'Moonglow' Shines A Light On Hidden Family History Michael Chabon's new novel is based on deathbed conversations with his own grandfather, as strong painkillers unlocked the stories of a long full life — stories Chabon says he'd never heard before.
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'Moonglow' Shines A Light On Hidden Family History

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'Moonglow' Shines A Light On Hidden Family History

'Moonglow' Shines A Light On Hidden Family History

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"Moonglow," Michael Chabon's new novel, is like a moonshot to search for life before it can go dark. Mike, the narrator, goes to his grandfather on his deathbed where strong pain killers crack open the stories the old man has kept under wraps for so long. The grandson can finally see his grandfather as a young man who was an unheralded hero of the OSS in World War II, an engineer who dreamed of the stars, a pool hustler, a lover and an unabashed felon. "Moonglow" was the latest novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, essayist, screenwriter and lyric writer. One of the most acclaimed literary stylists in America, Michael Chabon joins us now from Berkeley, Calif.

Thanks so much for being with us, Michael.

MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, thank you, Scott. I'm very happy to be here.

SIMON: And to what degree is this your grandfather?

CHABON: (Laughter) The genesis of the story, in many ways, definitely lies with my actual grandmother - grandfather. I actually did spend a lot of time with my actual mother's actual father at the end of his life. He very much - like the grandfather in the book, he was lying in a rented hospital bed in my mother's house in Oakland, Calif. In terminal stages of cancer, he was on heavy painkillers. And his mind wandered, and it wandered into the past. And he brought out a whole bunch of stories and anecdotes that I had never heard before.

And unlike the grandfather in my book, my actual grandfather was a big talker. He was not a taciturn man at all. He loved wordplay and language and told a lot of stories. And, you know, I probably figured at this point I'd heard all of his stories, I probably heard them all a couple of times. And yet, I was hearing all of these things I had never heard before. It really did strike me that there was so much more in there than I had ever bothered to wonder about. And of course, at this point, it was really too late to do anything about it.

SIMON: I know you were born in Washington, D.C., why does the grandfather in the book want to figure out a way to blow it up?

CHABON: (Laughter) I mean everybody feels that way....

CHABON: I was about to out - yeah...

CHABON: ...Sooner or later. (Laughter) The grandfather is a stickler. He has a very efficient, methodical engineer's mind. So as a young soldier, with a little bit of a bloodthirsty nature, arriving in sleepy, somnolent Washington, D.C., that is in the middle of a war - it's after Pearl Harbor - but doesn't seem to really be shoring up its security leaks in the way that he feels is appropriate, he kind of evolves this elaborate fantasy about how - just how easy it would be for a small team of highly trained German commandos with a submarine to land not very far from Washington, D.C. and quickly subdue and conquer it in a matter of a few days. And he's so alarmed and terrified.

As soon - no sooner has he had sort of the relish of conceiving this plan than he's afraid of it. And it seems too plausible to him. And he reports it to his superiors, they don't do anything about it. And he's so enraged that nothing is done that then he decides to implement just one small portion of it, in play, essentially. But, you know, he can't suffer fools, and he can't suffer incompetence and he can't suffer inefficiency and waste. And these things are both his blessing and his curse.

SIMON: One point he's hauled before William Donovan - Wild Bill - who we know, from history - head of the Office of Strategic Services. He looks at the grandfather of this book and says, one glance at you and I know the whole story. You've been looking for trouble all your life.

SIMON: Yeah.

SIMON: That could also be falling in love with the woman who is the grandmother of this book. And I developed a passion for his wife, too.

CHABON: (Laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my God. That's your grandmother. And this is on the verge of being highly improper. I'm sorry...

CHABON: I know, right? Exactly. No, it's a very weird feeling, I will say, to be writing - you know, are there certain, you know, scenes, there are love scenes in this book, and I'm writing them in the voice of the first person narrator. And he's saying things like, you know, my grandmother took off her dress. And those words, my grandmother, had this sort of, like, sacrosanct quality. And it felt very transgressive, I have to say, to be using my grandmother in a love scene.

SIMON: I'll bet. Well, moving on.

CHABON: Yes, absolutely. That's what attracts him to her. From the first - from their first meeting, he can sense the dangerousness around her. She is mentally unstable, she's very - her personality is very fluid. She has suffered trauma that he doesn't really know anything about when they first meet, it had something to do with her experience during the war. It's that dangerousness, it's that sense that there's this kind of shadow over her. And, you know, the image of the moon with its light side and its dark side, and that image in particular of the dark side of the moon is a recurrent one in this book. And it's something that is part of him and it's part of her and it's part of their story together.

SIMON: He makes the most romantic promise to her.

CHABON: Yes, he does. He promises that he will take her away from all of this fury and blood and confusion. And take her to the peace and tranquility of the moon.

SIMON: Yeah, God bless. I want to end with this, if I can. You just recently wrote the loveliest appreciation for your son who is passionate about fashion.


SIMON: And as a father, I am touched by your awe of him.

CHABON: (Laughter) Thank you. I think the hardest thing to do as a parent - I have two sons and two daughters, and this is equally true of my sons and daughters, the hardest thing to learn how to do as a parent is to get out of their way. And, you know, this kid made it a lot easier for me to know when to get out of his way.

SIMON: You went to Fashion Week together, and you wrote about it so beautifully in GQ.

CHABON: Yeah, exactly. And he just showed me that he was his own entity in ways that, you know, I was not surprised by. And yet, the reality of it and - my own insufficiency - like, yes, I think I'm a good father, I do my best, I try my hardest. But there's some important, crucial, fundamental part of him that I can't be there for. I'm insufficient. And it's hard to accept, but somehow in in the way that he helped me to that was also in some way typical of him because he's very clear. He's not hard to - he's not enigmatic let's put it that way.

SIMON: Michael Chabon, his novel, "Moonglow." Thanks so much for being with us.

CHABON: Oh, my pleasure, Scott. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

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