve been satisfied with knowing, but I wouldn’t have felt the need to tell anyone. I understand why you’d want to know. It’s a mystery, human nature. And I have to say, you can’t make the choice to be completely private. If you make that choice, you have to make it knowing it’s going to inspire a desire in people to break your secret. You just have to accept that, and you shouldn’t make the choice thinking that’s not going to happen. What I don’t understand is the move to make it public, making that violation of privacy irrevocable and global, whereas if you’re the only one who knows and you get hit by a bus the next day, the secret dies with you. I think that’s how it ought to be.
What’s going on with the film adaptations of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
and Kavalier & Clay?
Nothing. They’re dead as vaudeville. It’s studio politics. It boils down to money, but not my money or any money that I would ever get to see. It’s other people’s money and the question of who owes what to whom, and it’s just completely out of my hands.
You’re also supposed to be working on a pilot with your wife, Ayelet Waldman, right?
Yeah, we have an eight-episode limited series that we are trying to set up at Netflix, and we finished a pilot. It’s in their lap right now, so we’re waiting to hear what its fate is going to be.
Is it this Hobgoblin?
This is not that. That is also dead.
This is a true-crime, nonfiction piece, which you might have read on ProPublica
or heard on This American Life, about the woman who was raped in Seattle and then was disbelieved and forced to recant publicly, and then was eventually redeemed when detectives elsewhere popped the guy and figured out he had actually raped her as well. So we’re adapting that.
Is it difficult to collaborate with your wife?
We’ve been collaborating indirectly for a very long time, as sounding boards each for the other. We only started directly collaborating with Hobgoblin. We have kind of a good system where we figure out the story together, we break it down together, outline it together, and then she writes the first draft and I write the second draft. She’s really good at cutting off the building blocks and putting them in the right order, and then I’m able to come in and touch up the dialogue and do the rewriting.
Your egos don’t interfere in the way of wanting to control something held in common?
We do have kids, right?
So, there’s constant compromise, but also there’s a trust. And we have similar tastes when it comes to television. When we watch together, we’re always giving commentary about what’s working and what’s not and why.
Are you fans of Transparent?
Yeah. I love the first season so much. There’s a part of me that wishes it had just been one season because it was so complete. It didn’t necessarily need it to go on, but I’m not sorry that it is.
They are continually unpacking Jewish identity, which is interesting.
That’s amazing, right? It’s so Jewish in a way that feels like the culmination of years, starting with the rogue Jewishness of Buddy,
Morey Amsterdam’s character on The Dick Van Dyke Show, to George Costanza’s dad eating kasha in bed
in one episode of Seinfeld. To come to this moment of realizing people are going to be able to follow this whole thing, or just realize what a wacky, half-assed, lame attempt at a Seder that just was —you know, it’s an amazing thing to see.
Wasn’t the knock on The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that no one who didn’t know Yiddish would want to read it?
It’s always only Jews who have ever said to me, “Isn’t this book too Jewish?” It’s very similar to when I wrote my first book and people in Pittsburgh were the only ones who said to me, ‘Why would you wanna set a book in Pittsburgh?’
Speaking of crossover Jews, should Bob Dylan have won the Nobel Prize?
I was excited! I actually gave a speech at American Academy of Arts and Letters a few years back, when he was given their medal. I did the keynote, and I decided to focus on the question of the importance of lyrics. I talked about going through this phase as a young man, questioning whether lyrics were poetry or not, and then realizing that they are not poetry, but they are definitely literature. Dylan’s lyrics affected me as literature, in addition to whatever impact the music might have, just as much as Barry Hannah influenced me, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Eudora Welty. The writing that I absorbed almost accidentally through listening to popular music had this huge impact on my writing, so to me, this was absolutely merited. But I was dismayed to read that he didn’t answer them.
I mean, that’s just rude. His mother did not teach him to be like that.
*A version of this article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.