This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
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.