The Pulitzer prize-winner on combining writing with raising kids, his freakozoid tendencies and the authors he returns to
Sat 12 May 2018
Michael Chabon is one of America’s best-loved writers, the author of nine novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won the Pulitzer prize), Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Moonglow. In 2009, he published Manhood for Amateurs, a series of reflections on his early years as a father. Now, with Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, 54-year-old Chabon has collected his essays about parenting four teenagers.
A few years ago, Chabon’s wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, wrote a controversial essay for the New York Times in which she claimed to love her husband more than her children (and to be the only one of her married friends still having regular sex). Chabon’s meditations on fatherhood are less likely to offend – they’re generous, very Californian (Chabon lives in Berkeley) and full of warm, often humorous anecdotes.
If Manhood for Amateurs was about taking on responsibility, Pops feels like it’s about letting go as your kids grow up.
Eventually, one of the things you come up against as a parent is the limitation of your importance in your kids’ life. They go off and forge relationships and make families by choice, in one way or another. You recede and dwindle in importance. If you are parenting properly, you’re parenting yourself out of a job.
In the introduction to Pops, you recall a long-ago conversation with an older author who told you that you had to choose between being a great novelist or a father.
I realised I wasn’t interested in the question of balancing one’s art and one’s life as a parent. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem, but I was trying to consider a different question – what difference does it make in the end, either way? Either your books will be forgotten or even if you are remembered in 100 years, you won’t be around to enjoy it.
You write about a discussion with your daughter in which you talk about how important it is to be a “freakozoid”. How do we encourage our children to embrace their own weirdnesses?
My daughter went to fifth grade one day wearing a dress on top of jeans, a green rubber apron with blue frogs all over it and a Martha Washington bonnet that we’d bought on a family trip to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. When your kid has an impulse like that you either say: “Go change your clothes, people are going to make fun of you, you look ridiculous” or you say: “See you this afternoon.” If you choose the latter option then you take a step in the direction of encouraging your kid’s freakozoid tendencies.
In Against Dickitude, you gently upbraid your elder son for his textual mistreatment of a female friend. She’s interested in him and he either doesn’t reply or sends emotionless one-word responses. How have you found bringing up teenagers during the boom years of social media?
When I observe the lives not just of my teenage children but also of their friends, it’s just so much harder now and that’s almost exclusively because of social media. When I was a teenager, I might arrive at school on a Monday and gradually come to realise that a party had occurred over the weekend to which I had not been invited. But I was blissfully unaware of that over the weekend when the party was going on. That Fomo [fear of missing out] is just a routine part of adolescence now and you’re always vividly and constantly aware of all of the apparently fun things that are going on within your supposed friend group to which you have not been invited.
You write about your children by name. Do you ask their permission? Do you worry about their right to private lives?
Everything you write is drawn from the people you know. You can do all this sweating and agonising about whether it’s going to embarrass them or make them angry and often it just sails right over them and they don’t even recognise that you’re talking about them.
Saying that, writing Little Man [an essay in Pops about taking his 13-year-old son to Paris fashion week] was the single hardest short piece of writing I’ve ever had to do.
What’s the last really great book you read?
I just reread for probably the fifth time The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. I had to teach it at the State University of New York. Every time I read it I’m overcome afresh with admiration for it and with awe for the control of its performance.
How do you organise your books?
Alphabetically, in the most part. We have a house where we live here in Berkeley and we have a summer house in Maine, which is full of all the books we couldn’t fit in here. There are some glassed-in shelves in our house in Maine in which, one summer’s day a few years back when I didn’t have a whole lot else to do, I organised them by colour. That looks pretty spectacular.
Which classic novel did you read recently for the first time?
I’m not sure if it quite counts as a classic, but I just read Sebald’s Austerlitz for the first time. I loved it – it’s beautiful. It was the one of his that I hadn’t read.
Which book would you give to a young person?
Books that I loved as a child and which I then reread to my children who also loved them were The Dark Is Rising series of novels. They are so fantastic. Also Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, based on Welsh mythology and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Finally, there’s Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which I mostly loved because she wanted to be a writer when she grew up.
What books do you read for sheer pleasure?
I go back to Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler. There’s a little-known American thriller novelist called Ross Thomas. I’ll pick one of his books up and I’ll only sometimes have to read a chapter or two to re-establish contact with whatever it was that was comforting and familiar about it.