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Writer Michael Chabon Explores Regrets, Pleasures

October 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon sits down with Jeffrey Brown to talk about his new book, "Manhood for Amateurs."
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, writer Michael Chabon looks at manhood in a new collection of essays.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Chabon has given a wide range of male characters in his fiction, including young students and middle-aged academics in “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Wonder Boys,” a hardened private detective “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and two World War II-era comic book creators in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”

His newest male character is himself in his first work of nonfiction, “Manhood for Amateurs,” a collection of essays examining what Chabon calls “The Pleasures and Regrets of a Father, Husband, and Son.”

Michael Chabon joins me now.

Welcome to you.

MICHAEL CHABON: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the thing — “Manhood for Amateurs.” One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that this role, father, son, husband, for you and indeed — and maybe for all of us, we’re all amateurs.

MICHAEL CHABON: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, just the idea of an amateur, I think one of the first things you think of when you heard the word is someone sort of bumbling, not necessarily doing the best job, maybe even making it up as you go along.

But, for me, the word has other, deeper, richer senses, too, that are still part of our understanding of the word.

It comes from a word — it comes from a French word that means a lover, an enthusiast, someone who is passionate about something. And it still sometimes has those connotations. And we do have this idea, still, of like the amateur athlete, the person who is doing it for love, for love of the sport, and not for money.

And, so, I think, for me, it’s both senses, that I don’t really know what I am doing. I am just making it up as I go along. I keep making mistakes. I often keep making the same mistakes. But I also — it is the source of so much of my passion is being a father, being a husband, being a son, you know, being a brother.

My relationships with the people around me as a man are the source of both my work and of all the pleasure that I get in life.

Pushing the limits of fiction

JEFFREY BROWN: I can see a lot of these experiences going into your fiction, which is how I and most readers know about you. But why turn it into essays? Why -- why explore it this way so personally?

MICHAEL CHABON: Well, you can't use everything in fiction. And some things don't -- some experiences are so rich that you can take advantage of them and mine them for your fiction, and still have something left over to write about in a more direct, personal, nonfiction way.

Other things might just strike -- strike me at a moment. There might be an experience like my daughter's bar mitzvah, my oldest daughter's bar mitzvah, in the aftermath of which, I was very moved, I was full of emotion.

And if I had just let that go, if I saved that in a sense, since I will -- someday, maybe I will write a novel where the character's daughter has a bar mitzvah and I will be able to put these things I'm feeling into that book, maybe, maybe not.

And I was too moved, in a way, and I just wanted to just capture what I was feeling and what I thought it meant to me, at least at that moment, in the immediate aftermath.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, I mean, what comes through is how you are consumed, maybe, by this sense of fatherhood, and both being a son, the idea of a father in an earlier generation, and then a father now, and the countless ways that we know it can be messed up, right?

MICHAEL CHABON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write early on -- quote -- "A father is a man who fails every day."

MICHAEL CHABON: Mm-hmm. Yes. I mean, there's so much -- there's -- you know, there are so many things that happen where you wish you could just do it over. Could we like -- could we take that over again? Could I get another try?

I mean, sometimes, you can. You know, a lot of the mistakes you make as a parent, you do get a do-over. It's not lasting damage that has been done. You can make it up. You can try again.

But, you know, when I lie in bed at night thinking back over the day, a lot of the things I think about are things that I wish I had approached a little bit differently, I had done a little bit differently. I wish I had realized sooner that this was really important to my kid, and I was kind of dismissive at first and didn't really take it seriously, when it was clearly something truly important.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these things do come from -- this is the stuff of your daily life? Is it -- I mean...

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the process?

MICHAEL CHABON: Doubt, recriminations, oh, you bet, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, from playing with the kids to doubt and recrimination about what happened during that time.

Finding ways to translate reality

MICHAEL CHABON: That's it. What else is there? Yes.

Yes, I mean, I have my work, which is its own lovely and unique source of doubt and recrimination, too. And I spend plenty of time fretting about that, I mean my writing. I'm prone to rumination and remorse and regret. And all of those bad R verbs come very easily to me.

So, maybe that's just endemic. As a writer, you spend a lot of time going over the past and past experiences. You often are finding ways to translate those into fiction. And what you write might end up bearing no resemblance to what really happened to you. But you kind of got over that ground. And in going over the ground, you often find much to regret.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is clearly a humorous side to this, but there's also -- these are very serious subjects you are taking on, some very serious, suicide and depression. In one essay, you talk about the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the writer...

MICHAEL CHABON: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... the depression that your own wife suffers from.

MICHAEL CHABON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you write here: "In the end, I could only make sense of these things on my own terms it, for my own purposes, to grasp or articulate to myself what my fiction has been saying to the world all along. The world, like our heads, was meant to be escaped from."

Now, that's -- you don't write a whole lot about writing in this book. But that was one place that struck me about the real world, your writing world, how they fit together.

MICHAEL CHABON: Yes.

Well you know, that sense of being imprisoned in my own head, and I think it's something -- I found it in -- when I went looking for things David Foster Wallace had said or written in the aftermath of his tragic suicide, I found this quote very quickly, which said just what I had always felt myself, which is this -- that you are trapped in your own head. You feel trapped, the -- and you are looking for a connection, a sense of connection, a way out, to feel like there -- you have access to the lives and the minds of the people around you.

And one of the best ways we have invented for doing that as human beings is through literature and through writing. And reading a novel gives you that sense of access to other people's lives that is impossible to get otherwise.

But, you know, that sense of connection, of what -- that desire for connection that animates our lives as readers, I think it animates our lives as -- in other respects, too. You know, you search for that connection in a family. You search for it as a fan, if you -- and I write in this book a lot about the idea of fandom and sort of that sort of lonely person who loves something and is just looking for other people who love it, too, to just connect with.

Testing out different genres

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of your readers, myself included, note that you seem to have tried out different genres, that there was the private detective, and there's the -- there was a young person's novel.

MICHAEL CHABON: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there's the coming of age novel. I guess you could look at this as a kind -- another kind of genre, that personal essay.

But I'm wondering, is that a strategy for you as a writer, or is this -- or do these things come up organically as -- as -- develop on their own?

MICHAEL CHABON: I think it is really a reflection of my experience in my life as a reader. As a reader, I love all kinds of fiction, all kinds of literature. I love mystery, science fiction. I love the most kind of abstruse, modernist literature.

My taste is very wide-ranging. And it just -- at first, I had a tendency to hamper my writing, I think, and just feel like I was only allowed to write a certain kind of semi-realistic, mainstream kind of fiction.

And, just as I have gone along, I started realizing, well, but I like to read so many different kinds of things, why can't a write more different kinds of things? And it has been liberating for me. And it's been fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So, this manhood thing, you expect to go professional at some point, or...

MICHAEL CHABON: No. I think I will be a lifelong amateur.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is "Manhood for Amateurs."

Michael Chabon, thanks for talking to us.

MICHAEL CHABON: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much.