Please enjoy our series of interviews with each of the finalists for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. For your chance to win a copy of Moonglow, follow @bookistreader on Twitter and tweet the link to this interview by noon CST tomorrow, December 21, 2016, using the hashtag #Carnegie2017giveaway. We’ll announce the winner on December 20 on Twitter. For information about the other ways were celebrating this year’s Carnegie Medal finalists, click here.
Booklist raved about Michael Chabon’s latest, Moonglow, describing it as “a masterful and resounding novel of the dark and blazing forces that forged our tumultuous, confounding, and precious world.” We now celebrate Moonglow’s ascension to the Carnegie Medal shortlist. In the whirl of numerous appearances, Chabon was happy to talk to Booklist about the work and wonders involved in writing this deeply felt blend of imagination and history.
DONNA SEAMAN: “Moonglow” is a song, and the moon is certainly a presence in the novel, but how did you choose the title?
MICHAEL CHABON: This book had an amazing beginning. I was planning to do something totally different. But no sooner had my butt hit the chair did I find myself thinking about a family anecdote about my great uncle who’d been fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss after Alger Hiss got out of prison, and I just went with it. Within just a couple of days, I was thinking about the grandfather character who seemed to be emerging. I thought of the song “Moonglow,” in particular the Benny Goodman version. I put that music on to put me in the mood; it’s actually music that I had listened to when I was working on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; while I was working on that, I listened to a lot of big bands, which would almost immediately put me in the right place to write that book.
There was just something about that version of “Moonglow” that made me think whatever the mood of this music is, it’s exactly the mood I want this book to have. I want reading the book to feel like listening to a Benny Goodman Quartet version of “Moonglow.” It’s sweet; it’s lyrical. It’s very plaintive; there’s melancholy both in the melody and in the arrangement. There’s a kind of soft quality to the playing of the song, but at the same time it has this really strong, emotional impact. Also, of course, it’s evoking, by its very sound, this lost moment in American musical history and American history in general. I thought this is how I want this book to feel. Then I thought, that’s what I’m going to call it. I’m going to guarantee the desired result. If I call the book “Moonglow,” that will help me stick to my purpose. As a result of that decision, the moon entered into it.
I had already toyed with the idea trying to use the ad that appears at the beginning of the book with the “Author’s Note.” It’s for the Chabon Scientific Company, a real ad that I had stumbled on a couple years before in a 1958 issue of Esquire. Everything started to click after that. The musical choice and the title were very determinative in a way I really didn’t even realize until you just asked me about it.
How much time do you spend stumbling through old magazines?
It’s funny—someone asked me how much a first edition of Kavalier & Clay is worth. I didn’t know the answer to that. I went on eBay and put my name in, and I saw that people were selling my books, including copies I had signed. Mostly everything that came up was a book, except for this ad. I gather that there’s a whole thing on eBay of people who cut up old magazines to sell the ads. They weren’t selling this ad because it would be a funny connection to a writer. It was just a generic thing, like, “Ad: Chabon Scientific Company, model rocket.” I think it was probably pitched towards people who were into model rocketry, but I was immediately struck: What the hell is Chabon Scientific Company? How do I not know about this?
I’ve always been fascinated by both models and rockets and the space program, and this period, the late fifties, with the space race and Sputnik, all of those things have been really interesting to me. And if your last name is C-H-A-B-O-N, you’re related. Only people who are related to me use this fundamental misspelling of the original name as far as I’ve ever been able to determine. I have no idea who these Chabons were. I asked my dad; he had no idea. We couldn’t figure it out. Then an even more magical thing happened. When you Google “Chabon Scientific Company,” before the book came out, all you got were more ads from a vast trove of digitized old magazines. There’s an ad in Sports Illustrated right around the same time, and here it is again in the back of Boys’ Life magazine. That’s all there were. There was nothing else. There was no more information to be gleaned. That just made it all the more appealing to me.
This brings to mind the challenge your narrator poses in his author’s note: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
It’s sort of serving double duty, because I really did try to make the book read like a real memoir. I wanted it to feel like it is what it purports to be. In a way, that’s a standard novelistic technique. There are chapters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas that purport to be the journal of a naturalist, a sort of Darwinian kind of naturalist who is traveling into the southern hemisphere. David Mitchell works really hard to make that thing read like an authentic piece of journal-keeping by a British naturalist of that period. He gets the diction right. He gets the use of dates and longitudes and latitudes and really tries to work hard to present it like it is actually a journal. Novelists routinely present their novels in the form of other kinds of documents, but they are fiction. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is another example.
In a way, all I was trying to do was make a complete replica, if you will, of an actual memoir that I might have written if anything I was saying in this were true. It seemed to me that a proper memoir should have an author’s note—I’m being totally sincere about this—some kind of a disclaimer saying, “Obviously, I can’t possibly remember all of the things I’m saying I remember in this book.” Or, “People have been conflated in this book,” or “I’ve left certain things out for this purposes of clarity.” I really do believe an honest memoir ought to have that. Since I wanted my fake memoir to be an honest fake memoir or a fake honest memoir, I felt like I had to have an author’s note, so I did.
Within that author’s note, I also felt like it was incumbent on me as a novelist, not a memoir writer, to extend an invitation to the reader saying, “Come, let me fool you. I am going to tell you a lie, and I promise to make it a really good lie. Will you let me lie to you?” The reader says, “Yes, I give you my permission to lie to me, as long as you make it a really good one.”
There are a lot of dualities throughout the novel, really profound ones. To start in the most overarching way, I think of you as a tragicomic writer. Certainly, in Moonglow there is humor, however dark, along with war, loss, and grief.
I’m not interested in writing humor, per se. I would never want to try to write something that was primarily concerned with being funny. I want to write about really serious subjects, and the most important subjects: mortality and love, and what matters and what doesn’t matter in the end. Even just saying those words, I immediately feel like I need to make a joke about it, too. I’m always on guard against self-importance and pomposity. As a reader, I need some kind of irony, at least. It doesn’t necessarily have to be humorous irony, but there has to be certain kind of distance. I don’t like to read fiction as just purely a grueling experience where you’re plunged into an unrelieved experience of misery and suffering. There has to be some kind of ironic detachment, or else it doesn’t actually have the impact on me that I think the author might want it to.
When I’m writing, I feel like I’m completely realistic. That I’m doing my best to describe things the way I actually see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, or in the way I think my characters will see the world. I’m not trying to compare myself to Vincent Van Gogh when I say this, believe me, but some people have argued that what you see in his paintings is what he actually saw. It’s not some stylization; it’s not some hyper-exaggeration or hyper-simplification or whatever. Van Gogh was a realist in his own mind.
Sometimes I think I’m being funny, too, without quite intending to. I come from a family and a culture in which people feel that the appropriate response to distress, suffering, pain, misfortune, and sorrow is to make light of it somehow or to see the humor in it, no matter how much you have to contort yourself to see something funny in the situation. I think that somehow, to a certain degree, that approach just comes naturally to me.
Another form of duality is your interweaving of factual history with emotion as your characters evolve. This is most prominent in the grandfather’s story, but also in his French wife, a Holocaust survivor and a profoundly moving character. Can you talk about the research that went into creating her American life in Baltimore?
She was a tough one. I did a lot of research. Even when I think I know something about something, I don’t want to stop there. Partly because I don’t want to get it wrong; partly because I know from experience there’s always more to something than I know there is, and that by digging I will find things that are so great that had I not done the digging, I would never have known about; and partly because I enjoy it. What bliss to be able to spend hours trying to piece together a history of early Baltimore television! I wanted to know who the stars were, and what kind of programs were on late at night because I wanted her to have different roles. I wanted to learn everything that would be right for the story and to get at some of the dualities that you were talking about. What if she’s both this demure, French homemaker, and a scary creature-feature hostess? Like Vampira. But it was too early in the century for a show like that, so I decided to have her read aloud. That seemed like an appropriately static, somewhat boring thing that people would try doing in the early days of television before they figured out what works and what doesn’t.
The cool thing was then I suddenly had Edgar Allan Poe in the story. The story was in Baltimore already, and “The Raven” just came leaping out at me. Then, this incredible thing happened when I wanted to say that her first broadcast had occurred on the 100th anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s death, but I’ve already said that her show is on Saturday night. I thought, Oh no, what do I do if the 100th anniversary of his death wasn’t on a Saturday? I looked, and it was. Then I wanted her last broadcast to be the week before Halloween 1952. What do I do if that’s not a Saturday? It was a Saturday. When that happens, you feel like your research is inextricably part of a creative process; you feel like you were meant to do this.
I was so touched by the grandfather, having told his grandson so many astonishing stories about his life, saying, “After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something.” Does writing fiction make life mean something?
Oh, absolutely. And that’s what the grandfather thinks is wrong with it. He really does believe that nothing means anything. Some part of him is that nihilistic. He has such contempt for human weakness, especially in himself. The fact that human beings instinctively try to impose pattern on life, and thus meaning, because meaning arises from pattern, seems, at best, pitiable to the grandfather. To the grandson, and to me, our capacity to do that is one of the most magnificent, beautiful things about human beings. But I think there is truth in what the grandfather is saying as well. This tendency can also be tragic when we see pattern where there is none. Sometimes this leads use astray. Sometimes it makes fools of us. Finding meaning where there is none is both a blessing and a curse. Attributing divine intentions to things that serve your particular political agenda or social agenda, that’s the other side of the coin. It is a duality. The beautiful part of it is art.
Ultimately, the artist is saying, “Look, you and I both know this is just how I’m seeing it, and it may not be there, but I’m going to do my best to persuade myself and you, if only for the moment, that we are both experiencing this work of art and that things do matter. Things do have importance, and they do have meaning. Not only that, maybe it’s best for all of us in the long run if we behave as if things matter, even if they don’t.”
The grandfather is teasing the grandson in that moment that you’re talking about. He’s saying, “You’re just going to take fancy-pants words, and you’re going to take all of this stuff I’m telling you, and you’re going to gussy it up.” And he says, “You’re going to put it in chronological order.”
Then, in a way, the joke ends up being on the grandfather because the book that we’re reading is not presented in chronological order. It’s fluid and shifting; it leaps back and forth across time, just as the narrator heard it. Although it has been gussied up and there are fancy metaphors, or whatever it is that the grandfather taunts the grandson over, it’s in a middle place. That middle place is probably the best place to be, and ultimately it does have a meaning. It only has a meaning that we bring to it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring it.
The grandfather is quite a creation. He’s the rock against which everything has to be sharpened.
Exactly. He arrived fully formed, almost, from the very beginning, and at some point, he became so real to me. That mockery is not just a fictional character mocking another fictional character; he’s mocking me, too, the actual me. There were other moments in the writing where I caught myself thinking, he would just think this is bullshit.
No matter what else I didn’t know about this book, I always knew where the grandfather would stand on something or what his view of things was, except for, I have to say, his love for the grandmother. His undying passion for her and his unbreakable love for her took me by surprise to a certain degree. In a way I almost felt like I had to earn that by having the grandmother be worthy of that kind of love and passion. That took me awhile to figure out because the grandmother was the hardest part of writing this book. It wasn’t until I began to understand her and to see her in the way he would see her that I suddenly started to realize that there’s actually this one thing in this whole fucked-up world that he believes in, one thing that he is sentimental about, where he let’s down his regime of self-control and lack of sentimentality, and that is her. The more I saw her, the more that became an important element in the story I was telling.
It never fails to amaze me how much can go on in a novel, so many intimate understandings along within larger historic and social perceptions. No other art can do all that.
I agree completely.