Michael Chabon On 'Manhood For Amateurs'

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Author Michael Chabon has seen manhood from just about every angle — as a boy obsessed with comic books, as a husband serving as a surrogate son to his father-in-law, and now as a dad trying to be honest with his kids about his early years smoking pot. The author, who won a Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, tells host Guy Raz about his amazing adventures in domesticity, chronicled in his new book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Just across the bay from San Francisco, in Berkeley, lives Michael Chabon. He's a writer who's been called the John Updike of his generation. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." And his other books, like "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," have won critical acclaim.

A couple of years ago, Details magazine asked Chabon to write essays about his life as a dad, the mundane things about raising kids, like changing diapers and buying groceries, setting up play dates; in short, what he calls the intimacy of domestic tasks. And the result is a book of 39 essays. It's called "Manhood for Amateurs." Michael Chabon is here with me in the studio.

Welcome.

Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, "Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son"): Thanks, Guy. It's very good to be here.

RAZ: So I have a problem with the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Great. I can't wait.

RAZ: And the problem is I wish that you could just read from every essay, but then we'd run out of time.

Mr. CHABON: Good, because I was going for my checkbook to give you a refund.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Okay. But seriously, even though these essays are non-fiction, and they feel really familiar to people who have read your work, did you sort of sweat over the prose and the language in the same way you would when writing fiction?

Mr. CHABON: Absolutely. I can't - I don't really have a choice in the matter. When I'm working on a sentence, there's kind of nothing else for me in the world at that moment but that sentence that I'm working on, and I get just as tied up in knots over that sentence. Whether I'm writing, you know, an email to my kid's teacher at school, I get really…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: …I just can't just write, sort of really toss things off.

RAZ: At the start of this book, you have a line, and it reads: The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. And I want to ask you if you could read another part of that essay. It's called "William and I," and it's on page 17.

Mr. CHABON: Sure, I'd be happy to.

Mr. CHABON: (Reading) My dad did what was expected of him. But like most men of the time, he didn't do very much, apart from the traditional winning of bread. He didn't take me to get my hair cut or my teeth cleaned. He didn't make the appointments. He didn't shop for my clothes. He didn't make my breakfast, lunch or dinner. My mother did all of those things, and nobody ever told her when she did them that it made her a good mother.

RAZ: Michael Chabon, you argue that dads have it pretty easy.

Mr. CHABON: I mean, I think it's hard being a father, and it's always been hard being a father, but I think it's just the societal standard for what constitutes being a good father is pathetically low. And men are praised much more frequently, much more readily, for doing much less than women, who almost never receive that kind - I mean, people just don't go up to women in the grocery store while they're pushing their kids around…

RAZ: And so, you're a good mom.

Mr. CHABON: You're such a good mom. I can - I mean, you'd be a freak for saying that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: But I mean, people say that to me all the time, and it's when I'm not doing anything that I would particularly like to be getting credit for. It's just for being there.

RAZ: My mother lived with us for a couple of months after my wife went back to work…

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: …when our baby was born. And there was a point where I started to change my son's diaper, and my mom sort of intervened and said, I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it…

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

RAZ: …almost as if I wasn't supposed to do it.

Mr. CHABON: Right.

RAZ: But when I read this book, it made me realize that it's not actually about changing the diaper. It's about the intimacy of those domestic tasks that bond…

Mr. CHABON: Yes.

RAZ: …that dads want to have with their kids.

Mr. CHABON: Yes. I mean, you know, that's the - in a way, the mysterious thing about it because it's not really fun. It's not fun to change diapers. It's not fun to clean up vomit. It's not fun to - you know, I'm choosing the more disgusting tasks. But just, you know, taken on a task-by-task basis, who wouldn't rather have someone else do them? But somehow, you know, the payoff often comes in those moments when your child turns to you, you know, when there's somebody there that needs you the way that a small child needs his or her parent. And, you know, if that parent is you, I think for a lot of couples, it's mom. It's always mommy. And mommy is the one who's turned to when something is really urgently needed, and that's such a wonderful experience. I would never have wanted to have missed out on that by virtue of the fact that I got out of all those icky jobs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: In one of the essays in the book, you write about a moment when your daughter asks you about drug use…

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: …and your son's in the room, too. And she's learning about it at school. And you admit that you had used marijuana in the past…

Mr. CHABON: Right.

RAZ: …and she asks how many times.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. My son actually asked me.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. CHABON: We were ready, in a sense. My wife and I had spoken many times about this famous or infamous conversation that all contemporary parents dread and hopefully prepare for.

RAZ: Sex and drugs.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, sex. You know, sex not so much. I mean, I think it's kind of clear what you're going to say. With drugs, there's so much hypocrisy involved. You know, so much of parenting involves hypocrisy. In fact, being a parent means almost by definition that you're a hypocrite because you're trying to teach your children always to be better people than you are yourself.

So we had agreed to be honest. We were going to tell the truth. You know, we weren't going to say drugs are bad, and if you smoke marijuana, you'll become a heroin addict. And we decided we would teach them that, you know, you need - it had to be done responsibly, that it was very much illegal and that you could in terrible trouble for doing it, and yet somehow when the subject came up, I was just completely, you know, caught by surprise. It came out of nowhere.

We were talking about Beatles lyrics. Next thing I know, they're asking me how many times I've smoked marijuana. And, you know, the truthful answer at that point was one million, but I did not want to say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, all my resolve to be honest and truthful, you know, I was staring it in the face. And so I said a number of times, which is not a lie.

RAZ: Fair enough.

Mr. CHABON: And it seemed to satisfy him for the moment. And I should say I felt like I steered the conversation ultimately to the best possible place I could hope for. I was honest with you. I will always be honest with you, and I just hope that you guys will be honest with me and you'll share with me whatever you're going through because you know I just told you the truth.

RAZ: Somehow, you are incredibly prolific. You've seen to crank out books that readers and critics love, which is quite an achievement. I've seen you refer to discipline, not talent. You say that discipline is your strength.

Mr. CHABON: Well, absolutely. You must have talent. One must be talented. And one much also be lucky. And I have been very lucky, but there's one aspect that isn't under my control that I can do something about, and it's discipline. It's getting my butt in the chair everyday, trying to get 1,000 words a day, even in the worst, darkest periods of my life.

RAZ: So in a way, is fatherhood a little bit like being a writer?

Mr. CHABON: You know, I guess in a way there is a discipline. It is a discipline in that you have to do it, and you have to do it every day no matter how you feel.

RAZ: No matter how you feel, you have to get out bed.

Mr. CHABON: And there's a kind of minimum standard that you have to meet. There's no page count, but like you can't just, you know, stick a bag of Cheetos in your kids' backpack and send them off to school. You actually have to make a lunch, and it should have a protein, and you know, there is a practice there. There's like sort of a daily minimum set of things that you just absolutely need to do or it won't work.

And I mean, and there's satisfaction to be derived, just as there is in writing when I get my 1,000 words. I have that incredible sense of well-being. And let's say I had the foresight to make my kids' lunches the night before so that I make all the lunches, and they're all packed and in the refrigerator, and they're ready to go, and I don't have to do that tomorrow morning. And I know that I have the similar sense of having done my work that is gratifying.

RAZ: Michael Chabon is the author of several books, including his new one, a collection of essays called "Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son." Michael Chabon, thanks for stopping by.

Mr. CHABON: Thank you, Guy. I had a great time.

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