Ask the Author: Michael Cunningham

Answered Questions (6)

Michael Cunningham People ask, sometimes, about my ability to write convincing women characters (I’m not only a man, I’ve been one all my life). I of course am always glad to hear that people find my female characters convincing.

I do, however, have a counter-question of my own – I wonder why some male writers have such difficulty writing women characters.

I don’t want to under-estimate the differences between genders. But at the same time, I believe that at our deepest levels – the levels of our natures, our characters – we’re much more alike than we are different. I don’t really think that men and woman come from different planets (though if I did, and had written a book about it, I’d be much wealthier than I am at present, wouldn’t I?).

I wonder sometimes if it gets down to this: I like women. I’m interested in women. It may be as simple as that. It may be that some male writers simply don’t like women all that much (and, for that matter, the reverse – there are probably women writers who don’t particularly like men).

That said, when I’ve finished a book that involves prominent women characters – which, now that I think of it, would be every book I’ve written – I show it to a few women friends, by way of a reality check.

This, however, is slightly tricky ground – what woman is an authority on woman-ness; that is, beyond her own experience as a woman? Do I consider myself an authority on what it’s like to be a white gay man? I do not.

However. There is, I think, a funny sort of middle realm, in which gender-y intuition is probably more in play than actual factual knowledge. Although it’s never come up, I can imagine being shown a gay male character written by a straight writer, and having certain… insights, I guess you’d say; a certain sense that this seems right but that seems slightly off the mark.

Here’s an example. When I showed a draft of The Hours to a friend, a remarkable poet named Marie Howe, she had a couple of suggestions about the character of Clarissa.

She thought Clarissa would walk through New York City with more awareness of the poor and homeless around her than I’d given her. And she felt that in Clarissa’s scenes with Richard, her oldest friend, Clarissa was too severe; that her severity should be more suffused with tenderness, with palpable love.

Marie meant, of course, that as a woman she could see certain qualities in the particular character of Clarissa. She wasn’t claiming that every living woman would walk the streets of New York and think of the poor, or that every living woman would be more loving and less strict with an old, ill friend.

I had the good sense to listen to Marie, and made the changes she suggested.
Michael Cunningham Wouldn’t it be great if you could mention a movie star in a novel, and somehow cause that star to be in the film version?

The scene in The Hours to which you refer may or may not actually involve Meryl S. Clarissa, one of the novel’s central characters, happens upon a movie being shot as she walks through New York City (there are relatively few days when one doesn’t happen upon a movie being shot in New York City), and sees, briefly – extremely briefly – a woman who is clearly a star, looking out of her trailer. She quickly withdraws again. Clarissa wonders who it might have been: Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave? (I can’t help noticing that my mention of Vanessa Redgrave did not cause her to appear in the movie version of The Hours).

That scene refers to a scene in V. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in which Mrs. Dalloway sees a royal limousine drive by, its rear windows covered with curtains, though briefly – very briefly – a hand wearing a grey glove appears, adjusts the curtain, and vanishes again.

Clarissa thinks about how, although there’s no way of knowing whose hand occupied that glove, the hand and the personage attached to the hand is a member of the royal family, and is therefore going into history; will be remembered long after most mortals are forgotten. It’s Mrs. Dalloway’s brush with the eternal, with that which the world simply refuses to forget.

It seems to me that movie stars are the closest we’ve got, in contemporary America, to royals. They too will be remembered, long after the rest of us are gone. Here’s to Meryl, then – and to Vanessa – in the 25th century.
Michael Cunningham My mother was raised Catholic. She left the church when she married my father, but as a child I was forever being taken to visit ancient aunts who lived in a perpetual dusk of incense, surrounded by dozens of statues of garishly bleeding saints.

I found it terrifying, and fabulous.

And, as it happens, one of my oldest friends is a practicing Catholic, though that doesn’t mean she’s not a lot of fun.

You could say I’m… curious. You could say I come from a line of believers, without exactly believing, myself. You could say that I’d love to find religion, but can’t seem to make the leap. You could say I have too many questions to which organized religion seems to offer too few answers.

Which, come to think of it, may address the question, right there. I wondered what would happen if a secular, regular guy – a guy with a job, a string of love affairs gone wrong, an ordinary citizen who, like me, subscribes to no formal system of belief – saw something inexplicable, and yet something that powerfully implies…something larger than the collective cohort of human beings, some perceiving entity that might or might not be God but is clearly paranormal.

It seemed important – I’m honestly not quite sure why – that the apparition reveal itself, but impart no message. So many of the Annunciations of which I know involve some being vaguely like a giant Christmas ornament who appears, and tells the chosen one what to do.

What, however, if you’ve been seen, if some kind of Annunciation has manifested itself, but left you with no instructions of any kind?

I suppose I was thinking, somewhat vaguely, of a kind of celestial whale. Because I’ve been out in boats and seen whales, up close. I wouldn’t call them gods, but they’re by far the most god-like beings I’ve ever encountered, in that they live in a world of their own, are possessed of a deep and profound consciousness that does not in any way resemble that of human beings, and that, when seen close up – when one gets eye to eye with a whale – they are only mildly curious, and not in any way threatened. Oh. A little being in a boat. Well…

I wanted something of that regal unconcern for Barrett’s vision. That manifestation of the natural world, which nurtures us but does not exactly care about us, not in the more traditional, sentimental way.
Michael Cunningham This may sound suspect, but I really don’t have any favorite characters. As opposed to, say, parents, who tend to claim they have no favorite children but often, in fact, do.

No favorites because I do my best to empathize with – inhabit, if you will – every character about whom I write. They all come to feel autobiographical; if they didn’t, I wouldn’t write about them at all. Some of them, like Billy, resemble me more than, say, a lizard-like woman from another planet, but I truly don’t favor one over the other. They’re both me, each in his or her own way.

That does not, by the way, mean I’m not happy to hear that Billy is your own favorite.
Michael Cunningham I may be the only living author who’s been happy with the film adaptation of his novel. It helped, of course, that the cast included some of the greatest living actors. As it did that the adaptation was done by the brilliant English playwright, David Hare.

Here’s a surprise: I found myself, on occasion, encouraging David to be less faithful to the book; to re-imagine it; to make it his own. To transport it not only into another medium but re-tell it in his own way. We already had, after all, the story told my way.

Which was probably a kind of encouragement only the author could provide.

There’s more to say about the movie, and I’d be glad to go on tomorrow if you’re interested. I’m on a book tour, I’m constantly on the move, and I’ve got to grab these bits of time whenever I can.

Yours, Michael C.
Michael Cunningham Titles for novels are funny business – it’s less like naming a baby than it is like naming a country.

Generally (not always, but usually) I know the title of a book right away. It’s not exactly rational – I just seem to know what the book I have yet to write is going to be called.

The Snow Queen comes, of course, from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, but my Snow Queen is only tangentially related to the Hans Christian Anderson story. It seems (this is a sort of semi-conscious process, at best) that I was drawn to the same primal elements that inspired Anderson – I mean both literally (the words “snow” and “queen”), and… what’s the word I want here?... not metaphorically, exactly… I mean, a shattered mirror, the shards of which lodge in people’s eyes, and distort their vision; I mean a woman who not only lives in a realm of ice but considers it the best of all possible worlds – clean and clear and free of illusion.

And of course there’s “snow” as an outdated term for cocaine…

But really, more than anything, it seemed, from the beginning, like a book that was going to be called The Snow Queen, which is somewhat inexplicable.
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham

About Goodreads Q&A

Ask and answer questions about books!

You can pose questions to the Goodreads community with Reader Q&A, or ask your favorite author a question with Ask the Author.

See Featured Authors Answering Questions

Learn more