Catching Up with Michael Cunningham


By Chadwick Moore

I didn't get to New York until I was 30. And I instantly adored New York. I wondered why I'd spent my twenties in various and sundry boonies. I just hadn't imagined that I was a city boy at heart. It was a little like having dated nice, quiet boys for years, and then, a bit late in the game, discovering that the kind of guy you can really and truly fall in love with is tempestuous and volatile and difficult and wildly alive. I've lived in New York ever since.

But, clearly, a certain sense of yearning for a simpler and more manageable life, a life of gardening and feeding the chickens, never entirely left me. I guess you could say that I continue to yearn, periodically, not for actual country life, of which I had plenty, but for my old ideal of country life. And so I gave the characters in Home at the End of the World that same idealized, impossible yearning. In the course of the book, they discover how impossible that yearning really is. For them, at least. I know some people leave the city for a country life and never look back. But my people find the transition every bit as difficult as I did.

I guess this brings me to your most recent book, 20 years later, By Nightfall, which tells the story of an upper middle class Manhattan couple at the height of their careers in the arts. What experiences have you had recently with the art world that inspired the character Peter Harris, who works as a dealer?
I wanted to be a painter until I got about halfway through college, at which point... I don't know, my interest in it just seems to have dried up. Or, no, my obsession with it dried up, and dwindled to mere interest. I put off going to the studio. I started late, left early. As opposed to some of the other students, who stayed there all night and somehow managed to function on two or three hours of sleep per night. I was getting plenty of sleep, which is fine for most people but not such a good sign in a young, aspiring artist.

During my junior year I took a fiction writing class, and bang! I felt exactly the kind of endless, depthless fascination that was missing when I painted. I wasn't sure if I had enough talent as a writer, but it was immediately apparent that the fundamental problem of writing -- trying to produce something like life using only ink and paper -- was utterly compelling to me.

I've begun to suspect, over the years, that what we call "talent" is difficult to separate from some other quality, a mesmerized determination so fierce as to be almost unnatural. I wasn't the best writer in that initial class, but I was the one who would sit in the chair and sit in the chair and sit in the chair, writing the same sentence over and over and over again until it started to have rhythm, and spin, and spark. Suddenly, as a nascent writer, I was the one staying up all night, and getting by on the bare minimum of sleep. During the decades since, my conviction about my own abilities has come and gone, but that fundamental devotion to the process has never left me.

Although I have no particular regrets, painting is, for me, the most prominent road not taken. I'm still fascinated not only by visual art, but by the people who create it. There but for the grace of some god or goddess go I... Among my closest friends are visual artists, and people who deal in art. It's remained part of my life.

What about the choice of making Peter a dealer instead of an artist?
I wanted a character who could question the relevance of art in general, as opposed to questioning his own abilities and output. An artist in crisis about his own work is certainly a story, but not the story I wanted to tell in By Nightfall. I wanted a character who could embark in a search for the beauty and transcendence he was looking for in all contemporary art, not just in what he was able to produce with his own hands. By the way, a gallery owner named Jack Shainman was beyond generous in showing me the ropes, and letting me hang around his gallery, asking 10,000 irritating questions for this book.

In the past decade you wrote the screenplay for the film Evening, as well as the screenplay for your novel Home at the End of the World and have worked on scripts for a couple of bio-pics. What gave way to this Hollywood component to your career?
Let's just say I love the movies, I wanted a change and needed the money.

This Freddie Mercury biopic starring Sacha Baron-Cohen that's coming out, is this the one you wrote that was lingering in Hollywood purgatory for a bit?
The Freddie Mercury movie that's currently going forward has nothing to do, sorry to say, with my own attempt several years ago. The surviving Queens and I couldn't agree on the best way to tell Freddie's story, and it seems they've found someone with whom they feel more simpatico. But that's show biz.

By Nightfall is now in stores. For more on Michael Cunningham from Tim Murphy, click here.

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Tags: Art & Books