Text & photos JF. Pierets
We meet Michael Cunningham in Brussels where he is invited as an Artist in Residence by literary organisation Het Beschrijf. Coffee, Belgian chocolates and a conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours.
And, how’s Brussels?
For my purposes now Brussels’s perfect. Alive and tame enough to be the perfect backdrop for a reclusive month of work. I’m not reclusive by nature so it’s a good thing because in NYC I go out more than I should. By the way, are there some great gay bars you know of?
Coming to my next question: I heard you less mind being called a gay writer these days. What happened?
I may be overly optimistic but I feel like that’s happening less and less in the States. Nowadays it’s only at certain occasions that I’m presented as a gay writer. I even get invited to real writer things. I’m on the shelves with all the rest of the writers. My audience is all over the place and I can only conclude – certainly when it comes to literature – we’re moving out of that categorisation. We’re moving into a world in which the books are just the books. But that’s been my experience. When I started out it was much more so. I’ve actually seen it change. When my first novel came out I got invited to either gay panels or as the gay voice in straight panels. That’s not happening anymore. And it’s complicated because on one hand I don’t want anyone to be able to imagine that I am covering up my sexuality in any way. As a matter of fact, I probably make it very clear that I’m not covering it up. So far that sometimes it feels like an invasion of privacy. So on one hand I’m going to be public about it and on the other hand, the fact that I’m a gay writer is only one thing about me. I’m also a white writer, an American writer and a male writer and all those things matter. Again – and this might be absurdly optimistic – but it seems like often a sort of invisible or semi visible cohort of the writing population has to get so to speak poled out of the limelight, so as to move on to the ‘just another writer’ period. There were a lot of African American writers for a long time and less so now. A new book by an African American writer is simply received as a new book. But there may be a period in which any group that has been ignored, has to be shoved down everybody’s throats so it can become normal after a while.
But you did feel a certain pressure from the queer community.
I think one of the tricky things about the fact that there finally is a significant body of queer literature is that books by and about gay people are like books by any kind of person. It isn’t just about that this is not how novels work, that’s not a novel you want to read and less so now, but I did feel a certain pressure from the queer community to write about happy queers who are doing fine. But then I never wanted to read a book about any happy people who are doing fine. That’s not what novels are about. That’s why we love Anna Karenina, I just can’t name a significant book about happy people for whom everything turns out fine. You really cannot aim your queer expectations in those directions or we just end up with crappy books that don’t feel true. There are many ways to spread a social message but a novel is a human message. It’s about the difficulty of being human. And the complexity of being human. And it almost always involves real striving and conflict. And I think our queer novelists have to keep that in mind and present gay characters that are not stereotyped but also not impossible paragons. Those are two ways of making gay people inhuman. People are sexually complex and I think that has not really been adequately portrayed in a lot of fiction. In part because for a long time you couldn’t write about it at all. And now that we are more able to write about our characters sexuality, I certainly find a lot of it a little too simple. Certainly by 2011 queer lives were so various that the appellations straight, gay, bisexual and transgender as categories– even if we keep expanding the list – just prove inadequate. And those are things I want to write about.
There’s always one word that comes to mind when I think about the way your write and that’s ‘effortless’.
It takes a great deal of effort to make it look effortless. But that’s pretty much my aim. Don’t be dull and give something back to the people who buy your books. I’m thinking of my readers as people with no time to waste.
You write a lot about beauty. Seems quite important in your everyday life.
I’m a whore for beauty. And yes, it’s always a little autobiographical. The kind of novelist you are inevitably reflects the kind of person you are. And I love all kinds of beauty, not just the standard issued beauty, but more the unorthodox ones like a Lucian Freud painting or Leigh Bowery. But yes I am as a man, and therefore as a writer, interested in beauty. But not in the 18 year old girl on the cover of Vogue. Not the obvious. We’re so bombarded with a particular verified kind of official beauty that is actually presented by 001% of the whole population. My last book Nighthawks contains my first and last technically officially beautiful character. It had to be for the story to work. But all my other books and all the books I plan for the future involve love and sex between people who are not 22 and perfectly formed. I’m really adamant about that. I’m very much about the particular idiosyncratic beauty of my characters that are not hired by Calvin Klein for the next underwear campaign. First and foremost you have to write what you feel most passionate about. I suppose when I was one of those guys whose idea of the ultimate manifestation of human beauty was a Calvin Klein underwear model, I would write about those guys. But I’m not especially interested in that sort of Prozac obvious beauty. I’m interested in the more subtle and magical kinds of beauty that isn’t on billboards.
Does it have anything to do with aging?
No, I’ve always felt this way. For one thing, I’m sceptical about the modification of beauty because if we are sufficiently convinced that only that 22 year old Ukrainian girl on the cover of Vogue is beautiful and we would spend a billion dollars looking as much as possible like that person. It’s economic. Since I was young I didn’t like that, I don’t buy that. It’s like we’re being hoodwinked. I feel like underneath that singularly beautiful young person is someone’s desire for us to buy a 200 dollar jar of moisturiser and I don’t like that. But people love the illusion that they can stay young forever.
It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t care, but staying young forever is not in fact an option and there are times when I imagine going back in time and saying to myself at 25: “you should have more fun, lap it up, be less worried. You are 25. This is even better than you know.” But whenever I think about that I see myself sitting next to it at 58, saying the same thing. I’ve always had certain political and cultural convictions and part of me says: fuck people who say sex at 59 is over. For men and women. Women get it much worse. And if anybody is going to change that it’s going to be the people who are getting older. By not lying about your age, by looking good without desperately wanting to be 30. You know, I wish Madonna would age better. I think she’s misusing her power by continuing to insist she’s 37. So let’s focus on Julie Christie. She had no work done and looks amazing.
‘I wish Madonna, would age better. I think she’s misusing her power by continuing to insist she’s 37.’
Talking about Hollywood, you are into movies since The Hours.
Yes, and I never have to pursue anybody. They just call me. Unfortunately, most movies I wrote didn’t make it to the screen but that’s how it works. You initiate many more products than the ones that do end up on the screen. The big companies are always very nervous that it’s not commercial enough. Sometimes that breaks my heart. For example I was doing the Dusty Springfield story with Nicole Kidman for a big movie company. Turned out they had not really done their research. During the meeting I did say she was a lesbian and they didn’t expect us to change that, but I had no idea they where unaware of the fact she took a pound of cocaine a day and flushed it away with a quarter of vodka. She was in and out of rehab, hallucinated and got beaten up by her girlfriends. Seemed that the studio wanted a singing leprechaun. They thought lesbian is edgy enough, let’s leave it to that. A happy preppy Dusty with just that little thing about her, didn’t quite cover the story because both Nicole and I wanted to do the real thing. It’s a pity, but that’s the way things go in the movie business. They only care about if it makes a hundred million dollars. Even the involvement of Kidman doesn’t make a difference. The whole star-thing is breaking down in Hollywood. It’s a kind of shift in Zeitgeist that nobody understands. A big star is no guarantee anymore for a box-office hit. All I can think about is that the audience has had enough of shitty movies that accidentally have a star in it.
What about the stardom that comes with winning a prestigious prize?
Winning the Pulitzer Prize made writing less fun. I pretty much gotten over that too much expectations-thing but in the beginning I thought: “fuck, what I am going to do now?” It was frustrating but also very freeing to write books that nobody paid attention to. And it turns out both the good news and the bad news is that people are going to pay a lot more attention now. And yes, it freaked me out at first but then after a while I thought: “what if you would just get over a streak of good fortune that other people would kill for. What if you’d just get the fuck over it and go on.” But it is still in the back of my mind. Whatever your stature is in the world as a writer or any other kind of artist, you have to maintain a certain kind of recklessness. A certain kind of disregard for how a book will go over, a certain willingness to write in a different way that may not please the people who loved The Hours so much. And I have to hold on to that. And it can be a little more work to hold on to it when another book has been so successful. And you have to remind yourself: “it’s fine! Do not write that book again.” Sometimes I would love to be one of those people who are truly indifferent to public opinion. I can convince myself I’m indifferent to public opinion but there’s something in many of us that -once you’ve gotten prizes and were on best seller lists – makes us want that again and you have to slap yourself sometimes and say: “you may never get that again”. So you have to cultivate as much of indifference to that as you can. Be grateful for the fact it happened once.
Is there an amount of luck involved?
Any artist who’s successful has to acknowledge that there is some luck involved. I’m really good at what I do, I’ve worked really hard for a long time and as it turned out the world was interested in this short book about three women. No-one expected that, nobody looked at that book and said: I smell a hit. Especially me because I always wrote what I wanted and every time I told myself: “I promise, after this one I’m going to write my bestseller.” There aren’t that many good writers in the world. I’m a very good writer and I’m one of the few who are successful. And yes, there are other writers who are really good but didn’t get a break. Who didn’t write the right book at the right time. Something just didn’t happen, their number didn’t come up yet. Mine did. Working hard and being good at what you do doesn’t necessarily lead to celebrity and success. You never know. And publishers have not figured out how to guarantee success for a book.
But you don’t have the feeling you’ve already written THE book, the headlight of you career?
I feel like every book is a little better than the last one. I think that’s how it’s supposed to work. That you spend your life learning how to write novels by writing them and you die still learning how to write a novel. Ideally you live a long productive life in which each book increases your powers slightly and you are better able to summon complex emotions, you’re better able to render a scene, you know what’s too much, what’s too little. But almost inevitably the world picks one book out of the continuant – saying this is THE book. There’s this famous curse of the Nobel Prize meaning that you are fucked forever.
But it does give you that immortal glance.
Immortality is such a dead end because no-one knows and if we could summon a well-read person from 100 years ago and show that person a list of the books from his or her time to us now, I think there would be some pretty surprising titles. Like Virginia Woolf in her time, she had some recognition but she was no Hugh Walpole. He was the Don Delilo of those days. Nobody knows him now. You see, everybody gets forgotten. There’s a tiny, tiny fraction of people who are actually remembered just through their work.
One more thing about The Hours. Laura Brown, one of your characters, is abandoning her child which is considered being one of the last taboos. Do you have some taboos yourself?
My only taboo as a writer is stereotypes. I couldn’t write about a woman whose husband beat her up because she kind of deserves it. I wouldn’t write about a gay man who arranges flowers and hasn’t got a thought in his head except getting laid and going to a party. Even though I think that man exists. But you’re right, an ambivalent mother is just one of the last taboos and I can’t tell you how many women came up to me after reading The Hours and said: “that was my life and I never read about it before. Thank you for finally writing about a mother who actually has some mixed feelings about her child.” Because there are more than you think.
Leaves us nothing but to ask about your Big Dreams for the future.
At the risk of sounding insipid, I would love more of what I already got. I do work I really care about. I guess if I would pray, I prayed for continuance rather than some kind of big change. I think that’s an indication of living the life you want. If you hope for enormous changes maybe you should be making them, maybe you should be out there doing something about that. But I like my life, I feel challenged, engaged by my work and I have great friends. But if you would ask me to choose one thing, than I would love to be able to.. well… come three times in a row.
Thanks to Het Beschrijf for arranging this meeting.
Thanks to Passa Porta bookshop – Brussels for letting us use their basement.
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