Michael Cunningham Lorri Holt One on One

portrait Michael Cunningham

interviewed by Lorri Holt

Published in Issue No. 19 ~ December, 1998

Michael Cunningham is the author of two previous novels: A Home at the End of the World (1991), and Flesh and Blood (1996), both published by Farrar, Strauss and & Giroux. His new novel, The Hours, was published this month, also by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. It is essentially three intertwined novellas: one about the day in 1923 when Virginia Woolf began writing Mrs. Dalloway (which was originally titled The Hours); one about a day in contemporary, late ’90s New York City involving Cunningham’s own version of Clarissa Dalloway, who, because she’s alive in New York at the end of the century, is free to be a lesbian, have a job, and do everything that was denied Woolf’s Dalloway; the third novella involves a woman who is a wife and mother in Los Angeles in 1949, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway, and who doesn’t quite realize that she herself is drifting toward attempting suicide. The book opens with Virginia Woolf’s suicide, and moves backward and forward in time. An excerpt from the new book appeared as the story “A Room at the Normandy” in The New Yorker in September 1998. Mr. Cunningham is the recipient of the Guggenheim and Whiting Grant awards, and currently teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University. This interview was conducted at the 1998 Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in St. Helena, California, where Mr. Cunningham was teaching a fiction workshop.

Lorri Holt: About the whole writing conference/workshop phenomenon… it’s somewhat controversial right now. Some people are questioning the value of the writing workshop, its usefulness, and what happens to people when they participate in these workshops – if in fact the feedback is really valuable. Even the way writing workshops are run in the graduate programs around the country is coming under scrutiny. What do you think about this?

Michael Cunningham: If I didn’t think it was of some value, I wouldn’t be part of it. I think it’s of enormous value, if for no other reason than the fact that there is, as far as I can tell, no real community of writers “out there”; no support for new writers; no particular sense that, until you start to publish, you are engaged in anything especially heroic or noble, or even interesting.

LH: Ain’t it the truth…

MC: (laughs) And I suppose in theory, people should just be able to produce thier novels in complete silence and isolation in the privacy of their own homes in the shadow of the shopping mall, but in fact, I think it can be very nearly life-saving to be reminded occasionally that there are other people out there, other gifted, intelligent people trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do. I think for the sense of company, if only to be reminded that other writers exist in the world, it’s worth it.

LH: I think that’s quite true.

MC: I wonder if people are getting indignant over some kind of implied promise, which as far as I know no reputable conference or graduate program would make, that if you come here, you will somehow get closer to publication; you will make some kind of crucial connection…

LH: Right, that it will guarantee you some sort of “next step”?

MC: Yeah, right. My students ask me – often – whether I think it’s necessary, some kind of career move, to get an MFA, and I always say ‘absolutely not!’ There are plenty of reasons to go to an MFA program, but not as some kind of essential ‘step up’ in your career.

LH: No. Although for me personally, it was a way of getting back into a ‘life of the mind,’ into an environment of literary ideas, and literary history and literary companionship that I just don’t believe I would have otherwise found.

MC: I think that’s a perfect articulation of the good reasons to go to a graduate writing program.

LH: Back for a minute to the workshop thing: I’ve heard about people whose stories were torn apart in workshop, and who sent them out anyway, “as is,” and got them published.

MC: That’s possible…

LH: And I’m sure that’s happened; some good stories get trashed. One has to sift through everything and take all the feedback with many grains of salt. And then I’m also wondering about the idea of “workshopping” a story to death. Do you think there is such a thing?

MC: Oh, absolutely. First, let me say that no student of mine ever has a story torn apart; I see that that doesn’t happen. What we engage in at my workshops – imperfectly, but as best we can – is an attempt to sniff out the soul of the story, and talk about how it can be more fully and powerfully itself. And some stories are much closer to what they can ultimately be than others, and some stories may just be springboards to other stories. This story may not quite work out; maybe this is a way of getting you to some other story, but my workshops don’t tear stories apart. It can happen, I know.

LH: Yes, it can. There can be a kind of “feeding frenzy” that goes on, and sometimes people bring their own agendas to the workshop table, trying to impose those agendas on the “souls” of other people’s stories.

MC: It is very much a part of the teacher’s job to see that that doesn’t happen. And I remind my workshops that there is no singular, definitive opinion about any piece of writing, or any other work of art, and many of the enduring works of literature would probably have been hacked to pieces in workshops. Go ahead – workshop Moby Dick! (laughter) See how far you get!

LH: (laughing) So true!

MC: I really try to stay sensitive (and to keep people in my workshops sensitive) to the fact that the story’s eccentricities may well be its very heart, may be its greatest strength, and we’re not there to try to reform people’s writing into a more conventional, palatable form; we’re there to try to make it its true and crazy and unprecedented self.

LH: I’ve been reading Charles Baxter’s book of essays on fiction called Burning Down the House – have you read it?

MC: Yeah, it’s a great book.

LH: It’s forced me to reconsider some things that I thought were, possibly, almost sacrosanct, like the idea of epiphany. He has a whole chapter on it.

MC: Right – “Against Epiphanies”.

LH: What do you think about that?

MC: Well, I’m not against epiphanies…(laughs)…but I know what he means: I’m against anything that feels truer to the storyteller’s purposes than it does to life…I’m against any kind of forced convention that makes a piece of writing seem more like a story but less like something that absolutely matters, that might actually happen to a human being. I think we often feel compelled to produce some sort of epiphany that isn’t real, isn’t right. Sometimes the story, the true story of these people you the writer have conjured, is: “and then no light bulb went on over his or her head at all.” (Laughing) But I don’t want to rag on the epiphany – I’m not ready to sell it up the river!

LH: Have you ever found that you’ve given a character an epiphany that later seems to have been a false epiphany? Maybe not in the final draft, but in revisions?

MC: Oh, in the process of writing, in the process of putting a novel or a story through sets of drafts, I root out all kinds of shocking [purple prose] and errors and melodramatic portions!

LH: Aha! You know Baxter has another essay, about melodrama, where he sort of defends it, saying melodrama has its uses…

MC: I feel the same way – I feel like many people who read are much too hard on the person or the story tending to veer toward melodrama or sentimentality. We of course don’t want to write sentimental melodramas, but life is melodramatic, and often sentimental, and you want to write about the whole world. An excess of subtlety is not especially interesting to me; I like to see writers pushing it – risking sentimentality, risking melodrama – going right to the edge, and then not dropping over it.

LH: That brings another question to mind. Lately, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and while the characters are eminently understandable, until Book VIII I didn’t really sympathize with them in a satisfying way, and when I did it was only with Anna and with Levin. But I was thinking about your second novel, Flesh and Blood. The characters in it, although they were difficult and sometimes behaved badly, were to me both understandable and sympathetic, even lovable. How do you do that – make that leap? What do you think the difference is between making a character understandable, and making a character lovable, sympathetic?

MC: I think a fully developed character is by definition sympathetic. Often newer writers think, mistakenly, that in order to make a character sympathetic you need to make that character nice, you need to sweeten that person up somehow. And I think it’s actually absolutely the reverse: you have to conjure that character in her or his fullness of self, so that she or he either soars or dies under her or his own power. Most of the great figures of literature were not especially nice; the hugely sympathetic were not especially nice: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Gatsby. I’m sure there are probably some perfectly nice, great Victorian figures in literature – but even in Dickens, it’s not David Copperfield we’re deeply interested in, really; it’s the people around him.

LH: Let’s talk about your new book. Yesterday at her craft talk, [novelist] Christina Garcia said that when a new book of hers is published, it’s painful to her, embarrassing and unpleasant, to look back on her previous work. I’m wondering if you feel the same way?

MC: I do.

LH: You do? Why do you think that is? Do you feel that it’s somehow no longer valid? Do you feel that is was a ‘phase’ you’ve grown out of?

MC: It’s the change: You grow up a little bit after every book. Any novel is, among other things, a chronicle of the writer’s attempt to teach him- or herself how to write a novel, and you get a little better, and a little better at it. And your old attempts – while I don’t disavow my old books, I’m not embarrassed about them, but they’re not interesting to me anymore. And I can’t imagine reading them again. It would feel a little bit like one of those dreams that so many of us have that you didn’t finish one of your high school courses and you’ve gotta go back.

LH: (laughing) Oh, I’ve had those dreams, and they’re terrifying…

MC: Re-reading old work would feel a little like that: Oh my God, I’m back here again! How can that be?

LH: So how is this book different from the previous books? Can you articulate how you think it’s different, why you wanted to write it?

MC: It’s hugely different. This book, though I didn’t necessarily set out to write it this way when I began it, is a much stranger, and I guess I’d have to say a more original book, than anything else I’ve done. My other books resemble novels that had come before them – and consciously so. I was dreaming variations on things that I’d read. This book, which is essentially three novellas intertwined, three different days in the lives of three different women at different times in history, isn’t like anything I’ve ever read. It may be like something out there that I don’t know about, but it feels more completely mine, for better or worse, like something only I could have written. And I feel like I’ve crossed some kind of line with this book…like I’ve ended my apprenticeship, that I’ve entered some kind of…maturity, and that I’m writing the books – starting with this one – that I’m particularly qualified to write. And now I just hope I don’t get hit by some falling cornice! (laughs)

LH: I think it’s brave and wonderful that you’re writing a book about three women. It’s daring.

MC: Well, I do it with some slightly strange combination of (pause) …a sort of brio and real nervousness. I am, as you’ve noticed of course, a man, a biological man, always have been! And the farther afield you move from your own experience, the greater the chances that what you write will be fraudulent, will just be…fake, and wrong. [But] I feel like I get these women; I feel like I am them.

LH: So when this book comes out, what do you hope people will get out of it? What do you think its…essence is?

MC: It’s a book about human beings, and it’s also a book about a book [Mrs. Dalloway] .

LH: Very postmodern…

MC: (laughs, then pauses) And yet I guess I have to say that I hope people get out of this book what I would hope people get out of any book: I hope they’ll be moved by it, and feel accompanied by it, at least for a little while. That’s about all I hope for with any book.

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Lorri Holt is an established stage and voiceover actress in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently enrolled in the MFA Program in Writing & Literature at Bennington College in Vermont. Her first published story, "Moonwalk", received the Eyster Prize for Fiction earlier this year in the New Delta Review. It was a story she had workshopped with Michael Cunningham at the Napa Valley Writers' Conference in 1997.