Eight Questions for
A Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, Michael Cunningham is the author of A Home at the End of the World, The Hours, Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days, By Nightfall, The Snow Queen, and A Wild Swan and Other Tales. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and a Whiting Award, he has published stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and serves as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Yale University.
1. How do you know when a sentence is alive?
That’s a good one.
The life of a single sentence has so much to do with its role (if you will) in the lives of the sentences around it. I try to think of sentences as chords in a piece of music. Each should be powerful, beautiful, whatever, but no one wants to listen to a single chord, or to a series of chords that have no relationship to one another.
Every sentence should be alive, but if every single one of them is an aria, an ecosystem, a parade float, etc., it’s too much. It’s like some old-fashioned French dinner with fifteen courses, all of which involve butter and cream.
When I was in graduate school, Hilma Wolitzer, my most brilliant teacher, pulled me aside and told me that, when I’d finished a story, I should grade every sentence as either an A or a B. The great, glittery ones got A’s, the perfectly presentable ones got B’s.
Then, said Hilma, I should go back and reconsider all the A sentences.
Because they were the sentences that were more about their own power and beauty than they were in service to the story. They were the show-offy sentences, the demonstrations of my own precocity, and they needed to be calmed down a little.
I’ve tried to follow Hilma’s advice ever since.
2. Through each of your novels, we delve into lives of seemingly endless complexity. In A Home At The End of the World, we burrow so deep into the minds of Bobby, Jonathan, Clare, and Alice that each consciousness becomes a separate world—a wholly different way of seeing. Is it painful feeling radical empathy for so many characters?
Thank you. I think it would be more painful if I didn’t feel radical empathy for my characters, if they were strangers or cyphers to me. Intimacy can hurt, but it’s better than loneliness, right?
3. After graduating from Stanford, you worked as a bartender across the country. What did you learn about writing from working in bars?
If I thought I’d learn about Life with a capital L by working in bars, I was quickly dissuaded. Yes, you’re more widely exposed to other people’s desires and obsessions and sorrows and etc., but you don’t know those people, you don’t care about them, certainly not enough to use them as fuel for your fiction.
I won’t say I didn’t have a good time, back when I could still work a grass skirt (my final bartending engagement, a bar in Laguna Beach, tropical motif). But I was sober (more or less) and my customers were intoxicated, in which condition they’re versions of themselves but not, as I believe, and contrary to the popular romance, the truest versions of themselves. Alcohol distorts more than it clarifies. I knew, for instance, that that hot guy didn’t really want to marry me, or wouldn’t want to by the time morning rolled around.
4. Your recent collection A Wild Swan: and Other Tales delves into the beautiful and disturbing world of fairytales, reimagining them with modern settings and complex character motivations. Did you learn new things about fairytales (and our cultural craving for them) as a result of engaging with them so closely?
In Wild Swan I was essentially faithful to the original fairy tales but did my best to populate them with human beings who were . . . well, human beings, as opposed to the archetypes that inhabit most fairy tales. You know, the virtuous princess, the stalwart prince, the wicked stepmother . . .
In the original “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for instance, the giant’s wife lets Jack into the castle not once, not twice, but three times, knowing (after she let him in the first time) that he was going to rob her husband of all he held most dear. What was going on in that marriage?
Or the solitary little man who lives in the woods and will do anything to get a child of his own. What’s that about?
The main surprise was this. In some of the stories, my versions of the characters dictated fairly dramatically different endings from the traditional ones. And in others, despite my reconfiguring of the population, the endings were exactly the same. I’m frankly not sure what that implies about fate and human nature, but I feel that it must imply something . . . maybe that sufficiently strong characters can change fate but weaker characters are less likely to . . .
5. How do you think your childhood home has influenced your life?
I like the addition of the word “home,” it’s good to be asked about a location as opposed to something as enormous and unclassifiable as an entire childhood.
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, which was a little like an earth town transported to another planet: upstanding, well-kept houses, lawns and porch lights, with black widow spiders in the ivy, rattlesnakes in the garbage cans, and coyotes hunting everybody’s cats.
It wasn’t exactly the groves of academe, but some writers make too much of their “outsider” status; of the idea that we’re different because we come from some sort of place that doesn’t usually spawn writers, which enables us to see through intellectual and literary bullshit and speak in the voice of the Common People.
As far as I can tell, there’s no place that usually spawns writers. We’re all outsiders, each in our own way, and we all bring to our work some vestige of the customs back on our home planets, whatever and wherever they are. I bring something of Los Angeles, my own Los Angeles, with its manicured gardens full of deadly vipers, but I can’t tell you what, exactly, that is.
6. Do you think that great literature must come from a place of pain in terms of its inspiration or its creation?
I think any attempt to identify the source of great literature will produce at least one and probably many blatant exceptions.
7. There’s a moment in A Home At The End of the World when Bobby, standing in a kitchen, senses his brother Carlton’s presence, perceiving him in the waft of shirts on a clothesline. How did you approach writing this scene? Was it necessary to feel everything that Bobby felt as you wrote it?
I’m going to paraphrase Eudora Welty who said, essentially, that writers are free to imagine places they’ve never visited and circumstances under which they’ve never lived, but it’s difficult to imagine writers writing well about emotions they haven’t felt.
Eudora Welty. Was she never wrong?
8. In regards to your students’ concerns over what their families will think of their work, you’ve said, “I think a writer, if he’s any good, is not an entirely benign entity in the world.” Could you speak a little about the immorality of writing?
It’s funny you should ask that. I just went to a reading by Anne Fadiman, the brilliant writer of essays and memoirs. When she was asked about how she approaches the question of writing about people she knows, she replied that she could only have written her recent memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, about her relationship with her father, after her father and her mother were deceased. She added that a human being is always more important than a book.
Anne Fadiman is a better person than I am. When asked the same question I tend to say something like, It’s already unlikely that you or anyone will write anything even remotely good. If you’re trying to write something good that won’t offend your grandmother, well, good luck to you.
I grant my students license to kill. Anne urges them to consider the living.
Anne Fadiman is a better person than I am. You can quote me.