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Michael Chabon: On What 'Manhood' Means

Jun 25, 2010 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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This interview originally aired on October 7, 2009.

Novelist Michael Chabon opens up about his experiences as a husband and the father of four in his new book of personal essays, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.

The book is comprised of 39 personal essays, which present Chabon's take on everything from pocketbooks for men ("murses") to his relationship with his ex-father-in-law.

When it comes to parenthood, Chabon writes that "the handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low." To illustrate his point, he recalls an incident in which a woman in a grocery store praised him for being such a good dad — despite the fact that he wasn't doing much at all.

"I mean, objectively speaking, even by my own standards, I was doing kind of a lousy job at that moment," he tells Terry Gross. "I certainly wasn't doing a good job, and yet there I was being given this gift of praise and so much credit. It's just because of the mere fact that I'm just there, holding on to my kid. ... That's all it takes to qualify sometimes."

Chabon credits his mother — who raised him on her own — with instilling in him his notions of manhood and household responsibility.

"I had this very powerful object lesson in my home," he says. "My mother was, and is to this day, a very level-headed, sensible, determined, focused, quiet person who kind of decides what she's going to do and then goes about doing whatever needs to be done to make that happen."

He also happens to be married to another strong woman, writer Ayelet Waldman. Waldman caused a stir a few years ago when she published an essay for the New York Times in which she detailed her sex life with Chabon and admitted to loving her husband more than her children.

Chabon says that though he had "tacitly" approved the essay when Waldman wrote it, he was taken aback by the response it received. "I was getting e-mails from people saying, 'Hey, sex god,' " he says. He says he wasn't ready for the attention.

Still, the reaction to Waldman's article didn't dissuade Chabon from wading into the nonfiction waters himself. He says that though writing nonfiction can sometimes be uncomfortable, "the ultimate sign to me that I am on to something is if I'm squirming a little bit as I'm writing about it."

In one of the squirmiest moments in his new memoir, Chabon recounts his second sexual experience, which happened when he was 15 and involved a friend of his mother. (His mother didn't know about the incident until she read the published piece.)

"[Writing] it was like, 'Wow, am I really going to do this? Am I really going to write about this?' " he says. "Not because it's really that shocking or controversial. It was almost just the fact that I had held onto it so tightly for so long that it felt strange to kind of open up that jar finally and let it out."

Reflecting on the encounter, Chabon says, "It helped — if that's the right word — create in part the template for sex in my life. It was a kind of premature brush with the adult world ... and it pushed me up against the seriousness and the actual kind of emotional power of sex."

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