A Q&A With Michael Chabon, Author of December’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers across the nation have chosen Moonglow, the new novel by Michael Chabon (Harper, November 22), as their number-one pick for December’s Indie Next List.

Moonglow coverChabon’s novel has been described by Harper as “a lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir.” In Moonglow, the narrator, who bears the same name as Chabon, sits by the bedside of his grandfather, who during the months before his death recounts the previously untold tales of his life: his work as an intelligence officer and technical specialist during World War II, the obsession with rocketry that led him to a career building scale models for NASA, and his complex love for Chabon’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

“The intersection of world history and family history, the interplay of memory and imagination, a tangle of humor and grief, and the blurred and shifting line that separates sanity and madness all come into play in this stunning book,” said Banna Rubinow of the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York. “While all the characters are richly developed, the narrator’s grandfather — the brave, eccentric, anger-fueled, and deeply loving center of this novel — will remain with readers forever.”

Chabon recently spoke to Bookselling This Week from Berkeley, California, about his new book.

BTW: Do you think the description of Moonglow as “an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir” is a good representation of your work?

Michael Chabon: Yes, I think that’s a good description. It is a novel and it is a novel disguised as a memoir, but deep inside of it there is a kind of autobiography. The autobiography that is concealed inside is not a story about my real grandfather or any of my other male relatives. It’s not an autobiography in the sense that it might seem obvious or evident to somebody reading and thinking about what they might already know about me in the way of factual things. When I finished writing the book and was reading it for the last time before submitting it to my editor at HarperCollins, I started to see how, on some kind of secret hidden level, it really is an autobiography. It’s a self-portrait, maybe more than an autobiography. The self-portrait aspect is not of the narrator of the book with whom I share a name and many biographical details; the self portrait in the book is of the grandfather. That’s all I want to say about that; it’s something that I realized after I finished writing.

Michael Chabon photoBTW: Are most of your novels and other works deliberately plotted out, researched, and then written, or do you more often find yourself sitting down, an idea pops into your head, and you just go with it?

MC: The much more common thing is the second one. Almost all of my novels since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh came out of nowhere. [That novel] arose out of sources in my personal experience, it had sources in things I was reading, but I did just sort of sit down and say I’m going to write a novel and what became The Mysteries of Pittsburgh just emerged out of apparently nowhere. It arose out of things that might have been clearer to me in hindsight, but at the time I just had this sense of, “Here are some words that are coming out of me somehow and I’m going to try to write them all down before I forget them.”

Then I started to work on what was supposed to be my second novel and that was a very deliberate, pre-planned, heavily researched book [that] turned into a complete disaster, which used up about five and a half years of my life. Wonder Boys was my escape out of that disaster and it was the most magical writing experience. I sat down one night and thought I was going to work on another draft of that beastly novel and instead, these words, this voice just emerged, and it was the voice of Grady Tripp saying, “The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.” That first sentence kind of just emerged as is and I just followed it.

This book just emerged out of some place I was not expecting, when I was looking elsewhere — I suddenly started to hear what would become the narrator’s voice in Moonglow, talking about his grandfather. I had three separate moments in writing this book where I really felt like I was dialed in, I guess the expression would be, in some kind of state where I was so immersed in the worlds of the book that I didn’t have to stop and think about what I was saying. I just seemed to know the answer to every question and to know my characters so well.

BTW: The novel takes us back to the origins of America’s space program. Were space travel and rockets something you were always interested in?

MC: I was born in 1963, so the space race was already on. We had already sent men into orbit and the Soviets had already sent cosmonauts into orbit. I remember watching the moon landing with my grandparents and my parents.

I was an active imaginary participant in the space program of my childhood. I was very engaged by it — I would build models of the lunar module, I knew all the astronauts’ names and the details of the missions, and I was very into space flight and space travel and science fiction ideas of the “conquest” of space. I had bought into it completely with enthusiasm and ardor and passion but I had, as a child, absolutely no idea of the history of the roots of the U.S. space program in Nazi rocket science and in the V-2 rocket program specifically.

I definitely knew who Wernher von Braun [the German aerospace engineer who invented the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany] was because he was a science celebrity on the model of Neil deGrasse Tyson and a go-to science guy in the media at the time if you were talking about space. He did these specials with Walt Disney that I remember seeing as a kid about all the wonders of the future, what man would accomplish in space.

I was really caught up in all that as a child and I remember the letdown of the ’70s. It was the end of the lunar Apollo program. Initially there was definitely excitement around the space shuttle program — it never totally faded — but it did end up feeling like a bus service to space. It didn’t have that same romantic, imperialistic kind of luster of that earlier era.

BTW: After sharing his past adventures, struggles, and disappointments, the grandfather encourages the narrator to write his story down and put it out into the world. What role does the concept of storytelling play in the book?

MC: In writing about the grandfather and the grandmother’s experience as well as the narrator’s experience growing up in this family where there was so much left unsaid, I think what brought the themes of secrets and stories and lies into the foreground in my imagination was not storytelling so much as the mechanisms within families that lead to family mythologies being created. The official versions of what happened in a family versus the “truth” about what happened, and the way that consensus can emerge, or, if not that, then the ways in which official versions are imposed on what happened.

I always wondered after sitting with my real grandfather what he hadn’t told me. When I was in my 20s and able talk to my parents on a different level, they would say things like, “Well, that was what you thought was happening at the time, but this is what really happened.” That can be such a powerful experience for anyone: to come into contact with a different, apparently truthful, account of a remembered event or to be given the account of an event that you never knew about at all but that suddenly explains something that you could never understand before. It’s a really powerful experience and it’s a very common experience.

BTW: Near the end of the book, the narrator is doing a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables and you mention owner Mitchell Kaplan — it’s a nice little shout out for indie booksellers. What have your experiences doing readings and signings at indie bookstores been like over the years?

MC: First of all, my love of independent booksellers and independent bookstores is truly life-long. There is a real homecoming and sense of pleasure and comfort for me in walking into an independent bookstore, particularly one where you sense the presence of the staff, of the owner, of the managers, of the people who work there shaping your experience from the moment you walk in the door.

For me, there is almost nothing about going on tour that is fun. Plane travel is horrible, you have to get up really early, and you’re tired. It’s a grind — you have to answer all these questions all the time, you’re in airports and you see there are no copies of your book so you’re just worrying about your book and what is going to happen to it and whether anyone is liking it or reading it, and the whole thing is just either tedious, hard work, or anxiety-inducing.

The only thing that I can actually look forward to is getting into the bookstores and either meeting booksellers I haven’t met before or getting to see old friends like Mitch and other booksellers around the country, like Elaine Petrocelli and her staff at Book Passage here in California.

I’ve been doing this a long time and a lot of these places are more than familiar to me by now and so I actually just kind of need it… I need the bookstore encounter; it makes it bearable.

BTW: How does it feel to have independent booksellers across the country responding so enthusiastically to your book?

MC: I’m very excited about it. I got to look at some of the [Indie Next List] nominations that were submitted and they just made me feel very good… enormous waves of gratitude and appreciation. I felt very much that the book had been very well understood by the people whose nominations I read. I felt that it had been seen clearly.

BTW: Is there anything you can tell readers about what you are working on next?

MC: Yes, I am working on a book. It’s a long overdue follow-up — but not a sequel — to Summerland, my book for a somewhat younger readership. It’s something I’ve been trying to get around to for a long time.