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Catching Up with Michael Cunningham


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.

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.

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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