Michael Cunningham


At Work

Photograph by Richard Phibbs.

By Nightfall, the sixth novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham, tells the story of Peter Harris, a gallery owner in Manhattan whose comfortable marriage is interrupted by the arrival of Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), the younger brother of his wife, Rebecca. Peter—a straight man—finds Mizzy’s youth intoxicating and seductive. Soon, Peter is questioning his life, his marriage, even his sexuality, and wondering if it’s worth throwing it all away. Earlier this week, Cunningham answered my questions about his book over e-mail.

You write, “History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he’ll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him.” Why create someone like Peter and not … well, a Gatsby?

A Peter as opposed to a Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves. I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?

Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.

The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional.

You write this of Peter and Rebecca’s marriage: “He has the slightly trickier hope that he and Rebecca will be happy again. Happy enough.” And also: “You have brought down your house not through passion but by neglect.” What are your thoughts on marriage? Love? Is happiness everything? What about companionship?

I have no useful theories about love and marriage. When I depict love and marriage in a novel, it’s always a particular marriage, between two (or more) people who love or fail to love in their own, idiosyncratic, human ways. I do, for the record, believe in love. And companionship. Happiness is much, but it isn’t everything. One wants—one hopes for—the full ride during a lifetime, which includes not only happiness but other rich emotions like sorrow, anger, and yes, even grief.

How long did it take you to write this novel?

It took almost exactly three years. I seem to produce a novel approximately once every three years.

And do you revise?

I revise constantly, as I go along and then again after I’ve finished a first draft. Few of my novels contain a single sentence that closely resembles the sentence I first set down. I just find that I have to keep zapping and zapping the English language until it starts to behave in some way that vaguely matches my intentions.

Can we discuss The Hours? Did you like the film adaptation? Why do some fail and others succeed?

I liked the adaptation of The Hours very much, which may make me the only living novelist who’s happy with the way Hollywood has treated one of his books. I suspect that most book-into-film adaptations fail because almost everything fails—books, movies, plays, paintings, what have you. Having spent some time on movie sets, knowing what I now know about the gazillion variables that go into the making of a movie, the hundreds of people involved, I’m amazed that any movie gets made at all. The fact that some of them are actually good is a miracle.

Earlier in your career, you were published by George Plimpton in this magazine. What was that experience like?

I had a story in The Paris Review early in my writing life, and it was and remains one of my biggest thrills. Especially because George was one of the first people to publish anything of mine. God bless you, George, wherever you are.

You’re also a teacher of creative writing. There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether creative-writing programs works (see: Elif Batuman, Louis Menand). What’s your opinion?

If I didn’t think creative-writing programs were helpful, I would not, of course, teach in one. I’m always a little puzzled by people’s insistence that writing, alone among the art forms, be sui generis. Few people question artists going to art school, or musicians going to music school. There’s some strange romance about the writer as a Bunyanesque figure who goes untutored and unaccompanied into the mountains and returns years later with a newborn novel in his hands.

People do point to all the writers in history who had no schooling, but most of them had communities of other writers, or, at the very least, mentors. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein, Eliot had Pound. And both those guys had a world of cafés and salons in which they could talk about writing to their hearts’ content. Most young writers today, in America at least, find themselves all alone in Dallas or Buffalo or wherever. Or, for that matter, in New York, where as far as I know there are few cafés in which young Turks argue into the night about the future of the semicolon. A writing program, even if it teaches students relatively little in the literal sense, provides them with a body of other writers who will, in fact, argue into the night about semicolons and other writerly matters.