Does fiction for a modern audience have to be played at high volume? Is falseness a pitfall or a point of pride in the art of the novel? BULLETT sat down with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham to get to the heart of the matter.
BULLETT: As a fiction writer, how do you avoid falseness?
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: I’m not able to consistently avoid falseness. When I’m sitting at the computer I can’t always tell shit from Shinola.
A lot of people can’t really conceptualize truth in writing outside of thinly-veiled autobiography, but you seem to consistently pick areas that you want to know more about.
Every work of fiction is to some degree autobiographical because your life, what the world has shown you, is your material. I’m more comfortable writing about people who are not based around people I know. I feel more free and reckless about pushing them around. I am less likely to either resent them or sentimentalize them if they’re not people from my actual life. There’s a great thing Eudora Welty said about working autobiographically. She said, as far as she can see, writers are free to write about any place or event, regardless of whether it’s based on any direct experience. Go ahead, write a novel about a logging camp, even if you’ve never been to a logging camp. But she doesn’t think a writer can write convincingly about any emotion which he or she hasn’t felt.
The thing that was so moving about By Nightfall was that the hero has such an old world sensibility. His struggle with the fact that beauty is often a physical presence, but one can’t physically contain it. It’s a theme I find so absent in the world of modern art, yet you located it there.
That part of By Nightfall is autobiographical in the sense that I’m a huge art hound and go to museums and galleries all the time and find so much of what I see to be thin and insufficient. And I keep thinking, we as a species have not changed all that much in the last couple thousand years, and what we need from art, that sense of transcendence, companionship and awe—that need hasn’t changed. And it’s not especially satisfied in me by a square of carpet with a few marbles thrown on top.
I feel like when I’m reading your writing, it’s that same quietness of mind that you get from Henry James. How do you retain that? How does the pace of life allow for it?
I live in a fairly carefully constructed hovel. I find that I need to segue as directly as possible from sleep and dreams into writing. I’ve learned that if I make even trivial stops along the way, if I pick up something at the drug store or the dry cleaners, I get to my studio and I look at what I wrote yesterday and I think, this is just something I’m making up. This isn’t as profound and mysterious as the drugstore, this isn’t as fabulous and real as the dry cleaners. So from the time I go to sleep at night to the time I finish writing the next day, I maintain a very willful and carefully controlled silence, which I then break when I’m done writing and run out into the world desperate for all the gaudy and chaotic capacities it provides. For me, there’s a balance—on the one hand, as I said, I maintain this oasis of quiet for myself. On the other hand, I really rely on the noise and confusion and rampant life of New York City after I’m done working. Put me in a little house in the country and I would be dead by my own hand within about three weeks. It wouldn’t take me long at all to disappear right up my own asshole.
Do you think you could be living this monastic life as a writer and then suddenly come out with this really sprawling, monologuish first-person manuscript? Is it something that appeals to you?
It does. One of the tricky balances involved in writing is that on the one hand, you should be unreasonably ambitious in your choice of voice and subject and everything. On the other hand, you have to be mindful to some extent of the difference between the writer you are and the writer you’d like to be. It would be a mistake to write a book as some sort of hypothetical “other writer” who is different from me. When I was younger I tried to write more experimentally and it didn’t work. I finally had to accept the fact that my mind and even my heart are geared toward stories, toward narrative.
You never find yourself splitting into two people…
To some extent you split off from yourself in entering any character, but there’s a certain humility involved in writing, along with a great deal of hubris. But I think if you’re going to do anything that’s any good, you have to do it within the sphere of your own fixations and fascinations.
You go against that whole Bret Easton Ellis atmosphere, which I guess isn’t so prevalent anymore.
It isn’t. I was never a big fan of that spate of cold-hearted, hot-witted novels. I don’t mourn their passing especially. One doesn’t want a novel to be deadly earnest, of course. One wants one’s writers to have irony and a certain sense of humor. But without a certain seriousness, a certain earnestness, it feels sort of ephemeral. It feels dead to me. I tell my students sometimes that as far as I’m concerned, you can’t really be a writer and be cool.
The writer is the guy with the bad skin and the unfortunate haircut who sits down at the high school cafeteria at the cool kids’ table and talks earnestly about love.
No! That’s a terrible fate. What do your students say? I imagine they must go blank.
They go a little blank. And I’m sure they all think, “Oh, no. I can be cool and be a writer.”
It’s such a seductive occupation for young people.
For all people! Half of America is writing novels. It’s the easiest art form.
It’s the one that still doesn’t require other people.
Yes. We have heads full of language, we tell stories all our lives, we have pens and paper at home. It’s a much smaller step than saying, “I’m going to become a violinist,” which requires an apparatus.
Do you do any kind of work when you’re thinking about a female character you would embody? How does something ring true or false when you’re writing a woman?
For reasons that are slightly mysterious to me, I have never found gender to be a particularly difficult divide in trying to imagine a character. There are characters I can write and characters I can’t write, but whether that character is a man or a woman doesn’t seem to make all that much difference. I do always show the manuscript before it’s published to several of my friends who are biological women to kind of vet the girl stuff with the understanding that, on one hand, that’s a good thing to do. On the other hand, if somebody gave me a manuscript and asked me to vet the gay man stuff, do I feel like an authority on gay men? Not really—I’m barely an authority on myself. But still, I would have some feelings about where, say, a straight writer got a gay thing wrong—I would point that out, but it would be intuitive. John Irving apparently has a novel about a gay man coming out and I can only hope he’s shown it to a few gay guys.
When you’re teaching students, do you find things coming out about their personality that you’re realizing is going to present a problem for them later on?
Before I started teaching I expected more writers to be wild and free and reckless, and that it would be my job to sort of tame them down. What they are for the most part, if anything, is quite the opposite. And I’m usually encouraging my writing students to make it stranger and stronger and more personal than what they’re doing.
It’s weird when you think about how many writers have been “workmen,” for lack of a better term, just randomly picking things up. You can grow up in a family of whoever and randomly have this aptitude—
Some people—the occasional citizen of the planet—are able to create convincing life with language. Many writers throughout history, probably more than not, are seemingly mutants left by the aliens for some earth family to raise.