By the time he finished Virginia Woolf's classic Mrs. Dalloway at the age of fifteen to impress a crush who tauntingly suggested he "try and be less stupid" and do so, Michael Cunningham knew that he was destined to become a writer. While his debut novel wouldn't come until decades later, he would win the Pulitzer for Fiction with his third -- fittingly, an homage to the very book that launched both his love of literature and his life's work.
After growing up Cincinnati, Ohio, Cunningham fled to the west coast to study literature at Stanford University, but later returned to the heartland, where he received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1980. A writer recognized early on for his promising talent, Cunningham was awarded several grants toward his work, including a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa in 1982, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988.
In 1984, Cunningham's debut novel, Golden States, was published. While generally well-received by the critics, the book -- a narrative chronicling a few weeks in the life of a 12-year-old-boy -- is often dismissed by Cunningham. In an interview with Other Voices, he explains: "I'm so much more interested in some kind of grand ambitious failure than I am in someone's modest little success that achieves its modest little aims. I felt that I had written a book like that, and I wasn't happy about it. My publisher very generously allowed me to turn down a paperback offer and it has really gone away."
With a new decade came Cunningham's stirring novel, A Home at the End of the World, in 1990. The story of a heartbreakingly lopsided love triangle between two gay men and their mutual female friend, the novel was a groundbreaking take on the ‘90s phenomenon of the nontraditional family. While not exactly released with fanfare, the work drew impressive reviews that instantly recognized Cunningham's gift for using language to define his characters' voices and outline their motives. David Kaufman of The Nation noted Cunningham's "exquisite way with words and ...his uncanny felicity in conveying both his characters and their story," and remarked that "this is quite simply one of those rare novel imbued with graceful insights on every page."
The critical acclaim of A Home at the End of the World no doubt helped Cunningham win the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 -- and two years later, his domestic epic Flesh and Blood was released. Chronicling the dysfunctional Stassos family from their suburban present back through to the parents' roots and looking toward the children's uncertain futures, the sprawling saga was praised for its complexity and heart. The New York Times Book Review noted that "Mr. Cunningham gets all the little things right.... Mr. Cunningham gets the big stuff right, too. For the heart of the story lies not in the nostalgic references but in the complex relationships between parents and children, between siblings, friends and lovers."
While the new decade ushered in his impressive debut, the close of the decade brought with it Cunningham's inarguable opus, The Hours (1998). A tribute to that seminal work that was the author's first inspiration -- Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- the book reworks the events and ideas of the classic and sets them alternately in 1980s Greenwich Village, 1940s Los Angeles, and Woolf's London. Of Cunningham's ambitious project, USA Today raved, "The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing literary tour-de-force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse." The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was adapted into a major motion picture starring the powerhouse trio of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman in December 2002.
To come down from the frenetic success of The Hours, Cunningham took on a quieter project, 2002's tribute/travelogue Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown. The first installment in Crown's new "Crown Journeys" series, the book is a loving tour through the eccentric little town at the tip of Cape Cod beloved by so many artists and authors, Cunningham included. A haven for literary legends from Eugene O'Neill to Norman Mailer, Cunningham is -- rightfully -- at home there.
(Amanda H. Reid)
Good to Know
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Cunningham's debut novel, Golden States, can be hard to find; check out our Used & Out of Print Store to find a copy!
Cunningham's short story "White Angel" was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989 -- the year before his acclaimed novel A Home at the End of the World was published.
When asked by Barnes & Noble.com about any other names he goes by, Cunningham's list included the monikers Bree Daniels, Mickey Fingers, Jethro, Old Yeller, Gaucho, Cowboy Ed, Tim-Bob, Mister Lies, Erin The Red, Miss Kitty, and Squeegee.
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In the fall of 2002, Michael Cunningham answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
When I was 15 I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, because a girl on whom I had a crush threw it at me and said something like, "why don't you read this and try to be less stupid?" I did read it and, although I remained pretty much as stupid as I'd been before, it was a revelation to me. I hadn't known, until then, that you -- that anyone -- could do such things with language; I'd never seen sentences of such complexity, musicality, density, and beauty. I remember thinking, "Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar." Mrs. Dalloway made me into a reader, and it was only a matter of time until I became a writer.
What are your favorite books -- and why?Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- See above.
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert -- It's the ultimate demonstration of how an ordinary, and even despicable, character can become epic-sized, through the author's art and attention.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann -- It contains almost everything a novel could possibly be made to hold, and it all takes place in a sanitarium on a mountaintop.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann -- My favorite love story.
The Manikin by Joanna Scott -- She's a genius.
Being Dead by Jim Crace -- Almost unbearably beautiful.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee -- Almost unbearable, period.
A few of my favorites are novellas, or story collections:
The Aspern Papers by Henry James -- Perfection, right up to the quietly lethal last line.
The Dead by James Joyce -- Maybe the most perfect piece of fiction ever written.
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor -- My favorite crackpot. She was a rabid, ultra-orthodox Catholic, and the fact that she produced great literature from within a point of view I find almost reprehensible gives me hope for all of us.
Open Secrets by Alice Munro -- She knows everything.
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Mother and the Whore
- Diary of a Country Priest
- All About Eve
- Rear Window
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller
- The Terminator
- Talk To Her
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
- Mozart Requiem
- Schubert Lieder
- Beethoven Sonatas
- Laurie Anderson
- Philip Glass
- Joni Mitchell
- The Rolling Stones
- Neil Young
- Bob Dylan
- Leonard Cohen
- Dusty Springfield
My book club would focus on the books I think will still be read 100 years from now, that is if there's still a world 100 years from now, and if anyone's still reading books. I have to have faith on both counts.
As any student of literature knows, the books that last are often not the books that are most popular when they are written. Both Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby were complete failures, critically and commercially, when they first appeared. So I find myself wondering which authors, and which books, of today will not only be read a century from now, but about which future readers will say, "I can't believe he or she wasn't famous in his or her lifetime."
My picks would be as follows:
Being Dead by Jim Crace -- A great meditation on life and death, on the soul and the body. One of the best books I've read in the last ten years.
The Manikin by Joanna Scott -- Joanna Scott is one of the most intelligent, compassionate, and just plain beautiful writers working today, and I don't understand why she's not more popular. The Manikin is not her most recent book, but it's the one I'd start with.
The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle -- Victor LaValle is, first and foremost, one of the most promising young writers around right now, he is also an African American author writing with great feeling, humor, and insight about African American lives. This, his first novel, is a gem.
Udoro by William Gibson -- If William Gibson weren't on the science fiction shelves, he'd be much more famous than he is. Unlike many science fiction writers, he has a great feel for character, and his books, about people living in a technologically dominated cyber-world, make all the rest of us novelists feel antiquated.
The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers -- Richard Powers isn't easy. Neither is Joyce. He is, to me, our most important novelist of ideas. His ideas are enormous, and almost mind-bogglingly wide-ranging. He seems to know a great deal about almost everything.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Looking back over the list, I'd say I'm particularly interested in writers who focus on the ostensibly small and discover the enormous in it. For instance, I seem to prefer Flaubert, and his insistence on the importance of Emma Bovary and her provincial French life, to Tolstoy with his huge
canvases; I prefer Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, with its focus on a single day in the life of an outwardly unexceptional woman, to Joyce's Ulysses, which is also set in a single day but ties it to Homer, to myth. I don't dislike Tolstoy or Joyce, I don't dispute their greatness, I just seem to be more immediately drawn to writers who honor the ordinary, and tell the world through their work that there is no such thing as the ordinary.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Michael Cunningham had to say:
Rather than come up with a "Ten Best" list of summer books, I've come up with five categories of summer books, each of which contains more suggestions than any reasonable person could possibly want. I can never answer a question like this succinctly.
This summer, I urge us all to read some of the following:
1. A classic you've been meaning to read for years.
One night many years ago, when I was in graduate school, a few of my friends and I fell into an impromptu session of literary truth or dare: great books we had never read. We started hesitantly, fueled by wine and cigarettes, and accelerated into what I can only describe as an ecstasy of confession. "Okay, you ready?" someone would say. "I've never read ,Pride and Prejudice. I'm not even sure what it's about."
"That's nothing," another would offer. "I've never read any Dickens. None at all." We started trying to outdo each other, to be the most ill-read person present, though no one, as far as I know, went so far as to pretend ignorance of a book he or she had actually read.
Although we all felt a little dirty and ashamed the next morning, we all seemed to feel varying degrees of comfort as well. I learned that night, and have never forgotten, that almost everybody, no matter how well educated, is walking around with at least a few secret lapses in his or her literary underpinnings. Few of us have acquitted ourselves with unimpeachable heroism in the realm of important literature, which, by definition, grows larger and more daunting for each new generation.
Summer, with its long, luscious stretches of relatively unfettered time, is without question the best season for trying to fill a few of those gaps. Besides, there's nothing sexier (to me, at least) than seeing someone sitting on a beach, absorbed in a hefty tome.
A few prominent possibilities: Dickens's Bleak House, Eliot's Middlemarch, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, James's Portrait of a Lady, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, or Woolf's To the Lighthouse. These are all books that turn out to be much less forbidding, and much more fun, than one might expect them to be.
For the truly ambitious, I should also mention Mann's The Magic Mountain, which is many things, although the word "fun" is not the adjective that springs most immediately to mind. I read it for the first time a few years ago (it had been one of my own, numerous confessions that night in graduate school), and have felt inspired by it ever since. I read it on an island in the Caribbean, where there was nothing to do but swim, eat, and read; I frankly can't quite imagine reading it under circumstances any less generous than that. It's dense, enormous, brilliant, and I admit that I threw it across the room twice: once when I understood that a climactic confrontation between two characters was about to be conducted entirely in French, and again when it was apparent that a significant new character was being introduced somewhere around page 500. I always picked it up again, though. It repays the reader's investment many times over.
2. A first or second novel by a significant young talent.
As a counterpoint to the summer's Big Intimidating Classic, I think we should all read something by one of the young Turks, to get a sense not only of where literature has been but of where it's going. Among my recent favorites are Susan Choi's American Woman, Marcelle Clement's Summertime, Stacey D'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Victor LaValle's The Ecstatic, Ernesto Mestre's The Second Death of Unica Aveynao, and Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu.
3. A novel of a sort you'd ordinarily never read.
Until this year I hadn't read any fantasy, science fiction, or horror novels since I was an adolescent, when I read so many of them I gave myself a hangover that lasted well into my forties. Lately, however, I've been reading genre fiction as research for the novel I'm working on. Some of these books have been revelatory. I've learned that if we select all our books from any particular section of the bookstore or library, we miss a lot of the most compelling stuff.
I think that every summer we should all read at least one novel of a sort we'd ordinarily never go near; something we believe a person like us simply would not read. Selections from this category are naturally private and personal, based on your own reading history. Some of my own forays into previously uncharted territory include the following:
Patrick McGrath's Gothic novels are wonderful, most prominently Spider and Asylum. Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy, The Golden Compass (which is the American title -- it was published originally in England as His Dark Materials), is miraculous. Even if you think you hate fantasy. Really.
I've also read a body of stunning science fiction books lately, and have come to understand that science fiction writers -- the best of them, anyway -- are producing books that are beautiful, original, and unapologetically concerned with fundamental ideas about life and death. Science fiction is not for everybody, but I think it behooves everyone to give it a shot. It is probably the area in which novelists are struggling most valiantly with the attempt to chronicle our lives as they mutant, whether we want them to or not, into their future forms. My particular favorites include William Gibson's Udoru, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.
4. Some contemporary poetry.
I, who worry about such things more than many do, am squeamish about the fact that few of us could name five living American poets. On a summer night it can be lovely to sit around outside with friends after dinner and, yes, read poetry to each other. Keats and Yeats will never let you down, but it's differently exciting to read the work of poets who are still walking around out there.
The most accessible way to look for poets who move you is the annual Best American Poetry series, which is compiled each year by a different American poet. The 2003 collection was edited by Yusef Komunakaa. A few of my own favorite books of poetry are: The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck, Field Guide by Robert Hass, What the Living Do by Marie Howe, The River Sound by W. S. Merwin, The Want Bone by Robert Pinsky, and Repair by C. K. Williams. The grandest oddity of recent time, a truly marvelous book, is Phoebe 2000: An Essay in Verse, by David Trinidad, Jeffrey Conway, and Lynn Crosby, which is an extended meditation on All About Eve.
5. The purely fascinating.
Finally, I think every summer should include one or more books that increase our storehouse of information but do not do us any practical good whatsoever. Among my own books slated for this summer are Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality; David Hajdu's Positively Fourth Street, a biography of Bob Dylan; and Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which according to several friends is without question one of the best books ever written about a fish (Moby-Dick doesn't count, whales being mammals). I've already started dipping into Ben Schott's Schott's Original Miscellany, and think it should be in every summer cottage. How else would any of us know how to identify different cloud types, the provisions carried by the Titanic, and the entire list of officially recognized phobias?
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