I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out.
Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically.
The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting.
The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow?
Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all.
In fact, this book — I’m not saying it was easy to write — but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though.
I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison.
I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books.
TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then?
MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work — like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries — when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time.
So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story.
For me, part of the process of writing the novel — a big part — is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project.
Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity?
A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”…In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up.
I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew.
If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it.
Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people.
TM: Even though you didn’t outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life?
MC: No, it was… As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault… Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious.
Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction.
There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel.
It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book — I mean, everything has been done before — so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it.
With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself.
Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir.
TM: How do you feel about them in particular?
MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.
That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth.
As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to.
TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with?
MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one.
TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about?
MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09.
I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.
TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case?
MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before.
TM: Are you already onto the next idea?
MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way.
TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife —
MC: More than kind of.
TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition?
MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch.
TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels?
MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done.
I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time.
With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well… I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing.
Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.
When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.
If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.
Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.
And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.
The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.
Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.
Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.
Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.
Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.
Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.
Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.
There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons