Mention a literary genre and it's likely Michael Chabon, 53, has mastered it. Nearly 30 years after becoming an overnight publishing sensation with his best-selling debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the brilliant stylist has shown he can spin magic out of any genre he touches. Horror, fantasy, cultural history, children's tales - Chabon has played with them all.
In the process, he's upended the distinction between high art and pop culture, as in his 2001 masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a book about comic books that won him a Pulitzer Prize.
If there is a common thread to Chabon's work, it's his fascination with storytelling itself.
That's the dominant theme of his latest offering, Moonglow, an ambitious, epic 448-page tale about the soul of post-World War II America. Constructed as a faux memoir by a man named Mike Chabon, the book is a deathbed confession of sorts that has Mike's grandfather tell him the extraordinary tale of his life.
A wartime spy, a pool hustler, and an ex-con, the grandfather is a fascinating antihero. He's a super-rational engineer obsessed with rocket technology but also a romantic who marries a French woman traumatized by the Nazi occupation.
His enthralling, sprawling adventure story also doubles as a brilliant retelling of American history that is funny, profane, and profound.
Your work has become much more playful over the years. The serious themes are still there, but the more mature and confident you've become as a writer, the funnier your stories. It made me think of the Bob Dylan line, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
Yes, from [the song] "My Back Pages." I actually think about that lyric a lot. They're words to live by.
I think a certain amount of that comes from raising my own kids. You have constant reminders of just what it means to maintain that fresh point of view which gets hidden when you grow older. Late adolescence tends to be the age when you adopt a certain seriousness of approach that Dylan was talking about.
And it has affected your work?
I think for me it was the experience of taking . . . [a] chance with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and of trying out the idea that a novel of serious literary intent could also be about comic book superheroes. . . . And to see it being valued to the point of it winning a Pulitzer Prize. That was definitely freeing.
You've said that you didn't actually plan "Moonglow." That the story started flowing even before it was an actual idea.
Definitely. I had no idea I was going to be writing it until I suddenly found that I was, and that is very rare. . . . I thought I was writing a follow-up novel to [2012's] Telegraph Avenue. I had been researching the book and thinking about it when I went out to my office. . . . [But] I found myself thinking about this story my real grandfather told me about my great-uncle, his brother, who was fired from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, a convicted perjurer and alleged communist spy who couldn't get a job anywhere else.
I don't know why or how, but all of a sudden I was writing in the voice of a grandson sitting by his dying grandfather's bedside, and, you know, it caught me completely unawares.
So the idea had been percolating in the back of your mind for some time?
If it was, I certainly wasn't aware of it. So I mean, probably, maybe, definitely must have been, because otherwise where did it come from?
The book opens with the grandfather getting fired - and almost beating his boss to death. Tell me about this guy. It's clear he knows his way around a fistfight.
My whole life, going back to my earliest childhood, it's always been important for me to be the good boy. Please my parents, please my family, please my teachers. . . . The grandfather is not a good boy. He was the bad boy, and because of that he had a certain kind of freedom, or what seemed like freedom. And then he spent almost all his adult life dealing with the consequences of that.
He's a troublemaker, as OSS and CIA founder William "Wild Bill" Donovan tells him when he's recruiting him as a spy. "One glance at you and I know the whole story," Donovan tells him. "You've been looking for trouble all your life."
Right. But he's certainly not a bad man.
Actually, he is sort of a good man. Or he tries to be. Over time, he takes refuge in constructing really severe moral codes for everyone, including himself. And he comes to value things like suppressing your emotions.
That can't go down well with his wife, who is this enigmatic, wild madwoman. We seem to enter Gothic romance here, with this monster she's always seeing.
The skinless horse.
Right, the skinless horse! Very creepy imagery. It's terrifying but also very sexual.
I just think there's something really uncanny about horses. . . . They still have this fundamentally undomesticated side.
The problem I was trying to solve with the horse was how can I represent [her madness] in a way that is not merely reporting her symptoms but that somehow embodies it.
You don't like discussing which parts of the book are true or how they relate to your real family.
That's just boring. That's why I don't do it. Anyway, it's more fun to watch the reactions of people trying to guess what's true and what's made up.
Chabon will talk about Moonglow at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Free. 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org/authorevents