First born was Sophie, who is 23. 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 author Michael Chabon.
Being the father of those four young adults (and the husband to his wife, 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,” — released just in time for Father’s Day — is the 15th book that Chabon has published since leaving his childhood home in Columbia 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 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. 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.”
“No mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings and flaws of characters. 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 Chabon’s trip to Oregon to visit his ailing doctor father, with whom he has an amicable if distant relationship. Baltimore readers will enjoy the occasional local references. For example, Chabon describes how his father taught him to fill out a baseball scorecard during a visit to the old Memorial Stadium in 1971.
The novelist recently chatted over the phone about the ways in which his essays and his fiction line up and occasionally collide, about how he navigates the pitfalls of writing about real-life people and about how, for him, the daily activities of being a parent are as much of a craft that has to be studied and mastered as writing a supple sentence.
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 fictionalizing 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 non-fiction 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 different rules for the adults that you write essays about, such as your father? Are you inclined to cut them less slack?
Sure. I showed my father “Pops,” before it was published, but that was more just so that he would know that it was coming out. The only thing he wanted me to change was the way I phrased his medical diagnosis, and I was fine with that.
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. Sometimes 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.
How has your view of being a father changed as your kids have gotten older?
Right now, we’re on our fourth 15-year-old. I had to disabuse myself of the notion that anything I learned from raising my older children will be at all applicable to the younger ones. My wife and I used to say, “We're getting better at this. We seem to have gotten the hang of it. We’ve learned these lessons that we can carry them forward.”
In fact, trying to do that can be harmful. Sometimes, you have to unlearn things. Out of simple fairness, you have to try to summon as much energy and imagination and curiosity for each new child as you did for the ones that came before.
This interview has been edited and condensed.