Interview with Michael Cunningham

Posted by Goodreads on May 6, 2014
Michael Cunningham is a master of nuance, a writer at home in the intimate spaces of secrets and small gestures. The author of six novels, including A Home at the End of the World, Specimen Days, and the award-winning (Pulitzer Prize, PEN/Faulkner) The Hours, Cunningham since the very beginning has constructed carefully paced, lyrical, and evocative narratives that hover close to humanity's emotional core. In his latest novel, The Snow Queen, Cunningham weaves a hypnotic, multilayered story, which at its center features three characters in various states of limbo: Tyler, the musician, is hemmed in by his creative limitations; Beth, his invalid wife, is moored somewhere between sickness and health; and Barrett, Tyler's younger, live-in brother, can't seem to get his footing on any front—personal or professional—until he stumbles on a vision that destabilizes him and sends him on a quest, both external and internal. Dreamily, deliberately, The Snow Queen measures the murky distance, a hang time between wanting and having, failure and success, and perhaps, most critically, between what is known and what remains enigmatic.

Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about the seeds of this novel. How did the story begin to take shape in your head? How long were you carrying it around?

Michael Cunningham: Every novel takes shape a little differently. I wouldn't name names, but this novel, more than my other books, is loosely based on people I actually know. A novel is first and foremost about people. [And] one of the things that I was really thinking about before I wrote the book was the character of Tyler and the fact that, as far as I know, we are only told one story about using serious drugs, which is a moral and cautionary tale, which is very simple: This is your brain on drugs! Don't do it!

But I do know that there is more than just that one story about people who are drawn to drugs. What about Cocteau? What about Carlos Casteñada? What about the idea of drugs not so much as an escape for those "too weak and foolish to face reality" but as an attempt to sort of break through or to sort of open a portal? So really that was part of it. I was interested in a person—an aspiring artist for whom drugs are, as it turns out, an attempt to do more than he can really do, to get a boost into a stratosphere. As well, I know a woman who is very ill, very much like [Beth], but again, these characters are very loosely based on people I know.

GR: The book, of course, sent me back to the Snow Queen, the fairy tale. And I began to see echoes in moments and characters, Tyler and Kai—and the notion of being "released": saved with a kiss. But the Snow Queen is an odd, all-over-the-place tale. How did this tale become the one that served as the spine?

MC: Well, you know titles are funny for me anyway. The book is obviously not a retelling of that fairy tale. It borrows some elements. But you know I was thinking of the fairy tale, and I was thinking of snow as the no-longer-much-used term for heroin and cocaine and literal snow, and somehow some of the choices you make as a writer are explicable and some of them are intuitive. This is rare for me: Before I wrote the first sentence I thought that this was a book called The Snow Queen.

GR: Revisiting the Snow Queen, I realized that I don't think I ever really read it entirely before. Pieces felt familiar. Little echoes...

MC: My point exactly: Stop ten people on the street and ask them to tell you the story of Cinderella, and all ten can do it. Then ask them to tell you the story of the Snow Queen. I bet none of them can do it. These odd characters turn up and go away again. It's very loosely constructed. Most of the fairy tales we know well, Snow White, Cinderella—they are singular, they're linear, they are sort of classic short stories, every element matters, everything adds up. Not so much the Snow Queen. And if there is a moral to the Snow Queen, it's that love is powerful. That's as far as it goes, and I'm down for that.

GR: Although the story begins with the struggling Barrett—his latest misadventures in love coinciding with this startling vision in the sky—the book, at its very warm heart, is more magical thinking than magic realism. Working with characters based on people you knew and against the backdrop of inexplicable events, what were some of the challenges that presented themselves?

MC: I think the easy answer is that if a novel is any good, the whole thing has been a challenge, but that is a little too flippant: For one thing, I wanted a story that involves a young woman dying of cancer to avoid the maudlin and sentimental to whatever degree possible. I wanted Tyler's various drugged conditions to feel credible. I don't really do drugs myself, and so research and intuition were called for. You know, I never know where a novel is going when I start it. But you kind of hope that the novel won't obey you and will go in some other direction—and as I wrote it became more and more obvious that I wasn't at all sure how that singular vision of Barrett's was going to play out. I had to be comfortable with that.

GR: Uncertainty is also a theme that winds through—all sorts of limbo in various forms. There's Beth between life and death, and Barrett, who is, well, between everything. Even the neighborhood they inhabit is a cast-off that is on the edges of gentrifying. On top of that, we step back hip-deep into the ticker of the bleak news events of the early 2000s: the country at war; the admission that there were no weapons of mass destruction; the crack in the economy's foundation; and Tyler's obsession with all of it becomes a character itself, something he's boxing with. Why did this time period and its own limbo seem the right backdrop?

MC: Some of these decisions are semi-intuitive. I think that although it's never referred to at all in the novel, these characters are members of what I think you could call the first downwardly mobile generation in America in a very long time. This is sort of the first generation that, odds are, are not going to be as prosperous as their parents were. Which was interesting to me, and then it seemed right to open it with George Bush's reelection coming up, and then when you do that, a certain kind of imagery begins to suggest itself.

GR: In this book, as in your last novel, By Nightfall, and A Home at the End of the World, you write compellingly about the powerful bond between siblings. What is it about that territory and the sort of complex bond and set of emotions that keep you coming back and reexploring on the page?

MC: One of the funny things about having lived enough to have written several novels is that you begin to see certain themes and patterns and fixations that turn up over and over again, of which you were not aware. It's sort of mysterious to me. I have one sister to whom I am very close, and when I was in high school, we moved to Los Angeles. It was a very rough transition, and I felt very much out of place and sort of acquired a best friend—who was like my brother who changed my life. We weren't boyfriends. I'm gay, but he wasn't. So we weren't lovers, but he was the person whom I urgently loved outside of my biological family. And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of us had some sort of experience like that: a first friend in adolescence who opens up the world for you, who begins to teach you how to love. I think it is a relatively universal experience that seems to have made a deeper impression on me than it has on others.

GR: Yes, and so often I think, "We don't have language to describe those just-out-of-reach feelings, the thing that floats just above definition—we're rummaging around for words." You do the same with the concept of family. One of the things that has drawn me to your work has been how eloquently and broadly you define it in actions and in motion. And I think so many of us create and find our families. Your work has long reflected that it is a changing world, we still speak in these narrow terms about family and relationships—why are we so slow to catch up with the living reality?

MC: What we recognize as a family continues to be an issue. For me, as a writer, you just arrive in a world with certain proclivities, but you also arrive at a place in a time. I lived through the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Survived it. But I was there when it was most rampant among gay men, and I saw these families form. And, as you can imagine, some people's [biological] families were heroic, and some people's families were not. Every now and then someone would call his parents and say, I have two things to tell you: I'm gay and I have AIDS. And [the parents] hung up the phone, and that was it. So we formed our own families, and we did everything that one is told that your biological family would do for you. I think that's where it started. That comes to some degree of my actual firsthand experience watching these unorthodox families form.

GR: This thread of thought segues into a reader's question about these very groupings. Reader Derek asks, "I'm very interested in Cunningham's use of threes, of trios. And thinking back on everything, the threes stand out: the ladies in The Hours, the friends in Home...the husband/wife/brother in Nightfall, the three sections of Specimen Days. Is this coincidence or a conscious choice?"

MC: I would say that it is certainly not a coincidence. The number three just has a way of turning up. From the Holy Trinity to the traditional three acts of a play, there's a high incidence of three in the world. And this is not something that I was thinking of initially, but looking back I realized that in a certain sense, as we move up from one, three is the most interesting number. One is just one. Two of anything—two people, two objects—wherever you put them are symmetrical by definition. It's only when you introduce a third that infinite variations become possible. Three gets sparky and interesting and produces far, far, far more possibilities than either of its smaller siblings.

GR: Goodreads member Kate Eber asks, "You've channeled the spirits of writers in your novels, notably Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Walt Whitman in Specimen Days, but which writers do you find consistently popping up and nagging at you as you're writing?"

MC: Obviously I've been deeply affected by Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman, though I think two novels in which the actual writers appear is enough. I'm not planning on a third one. However, there are certain writers who are not only your favorite but are guiding spirits. Certainly Flaubert. Oddly enough, the work that I do is so different from what she does, but Flannery O'Connor. Don DeLillo and Denis Johnson, among the still living. And Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. I know that one of the things that made me think about being a writer was while reading Anna Karenina in college. I remember thinking, "It all felt so obviously true, but it all had to be arrived on intuitively." He had to have the insight to know that among a woman's thoughts would be this relatively petty need for people to understand how bad [life] was for her, and I thought, "Wow, that's something."

GR: Goodreads member Carolyn asks, "I read in a New York Times article where you said something like, 'I distrust the pleasure of easy days,' meaning the good weather of Southern California (where I now live). I wonder how much landscape (and weather) factor in the process of writing. How much does place influence your work?"

MC: I grew up in Southern California, and when I was younger, there is just a general tendency for some of us to leave the place that you grew up in, to leave the ghosts and go someplace else, and I have to say that whatever sort of objections I may have once had to the consistently lovely weather in L.A.—if you gave me the question, oh, say, last night when it was 30 degrees and pouring down rain...well, the romance of the changing of weather doesn't hold up as well over the years. But yes, place is enormously important to me. I think one of the things that a novelist is doing is chronicling a place and a time, that we are in a certain sense a part of the historical record. I have been setting my novels in New York and describing New York in a fair amount of detail because I lived in New York. I think a sense of place is very important. I think it matters where one lives and the nature of the streets which one walks down and the apartment in which you live. That's just very much part of the detail. It is a craft thing because what you're trying to do is seduce the reader into entering a parallel world. You're saying, "Would you be interested in stepping through this interdimensional warp and inhabiting an inventive world," and I think it helps if that world is physically convincing.

GR: Apart from feeling rooted in a place, tell us a little more about what's necessary to your writing process.

MC: Sure. It is simple and unvarying. I need to write first thing in the morning. I need to sort of segue from sleep and dreams directly into writing, because I find if I go out and do a few errands or have any kind of congress with the real world, I come back and turn on the computer and look at what I've written and think, "Well, I'm just making this up." So it's a question of maintaining my belief of the fictional world that I'm making up. And I write six days a week, and I'm at the computer anywhere from four to six hours.

GR: In a straight sit?

MC: Pretty much. And then one of the things I like about New York is, I can run right out and be in the middle of all of this chaos and all of this population. I could live in any number of cities, but I couldn't live in the country. I couldn't finish my day's work and then go for a walk in the woods. After those hours of solitude, I need contact. I need other people. Even just so I see them.

GR: You spoke earlier about how books inhabit you, that characters do indeed resonate in your head. What books would you recommend for a young writer starting out, those books that have their own staying power?

MC: As much as I like Mrs. Dalloway, I would start with Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Flannery O'Connor's collection of stories Everything That Rises Must Converge. Denis Johnson—either Jesus' Son or Train Dreams. And Don DeLillo's. Also, I would certainly say Madame Bovary. Flaubert chose a person of relatively small importance in the world, but somebody without any discernible virtues, who is petty and not very smart and not even a very good mother. He looked at her so intently. He didn't sentimentalize her. He made of her a great figure of literature and announced, maybe for the first time, if Emma Bovary can be a significant figure in world literature, anybody can. This means I can write a novel about anybody, not just kings and pirates.

Interview by Lynell George for Goodreads. George is a Los Angeles-based writer.

Learn more about Lynell and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Donna (new)

Donna Thank you for this interview. I just loved reading it. I learned a lot. And now I want to read Snow Queen, and other of Michael Cunningham's books!

message 2: by Lorine Kritzer (new)

Lorine Kritzer I am something of a Michael Cunningham groupie. I read The Hours first, was blown away, and then read the others. Can't wait to read this new one!

message 3: by Paneret (new)

Paneret Thank you. Excellent interview. Now I want to read his newest book. Enjoyed his thoughts on "threes"

message 4: by Magdalena (last edited May 15, 2014 09:28PM) (new)

Magdalena Thank you so much for such a good interview. I enjoyed the reading to the end, wish I, usually, never finish. It Is funny that I have the books that he recommend on my book collection, and also the video of the best movie I have ever seen, The Hours, with the participation of such talented actresses like the 'Acting Machine' Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and so many lovely people. I think I am going to read this one. God bless

message 5: by Guamanian (new)

Guamanian Cruz I don't read many books now because of my eyes but I do when MC has a new book. I just don't need to know insight into the artist's meaning when it's up to the reader to discern this information. Specimen days was torture for me to read but after the first chapter of SQ I'm liking it very much. I do understand that promotion, especially today, is needed with any piece of work
Thank you,

message 6: by Stephen (new)

Stephen P(who no longer can participate due to illness) Your thoughtful questions were so in tune they invited thoughtful answers from him. I thank you for helping to create a sincere and interesting interview.

message 7: by Victor (new)

Victor Nganguem j'aime ça

message 8: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Bergman Carlin I loved this interview! I thought what Cunningham had to say about novels being about people and about the importance of Madame Bovary was very insightful. I have a few of his books on my list!

message 9: by Guy (new)

Guy Powell Sounds terribly pretentious but that may well be the interviewer who's questions are those irritating sort designed to inflate the reader's regard for the questioner rather than eliciting an interesting response from the subject.

message 10: by Arash (new)

Arash thankyou for your smart interview with this creative novelist,Im really busy these days,but very happy because you give this opportunity to become familiar with this novelist,and his works.thankyou so much

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