Michael Chabon Q&A: Fatherhood and writing at midnight
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Michael Chabon comes to Los Angeles tonight with his new nonfiction collection ‘Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.’ Chabon may be known for his fiction such as ‘The Yiddish Policeman’s Union’ and the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,’ but he’s turned his attention to concerns of daily life.
He and his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, are the busy parents of four children. He spoke to Jacket Copy’s Carolyn Kellogg via phone from a Pittsburgh hotel before his first reading. ‘You cook the foods you’d love to eat,’ he said. ‘You write the books you’d love to read.’
All tickets for tonight’s appearance at the L.A. Public Library’s ALOUD discussion with David L. Ulin have been reserved, but standby hopefuls at ALOUD events often find a seat.
Jacket Copy: In the first essay in ‘Manhood for Amateurs,’ you say that if you’ve ever had a bad review, that sticks with you for a long time. Do you still read your reviews?
Michael Chabon: Definitely. Not all of them -- I don’t necessarily go out of my way to read the reviews, but I also don’t try to avoid it.
JC: In our review of your book, Steve Almond wrote that you’re incapable of writing a boring sentence.
MC: How about that? That was very nice of him.
JC: But I wonder if maybe you’re incapable of publishing a boring sentence? I’d like to ask you about your writing process. Because I’m guessing that these pieces did not spring fully formed onto the page.
MC: Oh, no, they definitely did. I actually just wrote them on napkins. While I was cooking dinner and watching a baseball game.
MC: I work really hard on my sentences, and on my paragraphs, too.
JC: It’s kind of stunning to anyone who’s ever tried to write that you and Ayelet have four kids and you both actually finish books. What’s your routine? How do you make space to craft your work?
MC: Thank God school was invented. I don’t know what we would do if it hadn’t been. We send them away every day. They leave the house -- we drive them to school, and then we’ve got all this time. Ayelet works primarily, almost entirely during that period, and she’s very efficient. When she’s really working on a novel or whatever she gets her word count in every day, and that works well for her. I have a harder time -- my natural rhythm is to work at night, stay up late and to sleep late. I can get more writing done between midnight and 1 o’clock in the morning than at any other hour of the day.
Unfortunately, that schedule does not work at all well in a family with small children. If I sleep late, then I miss out on what I think is the nicest, most pleasurable time of the day, of an ordinary, everyday routine. In the morning -- my kids are generally in a pretty good mood when they wake up, you know, we make breakfast. I hate missing out on that, so I get up. So that means I can’t really stay up as late as I might like. Or else I don’t get enough sleep. I struggle with the schedule. And I’ve been struggling with it for years. Lately, sleep has been losing out. I’ve been staying up late, and getting up early. It doesn’t work as well for me as it does for Ayelet, and I envy her that she’s more of a morning/day person than I am.
Often, I have to go away [to write]. I’ll go to a place like the MacDowell Colony, or borrow somebody’s cabin, or go to a hotel even. Stay up until all hours, and sleep late, and just crank. I can get a lot done. Even in three or four days, I can do about as much as I could do in a month at home.
JC: Many of these pieces were written for Details -- were they written over a long period of time?
MC: My column just ended at Details -- my last one I think is on the newsstand right now. That was four years’ worth of columns. They’re not all in the book by any means. I only selected the ones that I could fit into an overall thematic kind of scheme, or at least the best ones of those.
JC: When you were putting together this idea of collecting stories about manhood in its various generational forms, was there an author you were looking up to, or was this filling a hole in our culture?
MC:Well, there’s a lot of good personal writing out there right now, both stuff that’s being written to be performed in a spoken-word setting and stuff that is written for the page. I don’t think I had any illusions that I was necessarily breaking new ground, and that isn’t really what motivated me to do it. It’s more the impulse to turn your eye on the life around you. The experience of having children, of being a father, impelled me, not just in my writing but just on a daily basis in my thoughts and in my everyday reflections to look backward at my own life, my own childhood, my relationship with my father, with my brother, and to sort of look around me, not only what was going on in the world of my children and their family but other families, other kids around. Somehow it felt worthy of writing about -- it felt like I had a few things to say.
JC: You describe your father and your first father-in-law acting differently than you do. Do you see a period of continuing change with the role of fatherhood from their generation to yours, and then to your sons’?
MC:I imagine there will be, although I don’t have the faintest idea how. Everything keeps changing, that’s the one thing we can count on. The world has changed so much in not only in what a father is expected to do, but is allowed to do. It’s not just that a father might face greater demands to be with his children, to be more involved with their daily care, but also that he’s granted the privilege of doing that, it’s something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on. Even though it’s often really boring and tedious, too. I don’t know what it’s going to mean for my sons to have grown up with the father that I’ve tried to be. I don’t know if that’s going to make things easier or harder or what. I feel very very close to both my sons, and I encourage them, as much as I can, to feel like it’s OK for them to be whatever kind of man they want to be. If they see me walking around carrying a purse, taking my wallet and keys out of it, I don’t know if that makes any kind of impression on them at all.
JC: Did you get another murse beyond the first one described in your book?
MC: I’ve had a few since I wrote that piece. Right now I’m carrying a Paul Smith bag that is probably my favorite one ever. I hope it lasts forever.
JC: Is this your first collection of nonfiction?
MC: It’s actually my second collection. I published a collection with McSweeney’s last year called ‘Maps and Legends.’ The two books emerged from the same primordial stew of nonfiction pieces. Several years ago, I felt like I had a start on an essay collection that would be about aspects of manhood and being a father and son, etc. I gave this big pile of stuff I had to Ayelet to read, and she was going through it and pulling out the pieces that she thought were in the ballpark. In the course of doing that, she started making a second pile -- a different ballpark entirely -- and when she was done she said, ‘You have two books here.’
JC: Did you do much touring with ‘Maps and Legends’?
MC:No, I think I did one appearance at Diesel Books near my house in Oakland, and that was it.
JC: Do you have any trepidations or anticipations about going out to talk about what are essentially a bunch of personal essays?
MC:No, not really. I’m actually sort of looking forward to it, because the pieces are short and self-contained, and I’m hoping will lend themselves a little more readily to being read in bookstores than chapters from a novel typically do. Or even short stories, which, while short, often demand a lot of close attention, can be tough to follow when read out loud. Whereas I’m hoping these pieces will be a little easier to follow. And there are so many of them, I can read different ones and skip around and hopefully not get bored of the sound of my own words over and over and over again.
JC: In a couple of the early pieces, you express a concern for the lack of mystery in the lives of children.
MC:I’m not sure it’s so much a lack of mystery. I think there’s still plenty of mystery. It’s a lack of freedom, it’s a lack of unsupervised play.
JC: Both physically, and through the proscriptive, highly specialized Legos …
MC:The thing with Legos -- I hope it’s an example of how I recognize the possibility that I might be overstating my objections. Not everything that at first glance seems to be a further illustration of the kind of cultural imperialism I see at work in the adult world over the world of childhood -- not everything is necessarily an example of that. Certainly kids retain their love of subversion, and I think it’s just innate to a child’s mind to want to subvert authority. I think it’s unfortunate that the adult world figured out a way to take over that impulse and package it and retail it and sell it back to children, and to their parents.
In the world of Legos, what I did discover is that my kids were taking these beautiful, gorgeous, incredibly restrictive predetermined Legos Star Wars play sets -- and yeah, they really wanted it to be put together just the way the box showed it. I don’t think it occurred to them you’d want to do anything else with it. But inevitably, over time, the things kind of crumble and get destroyed and fall apart and then, once they do, the kids take all those pieces, and they create these bizarre, freak hybrids -- of pirates and Indians and Star Wars and Spider-Man. Lego-things all getting mashed up together into this post-modern Lego stew. They figure out a way, despite the best efforts of corporate retail marketing.
JC: Does working in nonfiction give you a little space to do something different with your writing?
MC:There’s something liberating, refreshing, recharging about taking a memory or a particular subject or a recent occurrence in my life and just dwelling on it, in a restricted form, without having to worry about creating big set piece descriptions, or worry too much about thematic patterning, and all the kinds of things that I have to worry about when I’m writing a novel. It can be a nice break in that sense.
But it also can be really hard, because I feel like I have to stick to the facts, and tell the truth, and not make stuff up. A lot of times, things didn’t really happen the way I would like them to happen, if I were writing a short story or a piece of fiction, and that can be kind of frustrating.
JC: You write in ‘D.A.R.E.’ that you agreed to be honest with your children about drugs. In a way, is there a similar commitment to truth with the reader when you write an essay?
MC:I try to stick to the truth as well as I can remember it. I think in the act of remembering there’s inevitably a certain amount of distortion that happens.
JC: Did you write anything specifically for this collection?
MC:In the last year and a half that I sat with my editor and we identified some sort of blank spots, parts of my history that I didn’t seem to have examined, and I tried to write piece to fill those holes.
JC: What were some of those fill-in pieces?
MC:I tried to write more about my mother and my brother. The piece about cooking.
JC: In that piece about cooking, ‘The Art of Cake,’ you write: ‘Cooking entails stubbornness and a tolerance -- maybe even a taste -- for last-minute collapse. You have to be able to enjoy the repeated and deliberate following of a more or less lengthy, more or less complicated series of steps whose product is very likely -- after all that work, with no warning, right at the end -- to curdle, sink, scorch, dry up, congeal, burn, or simply taste bad.’ I couldn’t help wonder if you were also talking a little bit about writing.
MC: There’s definitely a kinship there. And I’ve often thought, and not been able to really find the time or opportunity to explore this idea, or even really to decide whether there’s anything in the idea or not, but I do think writing is a lot like cooking. It might be possible to understand questions that usually get put in terms of things like ‘influence’ and ‘aesthetic inheritance’ and whether you’re going to follow the rules or break the rules, questions of the avant-garde, it might be possible to view all that in terms of recipes and cuisines.
As a cook, I came into this inheritance of different traditions, of the American tradition, my Jewish tradition, my mother’s family and the family she grew up in. My cooking kind of emerged from both a written inheritance, actual recipes written down by my mother and grandmother, and also in the cookbooks that became important to me, and I also involve my own approach, my own changes in recipe.
I think in a way, that’s sort of what you’re engaged in doing as a writer, too. You come into this inheritance of things that have been done and the ways in which they have been done, and people who influence you sort of pass along what they think is important, and what they think you need to know how to do. But over time you begin to make changes, what you think are improvements or alterations, because you like the way it comes out better. In that sense, there’s less a question of rejecting or accepting the past, less an anxiety of influence kind of thing, than there is an evolution of your own culinary style as applied to language and storytelling.
You tend to make the things you like to eat. For example, I don’t care for fish terribly much, so I don’t waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to prepare it. As a writer, I try to write books that I think I would love to read. You cook the foods you’d love to eat, you write the books you’d love to read.
JC: One last question: what was it like at the White House [where he and Ayelet Waldman read, with several young performers, in May]?
MC: It was utterly thrilling. It was completely exciting. It looked exactly like you think it’s going to look -- maybe you’ve seen it on the ‘West Wing’ and in movies so many times that everything looks just like you know it’s going to -- including the president and the first lady. We were thrilled to be there with these vibrant, creative exciting performers. The only problem was us: We don’t do that spoken word thing. We did our best. We were flattered and honored and thrilled to be there.
-- Carolyn Kellogg