He cares: Michael
more than happy to
travel to this part of
the world for a
writer’s festival and
autograph books: ‘It
to me to travel and
meet the people who
read my books.’
In an insightful and amusing interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham shares his thoughts on reading, writing and attaining fame.
READERS tend to build a certain image of revered authors in their minds, based almost entirely on their writings. Of course, reality does often stray from this fiction; authors do not necessarily speak, behave and think as their written words may suggest.
Which is why meeting Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham at the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) was such a thrill – the man speaks exactly how he writes. This was made abundantly clear at his lecture In The Beginning, There Was A Story, when he beguiled audiences with his measured, lyrical words sprinkled with bursts of unexpected wit.
And at our interview with Cunningham, it was impossible not to be charmed by the 60-year-old American writer, whose answers shift from intelligent observations to hilarious bon mots without missing a beat.
Most known for penning the award-winning The Hours (published in 1998, and later made into the movie that won Nicole Kidman her Academy Award in 2002), he has several other critically-acclaimed novels to his name, such as A Home At The End Of The World (1998) and his most recent, By Nightfall (2010).
Are you enjoying yourself at the SWF?
Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning
book, The Hours, was made into a movie
in 2002, one that won Nicole Kidman
her first Academy Award — and, yes, he
is still asked to talk about it 10 years on!
Certainly. It matters enormously to me to travel and meet the people who read my books, because writing fiction is an abstract and disembodied act. I’m sitting in a room by myself, like Rapunzel, without nearly enough hair to attract the proper prince!
Unlike being a performer, you have almost no sense of who is reading your book, if anyone is! And whether it’s in Singapore or El Paso, Texas, it’s a tremendous thing for me to actually meet the people who care about reading.
All the more so in a world where we’re told no one cares about reading.
That is the general feeling, isn’t it, that people are reading less, and book publishing is struggling. Has that changed you as a writer?
Well, by the time I started writing, readership (especially for literary fiction) was already declining. I think Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer were maybe the last (novelists) who felt like they were writing for a large and avid public.
So I never, when I started, thought, “This is a shrewd career move, getting in on the ground floor of the burgeoning literature field!” I always knew it would be difficult to get much attention, and I wanted to do it anyway.
Well, that’s a great reason to do it, isn’t it?
It’s the only reason to do anything, really; because you love it. And if you also happen to love doing something that makes you a trillion dollars, then good for you. Unfortunately, real estate and the stock market are just not my fields!
Do you read reviews of your books? On Amazon.com, newspapers, anywhere?
Oh God, no, no, no! I also don’t read any of my interviews. It started years ago with not reading reviews. The good ones are nice, but not very helpful, while the bad ones can be upsetting and discouraging.
That was a short trip to realising I would feel a lot less self-conscious at interviews if I didn’t know how I was going to be depicted.
But you’re not on your way to becoming one of those reclusive writers?
Oh no, I love a good party, believe me! It’s just quite specifically, reading people’s takes on me.
That’s unusual, because a lot of people would be very interested in that.
Almost everybody is. Other writers can’t believe that I do this, (but) you kind of lose your spontaneity. It’s very much my ambition to not become a performance of an author.
Does that change when you’re working with Hollywood, though?
Oh yes, Hollywood is very different. However, Hollywood is a sideline, and I love it, but I don’t think of myself as a movie guy. I think of myself as a writer guy, who picks up some spare change working on movies sometimes. And so I’m not as upset about movie reviews.
Obviously, The Hours is what most people know you for. Has that become a bit of an albatross around your neck?
Yes. There have been moments when I’ve thought, I will be talking about The Hours for the rest of my life. And I will be talking to any number of people who’ve only read that book and no other book of mine. That would be easy to get cranky about, but then I remind myself how few writers have books that are talked about by anyone, ever. So, basically, shut the f*** up and appreciate the fact that this book is living on.
Frankly, the tricky part with The Hours is, I’ve been answering some of the same questions for 10 years. Here is where an element of performance is inevitable, because the person is asking the question for the first time. So you make eye contact, and you answer genuinely....
These are readers, they’re a rare species! You don’t blow them off, you don’t give them the audio-animatronic version of the answer, but you can also feel a little crazy sometimes, because you’re acting spontaneous about something that could not be any less spontaneous!
By Nightfall is a bit of a departure from your previous books, isn’t it?
I don’t want to write the same book again, what would be fun in that! By Nightfall is smaller in its scope. It’s about a marriage that is shaken – because, you know, who wants to read about a great marriage where nothing ever happens (!) – but my other novels have been structurally very ambitious. If you’ve been trying to write a symphony all your life, sometimes you want to write a sonata.
Do you have a favourite among your books?
My favourite is always my most recent. Ideally, you’re spending your whole life learning to write novels by writing novels, and you die still learning to write a novel. You never feel like you’re on top of it, and you shouldn’t.
So I feel like every book is that much stronger, more subtle, because I’ve learnt from the previous book.
Looking back, are there things about any of your works that you would change?
Oh, all of them! If I had the energy, I’d go to bookstores and cross out lines!
However, it’s very important to me when I finish a novel to feel that this is the best book I could write right now. Its limitations are my limitations. That’s a good way to eliminate regret, because that simply was the best you could do at the age of 28.
Is there a particular element that ties your body of work together?
When you start out writing fiction, you don’t think, “There are certain themes I want to work on for the rest of my life,”; but certainly, unorthodox families, and a concern with the range and complexity of human sexuality.
The family theme stems from the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, when I was very active in a group called Act Up. I saw people infected with HIV/AIDS whose (families turned their backs on them), and I saw people who were not family rally around these guys.
They were, like, drag queens and 20-year-old disco bunnies, people who would not strike you as maternal or paternal, and I watched these people do everything you’ve been told only your family will do for you. And then they would get sick, and another “family” would come in and take over. It made me want to honour families that are non-traditional.
You tend to draw on literary references in your works, for example Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Walt Whitman in Specimen Days. Does that happen organically when you’re writing?
Whitman and Woolf, and Thomas Mann, who is a smaller presence in By Nightfall, are simply so much a part of how I think. They were writers I read early, they affected my perceptions. They feel to me like experiences I’ve had.
But I think I’m done. Not because there aren’t any number of writers I worship, but these three were formative to me. Part of it is a question of who you read first; if you got your first kiss from that tough biker boy, then everything is about biker boys!
My new book is in no way haunted by the presence of a great writer.
So you are working on something new?
Yes, I’m halfway through a new book, again a big departure. More complex in its scale and its cast of characters than By Nightfall. Like any novel, it’s primarily about characters, but it’s also about politics and drugs and religion, America’s three fave topics!
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading the new Dave Eggers novel ... oh God, I forgot the title. Could you Google it for me, and tell your readers that I knew it? (It’s A Hologram For The King, by the way). And I’m re-reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before I see the movie.
A writer’s life