Catching Up with Michael Cunningham
By Chadwick Moore
But why do you think it is that so-called "gay-fiction" still exists? It seems this stigma, at least to me, isn't as prevalent in fiction that focuses on the experiences of other minorities in our society.
I think the word "stigma" may be a little harsh for 2010. Forster didn't publish Maurice, his gay novel, during his lifetime, and Proust portrayed himself as a heterosexual. I can't say I'm happy about that, but those guys were in fact dealing with a stigma, and they were writing at a time when it would have been hard to publish a novel with gay content, never mind finding anyone to read it.
I on the other hand have never experienced a moment's hesitation on the part of any editor about "cleaning up" the gay stuff in what I write. If anything, it may have been something of an advantage. After all, we've already got about a gazillion novels about love and rage among the straight population, whereas the gay books probably number in the dozens. The general reception has not been, "How are we going to talk this guy into cutting out the gay stuff?" but rather, "Hey, here are some versions of the ancient human story we haven't seen before."
We're at a funny period in the ongoing history of gayness, aren't we? On one hand, huge strides have been made -- imagine having been gay as recently as the fifties -- and on the other, reprehensible people are still trying to get elected to public office by promising to fuck around with the rights of gay people. I don't think there's any denying that being gay is less traumatic now than it's ever been, but it's not as if our troubles are over yet.
And what about in book publishing?
As far as that's concerned, the betwixt-and-between thing is still very much with us. It'd be easy, for instance, to insist that bookstores eliminate their Gay and Lesbian sections, and just put the gay books in with the rest of the books. But I always think of some hypothetical fifteen-year-old gay kid in some small town, and might have his life changed for the better if he was able to go to the Barnes & Noble in the local mall and find a book that reflected his own experience. Without a gay and lesbian section, is that kid going to be able to find the gay books among the general masses of them?
What I'm left with, for my own purposes, is something like this: I am a gay writer. I'm also a white male writer, an upper-middle-class writer, an American writer. All those qualities matter in some ways, and, in others, matter very little. In the final analysis, one is simply charged with writing the best goddamned novels one can write, using whatever the world has shown us, and the world does show itself in certain particular ways to people who are gay, white, male, middle-class, and American.
Still. I've always said that with The Hours, I finally wrote a book in which no one sucks dick, and presto, won the Pulitzer Prize.
[Laughs] Well, prior to that, your second novel, A Home at the End of the World, is one of my favorites. The three central characters' desire for a sort of nuclear family arrangement in their New York lives is, I think, very affective for many young urban orphans. Was this influenced by your own experiences of coming to the city?
Hm. You could probably say that Home the End of the World has something to do with my own conflict about urban versus rural life. We must remember that I am very old. I grew up in the '60s, and when I was in high school I imagined living in a big house somewhere on the Northern California coast with a half dozen or so of my best friends. We thought we'd open a little hippie cafe somewhere around Mendocino, undaunted by the fact that none of us could cook (we figured, how hard could it be to whip up a few homey dishes for the locals every night?).
And then of course the world changed, I changed, everything and everybody changed. By the time I graduated from college, in 1975, all the people I'd thought I'd move to Mendocino with were going to law school or med school, and even I, the artiest and dreamiest one, was less enchanted than I'd once been by the idea of living in a remote place with chickens pecking around in the yard.
Is that when you came to the big bad city?
No, it took me a few years to entirely abandon my sylvan fantasies. I moved for about a year to a little town outside of Boulder, Colorado, and then (this is a whole other story, for another time) to a farm in Nebraska. It will probably come as no surprise if I tell you I was a complete failure as a farmer.
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