THE MAGIC ACT
Michael Chabon discusses the inspiration behind his latest novel, Moonglow
By Aric Sleeper
For Michael Chabon, author of a number of iconic novels including The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the goal of the fiction writer is analogous to that of a great stage magician: both have the daunting task of convincing their audiences that an illusion is, on some level, actually real.
“We know that the magician isn’t really sawing a woman in half or making real oranges grow on the plastic orange tree, but you’re sitting in the audience because you want to be tricked, and you want to be tricked really well,” says Chabon, whom I had the chance to interview by phone. “And if the illusion is performed well, there is that inexplicable moment, when even though you know you’re being fooled, and have agreed to be fooled, you’ve actually inspired yourself to believe. And that is, of course, what the novelist is hoping for by giving the illusion that what you wrote really happened.”
Inspiring that momentary belief in fiction readers was a different type of game in the days before the Internet, says Chabon.
“One great ally that novelists once had was that there was often really no way to gainsay what the novelist was writing. In the 1920s, there was no way to Google ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ and see if there was actually a real woman named Mrs. Dalloway,” says Chabon. “For me, that has always been a pleasure of reading, which is to let myself half-believe that there might be some basis in fact in what I was reading, even if it was disguised. I didn’t need for it to be true, but the feeling that it might be true was sufficient. Up until the early ’90s, that was still fully possible.” Chabon points to the first time he read Oscar Hijuelo’s novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In the story, the narrator, a dying mambo musician, tells the story of how he and his brother befriended Desi Arnaz and appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy.
“I grew up watching the show, and Hijuelo describes the plot of the episode of I Love Lucy so plausibly and so well that while I’m reading it, there was a moment when I thought I remembered the episode, that maybe parts of it really happened. At that point, in 1990, when I’m reading it, I can’t go on Google; I can’t go on the web and look up the I Love Lucy archives. There was no way for me to check,” says Chabon. “That part of the pleasure—of the magic act that goes on between writer and reader—is largely gone now.”
But there are still what Chabon calls “Google-proof” things in the modern world, and one of them, a black-and-white ad for a model rocket company that he stumbled on, served as part of the inspiration for his latest novel, Moonglow.
“I came across this advertisement for the Chabon Scientific Company, which had made frequent appearances in men’s magazines like Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Boys’ Life, while I was searching on eBay for a first edition of Kavalier & Clay for one of my friends,” says Chabon. “My last name is very uncommon, and as far as I know, everyone with the spelling of my last name is related, and I’d never heard of this company. I had always been fascinated by rockets, and it was my name, so, I started Googling and what I quickly discovered is that all you get is more images of the same advertisement.”
As Chabon began to speculate about the origins of the model rocket company, the tension between truth and fiction stirred inside of him. Other threads began to coalesce with the history he imagined of the Chabon Scientific Company, including the time he spent with his grandfather just before he passed away in 1989.
“I decided that I wanted to write a memoir of my family’s history and the history of the Chabon Scientific Company, and like everything else that I’ve written—with the exception of one collection of essays—something that is utterly, purely, and unabashedly a work of fiction,” says Chabon. “I wanted to plunge into this area of doubt and tension and uncertainty and see what I could come out with on the other side. What resulted from that is the book.”
Chabon will be touring the country to talk about Moonglow at a number of independent bookstores, including Bookshop Santa Cruz. In his eyes, the war against independent booksellers by corporate chains and a certain online retailer we will not name is over, as people have started to realize that every visit to an independent bookstore has its own feeling of magic.
“Independent booksellers have always offered, and have become increasingly creative and inventive about expanding the ways in which they offer, an experience you can’t get anywhere else. And I have more hope for them now more than ever,” says Chabon. “When something is really wonderful and irreplaceable, it has more of a shot of surviving than something where the status is less clear.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon will join us for a book talk and signing on Thursday Evening, December 15th, at 7:00. This off-site, ticketed event will take place at Peace United Church, 900 High Street. Purchase tickets, while supplies last, at Bookshop or online.