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'Moonglow' Shines A Light On Hidden Family History

Moonglow, Michael Chabon's new novel, is like a moonshot in search of life before it goes dark.

Mike, the narrator, goes to his grandfather on his deathbed, where strong painkillers 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, 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.

Chabon tells NPR's Scott Simon that the origin of the story lies with his actual, nonfictional grandfather. "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," Chabon says. "And he brought out a whole bunch of stories and anecdotes that I had never heard before."


Interview Highlights

On why the fictional grandfather wanted to blow up Washington, D.C.

I mean everybody feels that way, sooner or later! 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. — it's 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 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 — no sooner has he had sort of the relish of conceiving this plan than he is 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. 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.

On writing love scenes


It's a very weird feeling, I will say, to be writing. You know, there are certain scenes that 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, "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.

On the grandparents' relationship in the book

He can sense the dangerousness around her — she is mentally unstable. 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 is this kind of shadow over her. And you know the image of the moon. with its light side and its dark side, and the 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.

On the GQ piece he wrote about his son's love of fashion

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. 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. And it's hard to accept.

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