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.’