First born was Sophie Chabon, who is 23 now. Then came Zeke, Ida-Rose and finally, 15-year-old Abe – two boys and two girls who share a family obsession with the cult British sci-fi television show Doctor Who and the confidence to develop idiosyncratic sartorial styles.
But the four siblings differ in their musical tastes, breakfast preferences and, most of all, in the lessons they have to impart to their father, the American author Michael Chabon.
Being the father of those four young adults (and the husband to the writer Ayelet Waldman) has been the driving passion of Chabon’s life – even greater than his compulsion to put words onto a page, and that’s saying a lot.
Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces (Harper) is the 15th book that Chabon has published since leaving his childhood home in Columbia, Maryland, for college. That tally doesn’t include the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s other writing projects such as his screenplays or the forthcoming Netflix television series on which he and Waldman are working.
Chabon, 55, has always been a stay-at-home dad; writing usually occurs between 10pm and 3am after his offspring are asleep. If that exercise in split concentration has resulted in fewer books, or in novels of lesser quality, that’s a trade-off the author makes gladly.
“Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me,” Chabon writes in the introductory essay to Pops. (Pops is reviewed here.)
“No mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.”
Seven of the thoughtful and moving essays in this slender volume describe Chabon’s adventures in parenting, from accompanying his then 13-year-old son to Paris fashion week to his discomfort at reading Huckleberry Finn (which is riddled with the n-word) out loud to his children; the eponymous eighth chronicles a trip Chabon made to Oregon to visit his ailing doctor father, with whom he has an amicable if distant relationship.
Chabon speaks about the book in a recent telephone interview.
Can you describe the role that invention plays in your nonfiction writing?
When I’m writing about something from the past I try very hard to describe it the way it actually happened. If something happened two times, I would never say that it happened three times.
But memory is a fictionalising device and is, to some extent, unreliable. It conflates some things and leaves other things out that are too complicated. As a species, we have become so good at seeing patterns that sometimes we see patterns that aren’t even there. We’re trying to find a signal in the noise.
That’s part of what you’re doing when you write – you’re trying to find a signal in the noise.
What rules do you have for writing personal essays about your children?
The general procedure when writing nonfiction is to check first and make sure it’s OK before you publish anything.
After I wrote “Little Man”, the essay about taking Abe to fashion week, I showed it to him before I sent it in.
I told him: “You have total editorial control over this. You have approval over the final cut. If anything is in here that makes you uncomfortable, I will try to find a way to write it that you are comfortable with.”
All he had for me was fact-checking things. For instance, the version I showed him had the wrong brand of sneakers. He was very nitpicky about those details. But other than that, he was OK with what I wrote.
Do you have rules for writing about people in your nonfiction?
When I write a piece of nonfiction about the people in my life, I’m never trying to offend or provoke anyone or get their goat.
My overall sense of these essays is that they’re simultaneously revealing and circumspect. There are places you deliberately don’t go.
Do you ever worry that you’re pulling your punches?
Definitely. It’s a fine line that you’re walking, and it’s always a challenge. I navigate it by trying to be as hard on myself as I am on other people.
It can also be an issue when you’re writing fiction inspired by something that happened in real life, though I’m less inclined in those cases to check with the person first. Trying to figure out in advance what’s going to offend someone is a mug’s game. Some-times what bothers people are the most innocuous things that I never dreamed would give anyone offense when I wrote them.
Other times I sweat over a passage and really worry about it – and then I hand the piece to the person and they don’t even notice the thing I was so concerned about.
It’s clear from your essays that being a father is as much an adventure for you as writing.
There’s a surprising amount of opportunity to bring the same amount of art and craft and thoughtfulness to the activities of being a father as there is to writing.
There are ways to find pleasure in being a parent that are more than just the obvious things – the loving and being loved and the milestones like watching them take their first step.
There are possibilities for discovering satisfaction that I didn’t anticipate when I was a new father.
You can find a sense of accomplishment from having three kids all come downstairs at the same time, all wanting something different for breakfast before they go to school.
“You can look at that situation as, “Oh my God, I wish they would all just leave”, or as, “First I’m going to get out the eggs out, and then I’m going to get out the butter”, and turn it into a practice that you enjoy and get better at over time. – The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service