How the theme of fatherhood has evolved in Michael Chabon's novels
Michael Chabon, the acclaimed best-selling novelist (and father of four), spent an afternoon with EW at his home last month, looking back at his biggest books through the prism of parenthood — just in time for the release of his new essay collection, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, and Father's Day. Here, he offers candid insights and intimate revelations, background on how his many celebrated novels came to be. Buy your copy of Pops here.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
Chabon’s first published novel features several themes he’s returned to throughout his career—particularly, chosen families and absent fathers. He started writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at just 21 years old, telling the story of Art Bechstein, the son of a money launderer trying to go legit. “I was at that age where you start to leave the family you were born into,” Chabon says. The novel was “very autobiographical” for him, with its estranged father-son dynamic—the first of many times that Chabon’s own sense of abandonment (his father left home when he was 12) would filter into his work.
Wonder Boys (1995)
One of Chabon’s more indelible characters, Grady Tripp, is an author suffering from writer’s block while weathering a personal storm: His wife has walked out, and his girlfriend is newly pregnant. Grady wrestles with impending fatherhood and ultimately decides he isn’t ready for it. Chabon completed Wonder Boys just before his wife, Ayelet Waldman, became pregnant with their first child. And he shared Grady’s lack of parental vision. “You don’t ever see Grady being a parent,” Chabon explains. “Partly, I think, that’s because I wasn’t ready to go there myself.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
In its latter half, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel constructs a chosen family of Sammy, a gay man; Rosa, the wife of his Navy-serving creative partner; and Tommy, her young son. Chabon had become a father by the time he wrote Kavalier & Clay, and he drew heavily from his—and his wife’s—trials in parenthood. “Part of [how I] changed was my experience of seeing my wife as a mother—it was a close-up to everything,” he says. “The bar is so much higher for mothers. Watching my wife wrestle with that, I was able to try to approximate and begin to approach…some of that experience.”
Chabon's (fairly divisive) first foray into the young adult space features a plenty dark realization of absent fatherhood: A dad literally disppears, captured by a trickster called Coyote. Mr. Feld is introduced as a scientist alternately bumbling and consumed by his job; later, he's literally flattened, having chosen his work over reuniting with his son. It's intense stuff, but Chabon, writing just after his biggest success to date, could relate. "Mr. Feld gets so absorbed into the work that he's doing that he becomes less than human: He becomes this flat man," Chabon explains. "That was my way of expressing feelings of guilt of my own, over the sacrifice in time spent with my kids that I was obliged to make."
The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2005)
Chabon had never mined such personal, painful material as he did here—which is surprising, given its sci-fi trappings. Detective Landsman’s marriage to Bina falls apart due to a shared trauma: the termination of a wanted pregnancy. Chabon went through the same thing with Waldman, and he integrated that grief into this “phantasmagoric, Yiddish-speaking, Alaskan murder-mystery.” As he learned, “genre fiction can actually be more conducive to allowing a writer to get at some really dark, raw emotion.”
Telegraph Avenue (2012)
This tale traces another legacy of absent fatherhood: Archy, the protagonist, reckons with his father’s abandonment and his own parental failings when his long-lost son resurfaces. But the theme’s recurrence in Chabon’s work is subconscious. The author calls it part of his “toolbox,” a motif inherent to his life that’s now part of his narrative arsenal. “Loss is the one thing I return to the most regularly,” Chabon says, referencing the golden age of comic books (Kavalier & Clay) and the Yiddish language. “And that sense of loss is so powerful that it can extend beyond absent fathers.”
Chabon describes the characters in Moonglow, a fictionalized account of the wild stories his grandfather shared before he died, as his “ultimate family of choice.” He explains: “I blew my chance to know my actual grandparents with the intimacy that I could get to know a fictional character. In [Moonglow], I invented a whole new family for myself and put myself into that family.” As such, it’s Chabon’s most personally intimate book to date, stuffed with his dreams and anxieties—guilt over failing his children, anger over losing his father. “I was fully projecting my own feelings,” he says. “In a way, it was almost like Method acting.”
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces (2018)
It began with a lauded GQ essay, in which Chabon reflected on his relationship to his son, Abe, watching him enter the world of fashion and exit the world they'd built together. And it came together as a grander exploration of fatherhood: Chabon's meditation on his experiences as both a parent and a child. Indeed, the collection really comes together with its final entry, a searing piece on Chabon's lingering, conflicted feelings about his own father. He sees that and the GQ piece as deeply, intimately connected: "They're both about letting go, in different ways—the letting go that you have to do as a parent, and how that feels to watch your child as they begin to enter adulthood, and not need or want you so much anymore."