Michael Chabon shares the photos that inspired his new novel Moonglow
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon will release his wildly inventive new novel, Moonglow — which has been one of EW’s most anticipated books of 2016 since we first got wind of it last year — on Nov. 22, and we have an exclusive look at how the book came to be.
Inspired by tales Chabon’s own dying grandfather told him while under the spell of painkillers in 1989, Moonglow unfolds as a deathbed confession from the narrator’s unnamed grandfather, blending speculative history and fiction into a novel about the mysterious origins of a company called Chabon Scientific Co.
Throughout his writing process, Chabon collected various photos that served as inspiration for different elements of Moonglow — and fortunately for us, the author was willing to share these treasures with EW to give readers a peek into his process. See the photos, along with commentary from Chabon, below, and beneath that, check out his fall book tour dates, or visit MichaelChabon.com, to see if he’s coming to a city near you.
Florida’s Only Jewish Burmese Python Hunter, Dave Leibman
“Within days of starting to write Moonglow, I was surprised to learn that my protagonist intended to hunt a giant, pet-eating Burmese python in the wilds of Florida. I knew that there were python hunters at work in that state but it seemed fairly unlikely any of them would be, like my protagonist, Jews. Google, and the implacable Dave Leibman assured me otherwise. Sometimes writing a novel can feel like hunting in a dismal swamp for a python that might not exist. Sometimes while writing this novel I would look at Dave Leibman’s picture and take a little courage from his determined mug.”
1939 Advertisement for Zundapp Motorcycles
“I needed to put my protagonist on a motorcycle (through a chain of imaginative association that touched Kip Singh in The English Patient, Pynchon’s Schwarzkommando, and Steve Rogers). I started with a BMW (it had to be a German bike), but went down a webhole and came out with a Zundapp, mostly, I admit, because I liked the sound of the word. Also, this image was so evocative, in particular of mud. Germany in spring 1945 was an empire of mud.”
As I Watch With Wonder, Ken Grimes (2008)
“This is a mysterious one to me. I felt that my imagination — or to be more precise, at the risk of sounding woo-woo — Moonglow’s imagination was drawn to this painting the instant I saw it, maybe because of its lunar palette, or its echo of the machinery-glyphs that Jack Kirby used to draw. That was before I knew anything about the artist, a self-taught ‘outsider’ artist, like my protagonist, inspired by the literature of space and spaceflight, whose work (paintings in Grimes’s case, a scale model lunar city in the case of my protagonist) seems haunted by madness.”
Mission Specialist Judy Resnick
“‘The first Jewess in space,’ as my narrator styles her, killed in the Challenger disaster, 1/28/1986. ‘Her hair,’ the narrator continues, ‘performed mad Medusa feats in zero g.’ The daughter of immigrants, a classical pianist with a Ph. D in electrical engineering, recruited to NASA by Nichelle ‘Lt. Uhura’ Nicholls. My protagonist has a kind of intellectual crush on her. I defy anyone looking at this photograph not to develop at least a little bit of a crush on the woman.”
“Rainbow cake,” Silber’s Bakery, Baltimore
“One of the research pleasures in writing Moonglow was having the chance to explore the world created by Baltimore Jews in the twentieth century, of which Silber’s lurid ‘rainbow cake’ remains, for anyone born into that world, a powerful evoker of memory. For me it served as an equally powerful reminder that the past, contrary to what contemporary photographs and films (and even memory) suggest, happened in color, not B&W.”
Capture of Wernher von Braun, May 2, 1945
“This guy. He was a monster, but look at him! Defeated, a prisoner, his work a failure, his prospects uncertain at best, in pain from a severe fracture that appears to have been set by graduates of the Wile E. Coyote School of Osteology, he wears a smirk of almost breathtaking knowingness, as if even at the nadir of his life he can foresee, and take smug comfort in the knowledge of how fat and storied his life to come will be. Go ahead, ‘arrest’ me, he seems to be saying. I’m going to the Moon, bitches!“
Skull of a horse
“A demonic hallucinated man-horse torments the narrator’s grandmother, and the echoes of its phantasmic nickering resound down the years in her family. The skull of a horse makes a brief appearance in Moonglow, on a memorable Hallowe’en in 1952. I thought the sight might strike a 10-year-old girl as a bit creepy; then I looked at this photo and totally creeped myself out! That sinister and comic Tim Burton-ish leer!”
Cover of Mechanix Illustrated, October 1957
“As I went searching for information in my attempt to falsify the history of Chabon Scientific Co., known only from cryptic advertisements (one is reproduced as a frontispiece to Moonglow) that featured in the back pages of certain magazines in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I came upon this, from which the artwork in the CS ad was obviously swiped. A perfect encapsulation, to me, of the odd domesticity, the intimacy — and the exuberance — of this moment in the history of the Cold War.”
Official mission portrait, STS 51-L (Last crew of Challenger)
“(Front row: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; Back row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.) One of five possessions chosen by my protagonist to accompany him on his final journey to Oakland, California. In Moonglow the scale model of Challenger seen at bottom left is my protagonist’s handiwork.”
“Enjoying Earthshine,” Space trading card series, #50, Topps, Inc. (1957)
“Among the most wonderful ‘Non-Sports’ trading card series ever produced. Card #38, ‘It’s Easy–On the Moon!’, is probably the coolest, but this depiction of a pair of lovers stealing a moment of lunar peace, illuminated but unmolested by Earth and all its blood and turmoil, seemed to have been scanned directly from my protagonist’s imagination.”