Michael Cunningham: On Writing Sex, the Creative Process, and Why New York City is (Not) for Writers
Author: Marcie Bianco
May 22, 2014
Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen, showcases his ability to delve into the mysteries of life with refined, semantic dexterity. Cunningham’s facility with language has acquired a lightness and simplicity that distinguishes The Snow Queen from his earlier novels. The beautifully wrought, gossamer-like, book explores the relationship between two Brooklyn-based brothers as they search for grace in an emotionally fraught modern world.
Cunningham could be viewed as a role model for writers who seek a diverse audience without compromising their aesthetic style. His vision of a “post-gay fiction era,” as he describes it in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, is one in which both sex and sexuality are just facets of characters’ lives. “I’ve never written, nor do I plan to write, a novel in which all of the characters are gay. And I’ve never written, nor do I plan to write, a character whose sexuality is the most important thing about him or her.” He continues,
I’ve never written a novel about the deep fascination of a 23-year-old gay man with a perfect body and an IQ of 85. I will never write that character. And that’s the kind of thing that has traditionally marked “gay” fiction — it takes place in a gay world in which there are often no straight characters at all. It places a huge premium on youth and beauty, and sex matters more than anything else. Not one of those things is interesting to me as a writer.
One reason for this, as he explains in the interview below, is that what is sexually stimulating for one person is not necessarily stimulating for another: “if you try too directly to turn readers on in fiction, you’re likely not only to turn a number of readers off, but to lose their trust.” Cunningham’s perspective is that thoughtful, and thought-provoking, literature must secure and maintain the reader’s trust: illuminate rather than impose.
In this conversation with Lambda, Cunningham generously talks about literary culture, the creative writing process, and how New York City is and is not for writers.
The title of your new book alludes to a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale that figures marginally, as evident in the imagery of snow and drugs, but not as a direct metaphor representative of the book’s content. Why this title, and how did you persuade your editor to keep it?
Titles are funny; titles are quixotic and elusive and difficult. If the standard comparison is, “What to name the baby[?],” with a novel it’s more like, “What to name the country?”
Oddly enough, for reasons I can’t fully explain, this book was always called The Snow Queen—from day one. It was of course partly an allusion to the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, but it was more importantly about words that preceded Hans Christian Anderson: Snow, and Queen.
Both are rife with multiple meanings. Right? Although my novel’s title references Anderson’s story, I feel like both of us, separated by a couple of centuries, are referencing much older notions.
The theme of addiction — to love, to drugs — in this book is also pervasive, in other machinations, throughout your oeuvre. How would you say this theme bespeaks what appears to be a larger interest of yours: that of the human spirit, and how it compels us to always become–to become more, to become better, to love more strongly?
I’m frankly not sure if I can improve on your phraseology here. Yes. As a novelist, I’m drawn to characters who want more than they can reasonably expect, who strive beyond their demonstrated abilities, who run their errands and report for their jobs thinking, Surely this is part of a larger picture; please let it be true that I’m not just living randomly, not just waiting every day for the lunch bell to ring.
I’m sure there are people who are content to run errands and report for work on time and wait, with an enlivening eagerness, for the lunch bell. I wish them well. They have, however, never been the subjects of novels, and in all likelihood, will never be.
Your novels, including The Snow Queen, function in some part on a logic of the third, whether it is in terms of interrelated protagonists or in terms of a book’s structure (the interwoven triptych of The Hours being the most obvious). What attracts you to the number three?
The number three has a way of insisting on itself, throughout history, from the Holy Trinity to the three acts of a classic play. My sense of the number three is, it’s the first of the interesting numbers….
I mean, one, enough said. One is the loneliest number….
Two. Two beings or objects or whatever can only be placed in symmetry. Wherever you put them, whether on the tabletop of 10,000 light years apart, they can only balance, they can only complement.
Three is the first truly interesting number. Three contains infinite possibilities. Three points can form an equilateral triangle. Three points can intersect the time-space continuum.
The logic of the third is one that undergirds most if not all psychoanalytic paradigms, yet your novels (thankfully) shirk psychoanalysis, particularly, as I see it, through the refusal to judge characters’ actions.
Thank you. I by no means reject psychoanalysis – I lived with an analyst for 25 years – but frankly I suspect that it (I mean classic analysis, not therapy in general) has proven to be based on a false premise, on an idealized notion of human response.
What I mean is: Idea: given room for transference, patients will relive, and in the process be cleansed by, earlier experiences. Reality: The sphinx-like psychoanalyst just makes you feel guilty and judged and defensive; that Freud imagined we’d interpret “neutral” space as free space, when, in fact, faced with our impassive analysts, we don’t feel liberated, we feel judged, what we re-experience is disapproval, and the classically-trained analyst isn’t able to help us with our questions about feeling disapproved-of, only to ask us why we seem to feel that way.
OK, I think traditional psychoanalysis is basically a promising idea that hasn’t worked out all that well. Naturally, my novels would reflect that.
Your novels offer contemplative landscapes in which the reader traipses in and out of the minds of your characters, and you allow the reader full access to these minds by refusing authorial/moral judgment. But there are occasions when a kind of universal voice, say, about the human condition, comes through, as in this example from The Snow Queen:
[Liz will] be willing to meet someone who can hold her interest for more than a few months, and that guy will teach her about domestic deepenings, the modest reliable thrill of the familiar, which as almost everyone but Liz knows has been the way of human happiness since humanity was born.
What, or who, is this voice? It feels like the kind of voice found in Virginia Woolf’s novels, one that embodies not the stream-of-consciousness of one person but of the collective of humanity at a particular point in time and within that particular culture.
In my novels, we dip in and out of the subjective and the objective, the personal and the universal. It’s just…how I write. There’s not much theory behind it. One’s mind – I mean, anyone’s mind – works in certain ways, and one’s novels naturally reflect the workings of one’s mind. I can’t quite imagine writing a narrative that didn’t move from the subjective to the objective, and back again; same for the personal and the universal. Eliminating any of them would feel like running a race with one leg tethered.
Speaking of context, why Bushwick, Brooklyn? Why the Bushwick of the aughts?
The Bushwick of the aughts — the more pioneer-ish Bushwick, the one that really hadn’t begun to be gentrified, or even cool-ified, yet, felt right for this book. I wanted a kind of urban wilderness, or maybe I should say an urban desert; a place in which my characters don’t really belong but, really, a place in which nobody really belongs, an industrial neighborhood, never intended for human habitation. I’m not sure if I can tell you why. It felt right, for this story.
The erotic is the vital force that catalyzes, structures, and impels human relations. This eroticism need not be sexual, or actualized through externalized, sexual interactions between people. Would you say that this — an exploration of the erotic, with a noticeable emphasis on homoeroticism, rather than sexuality — is an important component of your writing?
I’ve been told that Oscar Wilde didn’t say this, but somebody said it: “Everything in the world is really about sex, except sex. Sex is really about power.”
Whoever said that, I’ve always found it enormously helpful in approaching eroticism in fiction (which, as you point out, need not be sexual, actualized, or etc.). Eroticism is difficult to write about, I think, because everybody’s sense of the erotic is so personal, and so private. What’s hot to me might very well be repellent to you, and vice versa.
And so, if you try too directly to turn readers on in fiction, you’re likely not only to turn a number of readers off, but to lose their trust – as in, “Really, you think that’s sexy?” If that’s your idea of sexy, why would I listen to you about, well, pretty much anything else?
For instance, I remember reading, years ago, in a Saul Bellow novel (I forget which one) a line that went something like, “What man doesn’t go crazy for a naked woman in high heels?” Uh, not me. Which was more than just a bad moment for me and that novel, it was an unfortunate development in my relationship with Bellow himself. He seemed to be writing on a planet I didn’t, and couldn’t, inhabit.
Better, then, to go light on the sexual particulars, and think instead of who’s winning and who’s losing at any given point. How is power being exchanged here? I want to say, “Who’s on top?” But that would of course be sleazy, and just generally beneath me….
How do you feel your writing style has changed throughout the years, with this latest publication, if at all?
I’m sure my writing has changed over the years, but it’s been so incremental; it’s a bit like being aware of your own aging. I mean, every now and then you look in a mirror and think, “Wow, how did I get this old?” [B]ut at the same time you look like this now, and a photo of you from twenty years ago seems at least as strange, if not more so, than your current face in the mirror.
Do you have a method for the creative process?
I’m fairly workmanlike in my process. What matters most to me is that I segue straight from sleep and dreams into writing. It’s necessary to maintain a certain delusional belief in an invented world, and I can only slip through that particular dimensional warp – between the real world and my fictive one – in a slightly addled, dreamy condition. Running errands before I started writing would be a disaster. I’d have joined the actual world. My own parallel dimension would be impossible to enter.
As far as productivity goes, I think more in terms of hours spent than in pages filled. It just works better for me, that way, largely because I (like most writers I know) have on days and off days, which are impossible to predict. One day I’m in a transport, I bang out ten pages; the next I’m lost, I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m lucky to squeeze out two crappy little sentences.
If I tried to meet a daily page count, I’d be faking it on those off days; I’d leave my studio with X number of pages, yes, but I’d hate them, I wouldn’t believe in them, they’d feel like microbes infecting the work in progress.
If I’ve been present, though, and sat quietly, waiting to see what might or might not arrive on any given day, I’m fine. I’ve been there. The ship sailed in, or it didn’t. I’ll be back again tomorrow.
Are there books that you return to for creative inspiration?
Absolutely. I tend to go back to certain writers as opposed to certain books – that is, I tend to look for regeneration by rereading a few pages worth of sentences as opposed to rereading and re-rereading entire novels.
Among those from whom I repeatedly seek…. Inspiration? Transfusion? A reminder of what can be done using only ink and paper?
Don Delillo, Denis Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Jayne Anne Philips, Anne Carson, James Joyce, Gish Jen — to name a few….
How do you read? Do you take notes in the margin? Do you use an e-reader device?
I simply read. From first sentence to last. I don’t make notes. I do stop over certain passages, read them again, which makes audiobooks a problem for me. But I love traditional books and I love, roughly equally, books on my iPad. There’s no need for me or anyone to rename the virtues of the old-fashioned book. But then again, in addition to paper and cardboard…a little illuminated box, that contains thousands and thousands of stories? People aren’t fascinated by that? Really?
What effect has the media have on how we read, or how we take in a text? Have technological developments changed how you write (for a 21st century audience)? Do you allow your students at Yale to use electronic reading devices?
I’m not sure if we’ve changed as much, as readers, as we might like to think we have. My students read in ways that are entirely recognizable to me, in that they read carefully, thoroughly; that they’re inclined to be generous but don’t want to be bored, or preached at, or…. Oh, you know what I mean, yes? I suspect fewer people are reading at all, but among those who continue to read, to insist on reading (and I know very young people who do) the quality of attention, the desire to be interested and moved and expanded, etc., don’t strike me as particularly altered.
What does the Great American Novel look like in 2014?
There’s no such thing as the Great American Novel, and we should discard that as a concept. America is too vast and diverse to produce a single, identifiable Great Novel. America has produced, and will continue to produce, a certain number of great novels, which should be considered part of a singular effort, broken down into parts. Okay, Fitzgerald, write The Great Gatsby. Now, Faulkner, write The Sound and the Fury. Baldwin, write Go Tell It On the Mountain. Morrison, write Beloved. Delillo, write White Noise. Taken together, these and others are the Great American Novel. And the list can, of course, always be added to.
As a role model for many emerging writers, how can one make a living out of writing? Is it possible?
It’s possible. People do it. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, though, even if it’s offered. I wouldn’t want to depend on my fiction to pay the rent – it’d make me too nervous about writing books that I think will sell, as opposed to the books I actually want to write. So I write for movies and TV, I teach – which, as it happens, I like doing, and which, I suppose, falls under the general category heading of “making a living out of writing.” Yes?
Is New York City for writers?
New York has really gotten too expensive for writers. I mean, if you really want to live in New York, you should live in New York, but not to further your writing. Being there, physically, doesn’t make any difference at all. Writers, like anybody, should live, if possible, where they most want to live.