Interview: Michael Cunningham

by Barbara Shoup

(with Kimberly Campanello)

Appears in Other Voices #37

The filming of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours had recently been completed on the day he visited the Butler University Writers’ Studio and the first questions asked were about the process by which Hollywood had “translated” his wonderful, introspective novel to film. He laughed. “I don’t have any more moral fiber than most people,” he said. “I’ll do pretty much anything for money. So I was surprised to hear myself say, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t really see how it would work as a movie and, frankly, I’d rather it not happen at all than to see it made into a bad movie.’” But producer Scott Rudin persisted, and when he was able to engage the British playwright David Hare to write the screenplay, Cunningham made the deal. “Hare is a brilliant, extraordinary man,” Cunningham said. “The screenplay he wrote is respectful of the book and its complexities. It doesn’t dumb it down in any way; if anything it may smarten it up a little bit—without resorting to voiceovers or any funny tricks.” And the cast! Meryl Streep as Clarissa, Ed Harris as Richard, Julianne Moore as Laura Brown and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. Cunningham admitted to some misgivings about the casting of Kidman in the role of Virginia Woolf, but his visit to the set changed his mind. She’d done her homework on Woolf, he said. But it was when she emerged from the makeup trailer that he was sure. “She was wearing a sort of brown wig streaked with gray—and this prosthetic nose! She wasn’t actually unbeautiful, she was just differently beautiful. Beautiful the way Woolf had been: this kind of beaky, patrician thing. It was exciting,” he concluded. “I may be the only living novelist who’s had so far nothing but a good experience with Hollywood.”

Our conversation went backwards from there, to his earlier novels and his evolution as a novelist.

OV: Your first novel, Golden States, is a straight narrative, a coming-of-age story that covers just a few weeks in the life of a twelve year old boy. Would you talk about that book, particularly about how the characters in it were, in a way, prototypes for characters that you in explored in later books, particularly in Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood.

MC: It’s true. The books often tend to contain a boy on a journey and a woman trapped in a tower. Golden States was a funny thing. It is my first novel. I wrote it very, very quickly. I was about to turn thirty, and I realized what I had for my years of writing thus far was seventeen abandoned beginnings. I began to realize that this was where old failures come from. First they’re young failures, then they’re middle-aged failures, then they’re old failures. I was working in a bar and I suddenly had this vivid image of myself at sixty, still in the bar, still talking about the novel I was going to write someday. So I said to myself, “Sit down now and finish something. It doesn’t matter what. Just start it at the beginning, write through the middle and reach the end and then stop.” And that was that book. It came out very quickly. And it’s true. It does contain some of the people I seem to have continued to write about. Boys looking for something, women looking for a way out. I never felt good about that book, because I wrote it too fast. Because I knew it wasn’t the best book I could write. I’ve always felt that literature and reading have so many enemies—and writers are the very least of the enemies of writing and reading. But I do sometimes find myself looking through the books in a bookstore and galleys people have sent me, thinking, you could have done better than this. You did not put your ass on the line. Here’s just another book taking up space in the universe, and this is part of what is making it hard to keep books alive in the world. They just stack up like cordwood. I’m so much more interested in some kind of grand ambitious failure than I am in someone’s modest little success that achieves its modest little aims. I felt that I had written a book like that, and I wasn’t happy about it. My publisher very generously allowed me to turn down a paperback offer and it has really gone away.

OV: I noticed you don’t list it with your novels.

MC: Not listing it, frankly—though I didn’t fight this—was a sort of marketing ploy, when my second book came out. It’s much, much easier to sell a first novel. [Golden States] had sold about seventeen copies and nobody knew about it. The irony, of course, is now they sell for several hundred dollars on the Internet.

OV: The next two books, Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, are similar in theme and in the way the stories are told. They’re just plain “good reads” in the traditional sense. Would you talk about the relationship between the two?

MC: I’ve always felt like I want to sit at the table with Susan Sontag on my right and Pia Zadora on my left. I want my books to occupy some sort of tricky zone between the dead-serious and the—I wouldn’t want to say pulpy or even frivolous—but you know what I mean. Books you might want to take on an airplane. I wrote Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when I was very much involved with ACT UP, when the presidents were Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr., neither of whom ever used the word “AIDS” in public. Never even said the word. I had a lot of friends I had seen perform heroic acts who were dying. It was a remarkable time. You saw people who outwardly appeared to be disco bunnies, boys in hot pants without a thought in their heads, crazy old diesel dykes with tattoos everyplace and I watched them take care of people whose families couldn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it. I watched these people go to the hospitals, hold the hands, get the bills paid, see that there was food if they went home. I watched them call the people you need to call and have the body taken care of. Then I watched those people get sick. I wanted to take them books. I wanted to shut off their TV’s and give them something to read. But a lot of these people, who I loved, were not serious readers—not the kind of readers we are. It was late in the game to try to convince them that Chekhov was writing about them, and there weren’t many books—there weren’t really any books—that I felt especially good about, in which these people could recognize themselves, in which they didn’t have to see themselves by extension or by analogy. That I could bring to them and say, “Here’s a character exactly like you.” I wanted to write a book like that, and then another one—for all kinds of reasons. [Books] that would be easy to walk into. I didn’t dumb them down, but I felt that they should have straightforward, traditional structures. They should be good stories, easy to follow, if they were going to provide the kind of company I wanted them to provide for certain people.

OV: The structure of those books is interesting to me, because in a way it mirrors a theme in your work—the power and importance of single moments in a person’s life. Defining moments that Woolf called “moments of being.” Many of the chapters in Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood feel like “moments of being.” Not exactly stories in their own right, but sharply focused on one or several scenes in the characters’ lives. For example, the scene in Home at the End of the World in which Bobby’s brother dies when he tries to run through a glass door.

MC: The boy running through the glass is something that actually happened. I was at a party, I guess I was fourteen. It was just one of those parties kids have. Somebody’s parents are out of town and so everybody goes over and we’re all drinking beer and getting stoned and there was this older kid, who we just all loved. He was great. He was in a band. He was just the coolest of the cool. And some little kids started throwing stones at the house and we all ran out to chase them away and came back in and I shut the sliding glass door. He had stayed outside and a minute later came running back and didn’t see that the door was closed and ran through it. And died.

OV: Do you find that details from the real world—things you overhear, things you remember, things people tell you—often work their way into your characters’ lives?

MC: They do very much. But I always put them in a box and sort of shake them up and see what comes up. It’s funny. It seems to be a strictly temperamental question, the one about the extent to which a writer either works from life or works from imagination. I know people—Mona Simpson, Harold Brodkey—who literally can’t write about something they haven’t seen. They would be making it up. Anything in their novels, though they are fiction, has been observed happening by those writers. I find if I adhere too strictly to any [real] person, I either want to defend them too much or nail them too hard. It’s best if I use a little bit of this and a little bit of that and develop a person. I don’t know. It seems like a lot of us dream of people who don’t really exist. They may even be…like your sister. But it’s not your sister. It’s a very vivid person that you dream, just not somebody you know. It’s is a little like that.

OV: Where do you go from the image? How do the characters develop?

MC: It’s slightly mysterious. I have some actor friends in New York, where I live, and the process I undergo with my characters is a little bit similar to something I hear from them. It’s as much physical as it is anything. I think about the person, I associate for the person, I just sort of let the details start to accumulate. Carriage, manner, tone of voice, hair, shoes. But they remain a sort of welter of disconnected details. If I’m lucky, if it works there’s a moment when I say, “Oh! There he is.”

OV: Does this happen in process, or is it something you work out before you start?

MC: I work it out before I start. But, of course, I write the first draft to see what I’m writing, no matter who I’m writing about. The person gains tremendous weight as I go on. But in order to begin to write about a person, I need to get to the point where I’m writing autobiographically.

OV: From the point of view from the character.

MC: Yeah. Though that person may be a suicidal fifty-nine year old woman.

OV: Once you have the characters in mind, how do you develop and sequence the scenes?

MC: Very much the way I always work, by trial and error. It’s always a question of what’s going to work best for this book. I never approach a book with anything in the way of formal conviction. I just try to see what the book is and how it’s going to be best told. I certainly found that in Home at the End of the World. It was told initially from Bobby’s point of view. I wanted to write a book about a friendship—a big, profound, even catastrophic friendship, which I don’t see written about all that much. It’s, like, romance: ten thousand; friendship: point one. In that way, I don’t find that the body of literature entirely affects the range of my experience. Believe me, I’m all for love—in all its forms. I just feel like what happens in love can happen between friends, as well.

OV: Love is really a charged friendship—if it’s good.

MC: Yes. And friendship is sort of a sublimated love affair. I tried [the book] with two voices, but I just found that having the two boys talk about how much they loved each other was a little cloying and a little claustrophobic. I always flirt with the sentimental, but this was a heavy flirtation. I felt like I needed to open it out and bring in other perspectives, other people’s takes on these boys and on their own lives. I went voice crazy for a while. Everybody had a voice. Every character did. Appliances had voices! And then I cut it down to four.

OV: It has kind of an ensemble feel, comparable to a movie like Grand Canyon.

MC: Yes. One of the things I’m always aware of when I write—as I read—is the fact that any character in any novel I write, no matter how minor, is visiting this novel from a novel of his or her own. It isn’t written. But somewhere, at least in theory, there exists a really gripping novel about the passions and frustrations and comedy and tragedy of a person who’s in my book just long enough to drive a cab, who doesn’t even have any lines. I try to get as many people in as I can.

OV: You made a leap with The Hours. There’s richness in it, too—but spare, elegant richness. The characters’ lives are connected in a completely different way than the characters’ lives in the other books. What was the genesis of that book?

MC: Here’s where it came from. I read Woolf for the first time when I was in high school…in southern California. I was not an especially precocious student. I didn’t really read, except what they forced me to read. I was much more interested in movies and music. I was preparing for my career as a rock star, which I intended to pursue—I think, admirably undaunted by the fact that I had no talent. I just wanted to wear leather pants and light my hair on fire. Who doesn’t? I was talking to an older girl, the pirate queen of our high school—every high school has somebody like this. She was tall and mean and beautiful and smart. I was yakking away to her about how I thought Leonard Cohen was ultimately a better poet than Bob Dylan, and she said to me—really, not without a certain stern compassion—“Have you ever thought about being less stupid?” And I had thought about it—and had pretty much decided I was happy with the amount of stupid I was. But she said, “Why don’t you read some books? Why don’t you read Eliot and Virginia Woolf?” I wasn’t a complete moron. I knew who Eliot and Woolf were, I just didn’t think that I would ever read them. But I went to the library—the bookmobile, the trailer on the cinder blocks where they kept the books. They didn’t have any books by Eliot. They had one book by Woolf, which was Mrs. Dalloway—which no one had ever checked out but me. I tried to read it. I didn’t know what it was about; I literally didn’t know what was going on. But I did get something about the density and complexity and musicality of those sentences, and I remember thinking, “Oh, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.” I still stand by that analogy. Woolf and Hendrix, I think, are more alike than they are dissimilar. And it really excited me. I didn’t finish [Mrs. Dalloway] then, but I read far enough into it until I was just overwhelmed and had to take a nap. Enough to see how she had lavished these incredible sentences, this miraculous perceptivity on London in the twenties and how incredibly, eternally alive and important London in the twenties was. I looked around at where I lived and, really, a more deracinated suburb is hard to imagine. It was southern California, with little bungalows and little lawns with patches of brown grass and a little palm tree here and there. But it was my world. It was where I lived, and I thought, wouldn’t it be something to be able to do with this something like what Woolf did with London? To be able to create this world of mine which is so plain, but which I know to be sort of magic and amazing.

OV: So did you start to write then?

MC: No, no. I just thought about it for years.

OV: Eventually, you entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though. How did that figure into your development as a writer?

MC: I finally applied to a couple of MFA programs after I’d been out of college for a couple of years. I was working at a bar in Laguna Beach and doing my best to write, but living with people who I loved, but who didn’t even read. Everyone else was off at the beach and I was inside—it was a dark and stormy night—feeling like such a crackpot. I was starting to go down, I was losing my faith in what I was trying to do. And I didn’t want to sling drinks forever. So I applied to these programs. Weirdly—though I certainly wouldn’t feel that way now—there was a certain embarrassment. It felt like a kind of desperate effort, to go to writing school—like it was charm school or modeling school. Something advertised on a subway. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. I got in and really wavered up until the last moment about whether I was going to go at all, but finally went. Got in my car, drove to Iowa City. There it was. And actually, though I don’t think I can really credit the man behind the curtain at Iowa—because I think there is some real mean-spirited stuff that goes on there—it made a huge, huge difference to me. What it really did for me more than anything else was put me for two years in a local economy. It was Iowa City and there was no place else to go; no one else to know but the other writers. There I was among people who were willing to come to blows over questions of sentences, who cared that much about them. There was intrigue about fiction. There were people—a group of them—who I really respected, who agreed that writing a beautiful sentence was a significant thing to do with your life. That mattered to me more than anything. I had some friends there and we sort of educated each other. For years afterwards, I wrote for them. I still write for people—different people now. But it could not have mattered more to me that they were there in Iowa. Then we scattered—but they were still there, and I knew that they were writing and I knew they were thinking of me writing. I think MFA programs, though they can do harm as well as good, are great. It’s not like there’s anything else out there for young writers. I really don’t want to be one of those people who says, it’s better in France, but I’ve traveled a lot the last few years around Europe, and I can tell you that, in other places, the fact that you are trying to write, even though you haven’t published anything yet, is more likely to be treated with the kind of response it deserves. Which is, thank you, hero, for undertaking this very important, difficult work, knowing, as you must know, the odds against it ever paying or giving you anything of any material worth. Thank you. Here people tend to excuse themselves and get another drink if they hear you’re trying to write, and I think MFA programs are sanctuaries, places where it’s taken properly seriously.

OV: When you set out to work with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, how did you prepare yourself? There are so many echoes of Woolf’s language and her characters’ lives in The Hours, and I wonder how you were able to accomplish that.

MC: What I decided to do was read Mrs. Dalloway a couple of times, along with pretty much all of Woolf and a couple of biographies, and then close all those books and start to write and not look at them anymore—so that I would be writing from memory about her life and about Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t want the parallels to be too exact. I didn’t want it to be a little Swiss music box.

OV: Did the book surprise you as it developed?

MC: Oh, yeah. Flannery O’Connor said, “How could there be any surprises for the reader if there haven’t been any for the writer?” I was continually surprised by that book. And really, of the books I’ve written, it was the one that felt most often and obdurately like it was just nothing, like it wasn’t going anywhere. That it was just pieces and they weren’t going to add up.

OV: So you didn’t start at the beginning and move through it?

MC: Actually, I did. I got to the point where I thought I would write about these three different days in the lives of these three different women, but I didn’t really see how they connected.

OV: You didn’t know when you started what the connection was?

MC: No, no. That came later. In its early phases, I just thought, fasten your seatbelt. See if this goes someplace. You have some instinct, though you never know if you can trust your instincts. But you have some instinct that something’s going to happen and it will come together.

OV: Did you use feedback from other writers or readers as you worked your way through the novel?

MC: Absolutely. Sometimes my students say they hope they reach the point someday when they are sufficiently writers. That they will know what’s good in their work, what’s not good in their work and they won’t need any help. My reaction is always, that day will never come. Nor should it. I think there is a fantasy of the writer as some sort of Bunyanesque figure who strides out into the woods, preferably without any instruction at all, and comes back a year or two or five later with a newborn novel. That’s not really my experience. I do the initial work myself in a sort of secrecy. But I show it as I go along to Kenny, the man I live with, and he has a lot to say about it. Then after a whole draft is done I have an actual team, though it changes a little bit over the years. I show it to four other people and listen very carefully to what they have to say about it. Of course don’t do everything they say. But when my friend Stacy said, “You can’t just drop Richard out the window. We actually have to see him fall, see the consequences,” I thought, oh, you’re right.

OV: The idea of criticism as a kind of gift often seems alien to beginning writers. They have trouble dealing with the necessity of revision. Do you revise a lot?

MC: I do a lot, lot, lot of revision. I’m sure there are writers out there—good and great writers—who don’t revise. There’s always some exception to any kind of rule you try to make about the process. But I feel like maybe what I am—as much as I am anything—is the guy who won’t give up. What I do is start out with something that’s O.K.—mediocre—with with some nice sentences in it, and then I work it into something alive. It’s rather like a painter works, putting down the layers. You get everything there, then keep doing things that don’t seem to be large, but make all the difference.

OV: I’ve wondered about the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. It’s clear that your character, Virginia, is Virginia Woolf and that Clarissa Vaughn is a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway. But what about Laura Brown? How did she make her way into the novel?

MC: Laura Brown was the last to arrive. I was working with [the book] as a sort of cryptic, involving the modern-day Clarissa Dalloway and Virginia Woolf writing her own Clarissa Dalloway, and it wasn’t working. I didn’t feel like enough. What I originally thought with Mrs. Brown was, “Well I have a story about a day in the life of an invented person and an invented day in the life of a real person. Maybe it needs a real day in the life of a real person.” And in an early draft, it was my mother. I used her name and I tried to reproduce a day from her life as accurately as I could, but found fairly quickly that I couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t remember. It was already fiction—but without doing all the little narrative things you do to make it interesting. It was just sort of bad fiction. Then she metamorphosed into Laura Brown and I realized, I have a writer, a reader and a character. That’s what got it moving.

OV: Here’s something a reviewer said about the book: “The Hours makes a reader believe in the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life.” I think this is characteristic of all your work, particularly in terms of presenting gay life lived in the mainstream of society. Would you talk about yourself as a gay writer/activist and how you go about creating literature that teaches the reader what it’s like to be gay, but at the same time avoids the feeling that it has an agenda.

MC: I think about this a lot. I’ve always wanted, on one hand, not only not to deny but actually work with what I know is a gay man—just like anyone works with their experience. If they’re a woman or an African-American—or white. Because books tend to assume that we’re white, it’s hard to know that you’re working with whiteness. But you are. I know a lot of things, I know a lot of people who have very little to do with gay life, and I’ve always wanted to write the biggest books I possibly can, books that include what I know. I know a lot about gay people’s lives, I know a lot about my Aunt Helen’s life, too.

OV: This is evident in the way the lives of your gay characters reflect the very important fact that being gay is only one aspect of who they are. Still, reaching a gay audience—particularly young gay people—is so important because good books can teach you how to live. They can help a kid imagine a life for himself that he couldn’t have imagined before. I want to give your books to gay boys who are struggling with their sexual identity as your characters do. To say, “Here. These boys may not be exactly like you, but this is probably how you feel a lot of the time.”

MC: That’s the kind of funny doubleness. On the one hand, I want them to be on the shelf with all the other books, not in a special section. On the other hand, if it could be of some help to a sixteen-year old gay kid, yeah. And if that kid’s more likely to find it in a gay and lesbian section—this is where it gets complicated. I get criticized—I have arguments with other gay and lesbian writers—about the relative absence of politics in my books, which is intentional. I feel like, as a citizen, I’m trying to do what I can to keep Dick Cheney from blowing up everybody. As a novelist, I’m interested in what it’s like to be Dick Cheney. Part of what’s fascinating and difficult about human life is that everybody is the hero of their own story, everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing. It seems to me that novels are uniquely equipped to help us understand that.

OV: Is that why you prefer the novel to the short story? Preparing to talk with you, I noticed that you hadn’t published many short stories.

MC: I need a certain amount of space to make things happen. I was a painter for a while, though I wasn’t a very good one—and was very clear early on that as a painter your arm either moves like this (small movement) or it moves like this (large movement). You are, with very few exceptions, somebody who paints a certain size. It’s physical. If you’re a big painter, your small paintings are going to look funny. And vice versa. It’s the same with short stories and novels.

OV: What next? Having won the Pulitzer Prize, do you worry about what critics and readers will think of your next book? It’s a high-class problem, but a problem nonetheless.

MC: Exactly. What Will You Do Next? does loom—and of course people, myself included, tend to hate the next book by somebody who’s written a book they’ve liked. I was daunted by this for a while, then I decided, why not just go with it? Why not just think of myself as writing a book that everyone’s going to hate—and so I’m free to write whatever I want.