Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s newest book, Manhood for Amateurs, is a collection of personal essays that charts the course of his experiences as a son, husband, and father. His ruminations range from poignant memories of a lonely childhood in which imagination helped salve the bitterness of his parents’ divorce, to the frank thoughts of a successful man filling some of the duties traditionally left to women. In a recent email exchange with Barnes & Noble Review contributor Cameron Martin, Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, discusses the art of the personal essay, his plans for a second children’s book, and the subject and setting for his upcoming novel, which will be “more mainstream than my recent work.”

Barnes & Noble Review: The majority of the essays in this collection first appeared in Details magazine. How did that column originate? Did you and the editors hash out a template for the type of material you’d regularly address or were you given carte blanche?

Michael Chabon: I was first approached by the magazine’s editor in chief, Dan Peres, back in early 2001. At the time I didn’t feel that a monthly column was a burden I wanted to assume. When Dan came back to me four years later with the same proposition, I eagerly accepted. Evidently something had changed during the interval. The births of two more Chabon children, with their associated expenses, may have had played a certain part.

From the beginning there was no set subject or theme. Peres and Details were incredibly generous and tolerant and supportive, and I never got any kind of directive or guidance to try to tailor my pieces to please a particular readership, or anything like that.

BNR: In “The Story of Our Story,” you said the birth of your brother, when you were five, signaled the beginning of your storytelling career. “I had learned to work a record player, tell lies, read the funny pages, and feel awkward at parties. But it was not until that morning, in early September 1968, that my story truly began. Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.” If you’d been an only child, how do you think your interest and confidence in storytelling would have evolved? Would it have developed later, as you made school friends? Were other influences — your parents, other relatives — in line to foster this interest, or do you think it would have been nipped in the bud without the presence of a younger sibling who saw you in a “heroic light”?

MC: This is one counterfactual that is really difficult to imagine. Certainly many of our best storytellers have been only children, so it’s not like it’s a sine qua non. And for the first 5+ years of my life, I was an only child. I think that gave me a certain confidence and poise with adults — I was always the kid who stayed at the dinner table to be with the grownups when everybody else went off to watch TV after dessert. But the first stories I ever told, the first deliberate attempts at producing extended works of fiction for the purpose of entertainment, were the stories I told my little brother. He still remembers and talks about them. His patient, willing, eager audienceship played a crucial role in my idea of who I was and of what I was able and wanted to do.

BNR: In several works you lament the over-regimented lives of your four children, who aren’t experiencing and cherishing the freewheeling aspects of childhood — hours roaming the neighborhood without adult supervision, for one thing — that fed your own imagination. Were there any parts of your own childhood that you wish had been less regimented or overseen, that with looser strictures would have spurred your imagination even more?

MC: That, too, is hard to imagine. In the summertime sometimes I walked out the door after breakfast, said goodbye to my Mom, and came home in time for dinner. The only part of my childhood that was overly regimented was school, and even there, at least for the first few years of elementary school, I knew greater freedom than a lot of kids, because in that era the public schools of Columbia, Maryland employed a lot of radical new late-60s ideas like Open Classrooms and Media Centers and Team Teaching. Most of that had disappeared by the time I reached middle school, at which point there really was a clampdown, and things turned kind of gray. Summer never lost its sense of infinite liberty, though.

BNR: What personal essayists do you enjoy reading?

MC: Essayists whose work shaped my idea of essay writing, or to which I return continually for inspiration, in no particular order: Roland Barthes, Jonathan Lethem, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Greil Marcus, S. J. Perelman, Roger Angell, Ursula K. Le Guin…

BNR: In these essays you’re reticent about the details of your parents’ divorce and your own divorce from your first wife, yet frank about your second wife’s bipolar condition and about having sex as a teenager with your mother’s thirtysomething friend. What informs your decision to describe certain situations or events while withholding the details of others? Beyond the divorces, are there topics in your life you don’t feel comfortable detailing in your essays?

MC: Well, I’m not out to embarrass anybody or to engage in recrimination or payback. In the case of my wife’s bipolar disorder, I was following well after her own open and candid writing on the subject; in the case of the second piece you mention, I don’t name any names or give any telling details. I don’t think there’s really much more to say about my divorce; it wasn’t really that interesting. As for my parents’ divorce, the most painful, central truth of it is one that I freely divulge: that I felt my father had abandoned me. Nothing else I could say would be worse than that, from my child’s-eye point of view.

BNR: Do you still resent your father’s actions in regards to the divorce? Has being married and divorced and raising your own family at all caused you to see him and his actions in a different light? You say as a child that you felt your father abandoned you when you parents divorced. This book about Manhood is dedicated to your brother, Steve. Why the decision to dedicate this particular book to him?

MC: Oh, yeah, that was all a long time ago. The verb was in the past tense for a reason. Those were different times, to quote Lou Reed.

I already dedicated a book to my father – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. You have to, you know, spread the love.

BNR: Is the monthly essay something you look forward to writing, either as a way to organize some thoughts about your life or to revisit past episodes? Or is it something that usually comes together under the threat of deadline?

MC: It pretty much routinely alternated between those two poles. But I actually thrive under deadline… some of my favorite pieces in the book were written in a panic. Many times I began a column at leisure, with a clear idea of the thoughts I wanted to “organize” as you put it, and a week to go, only to find myself a day late with nothing any good — and then I would pound something out lickety-split, on an impulse, and have it turn out well. I should mention that I have written my last column for Details, it’s in the current issue, I believe.

BNR: Many of the essays in this collection contain detailed descriptions of products and entertainments from your childhood. Do you ever find that a hazy memory sends you off to research a product, movie or television show from your past, and in researching you unlock a memory or a detail you’d otherwise have forgotten and which in turn becomes the focus of an essay?

MC: Absolutely. The one that comes immediately to mind is the one triggered by the Captain Underpants series of books, which led me to research and explore the old Wacky Packages trading cards.

BNR: You published a 15-part serial in the New York Times magazine, “Gentlemen of the Road,” in the first half of 2007. What was the overall reaction from fans? Did they enjoy the tantalization of the installments or were they impatient for the whole package? Do you think fiction readers want more serials, and would you like to try your hand at it again?

MC: I was not overly conscious, let’s say, that there was a fervent mob of readers hanging on the end of every installment, ready to charge down to the wharves to greet the ship bringing in the latest chapter… I think the serial is still viable, in theory. But I don’t think people turn to the Sunday Times Magazine looking for, or expecting to find, fiction there, and I’m not sure that the layout, design and format of the magazine really lent themselves to the presentation of a short serialized novel. There’s something diffuse about it, vast pages of tiny type…

BNR: Did having children encourage you to write Summerland, your first children’s novel, and do you intend to revisit this genre? Were the ideas for it in place before your children were born, or did they grow from specific experiences you had while raising them?

MC: I had been kicking around vague notions of writing a novel based in American folklore, as so many classic novels for children are based on Northern European folklore, since I was about 12. Having children, and not being able to find any really great fiction about baseball to read to them, impelled me to try my own baseball book, and to merge it with that other, ancient idea of mine. And yes, I do plan to return to the field again — before too long, I hope.

BNR: You’ve written novels, short stories, essays and film scripts. Which type of writing provides you with the greatest joy or satisfaction, taking into account the process itself and the end results?

MC: They all provide identical joy on the day that I complete them. I take my satisfaction in writing sentences and paragraphs, so they all qualify, even scripts — but as a reader I love novels most. As a writer, I can’t ignore that love.

BNR: When can we expect to read your next novel-length work of fiction? What genre will it be in? And what can you tell us about the plot, settings and characters?

MC: 2011? It’s more mainstream than my recent work, set in present day Berkeley and Oakland. I am having fun writing it — most of the time.