Published: December 16th, 2041
Michael Cunningham is an American writer of seven novels including The Hours, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Other accolades include the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Whiting Writers' Award. He currently teaches creative writing at Yale University.
Howl: What is your writing and editing process like? Do you have any preferred environments or rituals?
Cunningham: I’m fairly regular in my work habits, not because I’m particularly devoted to regularity but because I find that fiction, for me, requires the slightly tricky maintenance of a certain state of delusion – you, as a writer, are trying to remain convinced about the realness of a parallel, invented world. It’s a peculiar state of cultivated hallucination, and must be maintained for years on end.
Which is why I write six days a week, and always do so first thing in the morning. I’ve learned over time that I need to segue as quickly as possible from sleep and dreams into writing; so as to almost literally seal off the…let’s just say it, the more real world. Or at any rate, the world that physically exists, the world of traffic and drug stores and infinite strangers, all walking around with their own stories buzzing around them.
I work for four or five hours every day. Some days are more productive than others. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t experience the mystery of “on” days and “off” days. Which is why I think more in terms of hours spent at the computer than I do of pages produced. There are six-page days, there are one-line days. But whichever sort of day it is, I’m there to receive whatever may choose to present itself, large or small, strong or flimsy (the flimsy parts, one reminds oneself, can always be rewritten, or deleted altogether).
Howl: Your short story, “White Angel,” was later included in your larger novel, A Home at the End of the World. Did the novel develop from the short story or did the short story simply fit the novel? How did it evolve?
Cunningham: “White Angel” was always meant as an early chapter of A Home at the End of the World. I wanted to convey some sense – without being too literal – of what forced Bobby and Jonathan (a character in the novel who doesn’t appear in “White Angel”) so powerfully together. Both grew up with “lost” brothers – Jonathan’s mother has a stillborn child (in a different chapter), Bobby’s brother dies more graphically in the chapter that became a story called “White Angel.”
I frankly sent it to the New Yorker more or less on a whim. They’d rejected ten or so stories of mine previously – why not send them something so violent and sexual and un-New-Yorker, as a kind of joke? I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when they published it.
Howl: You’ve edited a book of work by Walt Whitman. What inspires you about his work or life? Any favorite poems?
Cunningham: Whitman is a great writer, I’m not sure if I can, or should, try to explain my devotion to him. “Greatness” is probably reason enough, yes? And, all right, his ecstatic vision of early America – I think of Whitman as the last undeluded American optimist – probably has something to do with it, as well.
I put together that small collection of his work because Whitman is unique in poetry. He essentially wrote only one poem, “Leaves of Grass,” but he wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote it for over forty years.
Here, however, is what’s tricky about that particular, lifelong enterprise: the first version isn’t as polished as the last, but the first possesses a certain reckless bravado he reconsidered over time. The last, however, contains passages of breathtaking mastery that aren’t so apparent in the first.
And so we have, in the nine editions of “Leaves of Grass,” a unique record of a poet’s progress, as he considers and re-re-re-considers (and expands upon) an original poem. We see the virtues of youth – brio, recklessness, the willingness to verge on sentimentality – along with the virtues of age – deeper depths, a more potent and subtle relationship to the possibilities of language, a surer sense of drama vs. melodrama.
In short, the final version is not really the definitive one; it’s the one that may be more masterly, but may also be a little less thrilling.
When my novel Specimen Days was published, I was repeatedly asked by people who hadn’t read Whitman what of his they should read. This presented a bit of a problem, because the only real answer is, Read all nine volumes, or, at the very least, the first and the last. Which is more than one can reasonably ask of most people who are merely passingly interested in a poet.
Which was the purpose of the Whitman collection. It’s an attempt to convey young Whitman, middle-aged Whitman, and old Whitman, without requiring the reading of literally thousands of pages. Anyone who wants to read more is, of course, encouraged to do so.
Howl: You have learned writing at some amazing institutions and taught writing at some amazing institutions. What is the best piece of advice would you could give to budding writers?
Cunningham: Don’t panic. It’s as simple as that.
By which I mean, don’t give up. There’s no guarantee, for any writer, but I went to school with a certain number of clearly gifted younger writers, and they all got discouraged eventually, and moved on to other endeavors. It took me ten years to begin to be published, never mind recognized. All I did was stay with it.
Howl: While you have written about gay people and are gay yourself, there is so much to love about your books beyond one aspect. You’ve said that you don’t want “gay” aspects of your work to be the focus of your literary endeavors. How have you seen these “public analyses” of your work shift over the years as social perceptions have changed and how do you feel about that?
Cunningham: It seems almost a moot point by now, and I couldn’t be happier about that. “Gay” writers, by 2014, are on the shelves with all the other writers, which is a good development in and of itself, not to mention the ways in which it dismisses certain unanswerable questions: Is a book about heterosexuals, written by a gay author, a “gay” book? What about a book about gay characters written by a straight writer?
There was, though, when I started out, a stronger need to separate the gays from the straights, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that – it hadn’t been all that long that it was possible to publish any book at all if it contained gay characters.
I’ve always insisted that my sexuality matters about as much, and as little, as any number of my other qualities. I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. None of these aspects is meaningless. And at the same time, all of them are. It’s about the book, really, and nothing else.
Howl: Your writing style is very poetic, and given your influences, such as Walt Whitman, what do you feel is the reason you chose prose instead of poetry as your creative medium?
Cunningham: I tried writing poetry, and it never really took. This is of course just me, but it seems that I need to toss glittery sentences against the dull cinder block of narrative. Poetry – which I love, and read constantly – is language twisting in on itself. I simply don’t have the knack for that.
Howl: The first book you ever read, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, was in high school when you were 15. That later influenced your book, The Hours. As this is a high school publication, what influences or challenges did you face in your exposure to literature and writing in that environment?
Cunningham: I was fairly successful in high school at acting as if I’d never read Virginia Woolf, even as I was avidly reading her. I mean, do you think you’d get dates if you were known as a 17-year-old boy who loved Virginia Woolf? Some passions are better kept private.
Howl: With e-readers and Twitter, where do you see the literary arts heading and what are your thoughts on that?
Cunningham: I think we will always want to be told stories. The means by which the stories reach us may change, the nature of the stories may change, but I don’t worry much about the future of narrative. If anything, the more writing that’s out there, the better, even if it’s e-books and Twitter. I just walked past a bookstore on my way home tonight. It was full of people.
Howl: What responsibility do you feel the writer has to the reader?
Cunningham: Respect. You respect the reader’s intelligence. You respect the reader’s subtlety of mind. You don’t talk down to readers, don’t sentimentalize for them, don’t write as if happiness were easy to attain and hold onto. But maybe more than anything, you respect their time. People have a lot to do. If you’re asking them to read a book, you’d better be offering them an experience worth having, whether it’s comic, tragic, or both, or whatever.
Howl: What’s next for Michael Cunningham?
Cunningham: I’m taking up ballet.
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