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Michael Chabon blends fact and fiction to create ‘a truth’

November 25, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
In his new book, “Moonglow: A Novel,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon blurs the line between truth and fiction, placing historical figures and true stories in a world of fantasy. He delves into a tale about war, family and technology in mid-century America; in doing so, he says he gives his readers “a truth,” if not the truth. Chabon sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown sits down with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon about his new book, “Moonglow,” and the blending of fact and fiction in literary art.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Moonglow,” a classic tune performed by Benny Goodman, background music in the Berkeley, California, writing studio of Michael Chabon, where he often works deep into the night.

“Moonglow” is also the title of Chabon’s new book. A novel, it’s presented as a kind of memoir, blurring the lines between truth and fiction.

MICHAEL CHABON, Author, “Moonglow: A Novel”: You’re telling a lie when you’re writing a novel. A novel is a lie.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Right.

MICHAEL CHABON: It’s the only good kind of lie. It’s the lie that you’re telling to someone with their permission, and not only with their permission, but at their invitation.

So, the reader comes to the novel and says, lie to me. I want to hear it. Like, tell me a story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You, the author, say, let me tell you a good lie.

MICHAEL CHABON: Exactly. And that’s part of what is so beautiful about that particular relationship, is that it’s a kind of voluntary permission to deception, just like with magic.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this case, the magic started with an actual ad he found from a 1958 “Esquire” magazine for something called Chabon Scientific Company that sold models of missiles that you can fly.

MICHAEL CHABON: My name, C-H-A-B-O-N, if that’s your last name, you’re related to me somehow. And there aren’t very many Chabons in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this Chabon had never heard of that company. No one had. So, he invented its story as part of “Moonglow.”

MICHAEL CHABON: I defy anyone using Google to contradict anything I say about the history of Chabon Scientific Company in my book.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Because there ain’t no history.

MICHAEL CHABON: Not yet. I mean, they may come forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is now.

MICHAEL CHABON: The real — the defendants of the founding Chabon of that company may emerge to tell their version of the story. But, until that happens, Google can’t help you. You’re at my mercy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there was this man, Chabon’s real grandfather, who on his deathbed, under the influence of painkilling drugs, began telling his then-26-year-old grandson unknown stories from his life. This too became fodder for the novel.

MICHAEL CHABON: There is all this stuff I was hearing that was clearly still there, you know, that was in his mind, in his memory, in his experience, in his life, that I had never heard before.

And it just was all kind of coming out. And I thought, like, you think you know somebody. You think you have heard their stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MICHAEL CHABON: And then to suddenly, at the very end, get this glimpse of an entire other life that I had never heard of before, not that it was a life of dark secrets or anything like that, but just there was so much more, so much more.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then that opens the floodgates for you, and you, being a novelist, get to play, right?

MICHAEL CHABON: That’s what I do with every book.

That procedure of taking bits and pieces of an element of lived experience, of stories I have heard, anecdotes and research or whatever it might be gets all swirled together with the invention. The reader wants to hear the lie that sounds true and ultimately, I think, in the case of fiction, in the case of a novel, that delivers a truth — a truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: To see Chabon’s studio is to peek into the brain that produces that invention, action figures, vintage science fiction and fantasy novels, vinyl records, much of it connected to things he’s written, from the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” to now the mash-up of “Moonglow,” which explores war, family and technology in mid-century America and mixes historical figures with the fictional.

War, rocketry, space travel, even — you and I have talked about this before when you’re writing some of it, genre-bending. You know, it’s a sort of memoir, but it gets sort of into almost fantasy.

MICHAEL CHABON: Love among people in their golden years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. A lot of things going on there. But that allows you the freedom. Once you have that freedom, you’re off. Right?

MICHAEL CHABON: Right. And that’s what it’s all about. The facts are so dull.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So dull?

MICHAEL CHABON: We turn to fiction, we turn to a novel because fiction persuades us. All art persuades us that there is a pattern to life, that there is meaning to life, that if you look at life the right way, you can see sense in it, you can find meaning in it.

It might not be true. Maybe that’s an illusion. Maybe that’s like the greatest illusion of the magic act of literature, but I don’t care. That’s what is good about it. That’s what we turn to it for.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new novel is “Moonglow.”

Michael Chabon, thank you for letting us visit.

MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, absolutely. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you.

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