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.