Michael Chabon Talks 'Moonglow' Ahead of Pittsburgh Visit

Dec 5, 2016

WESA spoke with Pittsburgh author Michael Chabon ahead of his visit to the Carnegie Music Hall to discuss his new book "Moonglow."
Credit Benjamin Tice Smith

Author Michael Chabon’s literary career began here in Pittsburgh. It’s the place where he spent part of his childhood and college years, and it was the setting for his first two novels, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys."

Now, Chabon returns to the city Dec. 9 to discuss his new novel "Moonglow" at an event hosted by the University of Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Moonglow’s narrator shares a name with the book’s author, and he has a comparable life story.

The novel is a family history of sorts: an account of the deathbed confessions of the narrator’s grandfather--a World War II veteran, an ex-convict and aerospace entrepreneur.

Michael Chabon's newest book "Moonglow" is loosely inspired by parts of his life.
Credit Harper Collins

But while some of the biographical details might be similar to Chabon’s own, he cautions against interpreting the book as a memoir.

Chabon recently spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Josh Raulerson. Below are some excerpts from their conversation, his answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

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Michael Chabon on whether "Moonglow" should be interpreted as pure fiction, or part memoir-part novel:

You know, it's a novel. It's clearly labeled a novel on the cover and on the title page. This is a work of fiction, in which real life events, real world figures and authentic family stories from my history are intermingled with lots of pure invention.

But I would argue that's probably the case with a lot of memoirs too.

You know, even the most scrupulous memoirist is--to some degree or another, with varying degrees of openness, depending on which memoirist we're talking about--fictionalizing, and inventing. And reconstructing.  And sometimes that invention and reconstruction is conscious and deliberate; sometimes it is unconscious and accidental.

On what he was trying to accomplish by writing a fictionalized account of his grandfather’s life story:

I was definitely motivated by a desire to depict my grandparents' generation. You know, those are the people I grew up among; those were my elders. And, even though, I had worked with this kind of material in the past to one degree or another, I felt there was a lot I hadn't really said.

So, in the case of my grandparents and the prevailing cultural narrative of that generation, which has that convenient label--"The Greatest Generation"--I test that against my own experience. And part of me looks at that generation and says, "That generation accomplished incredible feats all around in the world, especially in America."

But is that all there is to it? Does the whole story on a large, macro, cultural level? And does it tell the whole story individually about the people who made up that generation?

And, without impugning those accomplishments or trying to diminish the various things they did--including, of course, defeating Hitler--they were just people. To me, it's not entirely impossible that any group of people who were born when those people happened to be born and came of age when those people happened to come of age, would have done what those people did.

And, furthermore, let's actually look at what happened then, and see that it was not just the noble, honorable, difficult, admirable things that were done, but all of the things they were fighting against were also done by that generation. This is also the generation that didn't just defeat Hitler. It then went about doing things like toppling democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala; getting us into the Vietnam War; creating this hysteria around the Red Scare and the space race.

Then, looking at my individual relatives and my family and saying, "Well, yes, this is my grandpa. He was a wonderful man. But he was also a man." And even though he never told me a whole lot about any kinds compromises he had made and things that he had done that he was less than proud of, surely, given the fact that he was a human being, like me, he did all of those things too.

What about that story? And, if I wasn't told it, can I imagine it? Can I make it up?

Grandparents, in a way, can be the least examined people in your family story. They tend to get idealized, and I wanted to just kind of see clearly. And the way for me to do that, since I'm a novelist, is by making up a story.

Chabon’s novels often deal with themes of cultural displacement, diaspora and the rise of fascism. How does he feel after a U.S. presidential election wherein those themes, among others, figured prominently into the public discourse?

I've come to see that the moments in our history that I am most proud of are the moments when things were the darkest, and there were movements that arose in response to that darkness.

Whether it's abolition, or the labor movement, the civil rights movement, or the effort to crush fascism, looking back, that's when I feel proudest to be an American. Without the overwhelming weight of insidious, inhuman, greedy structures of oppression, you know, those moments would never have arisen. I'd have nothing to be proud of without that.

So, I look at this moment, and I'm starting to feel like, well this is our moment now. We have to rise to this occasion.