After the solid hit of 1990's "A Home at the End of the World" — later made into an indie film starring Colin Farrell and Robin Wright — Michael Cunningham stunned the literary world with "The Hours" (1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel, featuring the intertwining stories of three women dealing with the specter of suicide, was adapted for the big screen with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the brilliant, doomed English novelist Virginia Woolf.
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Since then, Cunningham has continued to publish books of fiction at regular intervals, including "Specimen Days," a trio of novellas (one of which concerns extraterrestrials visiting New York's Central Park) and, now, "The Snow Queen," whose title is derived from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
In "The Snow Queen," Barrett and Tyler Meeks, two middle-aged brothers living together in a derelict neighborhood of Brooklyn, take alternate paths in their search for transcendence. Barrett, a gay man who has been perennially unlucky in love, is shaken when he encounters a bright light in the night sky of Central Park that seems to be of supernatural and distinctly intelligent origin. Tyler is a musician who increasingly uses drugs in an attempt to inspire himself to write the perfect wedding song for his terminally ill fiancée, Beth.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Cunningham, 61, for a phone interview about "The Snow Queen" and other topics. Here's a transcript of our chat, edited for length as well as for some of Cunningham's more colorful language that isn't suitable for a family newspaper.
Q: What was the spark for the book?
A: Like most of my novels, it came from a few different places. One was that I met a young woman, a friend of a friend, who has Stage 4 liver and colon cancer at the age of 32, and who made what I consider the understandable decision to pursue treatment, to undergo chemotherapy, and also to do heroin. And why not? With Stage 4 cancer, you don't really need to think about addiction issues, do you?
She's a lovely person who talks very clearly about dying, and I got to thinking, the only story we hear about serious drugs is desperate junkies — terrible, dissolute people who end up with needles in their arms in alleys. But there are other stories, and why wouldn't I want to try to tell one of those — about why people might want drugs to ease their pain, or carry them off, or increase their reach, which is more what happens in "The Snow Queen."
Q: Religious experience is also a catalyst in the book.
A: Yes. My whole family is Catholic. I am not, but I grew up with incantations and aunts with so many statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary that you couldn't set a drink down. And, you know, religion and drugs: What else do you need to know about America in 2014? (Laughs.)
Q: Both of the brothers in the book are arguably using those things to distract themselves from the mundaneness of their lives.
A: It's difficult for me to imagine writing a novel about someone who isn't in some way trying to transcend the mundaneness of life — or maybe I should say, transcend their own limits, because life isn't always mundane, at least not for everybody. It's one of the interesting aspects of the human species to me, and it takes a lot of different forms — the desire to do more than you can do, to create something more beautiful than anyone could create.
I'm always writing about people who desperately want to do more, or feel more, or love more. And it's the disparity between the struggle and the unattainable goal that's interesting to me. My cat is perfectly happy with what it has now. It has no consciousness of wanting anything better. And I will not be writing about my cat.
Q: "The Snow Queen" is different from your previous books, including "The Hours" and "Specimen Days," in that these characters are grounded, familiar, even ordinary — or at least more ordinary than, for example, Virginia Woolf in "The Hours."
A: You know, I've learned to trust my readers to stay with me as I try to do things. When "The Hours" came out, it was no more guys (having sex, as in "A Home at the End of the World" and "Flesh and Blood"), and I thought, "I guess that's the end of my having any readers."
But that wasn't the case. And then when "Specimen Days" came out, I thought, "No more Virginia Woolf — now it's aliens. Now I'm done." But I've found to my considerable happiness that the people who are interested in what I write don't just want the same book over and over and over again. And that just makes me love them all the more.
Q: Well, your observations of human character are of a similar texture, let's say, no matter whom you choose to write about.
A: Absolutely. On the one hand, writers should write about the biggest possible world, and that takes more than one novel. But I'd be a little suspicious of a writer whose vision and sensibility and quality of insight were unrecognizable from one novel to another. I would wonder what that writer really (cares) about.
If you look at writers far greater than I, from Chekhov through Faulkner, the stories and the books differ from one to another, but there's a Chekhovian sensibility. There's a Faulknerian sensibility. You hope to be able to tune in to a lot of characters, but there's a limit to how chameleonlike you want to be.
Q: Are we living in an era of "post-gay" fiction? Barrett is gay, but it isn't all that important.
A: I hope we're living in the post-gay fiction era — or maybe I should say, I hope we're living in an area of gay and straight and you-name-it fiction, and no longer in an era of gay fiction as a niche or category. I've always been waiting for the day when the books that involve some gay characters ... are on the shelves with all the other books, and not in their own special section. And I do think that's beginning to happen.
Q: "A Home at the End of the World" would have been on the gay shelf in the bookstore.
A: Actually it was one of the earliest books about which it was hard to know which shelf it was going to turn up on in any given bookstore. Although many of my novels — not all — have gay characters, they also have straight characters. I've never written, nor do I plan to write, a novel in which all of the characters are gay. And I've never written, nor do I plan to write, a character whose sexuality is the most important thing about him or her.
I've never written a novel about the deep fascination of a 23-year-old gay man with a perfect body and an IQ of 85. I will never write that character. And that's the kind of thing that has traditionally marked "gay" fiction — it takes place in a gay world in which there are often no straight characters at all. It places a huge premium on youth and beauty, and sex matters more than anything else. Not one of those things is interesting to me as a writer.
Q: It's all in the timing, isn't it? It's a question of when you came along and how gay history has progressed.
A: Yes. I came along after Ed (writer Edmund) White, and Ed came along after a number of other people. So yes, there's been a progression. Each generation of writers who are gay, and whose books involve gay characters, makes it a little easier for the next.
Q: As in the stories of Lorrie Moore, current events in the larger world — often related to American politics — overshadow and reflect the emotional lives of the characters in "The Snow Queen." In this case, George W. Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin figure in the story, at least tangentially.
A: Sure. You don't want to lose the characters in the larger social and political issues of the day, but those things have to be relevant, at least to me. American fiction, you know, tends to be weirdly apolitical. Most South American and African writers wouldn't think of writing a novel that did not involve accounting for the system in which their characters live.
American writers, on the other hand, are somewhat singular in their, well, mistaken notion that our emotional lives, our day-to-day lives, are somehow unaffected by who's president, and who's tapping your phone, and whether or not your tax dollars are being used to destroy entire countries. We seem to think we can write novels in which those are just sort of extraneous issues, whereas a lot of writers in other countries have a stronger and I think more accurate sense that it's impossible to live a life that's untouched by politics, culture and society. It's naive to imagine that that's the case.
Q: Of course, there are people who think of themselves in that way — that politics don't matter, that it's not a factor in their lives.
A: And I wish them luck when there's a knock on their door and the bomb comes through their roof.
Q: Given the title of your novel, it behooves us to talk a bit about Hans Christian Andersen. His "The Snow Queen" is a very haunting, very strange story, and its meaning is more elusive than most of the Andersen stories, at least to me.
A: I read it when I was a kid, and it's always been one of my favorites, even though it's certainly not in the top 10 of all-time best fairy tales. How many people could tell you the story of "The Snow Queen" versus, say, "Cinderella" or "Hansel and Gretel"?
Obviously the novel is not a postmodern retelling of the Andersen story. I sort of used elements from it, but I'm as interested in the title as I am in the actual story. "Snow," for example — there's literal snow in the novel, and it's also a now-not-so-much-used slang term for cocaine and heroin. The Andersen story is about a girl traveling great distances to rescue her brother, who has a shard of a magic mirror caught in his eye, and when I started writing, I thought, "This is somehow a book called 'The Snow Queen.'" But its relationship to the fairy tale, though real, is not absolute, and not entirely central. I had an argument with my editor about that, and I won that one. I win them all.
Q: Which takes us back to one of our original topics: the human desire to transform everyday life into a fairy tale.
A: Sure. That's why fairy tales are popular. That's why movies are popular. We want escapism, of course, but there's another, more complicated kind of escapism, that we also want — an escape into a different, possibly larger, more immediately meaningful world. Fairy tales, movies, novels — they all take us out of the confines of ourselves, of our lives, even if we're perfectly happy with our lives. Because there are other lives too.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"The Snow Queen"
By Michael Cunningham, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pages, $26