“It’d be a lot better if you let me lie.” — Michael Chabon on Tricksters & Sleuths
The author discusses his newest novel, Moonglow
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Michael Chabon loves adventures. Even so, he began his career writing stories of late-century naturalism, a type of story that’s dominated American literature for a long time — a genre of ordinary moments, near-plotless epiphanies, and (for lack of a better term) mimetic realism. But after winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about the history of comic books, he set off on a new quest: to explore genres and bring them home to their artistic roots.
His journey carried him to the pre-World War II England of Sherlock Holmes and to alternate realities and to the Khazar Empire circa 950 A.D. There he explored detectives and swashbucklers in complex, sprawling, maximalist sentences. And in 2005, he used his turn at the helm of The Best American Short Stories to highlight old-fashioned entertainment — and to justify it as serious art — a choice he explained in his introduction, later titled “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” now collected in his book of criticism, Maps and Legends.
That’s the short survey. Nothing compares with reading his books, though, which are immersive, and best read slowly, mindfully. So it is with his newest novel, Moonglow, where Chabon has returned to his old home, the world of so-called literary naturalism. As with his previous novel, Telegraph Avenue, he’s brought something back from his adventures, something to integrate into the world of “literary fiction,” to make it a little more fantastical — you might say that like a Joseph Campbell hero, he’s Master of the Two Worlds, the Genre and Literary. It’s not that he brought something back, though. It’s that he found out the two worlds were never separated in the first place.
Whether you like ghost stories, outer space yarns, or slice-of-life literature, Michael Chabon — a funny, self-deprecating novelist who knows the correct word for almost everything — has something in his books for you. For this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, we spoke by phone shortly before the publication of Moonglow — he was in Berkeley, California, and I was in Kansas City.
Ben Pfeiffer: First, I wanted to know: the new novel, Moonglow, it says it’s a novel on the cover, but it’s full of misdirection — there are characters named Chabon, it’s written as a “fake memoir.” How much of this is really true?
Michael Chabon: That’s the question, isn’t it? (Laughs)
Pfeiffer: Right — or “factual,” I should say. It’s all true, right?
Chabon: (Laughs) That’s what the book’s about. It’s hard for me to explain. It’s a novel, it’s a work of fiction — but it’s a work of fiction about what’s true and what’s not. What’s a fact? Even the word “factual” is open to interpretation, when you’re talking about memoirs. So the answer to that question is the entire 438 pages of Moonglow. If I could have put it more pithily, I would have!
When I was 25 years old, my grandfather fell and broke his hip. He was living in Florida. We didn’t know what was wrong with him. My grandmother had died a few years before. My mom went out and got him, brought him back to her house in Oakland, and quickly discovered he had advanced bone cancer. His prognosis was terrible. So she installed him in a hospital bed in her house. I was living in Seattle at the time. Not long before he died, I came down and stayed with him.
Unlike the grandfather in the book, my grandfather was a very loquacious man, very verbal. He was a lawyer, he loved to read, he loved wordplay, he was a punster. He talked a lot. He’d been reminiscing to me all my life. What surprised me was that under the influence of these powerful pain medications, my grandfather — my actual grandfather — told me things I’d never heard before. They weren’t dark revelations, though. They were incident and anecdotes and memories that were coming to him in a free-associative way. It wasn’t because of something I might’ve said.
It was more like something in him got unhooked. He just started to tell me things. Different boxes in his brain got opened. Not only did I hear all of these things I hadn’t heard before — childhood memories of his and so on — but the faraway past became very present to him. It also made me think, “What else is in there?” Here’s this man I thought I knew — that I did know — who was actually quite… not transparent, but forthcoming. He wasn’t a hider like the grandfather in Moonglow. But even so. There were all these things I’d never heard.
Who knows what else was in there? The things that are in all of us, I guess. That we never reveal, or that we reveal to one or two people ever in our lives, and typically that’s not going to be your grandchild. That made a powerful impression on me. But I didn’t make any use of it in my fiction until very recently. It wasn’t a planned thing. I didn’t set out to say, “OK, I’m going to write a novel where I take the framework of this week when my grandfather was telling stories.”
I just started with a family story for no real reason that I was aware of. I thought I was going to be starting work on a new, different novel. I had it all worked out. I had been doing a lot of reading and research. The day I was going to start working on it, instead of doing what I thought I was going to do, I found myself thinking about this family story — supposedly it happened to one of my grandfather’s brothers. He was fired from his job because they had to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was down on his luck and needed work.
That connection, this sort of tangent between the history of my family and the history of the 20th century, one of the dominant stories of the era, the Cold War, and one of the most notorious figures having this strange, pathetic brush with the history of my own family — I started from there. But all I’d ever heard was, “Your uncle got fired to make room for Alger Hiss.”
I immediately made the shift from great-uncle to grandfather. A day or so after that, I started looking for a frame or a structure to the story, and that led me to that time with my grandfather. I thought, “Maybe that can be the framework.”
Pfeiffer: Speaking of memoir and fiction, and this relationship between what’s true and what isn’t, I was wondering if you could talk about Trickster Makes This World, and its connection, if any, to this book?
Chabon: I love that book. I love books generally that can take some aspect of mythology — something I’ve always been interested in, since I was a child — and connect it to the contemporary world in some way. There’s a famous, kind of loopy example by Robert Graves called The White Goddess, and there’s Joseph Campbell and so on. But the thing I love about that Lewis Hyde book is he’s such a brilliant thinker and good writer, it’s your pleasure to be in his company. Also trickster figures have always been my favorite.
Trickster figures have always been my favorite.
Whether it’s Loki in Norse mythology, or Hermes in Greek mythology, or Coyote in Native American mythology, or Br’er Rabbit in the Br’er Rabbit stories, you know, those kinds of stories — Jack the Giant-Killer, or the Brave Little Tailor, or Puss and Boots. Stories about cleverness overcoming power. And/or getting hoisted on its petard. (Laughs) I’ve always been drawn to those kinds of stories. So that book seemed almost to have been written for me, when I discovered it.
It came to me at a time when I was thinking about my writing. I was trying to work through this sense of dissatisfaction I’d been having, particularly with the short stories I’d been writing. I’d begun this journey, trying to arrive at a sense of why I felt dissatisfied. How did I get here? (Laughs) Why did I start writing these kinds of stories? What kinds of stories did I think I was going to be writing?
The answer to that was immediate: Sherlock Holmes stories, science fiction stories, ghost stories, crime stories. Those were my first short stories. That’s what I wanted to write. I had in fact written those kinds of things as a young writer.
Quickly, I realized well, actually, those aren’t just pulp stories. You don’t have to be embarrassed about them if you want to be a “serious literary writer.” A lot of the classic, great stories were written by truly great writers. Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allen Poe, Edith Wharton, Henry James — they wrote what we would now call “genre fiction.” It got me thinking, “What happened?” When did that stop being something you could do and still be considered a serious writer?
Quickly, I realized well, actually, those aren’t just pulp stories. You don’t have to be embarrassed about them if you want to be a “serious literary writer.”
It was at this time that I encountered Trickster Makes This World. The idea of the Border, and of Crossroads. Tricksters are the gods of the Crossroads and the Border. The places where definitions between things are less clear. Between two countries, or the city and the country, or male and female, or right and wrong, or family and individual. Those are the places you encounter trickster gods.
Thinking about genres in that way — about working along the borders of genres — was very helpful to me in trying to reintegrate my original motivations for wanting to write, and the kinds of things I thought I would be writing, with the writer I am now, and have become.
Pfeiffer: That’s a good segue to my next questions. You wrote about these kinds of things, including trickster, in your introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005, and I wondered: has your conception of short stories changed much in the intervening years?
Chabon: I’ve pretty much stopped writing short stories. That has less to do with anything aesthetic — or any theory — than it has to do with practicality. I used to write them when I had more time. (Laughs) Now that I have less time to write — I have a certain amount of time for fiction, and whatever I have left goes into screenwriting. And I have four kids. So it’s a practical thing.
As much as I love to read short stories, and as satisfying as I’ve found it to write them, it was never my great love. I’ve always been more of a “novel person.”
Pfeiffer: You are very busy — not only with movies, like John Carter and Spider-Man 2 —
Chabon: The, uh, first Spider-Man 2, with Toby Maguire.
Pfeiffer: But you’re also a songwriter, correct?
Chabon: I have been doing that! I’ve been doing some lyric writing. I’m not going to quit my day job. (Laughs) But there’s a big technical challenge in setting lyrics to a piece of music, and I do enjoy that. There’s a puzzle-solving aspect to it that’s very pleasurable. And there’s a collaborative aspect to it. You’re working with the songwriter, the person who wrote the melody, but also maybe with the musicians in a studio setting. You’re not just collaborating; you’re collaborating with very talented people. They’re very good at what they do. That’s so much fun. It’s so different from sitting all by yourself in a room with your laptop.
Pfeiffer: What compels you to keep switching it up, creatively? I also saw you’d done some journalism for GQ at Fashion Week. Does it keep you sharp to try these new forms? Do you like being off balance, a little bit?
Chabon: It depends. On the assignment, on the form that I’m working in. With songs — doing that lyric-writing thing — it felt very new. I’d never done that, except for a brief time in college when I was in a band, and did some writing for them. That was a long time ago and a very different context. I’m all about trying new things.
At this point in my life, once I turned 50, it became part of what you should be doing in your 50s. Trying things you’ve never tried before. That was a perfect confluence of opportunity and inclination.
Doing screenwriting, or writing features for magazines…Screenwriting feels very different from writing a novel. But it doesn’t feel new — I’ve been doing it a long time. In a way, it’s something I’ve been doing since the mid-’90s. Writing for magazines? That’s a pretty standard thing. It’s not a big step to the right or the left, for someone who’s writing fiction.
If anything, to be honest, I enjoy it considerably less than fiction. Not just because you’re on deadline. And not just because there are stylistics restrictions that might get imposed on you by whatever publication you’re working for. Just having to stick to the facts is such a pain in the ass. I hate it. (Laughs)
Pfeiffer: You can’t say to your editor at GQ, this is mostly true?
Chabon: Nope. You can’t. And reality can almost always be improved. It would be so much better. You’re writing something, and you think, it would be so much more effective if something, say, happened three times instead of two times. Or if you could say you saw something you didn’t see. But you can’t do that. All you can do is report. And it’s frustrating. If you’re writing fiction, you can just make it happen three times, or whatever you need to do. Say you were there when you weren’t.
It’s not about ethics, either. It’s just a better story. What you get is better. When I’m writing nonfiction, I always think, “OK, here it is, but I’m telling you it’d be a lot better if you let me lie.”
Pfeiffer: You mentioned Sherlock Holmes earlier. Your book The Final Solution, which is my favorite by the way —
Chabon: Oh, thank you.
Pfeiffer: — it predates the return of Sherlock Holmes to popular culture by several years. It came out in 2004, right?
Chabon: I’m always ahead of the trend. (Laughs) No, definitely, it was a good moment for Sherlock Holmes, culturally, just after The Final Solution.
Pfeiffer: What is it about Sherlock Holmes that keeps him coming back? You wrote in The Final Solution that “he was a man who looked at things.” There’s a long passage about how he pays close attention to every detail. He notices everything.
Chabon: Detectives in fiction are always to some degree analogies for writers. Even the reason detectives come in to fiction when and where they do in history. Writers like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe — those are generally the people who get the credit — bring detectives into fiction around the time the modern police force was invented. Professional detectives come into existence. No sooner do they do so than writers say, “Hey, that’s actually like what I do!”
“I come into a room, I look around, I notice things, I notice the décor, I notice the lighting, I notice the expressions on people’s faces, I notice who seems to be uncomfortable. I ask questions. I try to get information. I’m curious.”
Now I’m looking around, and if I’m Edgar Allen Poe or Charles Dickens, I think, “That’s this person’s job. He’s paid to be curious, and to notice things. Then he makes a report. He makes a plausible story out of all these meaningless facts other people didn’t notice.”
That’s like a job description of a writer, to me — I think that’s how writers like Poe and Dickens felt about it, too. It’s a very congenial place to stand, as a writer, in a work of fiction, in the mind of a detective. If you’re creating a point-of-view character in a novel, it’s difficult to avoid having that character be unusually observant. They’re required to be, to help create and sustain the illusion in the reader’s mind. If it’s not an omniscient point of view, if it’s third-person limited, or first-person, then you have a character who is almost freakishly observant. A great example of that is Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. I love him, but he notices everything. Not just that he notices. He interprets it, too. He interprets it in this clear-eyed, sharp-witted, generous, even forgiving way. It makes him this great character. But there’s an artificiality to it (of course that’s the whole fiction business, too).
It’s a very congenial place to stand, as a writer, in a work of fiction, in the mind of a detective.
In the case of a detective, you have someone who is paid to be that way. Who’s not a writer. How many books with a writer as the main character can anyone get away with? I did mine, Wonder Boys. I’m not doing it again, it’d be boring, at least for me to write another one like that. Let alone ask anyone to read it.
To have this detective figure — that’s a large part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes, to get back to your original question. It’s the mind of an incredibly observant person (being filtered through Dr. Watson). But there’s something inherently pleasurable about encountering that level of observation.
Obviously, Arthur Conan Doyle was both a writer and a doctor (another profession where people are paid to notice things and be observant). The better you are, the better you’ll do.
Pfeiffer: There’s a long history there, too. Anton Chekhov was a doctor, for example.
Chabon: The other aspect is the friendship and partnership between Holmes and Watson. Typically, we’re instructed characters are supposed to change. They’ll be different at the end than at the beginning. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be writing a novel, right? There’s an assumption of a dynamic. That’s true to some extent, but it’s not the only fiction we can take pleasure in.
You get that with Sherlock Holmes stories, but with any series characters. You know, Holmes and Watson will eternally be sitting in their lodging at 221B Baker Street by the fire, with Mrs. Hudson coming in. The cases are new every time. That’s pleasurable. It’s fun to match wits with the criminal and try to figure out the mystery. Or maybe you just sit back and wait for the dazzling explanation to come. Also, I think, is the constancy of the relationship between Holmes and Watson.
Pfeiffer: Speaking of constancy of character, and getting back to Moonglow, I heard you say something once: someone had asked a question about “How do you write such diverse stories?” You have Gentlemen of the Road, set in Khazaria, and you have your alternate-history The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But you said, “Oh, I feel like I’m writing the same book over and over again.” You explained that was because you often have the same character types you’re exploring, like a skinny white man and a tall black man (who appear in books as diverse as those two I just mentioned, as well as in Telegraph Avenue, in the form of Archy and Nat).
How does that fit in with Moonglow? Because this book felt very different.
Chabon: You know, it is and it isn’t. I hadn’t thought of this until you asked me this question, but it demonstrates the distorting effects on that paradigm — that duo I keep writing about in so many of my books, whether it’s a white kid and a black kid, or two partners or friends, or whatever it may be — it is such a recurrent motif in my books. And what you see in Moonglow is the distorting effects on that pattern from quote-unquote real life. The effect of an entire human life between the covers of a book. From the first time we meet the grandfather in the book, when he’s 13 years old, during the 1930s, all the way until 1989 when he’s dying.
In trying to cover that span of time, and all the twists and turns a single life can take throughout that span, what you get is — you don’t have that central pairing anymore to anchor the narrative. But you do have a series of them. You have two key relationships in the book. Strange friendships. One between the grandfather and a fellow intelligence officer during World War II, and then later when he’s in prison, too. Those relationships are the type you’d expect to find in my books, but they’re short-lived and the grandfather moves on. There are other encounters. During the war, he has an encounter with a priest. He has a funny encounter with Wernher von Braun himself, and he’s had this sort of lifelong relationship with von Braun in his imagination. He has his brother. You have those pairings, but they’re separated out. They’re stroboscopic. They’re these flashes. Each time, it’s slightly different than the time before. That’s the distorting effect. As if the relationship between two men was a lump of putty and you put it in a centrifuge — a bunch of bits would be splattered all over the wall, which is what happened.
Pfeiffer: That’s interesting! And I was just thinking, the uncle in the book is Reynard, which is also the name of the trickster fox. You’re sneaky, I didn’t catch that until just now. And he has one eye in the book.
Chabon: (Laughs) Yes, he has one eye, because in typical trickster fashion he gets hoisted on his own petard. He gets other people in trouble, but also himself in trouble, in classic trickster fashion. He’s a tricky fellow.
Pfeiffer: I also noticed there are a lot more people shot with bow and arrows in this book, more than in your previous work.
Chabon: (Laughs) Yes! That’s true. There are relatively few bow injuries in my previous works.
Pfeiffer: Very interesting. It seems like, in this story, there are a lot of the things you love. I mean, it’s a story of late-century naturalism. It’s written in this memoir style. But hidden inside it there are all these other stories. There are two I wanted to ask about. It’s not a ghost story, but it is: the story of the Skinless Horse. It’s also a story of mental illness, of the mental hospital, and the play they put on, and the man with his own personal made-up sign language.
Chabon: I agree! Someone was asking me the other day: you wrote these naturalistic works of fiction at first, and then you moved on — I announced I was moving on…I went right into genre fiction, in many ways. They asked, “Are you back?” First there was Telegraph Avenue and now Moonglow. Are you back to realism? First of all, “realism” is a term I completely reject. If anything, I guess I would prefer naturalism, if I had to pick something that kind of means the same thing. But my answer was no. To me it feels like an integrated motion. I started out focusing myself, limiting myself in a way that I hadn’t expected to do that.
That felt comfortable to me, and natural to me. It felt smarter to me. I started out in the MFA in Fiction workshop at Irvine. Sometimes unmistakably and other times implicitly we were cautioned against any genre fiction. Here I am, I paid all this money, and I want to get this degree. And it’s not like I hate quote-unquote naturalistic fiction or mainstream fiction. I just thought, “I’ll get the most I can out of this, while I’m here.” My first novel got published. It would’ve been easier — and I did feel tempted — to stay there. But then it didn’t feel satisfying. It didn’t feel right. Something felt off. For me, writing starts with reading, and started with loving to read. I love to read so many different kinds of books, but I was only writing one kind of book. That just felt wrong. I did make those motions into various genres. Those were some of my favorite genres. I explored the genres I had loved reading. Whether that was Sherlock Holmes, or historical adventure fiction, or alternate-history novels, or hardboiled detective novels. Those were some of my favorite genres and subgenres.
For me, writing starts with reading, and started with loving to read.
But having done that, I felt like I learned a lot. I felt like I established a certain level of confidence, in myself and in readers, too, that I could do that kind of thing, I felt like with Telegraph Avenue and now with Moonglow, what it’s about for me is incorporating genre material into mainstream fiction, into that framework. And doing it in a way that’s not embarrassed or ashamed about it. I’m not trying to cover it over or pretty it up or whatever. I’m just trying to integrate it.
You’re exactly right. When I need to tell a story of a woman tormented by voices and visions, and about how those visions affect not only her but her family, the people who love her the most, I’m going to approach that through the traditions of supernatural fiction. Ghost stories. That’s not a deliberate choice. It’s a natural choice. That’s the part of the toolbox I’m going to reach for based on my history as a reader. The change in me, now, is that when I start to reach for those tools, I don’t stop myself. I go for it. Ultimately, what I’m most interested in, for myself and for all writers of fiction, is that I can do whatever I want to. I can write whatever kind of book I want to write.