Catching Up with Michael Cunningham

9.30.2010

By Chadwick Moore

When Michael Cunningham and I first met, I knew him simply as Michael: that tall, handsome, charming man with whom I'd have the most delightful conversations upon our chance encounters in a New York bar or on the streets of Provincetown. It wasn't until one day when I inquired of mutual friends what it was exactly Michael did for work that I realized he was the Pulitzer-prize winning author sitting on my bookshelf at home. It was a surprise, to say the least, but chimed of whatever trait it is aside from literary stardom that makes Michael so appealing to the people I know.

This month with the publication of his latest novel, By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham is still, despite his assertion that he's 'very old,' at the apex of his talents. We got together to talk about art, the present state of gayness, and idyllic dreams of chicken farming.

Out: You went to the University of Iowa. I've been online reading some embittered sentiments lately toward M.F.A creative writing programs. Where does that attitude come from?
Michael Cunningham: I don't share the general resentment of MFA programs. I think MFA programs are great. OK, some are greater than others, but still. I notice that no one seems particularly outraged over the fact that young artists or dancers or musicians go to school to learn their craft, and I'm frankly not quite sure why we're so attached to the notion that writing, along among the art forms, must be sui generis -- that unlike other artists, the writer is supposed to be some sort of Bunyanesque figure who strides untutored into the mountains and comes back a year or more later with a brand new baby novel in his hands.

And sure, I know, people claim that writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald never went to writing school, but they lived in a community of writers. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein as a mentor, and Fitzgerald, in turn, had Hemingway. There's no contemporary Paris in the twenties. Most young writers today are trying to write in places like Dallas or Buffalo, where they probably not only don't know any other writers, but may be hard pressed to find many people who've even read a novel in the last ten years.

Do you believe there's a sort of homogenizing effect, a certain Iowa Writers Workshop style that has taken over the present-day literary industry?
An MFA program isn't singularly about teaching new writers the fundamentals of craft. It offers, probably more importantly, the chance to spend a couple of years in a community of other writers, the likes of which can't be found under just about any other circumstances. MFA programs are, if you will, mini Parises in the twenties. Writers in those programs do, in fact, go out to cafes and argue about the future of the novel, about character development and structure and, you know, the virtues versus the disadvantages of the semicolon. That's every bit as much a part of their training as what they receive in classes and workshops.

And how homogeneous can younger American writers be, when they include Jonathan Safron Foer, Nicole Krauss, Joshua Ferris, Adam Ross, Salvatore Scibona, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Nell Freudenberger, Gary Shteyngart, Wells Tower, and Z. Z. Packer? If MFA programs are trying to domesticate and "normalize" young writers, they're not doing a very good job, are they?

You've said in interviews before that you don't want to be seen as a "gay writer." No one would argue that you haven't been successful at this.
What I meant to say is that I don't want to be seen as only a gay writer. I've always been out, and most of my novels are concerned with the lives of gay people. I'm perfectly happy to be a gay writer, because, well, that's what I am. What I never wanted was to be pushed into a niche. I didn't want the gay aspects of my books to be perceived as their single, primary characteristic. Like any halfway serious writer, I'm trying to write about more than my characters' outward qualities, and focus on the depths of their beings, their fears and their devotions, which take place at a level deeper than sexual orientation. Gay people fall in and out of love, for instance, in ways that are not entirely foreign to the ways in which straight people do. There are of course some real differences in the ways gay people live and what we experience, but we're not from Mars.

Tags: Art & Books
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