Interview with Michael Cunningham

Kyle Grace Mills ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor

Michael Cunningham has a Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Faulkner Award, a teaching position at Yale University, a new short story in The New Yorker, and has just released his latest book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, an assured future New York Times bestseller. Luckily, he took time out of his busy schedule to conduct a brief interview.

Photo Credit: Follow News
Photo Credit: Follow News

Emertainment Monthly: You seem interested in reinventing stories—most famously that of Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours and more recently with your short story collection, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, in which you take on some popular fairy tales. Do you actively try to reinvent stories or is it just something you find yourself doing?

 Michael Cunningham: I suppose every writer I respect is “re-inventing” literature, in that every good short story or novel is original and idiosyncratic; ideally no new story or novel should resemble any other that’s come before.

But experiments with form are mere conceits if they’re approached as experiments, per se. A groundbreaking work of fiction is pretty much inevitably the result of a writer looking for the best way to tell the story he or she has in mind. The form should match the content; the form should not draw too much attention to itself, however unprecedented it may be.

Virginia Woolf put it better than I can, in an introduction she wrote to a second edition of Mrs. Dalloway.

She wrote about critics who believed her to have been “determined to beg, borrow or steal, or even create,” another (form) of her own.

She said that her “dissatisfaction (with existing forms) was primarily with nature for giving her an idea, without providing a house for it to live in… the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself, and this it did without any conscious direction… the book grew day by day week by week, without any plan at all, except that which was dictated each morning by the act of writing.”

I can’t improve on Woolf, wouldn’t want to try.

What is it like writing a novel versus writing a screenplay (like you did for Evening)? Also, any news on the possible Freddie Mercury biopic?

A screenplay, as opposed to a novel, is a fascinating combination of creativity and puzzle-solving. “Puzzle-solving” in that—assuming you want to write a screenplay that has any chance of actually getting filmed—it needs to be roughly two hours long (which means 110 to 115 pages); that all the emotions have to be conveyed outwardly through action (you relinquish the interiority available to the novelist); and it needs to be divided, subtly, into three acts.

Try watching a movie that doesn’t conform to that particular structure. It’s hard to watch. It doesn’t hold your attention.

It’s no coincidence that most good plays are also divided into three acts, even those that eschew intermissions and such. We need, it would seem, to be woken up at certain intervals, to be periodically surprised.

That challenge is part of what I like about writing screenplays. It’s also, however, why I’ll never abandon fiction to write screenplays exclusively. I don’t consider movies to be a lesser narrative art form—there are some great movies that matter to me as much as my favorite novels—but temperamentally, I’m slightly better suited to the freedom offered by fiction. It’s really just a question of how one’s mind works best.

I’m sorry to say it seems the Freddie Mercury project is a thing of the past. That’s part of the deal, in show business. Most movies don’t end up getting made, for all sorts of reasons. It’s always a gamble, and if you’re not a gambler you probably shouldn’t write screenplays at all.

You artistically paired up with illustrator Yuko Shimizu for your latest short story collection, A Wild Swan and Other Tales. What has that been like? Has it transformed your writing in any way?

A Wild Swan came about in a slightly unusual way—I wasn’t really thinking of the stories as part of a collection, wasn’t exactly planning, as I started writing them, on publishing them at all.

They were exercises, they were recreation, they offered periods of respite when I got stuck on a novel. It was only when I had seven or eight fairy tales, written over a period of years, that I thought of them, potentially, as a collection. I wrote a few more, showed them to Jonathan Galassi, my editor, and he agreed to publish them as a book. Being fairy tales, it seemed natural that they be paired with illustrations.

I found Yuko myself, online. I just Googled “illustrators,” and loved her work. I not only loved her work for its own sake, but her sensibility felt right for my stories—dark but humorous, sexy, mysterious.

Will I want future books to be illustrated? Hard to say. It depends, I suppose, on the nature of those as-yet-unwritten books…

You once said that you consider writing an optimistic act. How is it an optimistic act?

Writing is optimistic in that even the darkest, most dour of novels still assume that there will be a future, and that that future will be populated by readers, even if there aren’t all that many of them.

A true pessimist, someone who believes the end is near, wouldn’t really spend years working on something that has no purpose (at least, I can’t imagine working like that, and I don’t suppose many writers could). Novels are, in a sense, missiles being shot into the future, and, as I’ve said, the assumption that there will be a future implies certain optimism, however guarded or modest that optimism might be.

Last and easiest question: Who and what are you reading right now? 

I’m reading David Mitchell’s new novel, Slade House—he’s one of my favorites, I read everything he writes. I’m also rereading David Hare’s memoir, The Blue Touch Paper. An even greater pleasure the second time.


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