Michael Chabon: On What 'Manhood' Means The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist opens up about his experiences as a father to four children and husband to writer Ayelet Waldman in his book of personal essays, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son, now out in paperback.
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Michael Chabon: On What 'Manhood' Means

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Michael Chabon: On What 'Manhood' Means

Michael Chabon: On What 'Manhood' Means

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Michael Chabon is best known for his novels "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" - which won a Pulitzer Prize -"Wonder Boys" and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." He's also written personal essays, and some of them are collected in his latest book, which is now out in paperback. It's called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son."

Chabon is married to the novelist Ayelet Waldman, who wrote a memoir earlier this year about her life as a mother. Chabon and Waldman have four children: two boys and two girls. Terry spoke with Michael Chabon last year, when "Manhood for Amateurs" was first published.


Michael Chabon, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read the opening of one of the chapters from your new book, "Manhood for Amateurs."

Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son"): Great, I'd love to. This is "William and I."

(Reading) The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back, I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard.

I was holding my 20-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don't remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is as likely to have been the original, 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as it was the needs, demands or ineffable wonder of my son.

I wasn't quite sure why the woman in line behind us - when I became aware of her - kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little bit crazy and therefore, fond of everyone. You are such a good dad, she said finally. I can tell.

GROSS: What struck you as odd or baffling about the praise you were getting for being such a good dad in the supermarket?

Mr. CHABON: Well, because I wasn't doing anything. I mean, I was literally doing nothing but, you know - and then in fact, as I go on to say in the piece, I think if you stepped back and looked at me critically, I was probably making a few errors in parenting at that point. Like, my kid was chewing on one of the twist ties for the fruit for the produce bags and - you know, his face was dirty, and his hair was a mess.

I mean, objectively speaking, even by my own standards, I was doing kind of a lousy job at that moment. I certainly wasn't doing a good job and yet there I was, being given this gift of praise and so much credit, and it was clearly, and is often - as always the case - or often the case, anyway. It's just because the mere fact somehow that I'm just there, you know, holding onto my kid. That's like, enough. That's all it takes to qualify, sometimes.

GROSS: You and your wife are both writers, and I'm always so interested when writers are couples, in part because there's an element of writing that includes a certain amount of betrayal because whether you're writing a memoir or fiction, there's something you're going to be revealing about people you're close to, you know, whether it's transformed through fiction or whether it's, you know, straightforward through personal essay or memoir.

And when you're both in that position, it's something that I assume you really understand about what each other needs to do. I don't know if it makes it any easier, though.

And most of your writing has been fiction. Most of your wife's writing has been fiction - although her previous book was personal essays, as is yours.s..TEXT: And so I wonder what it's like for you when she writes really personal things that include things like how you decided to terminate a pregnancy after amniocentesis, or that she had considered suicide for a moment. I mean, these are so personal things that, you know - is it hard for you to read that? Is it hard for - are there reverberations in your life that are unexpected, from things like that?

Mr. CHABON: Well, yes. I mean, you know, it's not like, you know, a scene in a movie where like, you know, the guy - Spencer Tracy - like picks up his morning newspaper and there's this, like, thing his wife has written about them - and, you know and like, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, I mean, we share work with each other as it's coming out of the printer, you know. So if she's written a piece or I've written a piece that is in some way personal or in which one of us says something about the other, you know, we're each other's first reader.

So, you know, let's use her as an example. So say she's writing something, you know, the piece about the genetic termination. You know, I mean, she was sharing - first of all, she was sharing it with me as she was writing it, and she was - she - I knew she was going to write it. And then she wrote it, and I read it.

And you know, at that point, for her or for me, I think each of us implicitly feels that he or she has the right to - you know, to say, I'm not comfortable with that.

In practice, it doesn't really happen that often. I think, you know, it's -that's where we do have a recognition, a fundamental recognition that that's where writing comes from, whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

So I try to be philosophical about it. And you know, but there's still - there are unforeseen consequences, and there are things, you know - she wrote that now kind of infamous piece that was published in the New York Times, and it had initially just been written for this little anthology. So...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you and quote it so everybody knows what you're talking about.

Mr. CHABON: Okay.

GROSS: She said that she loved her husband more than her children, and then she said: If I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have my husband. But my imagination simply fails when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death. So that was like, the real controversial thing that she wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, right. And, you know, so from my point of view, reading that piece, first of all, that's just Ayelet. That's what she says. She's been saying that for years.

You know, I was by the point - by the time she got around to writing that down, I had been living with that kind of expression of her feeling for a long time. It just didn't even - it just really kind of blew over me without my even paying that much attention or thinking, like...

GROSS: Yes, whereas a lot of readers thought like, what? What kind of mother is she?

Mr. CHABON: Exactly.

GROSS: She loves her husband more than her children. How can any mother say that? So that's what made it so controversial.

Mr. CHABON: Right.

GROSS: So anyway, go ahead. I interrupted you.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, and I mean, I didn't even - you know, I'm just, like yup, that's how you feel, honey. I know that. Thank you. You know, it's sweet that you're so devoted to me and I love you, too.

I mean, it was just sort of a - you know, to me, what caught my attention more in that piece was that she was writing about sex and not only, you know, our sex life - not that she was really going into detail, but she was at least acknowledging the fact that we do have a sex life - and then, you know, talking about her - you know, women she knows and their sex lives.

I mean, to me, that was what I thought the piece was about, and that's where I thought the - sort of buzz in it might come from. But then it was just going to be in this little anthology and nobody was going to read it, and by circuitous means, it ended up being in the New York Times.

And you know, that was one of the moments, maybe the single greatest moment where suddenly, you know, I had not really anticipated what the reaction would be or what the response would be, or how that might play out.

So I was getting, you know, emails from people saying hey, sex god and, you know, and just - and it was not - you know, I wasn't ready. I had not been prepared in that sense, even though I knew, as I said, I already knew what was in it and had approved it, you know, tacitly.

GROSS: Does that make you think twice about revealing personal things in your writing or saying yes, go ahead and publish it - when your wife shows you something personal that she's about to publish?

Mr. CHABON: No. Not really. I mean, it's - look, that's the stuff that you make writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present as nonfiction. That's the stuff that you make good writing out of.

And the stuff that you know for sure is working - is going to connect, is going to make somebody want to keep reading it - is the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable as you're writing it, always. And that's the ultimate sign to me that I'm on to something - is if I'm squirming a little bit as I'm writing about it, if it's making me feel uncomfortable, if I feel like I'm verging on things that make me nervous. And I know I'm...

GROSS: Give me an example of something that made you squirm, that you wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Well, they tell a story - I tell a story in this book about a woman who was a friend of my mother's, who I had sex with when I was 15 years old. And that's a story - until I wrote it down, that was a story that I had told very few people - two maybe, or three - in my whole life.

And so, you know - and it had been suggested to me that I might - I'd never tried writing about, you know, my first sexual experience, and I decided that my first sexual experience wasn't that interesting. But my second, there was a story there, and I knew it, and I had lived with it for all of these years without ever telling it in any really detailed way.

So, you know, I started writing this piece, and I got that sense right away of like, wow, am I really going to do this? Am I really going to write about this, you know, partly - not because it's really that shocking or controversial. It was almost just the fact that I had held onto it so tightly for so long that it felt strange to kind of open up that jar, finally, and let it out.

But, you know, that was - as soon as I had that sense of unease or hesitation or a feeling of like, maybe I should come up with something else, that was the moment I said to myself, keep going - because this is where stuff comes from.

GROSS: Okay, the story about having sex with your mother's friend - so you felt, you know, that squirmy feeling as you wrote it.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. And right now, sitting here in my chair, I'm having it all over again, as you're preparing to ask me the question.

GROSS: I can understand that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I guess I'm wondering...

Mr. CHABON: I brought it up.

GROSS: I guess I'm wondering what the value you see in it - as a story - is. I mean, we've established it makes you uncomfortable. It's something you'd held onto for a long time. It was kind of a secret, except for a few people.

But now that it's out there, now that you've found the words to tell it, now that you've been able to make this event in your life into a story, what does it mean to you as a story?

Mr. CHABON: I guess ultimately, it says something to me - it helped - if that's the right word - create, in part, the template for sex in my life so that, you know, there was something - there was a difficulty there.

You know, the first experience was sort of a much more typical kind of teenage first experience. The second experience was this brush with the adult world, a kind of premature brush with the adult world - with an adult, with an adult life, you know. And I think it sort of - it pushed me up against the seriousness and the actual kind of emotional power of sex.

GROSS: And complications.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, in a way that I wasn't - you know, I just hadn't ever - I was 15 years old. I mean, you know, it was - Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" was, you know, kind of what I thought the sum total of sex would be, you know, avoid getting the girl pregnant and enjoy yourself.

So, you know, it was - it was a strange thing to do at that age, and to suddenly be presented with a sense that there's like, a lot of weight and power and sort of sadness, even, that kind of lurks in the sexual relationships between people.

And, you know, what my reaction to that was, was to kind of close that door and say, you know, I'm just not ready for that yet. I can't handle that. I don't want to know that now. But it - you know, I think that did shift my perspective on the subject thereafter.

GROSS: Yeah, that's really interesting. I could see how that would definitely, you know, complicate things for you. Did your mother know before you wrote the book?

Mr. CHABON: No, no. She didn't. She didn't know until, you know, she read the piece as it was published. And we had a relatively brief and sort of emotionally neutral exchange of information about the piece. You know, I satisfied her curiosity and in her kind of characteristic way, she shrugged it off and, you know, it didn't seem to - I don't know. I honestly don't know what she thought when she read it or how she felt when she read it, and I didn't ask.

BIANCULLI: Michael Chabon, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with author and essayist Michael Chabon. His latest volume of collected essays, called "Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: David Foster Wallace, the writer who was a friend of yours, committed suicide and...

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. I should say, we weren't - I didn't know him very well. I mean, I wish he had been a friend of mine. I always kind of wanted to be his friend, but I only met him once.

GROSS: Oh, okay. And, you know, your wife had, you know, mentioned in her writing that she came close to suicide once. So you think about that.

You reflect on that in your book and you write: The world, like our heads, was meant to be escaped from. They are prison, the world and head alike. And then you quote David Foster Wallace as saying: I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.

I think it's a really beautiful description of both the human condition and the - why we respond so well to, you know, to books and movies and music, too. But I'm thinking like, when you're a writer, it's maybe more of being trapped in your skull than being released from it as you're in the process of writing.

Mr. CHABON: Not when it's going well. No. I mean, when it's - when my writing's going well, when I'm writing, you know, a work of fiction, when I'm writing a novel, I'm there.

Wherever I'm - whatever I'm writing about, whoever's head I'm in, I'm not in my head anymore. I'm in the head of the character. Or if it's sort of an omniscient, third-person narrator, I'm in the head of the narrator - who's not me, who is this much more intelligent, precise, open-souled, open-hearted being than I am. And that in itself, just being a narrator is - there's a sense of release in that.

And then to imagine the world you're describing - the physical world, the place, the house, the buildings, whatever it might be - it, you know, it's all so vivid in my imagination that, you know, it's very much like the experience of getting lost as a reader in a book.

I'm sort of having a double experience of both - sort of almost being in the actual reality I'm trying to create and then a millisecond afterward, reading about it. And you know, I think that's part of the reason I love doing it so much, is because it does provide me with that sense, that same sense of escape -and also connectedness because you're writing to, you're always addressing someone.

You're writing to a reader. You know, you have an ideal reader, an imagined reader out there that is the person who will just understand all of your references and who will understand the emotions that you're trying to, you know, bring forth and who will appreciate your every joke and, you know, who will see the care that went into crafting this three-part metaphor that takes place over five pages.

And you know, you're creating - that's a part of the imaginative act itself - is to create that reader, and address the work to that reader. And that - again, it gives you that same illusion of connection that is, you know, I think another thing that keeps me doing it - that made me want to do it in the first place.

GROSS: Well, we've been talking about some pretty heavy things so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I thought we could end with a story that I found like, really, really entertaining and funny, and it has to do with your diaper bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Oh yes. The murse.

GROSS: The murse, which is what, for male purse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Exactly. We're struggling to come up with anything we can say that's not actually the word purse - is what we're looking for.

GROSS: Yes. Uh-huh, or pocketbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Oh, pocketbook. That's a good one. I haven't thought of that in a long time.

GROSS: Yeah. So, you know, as you point out, a lot of men feel like everything that they have to carry - and that's a lot, the wallet and all the other stuff -has to be in pockets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yes.

GROSS: And so you had these overstuffed pockets until you started carrying the diaper bag, and then what?

Mr. CHABON: And then, well then, you know, just out of convenience I started putting more things into the diaper bag; I always had this diaper bag with me, you know.

And I struggled with the diaper bag, too, and it took me a while to find the right diaper bag that wasn't you know, too girlie, that wasn't too babyish, that, you know - so I found this sort of functional black vinyl, or some kind of synthetic material diaper bag. And little by little, you know, I'm carrying the New York Review of Books around under my arm; why don't I just stick it in the diaper bag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, and then I might as well put my keys in the diaper bag, too. And then the next thing you know - and this is the big step; this is when you're really cutting the tether, is when you put your wallet in the diaper bag because taking your wallet, if you're a guy, taking your wallet out of your pocket and putting it anywhere else, you know - whether it's your hip pocket or your vest pocket or your jacket, or wherever you keep it - to put it into a something - a bag - and not have it on your body, you know, your wallet is you, when you're a man, and to then just take it off your body and put it in a bag was a scary moment.

But I did it, and, you know, because having kids is basically an endless series of breaking you down and getting you to do all the things you never, you know, you thought your dignity would preserve you from ever having to do.

And once I didn't need a diaper bag anymore, I didn't want to put all that stuff back in my pockets. It's stupid to carry stuff around in your pants pocket. It hurts. So, you know, I just got over it. And now, yes, I'm I call it a purse now because my kids, that's what they called it, your purse. Daddy, you forgot your purse. So that's how I refer to it now, and it's sitting right here on the floor.

GROSS: Michael Chabon, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CHABON: Oh, thank you, Terry, I really enjoyed it, too. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Michael Chabon, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. His collection of essays, "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son," is now out in paperback. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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