Telling Secrets

Michael Chabon’s latest memoir traces its roots to his grandfather.


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Michael Chabon.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

If a conversation with Michael Chabon provides any clues, in his next book the Pulitzer Prize-winning author might use a cabbage, a puppy in house-training mode, and a sick child whose parents debate whether or not home-delivered doughnuts represent a perfect cure or an indulgence. Forecasting the plot is harder.

“There’s a lot of structure and stuff having to do with plot and pacing that’s a struggle,” the author said during a recent interview. “I always fight with it. I always think it will be five pages, and 35 pages later, I realize it’s not working.”

Moments before, welcoming a visitor arriving at his Berkeley home to discuss his most recent novel, Moonglow, a memoir shrouded in autobiographical facts, fiction, history, family secrets, and deliberate fabrications, the 53-year-old writer issued an unusual greeting: “I need a cabbage.” Off he went; soon returning for a 60-minute conversation about his work. Cabbage in hand, and dog and doughnut issues discussed and resolved with his family, the talk turned to process, Jewish and American history, autobiographical literature, and life as a series of events resulting in unforeseen consequences.

Chabon thinks about a book “anywhere from forever to a few months” before beginning to write. He had the idea for Summerland, a book he wrote in 2001, when he was 12. Moonglow required less stew time and is based on a 1989 visit to his grandmother’s home in Oakland. During 10 caregiving days, his terminally ill grandfather—at times an engineer, veteran, and felon—told dark, angry, lust-filled, hopeful, dreamlike, and otherwise perfect-for-a-novel stories from Chabon family and real-life history. Moonglow has protagonist Mike (a writer), following his maternal grandfather’s stories about V-2 rockets, moon landings, Holocaust secrets, mental illness, Wernher von Braun, Florida retirement communities, and more. It is a book about mystery, memory, a marriage, and lies we tell others and ourselves.

“Every autobiography is obviously a work of fiction,” Chabon said. “I’m not saying a memoir is deliberately trying to lie, but because of the liability of memory, that just has to be true. As a reader, I prefer my fiction to be avowed. I trust the open lie.” But as a writer, weaving elements from his life into novels is an attempt to foreground for a reader the way lies and memories work. “There’d be no literature if there weren’t secrets. They go back to Oedipus. They’re a part of the way human beings operate. I try to exploit them; I try to milk them, to persuade a reader you’re getting clues to the sources of my work. The seeds of my books are worked into the fabric of a story.”

It sounds easy, but behind Chabon’s game- playing lurks labor. “Get in the chair and get going,” is the first challenge, followed by staying off the internet. An intense researcher who reads voluminously and creates digital photo libraries for nearly every book, he often stumbles on tiny details that become unexpectedly important—or he’s sucked into the internet rabbit hole. Popular culture filters in only coincidentally. When war, “otherness,” whitewashing by the United States government, and the morality of scientific investigation became significant in Moonglow, he had no idea the subjects would be germane in 2016. Instinctive also is his lingual prowess. Perhaps because he grew up with parents who read avidly and discussed books at the dinner table, his extensive vocabulary flows naturally, but never pushes aside the reader. Instead, Chabon writes to arrive at the right way of expressing something so that a reader thinks, “I know exactly what he’s talking about but never thought about it that way.”

Chabon is married to writer Ayelet Waldman and together they are the parents of four children. Finding nighttime the best time to write in the modern, one-room cabin in the home’s backyard, he said, “There’s nothing there when I wake up. Writing is distilling. I process the day’s worth of input. It’s sort of a nocturnal activity for me.”

Waldman is his primary first reader. “She’s really great at being sensitive when a character does something that’s not true, a misstep.” People he asks for feedback who only say they like a book rarely get a second chance. “If more people were actually weighing all the things in the balance, we’d be better off.” Considering Moonglow after having finished it, Chabon said, “I didn’t realize until I was done writing it that in creating an almost entirely fictional portrait of an imaginary grandfather, I had created a self-portrait. There’s my inherent shyness and mistrust of conversation and people’s language and the frequent feeling I have of what’s the point in saying something if no one’s listening?”

People do listen to Chabon. His 1988 master’s thesis became his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a best-seller. Subsequent books earned praise, prizes, and awards. Chabon and Waldman recently completed editing Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a collection of essays about the Israeli occupation in Palestine to be released in May 2017. He mentions a book for young readers that he’s working on, then reverts from storyteller to secret-keeper. “I’m not sure yet where it’s going,” he said, avoiding eye contact, “It’s always a mistake to talk about a book too soon.”

 

Published online on Nov. 29, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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