Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
José García, on behalf of the Creative Writing Program at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Michael Chabon about his book Moonglow (HarperCollins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
José García: I’ve heard you say that when fact becomes too dull fiction comes into play. Do you originally have a fact-based skeleton of the book and fill the gaps with fiction, or is it the other way around?
Michael Chabon: It's not so much that fiction comes into play when fact gets to dull as that I don't like to bother with fact in the first place. I started this book with a story I remembered hearing from my grandfather, about how one of his brothers had been fired from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, after the latter got out of prison. I started to imagine and try to write about that moment, made the change from my great-uncle to "my grandfather," because it felt more intimate and personal, and thus was squarely in the realm of fiction, where I feel most comfortable. But even that story I remembered hearing doesn't necessarily deserve the title of "fact." Maybe remembered it wrong, or forgot a key element, or misheard it to begin with. Maybe my grandfather misremembered it to me.
JG: How did you come up with the structure for Moonglow?
MC: It was a pretty organic outgrowth of my decision to frame the narrative as a kind of "deathbed confession," (or at any rate as the narrator's recollections of the things his grandfather told him at the end of the latter's life), made by a man whose memories have been stirred and his tongue loosened by heavy-duty painkillers. My own grandfather, dying of cancer and similarly doped up, wandered freely through his memories at the end of his life, and I wanted my narrative to reflect that loose, associative logic, with events presented not in chronological order.
JG: I read somewhere that feel constricted with fact. How do you use fact? Do you only use fact when you need to or, like you said in that interview, to make the fiction it believable?
MC: When I'm telling a story, I feel deeply and painfully restricted by facts if I'm obliged to stick to them because of my contract with the reader—when I'm writing non-fiction. When I'm writing fiction, and the implied contract with the reader is simply to tell a good story as well as I can, without worrying about its veracity, then facts become my allies, my tools, my accomplices.
JG: How important were memoirs and non-fiction based literature for your literary upbringing?
MC: I love non-fiction, particularly history and biography but also science and nature writing, philosophy, anthropology, and I always have. I love good writing, wherever it is found.
JG: There’s this discussion of form regarding Moonglow, of whether it’s a memoir or a novel, or a combination of both. Did you wonder about that while writing it? Or was it just natural for you?
MC: No, because it's a novel, it always was a novel, and it's not meant to be presented or taken as anything but a novel. It's just a novel that pretends to be a non-fictional document, and there's nothing very new about that.
JG: I always feel like many of your chapters, have a sort of short-story quality, not only in Moonglow. How important is that condensed brevity for you?
MC: It really depends on what's going on in the chapter, what purpose it's meant to be serving, what role it plays in the overall architecture of the novel, etc. In general I would say that the more free-standing and independent —the more story-like— a chapter in a novel is, the less likely it is to really belong in the novel.
JG: Why now? You had those stories all this time. What triggered to turn them into a book now? What kept you from writing about it before? Was it a “future project” all along?
MC: I made the whole thing up, on the spot, if you can call something that takes three years to write "on the spot." There's very little in the book that truly derives from actual lived incidents or stories I heard about my family. Not a whole lot more than there ever is, in any of my novels.
JG: Were the original conversations similar to the ones depicted in the book? I have the feeling that Mike has an uncontrollable urge to know, a sort of literary curiosity. Were you as literary curious as Mike?
MC: No, I wish that I had been. I didn't ask my grandparents anywhere near enough questions about their lives, when I could have, and don't know anywhere near as much as I wish I did. That's one of my biggest regrets.
JG: How different do you (Michael Chabon) feel from Mike?
MC: Now that I'm no longer writing the book, I feel very far away from him; but while I was writing it, I felt that I was him, though never, if this makes any sense, that he was me.
JG: How differently do you think the research for this book was regarding your previous ones?
MC: Very similar. I did a combination of reading and web-research and a certain amount of personal interviews with relevant "experts" of various kinds.
JG: You’ve practically campaigned to let people know that there is fiction in this book. I read it with that in mind. But for example, I wonder about the footnotes. I wondered if that was you (Michael Chabon) or Mike. Part of me wants to believe that with the footnotes you (Michael Chabon) were trying to clue us into real life. Part of me thinks it was Mike trying to trick us. I don’t really need to know. But, how important for you was to trick the reader into ‘not knowing’, to include those kinds of things to make the reader go: “ok, this definitely is real life”?
MC: I just wanted to make my fake memoir read as much like a real memoir as I could. Since real memoirs, like many works of nonfiction but relatively few works of fiction, often employ footnotes, my fake memoir employs footnotes. I used them similarly in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which also pretends to be a work of non-fiction.
JG: I just finished reading The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse. Have you read it? At the end of the introduction he writes: “A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession,” do you agree? Do you think you (partially) used Moonglow to say or express some things you felt about your grandfather and the rest of your family?
MC: I am sure that I did, but even if I could remember what they were, at this point, I don't think I would ever want to tell!
JG: Has anyone from the original Chabon Scientific Co shown up yet?
MC: No, and I'm still waiting!
Michael Chabon 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 & Clay, Summerland, The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Maps & Legends, Gentlemen of the Road, Telegraph Avenue, Moonglow, and the picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
José García is a second-year Fiction student at the Creative Writing program at The New School. José’s writing and interviews have appeared in Guernica, Lit Hub, and The Millions. He’s a Fulbright Scholar from Guatemala.