In The Hours (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulker Award), Michael Cunningham channeled Virginia Woolf as both collaborator and subject; in Specimen Days, he summons Walt Whitman as witness and specter. The two novels are as different as the writers that inspired them. What they share, however, present in all of Cunningham's work, is a network of underlying connections, a powerful urge toward community, in body and in spirit.
"Truly new ways and days receive, surround you," the yawping bard of American transcendentalism alerted readers in Leaves of Grass (Cunningham borrows Whitman's lines for his novel's epigraph), "and yet the same old human race, the same within, without, faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearnings the same, the same old love, beauty and use the same."
Industry, technology... one generation to the next, our homes change, our jobs change, our lifestyles change, and ever we stay the same, toting around the same outsized hopes and demons.
"I seem to be interested in whatever love and hope the love of life that hope implies can survive," Cunningham reflected, musing on his four novels since A Home at the End of the World.
His most ambitious work to date, Specimen Days features three pairs of protagonists: Simon and Catherine, Simon and Cat, and Simon and Catareen; three New Yorks, circa 1850, 2000, and 2150 (or thereabout); and three narrative styles: a Victorian ghost story, an urban thriller, and science fiction.
Specimen Days is "intelligent, emotionally complex, and immensely readable," Vince Passaro affirmed in O. "When you close the book," the Los Angeles Times assured readers, "you'll be pondering Cunningham's big, haunting, beautiful vision of who we were, are, and one day might be."
Michael Cunningham: I read it in college, and I loved it. It didn't enter my DNA the way Mrs. Dalloway did I lost my virginity to Mrs. Dalloway, and that can only happen once.
Mrs. Dalloway was firm but kind with me. Every other book after that, by definition, made various impressions, but nothing was ever going to seep under my skin quite the way the Woolf did. But I was reading Leaves of Grass in college and got to a particular passage, which is something like, and I'm paraphrasing, "Reader, wherever you are in the future, know that I am as alive and present in the world now as you will be when you read this book, even though I and my world are gone. Is it night where you are? Is the lamp lit?"
It was, and it was! Time collapsed, and Walt Whitman rose up off the page in his full aliveness, though he was not alive in the present. I think I understood deeply for the first time at that moment how great literature can transcend mortality.
Dave: There's a moment in Specimen Days when Cat understands that Lucas "could always choose to kill her. [And] she could always choose to do away with him." It reminded me of Laura's revelation in The Hours, when she's "glad to know (for somehow, suddenly, she knows) that it is possible to stop living. There is comfort in facing the full range of options; in considering all your choices, fearlessly and without guile."
Each novel in its own way calibrates life, beginning to end, birth to death.
Dave: Over the course of a series of novels, an author's themes emerge. It may not be a conscious effort. Maybe they're personal obsessions, or maybe they speak to a certain vantage point...
Cunningham: Thank you for understanding that. People tend to ask a question like that as if you had sat down in your twenties and decided, I'm going to write about unorthodox families and emptiness, which of course is not at all the way it works. You find that as the books accumulate, certain themes and subjects and even obsessions, if you want to call them that, keep recurring.
I seem to be interested in whatever love and hope the love of life that hope implies can survive.
I feel like my books always end happily, even though a lot of readers don't agree. But they always end with life going on; they always end with something still ahead; they always end with somebody moving into some uncertain future that may be terrible or may be great or may be some combination of the two.
Human happiness is only interesting to me in its ability to survive disaster, so I write about people who are either undergoing some kind of terrible change in their outer lives or some kind of inner crisis.
Dave: The first section of Specimen Days feels familiar; it's historical fiction set in New York City. The second section jumps to the present day, and that's not a leap that's going to shock people Oh, my God, we're in contemporary times now! Readers are comfortable with both settings, and plenty of novels skip over great periods of time. But what worked for me, in terms of the way you used structure to draw out theme, is the second jump forward, from the present into an undefined future.
Walt Whitman witnesses the start of the Industrial Revolution. The rate at which our culture has been accelerating ever since becomes so much more pronounced when we find ourselves in an unrecognizable New York, not too many years from now.
Cunningham: I never end up writing the book I thought I was going to write, but one of the things I did know this time was that I wanted it to begin during the Industrial Revolution, when we ceased after millennia to be a fundamentally agrarian people and became the mechanized society we are today. I wanted to start there and move into a time of the future with cloning and interstellar travel.
New York was an especially good place to set it, I felt, and not only because I live there and know it better than any other place. I don't know if you saw that great Ken Burns series a few years ago, a six- or seven-part series beginning with New York's origins and moving up to the present, but one of the historians he interviewed it may have been Mike Wallace, who wrote a fantastic book called Gotham said, "As far as people who study the history of New York can tell, roughly every forty years the New York you find yourself standing in bears almost no resemblance to the New York of forty years before and will bear almost no resemblance to the New York of forty years hence." So if each of these stories takes place about a hundred and fifty years after the last one, the city in question has become unrecognizable three times over.
Dave: The joys of reading genre fiction are well established: suspense, action, pacing... What about writing genre fiction? How was your experience?
Cunningham: I love genre fiction. I wrote in these three genres out of real affection for the good ones as in every category of book, most of them are terrible, but some of them are very, very good.
It was never my intention to write these stories in any kind of condescending, ironic, PoMo way. I wanted to honor the conventions of each of the forms. I thought briefly about simply writing a thriller or a science fiction novel, but I thought, No, there are writers I love who are spending their entire lives learning how to write science fiction or thrillers. It seemed too presumptuous of me to try to write one of my own, as something I would toss off once in my career. It did seem, however, that I might be able to do something interesting with a group of stories, stringing them together, and seeing what confluences they might have.
I love good genre fiction, and I think it has a real place in our lives. When we are five, we don't want to hear a story about the sorrows of the five-year-old that lives next door; we want to hear about witches and treasures and dragons. When we get older, we do of course begin to want to know about the sorrows and joys of people like us, and people unlike us, but I don't think we lose that other appetite.
Dave: What writers got you hooked on genre fiction?
Cunningham: When I was a kid, I was nuts for Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Philip K. Dick. Heinlein was the only one that really didn't stand up when I reread him. I'm afraid I probably picked up some terrible tendencies toward purple prose from Ray Bradbury, who could overwrite something fierce, but remains a great writer.
More recently, I read dozens of books in various genres just to get a better sense of how they worked. Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Michael Connelly, Jon Kellerman...
I didn't find, for my taste, much supernatural fiction that felt especially interesting to me, except to the degree that it was scary. I had to go all the way back to Henry James to find a ghost story that felt like something to me beyond cheap effects.
Dave: What is your second favorite Virginia Woolf novel?
Cunningham: Though obviously I love Mrs. Dalloway, I might, if forced, have to say that To the Lighthouse is my favorite novel. It's the one in which her extreme idiosyncrasy as a writer perfectly married a kind of impeccable symmetry and form. It's a very peculiar, perfectly made novel.
Mrs. Dalloway is differently interesting; in Mrs. Dalloway, you can actually see Virginia Woolf becoming a great writer, learning how to write a great novel. I worked with Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours in part because of its loose, riffish qualities. It has funny, little, ragged ends you can attach to. I wouldn't have known what I could possible say about To the Lighthouse.
Dave: What was the most surreal experience of watching The Hours become a movie? And you're not allowed to say, "The entire experience."
Cunningham: The most surreal experience was seeing these characters, whom I had pictured very clearly in my mind, being played by these actresses and actors, all of whom were remarkable, not one of whom bore any resemblance to the people I had in mind.
A few months after I turned in the manuscript, I actually saw Clarissa Dalloway on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street exactly the person I'd pictured, just a stranger. Her hair, her outfit, her manner... If it hadn't been New York where people who do things like this are arrested, I would have gone up to her and told her, "Excuse me, I'm so sorry to interrupt you, but I have to tell you that I have imagined someone just like you and written a novel about her."
I saw Laura Brown getting a pedicure beaky, kind of stringy dark hair, but with this slightly beatific, troubled aspect, a little like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
That's who I was thinking of, not Meryl Streep, not Julianne Moore and yet they were so good. It was a little bit like having known someone intimately who died, and then meeting someone alive and understanding that this is that person reincarnated. Their gestures, their eyes... Oh, wait, it's you, but in another body.
Dave: The casting itself was almost comical, the quality.
Cunningham: It was. But it's good to remember that our estimate of Nicole Kidman's ability has justifiably skyrocketed. At the time, Nicole was a really risky casting choice. She had made To Die For, but that was her only serious movie. Whenever I talked about the movie to any literary person or anyone who cared about Virginia Woolf, they would moan and hold their head and say, "Oh, no!" As if Pia Zadora or Anne Margaret were going to play Virginia Woolf. So it was especially satisfying to see Nicole nail it.
Dave: There's a line in the novel, "One always has a better book in mind than one can manage to get onto paper." I wonder what you think of that idea in relation to your own work, particularly as The Hours turned out to be something completely different from what you'd originally imagined. Yet its success must have far exceeded your wildest expectations.
Cunningham: Way beyond. Light years beyond.
Dave: And then it was made into a movie, which had enormous success on top of that.
Cunningham: And none of that in any way alters the fundamental statement, which is simply true to me. I don't think of it as arguable: One has a better novel in mind than what one is able to get in print.
It's part of what killed Virginia Woolf. The finished novels were always so disappointing to her compared to what she had hoped to produce.
You could even argue that, as readers, we have better novels in mind than what anyone is able to write for us. I just think it's one of the dilemmas of the human condition. We are capable of imagining more than we can possibly produce.
Any novelist I respect, I think by definition, is walking around under a cartoon balloon that contains the book of love, a book that's about everything you know or can imagine, that does full justice to the impossibly complicated experience of being alive. What you write, even if it turns out pretty well, can't match that. You have to be willing to bear the disappointment. Woolf couldn't bear it.
Dave: In Land's End, you describe Provincetown as "the only small town I know of where those who live unconventionally seem to outnumber those who live within the prescribed boundaries of home and licensed marriage, respectable job and biological children."
What a perfect set-up for a story: colorful characters in a place where gossip abounds.
Cunningham: Absolutely. Norman Mailer, of course, set a novel there, Tough Guys Don't Dance, but there aren't as many books set in Provincetown as you might think, given the per capita incidence of writers there.
Dave: How did you land that job, authoring a book about the town?
Cunningham: It was pure chance. Every time I finish a novel, every three to five years, I find myself full of adrenaline. I don't want to take a vacation; I don't want to lie on a beach; I want to keep working but I can't start another novel, not for months.
I think it was Thackeray who wrote five hours every day, and if he finished a novel during the first three hours he would spend the next two hours starting his new one. I hate that! I am so not like that. I just cast about and say a secular prayer to whoever might be listening to give me something to do with all that energy.
After The Hours, the phone rang. It was Random House saying they wanted to start a series of short travel books, or travel meditations, in which the writer walks the reader through a place the writer knows well, without specifically recommending hotels or restaurants. They asked if I'd be interested. Six months earlier or six months later, I would have said no, but they called at the right moment. I said yes.
They asked, "What place would you like to do?" I said, "Provincetown, Massachusetts" I'd been going to Provincetown for years and years. There was a pause on the line.
They were clearly thinking more about New York or Rome or Paris, but I didn't know quite what I would add to the literature of those cities. To their huge credit, they let me do Provincetown. They really let writers go. Ishmael Reed did Oakland. Edwidge Danticat did Jacmel, Haiti.
By the same token, I'm doing an adaptation now for Universal, which came along at just the right moment.
Dave: Good Grief?
Dave: How is it to adapt someone else's novel as opposed to reworking your own?
Cunningham: I don't expect to adapt my own book again. I did A Home at the End of the World because they were in a bind, and really it was just going to fall apart if I didn't do it.
I don't think the novelist should adapt his or her own book for the movies. A novel, if it's any good, is the best you can possibly do with that particular story and those particular characters. You've brought everything you possibly can. If you write the script, the best you can possibly do is take it sideways over to another medium. I think it's much more interesting to have another writer come in and see things you might have missed, take it someplace you might not have expected it to go. What's the fun otherwise?
But I do like adapting other people's stuff. And I would very much like to write an original screenplay. That hasn't come up yet; or, these other things have come up first.
Dave: You're working with Julia Roberts on Good Grief, right? What does it mean, exactly, to work with her in that capacity?
Cunningham: What it means is I am developing this character, this woman named Sophie whose husband dies and who then falls into deep depression and eventually comes out of it, I'm creating the character in conjunction with the actress who will play the character.
It's great. It's a lot of fun. I've spent most of my life inventing characters that live wholly on the page. Here is someone who I can already picture. I already have a sense of her gestures. She buries her gestures, of course she's an actress but still, there is a Julia Roberts-ness that I have in mind. I am trying to write a character that Julia will be able to play fully and beautifully, and I'm talking to her about it as we go along.
Dave: Marshall Heyman's profile of you in W said that your childhood ambition was to be a rock star.
Cunningham: At fifteen, my glancing relationship with reality.
Dave: Who were your rock idols?
Dave: You were definitely leading the band.
Cunningham: Oh, yes. I wasn't the drummer or anything.
Dave: What if you were forced to follow the conventions of the music industry, and you had to read some of your old material because that's what the fans came for? Do you dig out your older material at readings? When was the last time you read from A Home at the End of the World?
Cunningham: About a month ago.
Dave: Really? So you do still go back to the old material.
Cunningham: I do. It was a request. I was reading at a college in Pennsylvania, and it was before Specimen Days had come out. I said to the students, "Look, I have a new book that I'm about to start reading from ceaselessly. I'd be more than happy to give you the very first reading from it. Or I could give you the last reading ever from The Hours." But they had been studying a chapter from A Home at the End of the World that had been published in the New Yorker as a short story called "White Angel." They said, "Read 'White Angel'! Read 'White Angel'!" So I did.
Dave: You're teaching at Brooklyn College now?
Cunningham: I am.
Dave: What fiction do you like to teach?
Cunningham: I teach a crafts course and a writing course I don't teach a literature course and I want them to have time to write, so I assign short pieces, either chapters from novels or short stories. I always have them read Joyce's "The Dead," Chekhov's "The Duel," and Woolf's "Kew Gardens," just because I want to make sure they've read them, and you can never tell.
A big favorite of mine because they always seem to get it is Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas." There's a Denis Johnson story called "Work." Ray Carver, Sandra Cisneros, Randall Kenan, Grace Paley...
I'm always very sure to include William Gass's "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," which is probably the best example I know of an entirely successful, and I think great story, that breaks every single possible rule about writing.
Part of what I'm trying to talk to them about is the fact that, as far as we can tell, there are certain principles by which fiction seems to work, and yet anything that's put forward as a principle for writing fiction has been dramatically contradicted by at least one great work of art. So we find ourselves in the funny position of having rules as vague guidelines and yet nothing, not one thing, that we can count on. And William Gass is very good for that.
Dave: In Land's End, you describe washing a dog that has been sprayed by a skunk. You say it was a remarkable experience, but one that you hope you'll never experience again. What else falls into that class of life-event: worthwhile experiences that you'd prefer not to repeat?
Cunningham: I was in jail for civil disobedience. We used to do things that got us arrested all the time. Because you were a harmless, little demonstrator, you were usually in and out within six or seven hours; they just had to process you. The last time, it was early in the Guiliani administration, and we were, the phrase is "put through the system," which means you are simply processed like anybody who has committed a crime. You're not fast-tracked. And it can take two or three days, which it did.
We were all in this holding cell together, hour after hour after hour. They feed you three meals. Breakfast is a box of corn flakes and a carton of cold milk that comes at four in the morning, for some reason. Then lunch and dinner are like that somebody goes through with a cart and literally throws the stuff in. And we were hungry. That first lunch, we were grabbing at it. What is it? A bologna sandwich. Two slices of white bread with a piece of bologna in the middle.
We started right in, eating, and... it was kind of crunchy. We examined our bologna, which was the color of a Band Aid, and there were pieces of bone in it. It was jail bologna there's a special, substandard cold cut made specifically for jails.
I can't say I'll never go to jail for a cause again, but I hope I never have any more jail bologna.
Michael Cunningham visited Powell's on June 21, 2005. Before his reading, he stopped in at the Powells.com office.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State