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'It Is The Job Of A Writer To Complicate The World' -- An Interview With Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham: "I think in our souls we probably have no genders."
Michael Cunningham: "I think in our souls we probably have no genders."
Michael Cunningham won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "The Hours." Cunningham's sixth novel is called "By Nightfall." "The New York Times" has praised the book, and especially Cunningham's writing -- calling his dialogue "deft and fast" and bestowing on Cunningham perhaps the highest praise a writer can receive: "He makes you turn the pages."

Cunningham was in Prague recently and sat down with Salome Asatiani from RFE/RL's Georgian Service for a chat.

RFE/RL: If I could start with your latest novel...you are using this classic plot of equilibrium being disrupted by a mysterious stranger. We can remember even Shakespeare or Mark Twain or my favorite film, Pasolini’s “Teorema"...

Michael Cunningham:
Oh, my Lord, it's one of my favorite films, too. Isn't it great? I watch it every few years. That one just slays me.

RFE/RL: I’m so glad to hear that. So why do you think this was a potent plot?

Cunningham:
You can argue that there are really only two stories. There is someone going on a journey and there is a mysterious stranger arrives in your village. Every story is a variation on one of those two.

My other novels have been structurally very ambitious. They've spanned different time periods, different locations, different characters. And this time, I wanted to see what it would be like to write a more traditional novel. If the other novels have aspired to a kind of symphonic scale, this is more of a string quartet. And I think as a composer manque, as somebody who would love to be able to write music if I could, I feel that you want to write symphonies and string quartets both.

LISTEN: RFE/RL's Salome Asatiani interviews novelist Michael Cunningham:



RFE/RL: Another important intertext, I would say, or seed or homage is Thomas Mann's wonderful story "Death In Venice," which replicates in many ways in your novel. It is a story about erotic longing for beauty, for youth, for something that that stranger represents to the one who is longing. Do you think this narrative or this plot is still somewhat transgressive, still somewhat radical, and also the illusionary nature of this longing that we were discussing?

Cunningham:
Oh, yes, I think there is something still transgressive about a man who is obsessed with a younger man. It still has power, it still feels wrong. And we are, of course, repelled by and attracted to things that feel wrong. And I was especially interested in writing about a heterosexual man who becomes sort of obsessed with, not so much this boy as to what this boy represents.

RFE/RL: Just like [Mann’s] Aschenbach...

Cunningham:
Just like Aschenbach, yes. Though, without giving away the ending, I don't leave Peter dead in a beach chair with a bad dye job. I had a different fate in mind for my character.

RFE/RL: Sexual complexity, or gender complexity, seems to be a reoccurring theme in your novels. Of course, "The Hours" is brilliant in that way, in many ways. First of all, for a male writer to be writing such a story of three complex female characters is remarkable. But also the relationship between Clarissa and Richard is also addressing the complexity of sexuality in a very skillful way, I thought. The same themes are occurring in this novel. Do you think the whole complexity of human desires, emotions, sexuality, or gender roles can ever be fully represented -- in life or in literature, moreover?

Cunningham:
I think we are more likely to do it in literature than we are in life. I think it is one of the jobs of a writer to complicate the world, to always insist that things are more complex than they appear to be on the surface.

And, yeah, I am very much interested in the complex and highly personal nature of sexuality. I feel that each of us has his or her own sexuality. And I try to be mindful of the fact that knowing whether somebody is officially gay, or straight, or bisexual, tells you almost nothing about that person at all.

RFE/RL: So you are being a little bit Foucauldian in that sense, that labeling in a way is a way of organizing and controlling when it comes to sexuality particularly?

Cunningham:
It is a way of organizing and controlling and distorting and oversimplifying. And I think we need, as human beings, to constantly rebel against any attempt to categorize us or label us. And I think that one of the things novels are meant to do is to help remind us that none of us fits any of the categories and that we must never allow ourselves to think of ourselves as belonging to any particular group that can be summed up in a few words.

RFE/RL: But why is society controlling sexuality then?

Cunningham:
You know, I ask myself that question as well. When the right wing in America is so adamantly opposed to equal rights for gay people, I don't really understand what the problem is. It's a bit of a mystery to me.

Again, I can only speak for Americans, but there has to be somebody to be afraid of. There has to be somebody to target our hostility toward. We are still very much afraid of people of color and of women, but it's no longer OK to express that disdain and fear. So it's still OK to say it about gay people -- to say, well, yeah, equal rights for gay people, equal rights for black and Hispanic people, even a lot of people who don't really believe that -- but you can say no equal rights for gays and get away with it.

The gays are one of the last persecuted minorities. And that's ending, but it's taking too long. It will end. It has to end. All persecutions eventually end. Some take longer than others.

RFE/RL: To go back to another point... the question of ordinariness, or triviality, of our lives. The main character in your latest novel comes to realize that he has to constantly somehow invent his triviality again and again. He has to innovate, even though it seems very trivial. And he also becomes aware of the illusionary nature of the other side -- nonconformity and freedom. Was this also a conscious homage to Virginia Woolf, who is noted for her celebration of the seeming triviality of women’s lives – and finding strength and even courage in this triviality?

Cunningham:
Yes. One of the things that I so love about Virginia Woolf is just what you say -- her insistence that outwardly ordinary lives are anything but ordinary to those of us who are living them. We find our lives to be fascinating and of epic proportions. And Woolf came along – with Flaubert, who was a little bit earlier, and Joyce – and said, essentially, no, no, no. There is no such thing as an ordinary life. There are only inadequate ways of portraying the lives of the people of Earth.

To me, Woolf was especially heroic because she insisted not only on the importance of outwardly ordinary lives but the importance of women’s lives.

RFE/RL: Such as is done so brilliantly in “Mrs Dalloway." And here I come to the question that you have been asked a million times before, I’m sure, and I apologize for this. “The Hours” – how did you come up with the idea to write such a novel, and why “Mrs Dalloway”?

Cunningham:
It came in stages. “Mrs Dalloway” was one of the first great books I read. And it changed my life. I had not imagined that it was possible to do with language what I saw Virginia Woolf doing in “Mrs Dalloway." Virginia Woolf was my first love. It could have been Stendhal, it could have been Tolstoy. Somebody put a copy of Woolf into my 15-year-old hands and so it was love forever. I was doomed from the get-go.

"The Hours," actually, started out to be just a rewrite of “Mrs Dalloway." I wondered what “Mrs Dalloway” would be like set in contemporary America. And that felt like a conceit after a while – that felt like a rather thin idea for a novel.

RFE/RL: So just one story.

Cunningham:
Just one story. And then it grew the second story involving Virginia Woolf. And that still didn’t feel like quite enough. And then as I wrote, I developed this third story – about a woman named Laura Brown who is reading “Mrs Dalloway." And then it felt like something I could imagine writing – we had Virginia Woolf, the writer, Clarissa Dalloway, the character, and Laura Brown, the reader. We had a perfect triumvirate, and there I went.

RFE/RL: And what did you think about the film adaptation?

Cunningham:
I loved the film. This makes me one of the handful of writers who ever had anything good to say about the film adaptations of their novels, but I thought they did a beautiful job.

RFE/RL: And yet I read somewhere that the characters were nothing like you had visualized them when you were writing the novel.

Cunningham:
Oh, no, they can’t be – they wouldn't be. I’m not picturing Nicole Kidman when I write Virginia Woolf, or Meryl Streep when I write Clarissa Dalloway. But it is a remarkable thing to see actors of that caliber play characters you invented. I still can't quite believe it, it's been years…

RFE/RL: When we read a novel, we all visualize the characters – and all of us do it differently.

Cunningham:
Yes, absolutely.

RFE/RL: But then a film comes out – especially successful film, Hollywood production – and these images kind of get cemented. Now we have Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. Do you think that can be a little bit negative, [that it] limits the perception of the book?

Cunningham:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it is one of the problems of a film adaptation. Once you have seen Meryl as Clarissa Dalloway, you are not really going to imagine your own Clarissa. It's why if I go to a movie that's adapted from a novel, I always try to read the novel first. And I recommend that, if people can do it. If you can’t – there are worse things than having Meryl Streep in your mind. I can think of much worse fates.

RFE/RL: Do you think it is possible to comment on a great work of art simply by relocating it into a different time period? Did “Mrs Dalloway” become more relevant because of “The Hours,” in our day and age?

Cunningham:
It certainly became more widely read. Once the movie of "The Hours" came out, “Mrs Dalloway” started appearing on bestseller lists. People were buying it all over the place. And that was enormously satisfying. So even if my book didn't do anything to reexamine “Mrs Dalloway," the fact that it brought “Mrs Dalloway” back into public awareness was enormously satisfying, and I felt like that was an unambiguously good result of writing that book.

RFE/RL: To go back to the question of gender and female characters, complex female characters have been very rare historically in the Western tradition. Prose writing was always a male endeavor. They were the authors, and women, as many feminists have noted, have been confined to the virgin/whore, wife, femme fatale categories. There are some examples, of course – “The Hours” being one of them – a very vivid example of breaking this pattern and really portraying female desires, their fears, the whole complexity of their emotional lives. Were you aware of this difficulty when you are writing – especially I'm talking about “The Hours,” of course?

Cunningham:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am a man -- you can probably tell from my voice -- and whenever you move away from your own direct experience you take a risk. But I like women, which seems like such an obvious thing to say. But I think a lot of the male novelists I read don’t like women especially and are not that interested in them.

I like women and I am enormously interested in them. And as I thought about – and began to write about – these women, I became ever more convinced that although there are considerable differences between the two sexes, there is a certain level of fundamental character that's not so different.

RFE/RL: And a novel is able to express that?

Cunningham:
Yes, yes, yes. I think in our souls we probably have no genders. And the novel is trying to scratch around its characters so deeply and insistently that we start to rub up against people’s souls.

RFE/RL: On a slightly different issue...the crisis of creativity, the crisis of big ideas, the commoditization of art, the “money people," as you say, dominating the art world now. I wonder, is it only the money people? Maybe this has to do with a more general condition that the Western world is in right now. Why is it that two to three generations ago, it was still possible to write a major novel with major significance, make a good film, or come up with new cinematic language or style, or even philosophers were able to say something new and meaningful – whereas that has become very rare. Some people say that this could be because we are living in a post-postmodern era – a sort of gray area. We have made fun of the “grand narratives,” of all the big issues – and now there is just no language, no way to move forward, and all we can do is go back to the Renaissance and ideas of beauty and love...

Cunningham:
You know, I suspect that many generations in the past felt that it all had been done before and now there is no place further to go, until some holy genius comes along and demonstrates that to be untrue.

The world is certainly capable of recognizing its novelists. Look at all the fuss that's risen up around the Jonathan Franzen novel ["Freedom"], which is an ambitious novel. And I can tell you it is a big novel because I have been carrying it around all over Europe with me. I think that there is always hope. I think art always moves forward -- not as quickly as we might like it to, sometimes not for a generation or two.

I was on a panel once with Norman Mailer about the “death of the novel." And at one point, toward the end, Norman leaned his great shaggy head forward and said, “Ehhh, the novel will be at your funeral." And I think he was right about that.

RFE/RL: Do you think it is still possible to be rebellious, to push the envelope – after [the ways in which this was done in] 1968-1969? Is it still possible?

Cunningham:
Oh, sure. I think it is always possible. I think it would only be difficult if we lived in a perfect world. Look at the political climate. Look at our consumer culture. There is so much to write about. I can't imagine we will ever run out of material necessary for epic novels.

RFE/RL: And should a writer be rebellious and critical of societal or political [forces]?

Cunningham:
Yes, yes. If the novelists aren't going to be, who is? That is part of what we need novelists for.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Joni from: Hamburg
December 05, 2010 22:40
One of the best interviews I've read on this site! It is obvious that the interviewee enjoys the dialogue no less than the interviewer. This does not happen too often.
Congratulations, Salome!
Congratulations, RFE/RL!

by: Jim Watson from: Dana Point, CA USA
December 07, 2010 02:12
Joni is absolutely on the mark. Salome produced one of the more insightful, intuitive and intellectually stimulating interviews I have had the pleasure of reading in years. Outstanding job, Salome!!

Keep up the good work, RFE/RL and publish more Salome interviews. Many, many thanks.

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