Michael Cunningham, one of the most talented and renowned novelists of his generation, has been on a whirlwind book tour since the recent publication of his newest novel, “The Snow Queen.”
Cunningham, who was born in 1952 in Cincinnati and grew up in Pasadena, Calif., is the author of the novels “A Home at the End of the World,” “Flesh and Blood,” “The Hours,” “Specimen Days” and “By Nightfall” as well as the non-fiction book “Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown.” In 1999, he was thrust into the spotlight when “The Hours” won the Pulitzer Prize and the PenFaulkner Award. His many other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2011, Cunningham was a Lambda Literary Foundation award finalist for “By Nightfall.”
“The Snow Queen,” a lyrical, evocative, moving novel loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, takes place in a run-down Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood over three different days between November 2004 (just before president George W. Bush is elected to a second term) to November 2008 (as the election returns in the Obama/McCain campaign are being tallied). Its story is centered on two middle-aged brothers – Barrett and Tyler Meeks and Tyler’s fiancee Beth. Barrett, who works in a vintage clothing store, searches for meaning and love after his boyfriend breaks up with him in a text message. Beth is gravely ill with cancer. Tyler, a musician, struggles to write music, kick his cocaine addiction and to care for Beth. One evening in Central Park, Barrett looks up at the sky and sees a celestial light. Though he’s not religious, Barrett feels that the “pale, translucent light” regards him in a godlike way.
In a wide-ranging e-mail interview with the Blade, Cunningham discussed the impact of fame, how music influences his writing, the political shift in his work and other topics.
Washington Blade: You’ve said that, as a teenager, you read “Mrs. Dalloway” [by Virginia Woolf] and that it reminded you of listening to Jimi Hendrix. Music, in a different way, runs through “The Snow Queen.” Would you talk about that?
Michael Cunningham: All of my books are related to music in a fairly literal way. When I get to my studio in the mornings I put on music, just for a little while, to get the dormant molecules of the air agitated again, after their night’s sleep. I just use the music as a starter-upper … But I do find that, with each new novel, I’m drawn to specific kinds of music. “The Hours” was pretty much entirely the Brahms requiem, and a lot of Schubert. “Snow Queen” was almost entirely Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich and John Cale. Oh, and some Clash.
Blade: In “The Snow Queen,” Barrett sees this spiritual, mystical “celestial” light. Some of your readers might be skeptical. How have readers reacted to the “celestial light?”
Cunningham: So far, no one has scoffed at Barrett’s vision or his subsequent search for some kind of spiritual life. I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that a lot of people are looking for some sort of spiritual life, if only a life that extends beyond working, shopping and eating. And frankly I was careful to avoid anything too specific in Barrett’s vision. I didn’t want … the Blessed Virgin Mary tap dancing in the sky for him. Or anything else that would have required dogmatic beliefs on the part of readers.
Blade: You won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Hours.” How did winning the Pulitzer affect your life?
Cunningham: Winning the prize was a strange experience. I was at first shocked. Then I was happy for about two days. And then, depressed for about six months. Depressed (this remains slightly mysterious to me) because I felt like it was probably all downhill from there, that no one will let me write any other kind of book, ever again (I’ll never, ever escape it). And partly – this is perverse, I know – some surprising reluctance about recognition. I’d always thought I’d wanted it. And was taken aback when I found it a little hard to tolerate.
But the depression passed, and I got back to work. Which is what a writer does, right? Sometimes the news is good, sometimes the news is bad, but either way, you get through it, and start on the next book.
Blade: Your novels delve into the inner mysteries of human personality. Not to get all Freudian, but do you ever feel, figuratively, like a psychoanalyst?
Cunningham: As opposed to what – novels that don’t delve into the inner mysteries of the human personality? I mean, isn’t that the point of novels? But yes, and it’s funny – I lived for years with a psychoanalyst, and we used to joke that we were essentially doing the same work, he with actual people and me with invented ones.
Blade: “The Snow Queen” seems more political than most of your work. Has there been some kind of a shift in your work toward being more political?
Cunningham: There has been a bit of a shift, in that I’m becoming increasingly aware of how apolitical much American fiction is. Most South American writers, most Eastern European writers, wouldn’t think of writing novels that didn’t incorporate the system in which their characters operated … American fiction tends to take place on some kind of blank field, as if it made no difference who the President is, how various corporations are manipulating us, etc.
For quite a while, including the AIDS epidemic in my fiction seemed liked politics enough. The AIDS epidemic is, of course, far from over. But I’m not on its front lines anymore. And so, no to other concerns.
Blade: You’re gay. Have you encountered homophobia in relation to your work?
Cunningham: Honestly, I’m amazed at how little homophobia I’ve encountered in my writing career. I suspect it’s mainly because the ludicrous, clueless, mean-spirited people who are homophobic don’t read novels at all.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.