Gabrielle Carolina
Gabrielle Carolina asked Michael Cunningham:

You displayed amazing insight into the feminine experience in The Hours. Where did you gain such a nuanced understanding of women, specifically women in and on the page?

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

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