Michael Cunningham interview: Shining a light on ageing, love, and innocence

 

Michael Cunningham is no saint, as he’d be the first to admit. It’s a Sunday afternoon when we meet and the night before, he was partying into the early hours with Zadie Smith. Yet thanks to the sublime light that floods his twelfth-floor apartment in New York’s East Village, he’s haloed as he stands in the open doorway, his physical being reduced to a celestial smear of white T-shirt and artfully faded jeans.

The effect is fleeting but irresistible given his poignant new novel, The Snow Queen. His sixth, it opens as Barrett Meeks, 38, bookish, gay and freshly dumped for the umpteenth time, heads across a wintry Central Park from a dentist’s appointment. He’s reflecting on his sorry lot, pained as much by the affair’s having ended via text message – a new low – as by the finality of it all, when he looks up to confront an inexplicable glow in the sky. Still more uncannily, he senses that this odd light is somehow aware of him as he stands staring. 

Cunningham’s mother was Catholic and though he and his sister were left to make up their own minds, she would go to church every Sunday. It was, he says, “a little whiff of incense in our suburban Los Angeles home”. He’s been intrigued by spirituality and religion ever since, and along with piles of pebbles and a glass Godzilla, the tchotchkes adorning his living room include a small angel, a white porcelain Madonna and a cluster of amulets. However, that fascination is coupled with what he terms “the only sensible possible response, which is, isn’t it just oppressive bullshit?” And so, unlike most spiritual manifestations, Barrett’s comes with no clear instructions. He must figure out its meaning for himself, back home in Brooklyn where he lives with his older brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s cancer-stricken girlfriend, Beth. 

Tyler, a handsome struggling musician with a significant drug habit, claims a more than equal share of the novel. “I have a couple of friends who are seriously devoted to fairly serious drugs, and was very much aware of the fact that there is only one story about people taking drugs, which is moralistic and cautionary, and assumes that the drug addict is weak and foolish and in flight from reality. That story’s probably true in many cases but it’s not the only story,” Cunningham explains. In fact, Tyler and Beth are based so closely on friends of his that he showed them the manuscript before delivering it.

He assumed that these two ideas belonged in different novels until he found them coming together in The Snow Queen, which started with a title. It’s borrowed, of course, from Hans Christian Andersen, but Cunningham says he’s referencing not so much the fairy tale itself as “whatever impulses preceded the writing of that fairy tale – the earlier, more primal stuff”. Then there’s snow’s other usage, as slang for cocaine. “And queen has so many meanings,” he grins. He wears his 61 years well, a haze of stubble seeming more silver than grey, his rangy frame still too lean to pull off the act of slouching as he throws himself into the stingy embrace of a chic sofa.

It’s worth noting the Meeks brothers’ Brooklyn is not the global juggernaut of hipness that the borough has since become. This is 2004, on the eve of George W Bush’s re-election, and their neighbourhood, Bushwick, is depicted as a kind of populated wilderness, their apartment a tatty log of successive tenants’ attempts to make it feel like home. The novel ends four years later, on the cusp of President Obama’s victory, but though it reaches valiantly for happiness, Barrett and Tyler stand as trailblazers for the first generation in a very long time of downwardly mobile Americans.

Cunningham’s own early days in New York recall a kinder era. Born in Cincinnati in 1953, he worked in bars around the country after graduating from Stanford and then enrolled in the MFA programme at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He arrived in the city aged 30 and, unable to face making another margarita for another drunk, supported his writing with a job at the Carnegie Foundation, a philanthropic organisation. He also snagged a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village that he continues to write in.

Along with ageing and innocence and love, the challenges of creativity are a recurring theme in The Snow Queen, epitomised by Tyler’s struggles with a song for Beth. It’s a subject Cunningham knows plenty about, though he believes that authors overstate the torment of their work. “You should feel slightly incompetent at what you’re trying to do. The minute you start to feel like an expert, what you really are is a hack,” he says. “I don’t feel good at it. I’ve just become better able to live with the discrepancy between the book I had in mind and the book I’m able to write.”

The real challenge for him has been success. There was a marked gap of seven years between his 1998 Pulitzer-winner The Hours and its successor, Specimen Days. “It’s the thing you think you’re going to want until you get it, and then you’re uncomfortable with it. There is this sense that it’s downhill from here, you know? This is my third book since, and I feel people have finally forgiven me for not writing The Hours again.”

One thing that this latest novel has in common with its immediate predecessor, By Nightfall, is the threesome at its centre. “It’s one of those things that you realise in retrospect. I just think three is the first interesting number we get to starting from one. Add a third object and the permutations are endless,” he says. “And three has a way of turning up – the Holy Trinity, three acts in a play.”

There is notably little sex in The Snow Queen, something Cunningham confesses he finds difficult to write about. “Literally difficult – the vocabulary thins out, there are lots of things we don’t really have words for, and eroticism is tricky because it’s so personal,” he says. Instead, it’s brotherly love that sweeps it to its compassionate, quietly majestic close.

During the course of its writing, things have changed in Cunningham’s own domestic life. In 2012, his 26-year relationship with the psychoanalyst Ken Corbett ended, and his voice dips as he describes finding himself single again. “I think I’m fundamentally a boyfriend but for the longest time there was no way I was going to get involved in a relationship. Then, sometime last fall, I felt like, you know what? I can’t date one more silly boy, no matter how cute he is. There’s only one answer, which is to have good friends.”

The light has softened as we’ve been talking, and with the afternoon fading, he has a date beckoning. Not a date date, but a movie date, to see Godzilla with Ken. It’s taken a while, but he has finally resumed his duties as Cunningham’s first reader.

Extract: The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham (Fourth Estate, £16.99)

‘A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx’s.’

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker