I don’t know why it took me so long to attend a Boek & Meester event, but I went to see Michael Chabon at Donner last week and had a blast. Ernest van der Kwast conducted the interview in a closed Donner on a Wednesday night.
When asked if writing was something you couldn’t ‘learn’, Chabon laughed and said ‘Imagine that to be true. No one would ever write anything.’ Chabon studied creative writing and he explained it taught him how to avoid obvious mistakes and how to avoid them more quickly. He’s been a full-time writer for years now, which has led to very specific writing habits as well. Chabon writes every night, moving to his studio at the back of his house around 10 and working till 4 AM. At night it’s quiet and dark and no one interrupts you. ‘Before the internet it was perfect’, he jokes. But the hardest thing about writing is sticking with it. Chabon says he enjoys writing, but doing it day after day is what makes it hard. His books usually take about four to five years to write, so around year three he really starts to hate it. Luckily he lives in Berkely, where being in therapy is almost mandatory.
A big part of the interview was spent on writing and how his newest novel Moonglow came to be. Chabon’s wife is also a writer and they’re always each other’s first readers. This almost always involves a big argument during which one tells the other that something in the story needs to change. Chabon then acted out how the writer would call the reader an idiot, but after about twenty minutes of fighting they would give in and agree.
He’s also not a planner when it comes to stories. Chabon usually has a vague sense of how it should end and where the story might end up but doesn’t storyboard or anything like that. The more he knows in advance, the less reason he has to actually write it.
Moonglow starts with an ad for a rocket made by Chabon Scientific. He found this ad online – yes it’s real – and although it wasn’t the inspiration for the novel, it did come early in the process. He explained that the name Chabon is a misspelling, so everyone who uses that exact last name is related to him somehow. He asked around about Chabon Scientific and no one in his family knew what it was about. It looked like something he’d dreamed up and became entranced with the idea of the company. He called it an ungoogleable object – because nothing but the ad came up – which is in itself a magical thing nowadays.
Moonglow is a novel, but the narrator is called Michael Chabon and the book has a lot in common with his own life. As Chabon talks about his grandfather, it’s clearly fiction though. His real grandfather was nothing like the grandfather from Moonglow. He was a very talkative man, someone who loved to tell stories, stories that he’d heard many times now. But when he was on his deathbed, Chabon heard things his grandfather had never mentioned before, things his grandfather might not have remembered himself. Chabon wondered about the things he would never know about his family, the black box that would never be opened to him.
The novel is written as a memoir though, and Chabon says when the story presented itself to him like that, he also immediately knew he wanted to take revenge on the literary memoir. He resents the status these kinds of books get just because they are ‘true’, while the novel is then considered fake. Both are works of fiction though, memoirs are based on memory, things left out and misremembered. It’s always a biased narrative. He never wanted to mislead his readers with Moonglow though, which of course led to a discussion about James Frey’s ‘memoir’. What Chabon tries to do with his work is to create doubt while reading it. Even though you know it’s fiction, you start to wonder what parts of it might be true.
Chabon read a scene from his novel where the grandmother and the narrator play cards. Before he started reading he turned to the audience to say ‘hi’ and thanked us again for still being there. He’d been looking at Ernest the entire time, so he wouldn’t have noticed if any of us had left. They joked around a bit about Ernest being good-looking and about Jonathan Safran Foer saying the same thing and dressing oddly when he was at Boek & Meester a couple of months ago. Apparently, he was wearing very tight pants that Ernest’s girlfriend commented on. Chabon laughs gleefully about this and says he can’t wait to tell his wife all about it before he starts reading.
There was still plenty of time for the audience to ask questions during which Chabon threw out some great facts like being too lazy to keep a journal, so his ideas have to go through a ‘survival of the fittest’ thing before getting turned into actual stories. He would also become suicidally depressed if he had to be a full-time screenwriter and his first story was John Watson fanfiction.
I asked him for a book recommendation for our book club and he said we should read A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. It’s quite long, but if any of you are interested we can read it over the summer!
Boek & Meester will be back the 16th of June with Arandhati Roy. Pictures were taken by Aad Hoogendoorn.