“The Hours” novelist Michael Cunningham avoids being tagged as “‘America’s voice of gay literature.’ But he’s stuck with the title
Michael Cunningham resists being labeled a preeminent gay novelist. But he cannot disavow the accuracy of the description.
In his novels, distinguished by clear, vivid prose that still manages to be about big ideas, Cunningham incorporates real-life GLBT figures like Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf into stories of the contemporary human condition.
“I didn’t intend to write another novel about a queer historical figure,” says Cunningham, best know for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Hours,” which ties together three generations of gay women. “But both Whitman and Woolf are figures who are hugely important to me and who I have revered. Their writing is a part of my own consciousness, how I see the world. It was inevitable that they would figure their way into my novels.”
Whitman is less a character than the artistic soul of his latest novel, “Specimen Days,” a collection of three linked novellas set in the 19th century.
“Here I am with another great deceased, gay literary character,” he says.
One story in “Specimen Days” is set in a poor immigrant community where the residents live a hellish existence “Calcutta-like, unimaginably filthy,” Cunningham says. “But this was also the world that spawned Walt Whitman, our great ecstatic poet who looked at all that and the rest of the world and said, “‘I find this extraordinarily beautiful’ all of it.”
As intellectually curious and thoughtful as Cunningham is, his skill as a storyteller is that he remains immanently approachable. In conversation, he’s apt to talk equally about Oscar Wilde, the Austin Powers movies and “The Da Vinci Code.”
“Sentence by sentence, [“‘The Da Vinci Code’] is terribly written, but it was really gripping and the information in it was interesting,” he says.
He even can find some political relevance in the ultimate piece of mass-consumption pop-fiction.
“I am sort of thrilled by this idea that, at this moment in history in a country run by religious fundamentalists and largely populated by same, that this monster hit of a book takes the position that Christianity is largely feminist and took a wrong turn when it assigned second class citizenship to women,” he says.
Cunningham will be speaking about often-underappreciated fiction genres such as sci-fi and suspense at the Writer’s Garret on Tuesday.
While Cunningham’s books (which also including “A Home at the End of the World”) always contain characters who are gay, they are not, as some have pointed out, about “gay characters” a description that has also been visited upon another well-known literary work.
“The kind of fiction that I try to write very much resembles what I admired most about “‘Brokeback Mountain,'” Cunningham says. “Literature should first and foremost be about human beings. Gay or straight is secondary to questions of our character and our humanity.”
Which is perhaps why he eschews the gay label. Cunningham describes the process of writing a novel as a combination of the conscious and the unconscious, and that his books come to him intuitively without knowing how they will be perceived.
“Novels appear slightly mysteriously for me. I let them percolate in the back of my mind and something burbles up to the surface,” he says. “You just sort of write the book in the way that feels most right for you. When you publish it, people see things that you weren’t necessarily aware of. This is why the poet or novelist is not the final arbiter of his work.”
Cunningham also refuses to jump on the James Frey-bashing bandwagon the author of the memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” which was later revealed to containing many exaggerations and fabrications.
“I think he got punished unduly, but that mini-scandal came along at a time when Americans are so tired of being lied to by politicians and everybody. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of the fury at his book would be better directed at the failure to find weapons of mass destruction,” Cunningham says.
Since “Specimen Days” came out last year, Cunningham has been working on several screenplays, although not for the usual reason: money.
“Fiction pays better than the movies I’m doing,” he says. “The kind of movies I’m interested in doing are low-budget. I’m taking a hit financially to do these kinds of movies.”
Cunningham is obviously a rarity in Hollywood. And he knows better than most not to second-guess expectations.
“”‘The Hours’ is about three depressed lesbians,” he says. “It was not in any way a sure-fire hit.”
Writer’s Garret at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. May 23 at 7:30 p.m. $34. 214-828-1715.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 19, 2006.