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MAN of THE HOURS - Channelling Walt Whitman


THE New York snow changes from icing sugar on awnings and bus tops to a blizzard blanketing the footpath as Michael Cunningham buzzes me in. The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist lives on Manhattan's 16th Street but works in  “a West Village walk up'';  aptly named, I discover, as I stagger up the sixth flight of stairs in the elevator-free apartment block.

        He shrugs with “what can you do?'' sympathy. But he's been at his studio for 17 years and even though he has gone in that time from nonentity to star, he is not moving. He likes it and besides, it's rent-controlled at $US400 ($515) a month “when by commercial rights it should be going for that much a week''.

       What it lacks in cost, it makes up for in atmosphere. The two rooms have madly listing floors, neighbourly walls and firemen's poles supporting drooping ceilings. It's more like being inside a creaking houseboat at final mooring than the creative headquarters of international literature's Mr Hot.

        Albeit a Mr Hot who has not exactly been Mr Productive. It's seven years since his last novel. But then The Hours did win the Pulitzer. And a PEN/Faulkner Prize. And bestseller status in many countries. And it was the novel that inspired the film that won Nicole Kidman an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. Well, it was probably as much the novel as it was that prosthetic schnozz.

        Cunningham, 52, is all gangly affability as he draws water from the sole tap above a chipped sink to make instant coffee. Don't mind the hole in the ceiling, he mentions, it collapsed recently under decades of industrial-grade dust. As for the stains on the walls, they are merely the scars of transitional generations. It's all just grist to the garret artist mill.

        Very New York, he agrees as he lights an apologetic cigarette; he recently quit but he's nervous at having to talk about himself. And about his new book, Specimen Days, which according to the understated spruiking of his publisher's publicity material is “one of the most anticipated novels of this or any other year''.

“Pressure? What pressure?'' he says with a laugh. Besides, it has gone beyond his control. The book sits on his desk as galley proofs, and he has already worked his way “through all the classic stages of dealing with loss that apply to the terminally ill: anger, bargaining, denial and finally acceptance''. “I'm at the acceptance stage, flaws and all,'' he confides.

        There's always a gap between aspiration and execution, he explains, and it's just a question of how wide it is. “You get to the point where the divergence is as small as you can make it, accepting that you will always have a bigger, brighter and darker novel in mind than what you were able to get down on paper.''

        But after the “sort of surprising success like I had with The Hours'', the important thing is to resist the temptation “to keep cranking that same book out again and again to solicit the same level of praise and adulation. I feel that if you begin trying to write a book that people will love, you're dead,'' he says. “But I don't want to write a book people will hate, either.''

        In The Hours, Cunningham wove three storylines and three story times together, effectively rewriting Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway while spotlighting her suicide, an AIDS-affected book editor in New York and a desperate housewife in California.

        At first glance it might appear he has in fact succumbed to temptation with Specimen Days, which has as its muse another literary deity: American poet Walt Whitman. The title even borrows the name of Whitman's 1882 autobiography. And it weaves together three characters in three stories in three different times. And in three different genres, none of them poetry, although Whitmanesque observations and quotes season the work.

        The “semi-discrete'' stories are all set in New York: a Victorian ghost tale during the heights of the Industrial Revolution, a post-September 11 thriller and a science-fiction story in the future. Each story involves the same three characters -- a boy, a man and woman -- but they mutate from story to story.

        So what is it with Cunningham and the power of three? “ I wish I had a deeply reasoned logical answer to that,'' he says with some embarrassment. “But I just seem to want to have three acts. There's some abstract sense that one of something isn't enough, two is too symmetrical, and three is just right.''

        What then of his slight bookshelf shuffle to the left from Woolf to Whitman? “I love Walt, I do, but I didn't grow up with him the way I did with Woolf,'' he says. “Woolf I stumbled upon when I was very young and stupid and she became an integral part of my education, of my life. Someone forced Mrs Dalloway on me, and you could probably trace some sort of tortured line between that day and this ... but Whitman I picked up later, on my own.''

        He never intended, he says, to put Whitman in this book at all “and I fully understand that some people might say, `Oh right, he cashed in with Virginia Woolf and now he's trying to do it with Whitman'.

“But when I was writing the first story, which is set around 1865 when just about everybody was dirt poor and working six days a week in factories and there was a coal smoke-laden sky that hovered about 10 feet over everyone's head, I was reminded that this was also the period that produced America's great transcendental poet. And those blighted New York streets were the very ones he was walking along saying `I sing the body electric' and `Every atom that belongs to me belongs to you'. And I thought, `How interesting. Whitman should drift through this story'.

        “Then I wanted to make him a figure in that story. And then he became a participant in all three stories: in the second he's a woman terrorist who's raising a band of murderous children and in the third he's a mythical scientist.''

So who does he have in mind as Whitman in the movie? “I asked Nicole how she'd feel about playing him, or the alien lizard in the third story, and she said `Absolutely, glad to'.''

        For a man to whom narrative is all, Cunningham is self-effacing about his own. His father was a smalltown Ohio advertising executive “mysteriously sent to open up an office in Frankfurt when I was six. And then at 10 I was suddenly dumped into Southern California looking like a lederhosened figure out of a cuckoo clock. My junior high school was very Beverly Hills 90210 -- all white, upper middle class -- but I managed as best I could.'' Later he went to Stanford to study literature “with minimum exposure to books but maximum exposure to hippiedom; it was the '60s, after all.'' He does not want to romanticise that period, he says, “but we did take a lot of drugs when I was a kid, and I think it helped save my life by giving me a sense of magic and possibility''.

        Now he has come to the point of thinking that “what we define as talent is difficult to distinguish from an inexhaustible interest in something. When I tried writing, I didn't feel especially good at it but I felt immediately, deeply engaged by it. “And I've never tired of the fundamental proposition of trying to approximate life with words on paper. I become deeply discouraged by my own inability to do it, but never with the fundamental notion.''

        After leaving Stanford in 1975, he “wanted to get as far as I could from ambition of any kind''. He went to Colorado for its beauty, fell in love with a woman and moved with her to Nebraska, where she'd inherited a derelict farm. “We tried to be farmers together but it didn't work out. She's still there, but I went off to work in bars at Laguna Beach in California and then Provincetown in Cape Cod.'' He soon began to realise that although he was not exactly going down the drain, “I could see the drain from where I was standing. I'd started a half dozen novels and let them drift away and I could see that a 26-year-old bartender pretty soon becomes a 36-year-old bartender and then a 66-year-old bartender.''

        Well OK, he admits with a laugh, “I was a little premature in my mid-life crisis but I also knew I had to stop potentially whittling my life away.''

        So he enrolled in Iowa's famous Writers' Workshop “with some trepidation ...  it can be quite hostile in nature there but I loved that we all took it so seriously that people were driven to the edge of murder over arcane questions concerning prose''.

        That experience “burned a lot of the foolishness'' out of him, helping him understand that “good writing was the result of sustained and serious effort''.

        The next big lesson came in 1984 with the publication of his first novel, Golden States, the result of “a desperate desire to finish some book, any book, before I was 30. I always knew it wasn't the best book I could write at that point in my life and I vowed from then on to always take as long as I needed to write the best goddamn book I possibly could,'' he says. The next one took seven years.

        During that time he went to New York to “a more adult job'' writing for the Carnegie Foundation, a philanthropic organisation founded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1905 to foster the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding''.

“I called my parents and said, `You really should come out and visit me now because this may never happen again.' '' When his father entered his son's office “I think that moment was the happiest he has ever been about my whole adult life. Nothing else, including the Pulitzer Prize, has been as pleasing to him as the sight of me in a jacket and tie and office.''

        Hyperbole, surely? “Well yes, but only slight,'' he concedes, “My parents were understandably upset about my desire to be a writer because they feared I'd be poor and miserable all my life. As did I.

        “But when I started to publish, I began to understand that they were most upset about the idea of having raised a child unhappy enough to write novels. Other parents raise estate agents and lawyers and are never confronted with their children's acquaintance with sorrow.''

        His being a novelist was much more difficult for his parents to come to terms with than it was for them to accept that he was gay. “I'd nearly married in college, and it was only late in our senior year that we began to think it mightn't be the way to go, that she was beginning to realise I wasn't all that straight,'' he says.

        “This was not entirely a secret to me of course ... but I didn't accept I was gay until I fell in love with a man in my late 20s. It took me longer to settle into my skin than it does most people.'' He has been with his partner, psychologist Ken Corbett, for 17 years. He does not see himself “as a gay novelist any more than I see myself as an American novelist or a white male novelist''. But certain facts about your life “determine what the world shows you, and you use that''.

        As for winning the Pulitzer in 1999, that had unexpected career effects. “The prizemoney is pretty modest but there's something about all the attention that is heady and fun for about three days and then profoundly depressing for about six months,'' he says.

        “I just collapsed. People were saying `C'mon, you're not getting depressed over this, it's such good news.''' It was not the first time he had suffered depression, “but it was big, the biggest since my mother died''.

        There was no similar depression when The Hours movie premiered, even if he was so anxious he “couldn't see it the first time. I just sat through it dumbly. The third time I saw it, it registered and I realised the movie was a work of art unto itself, with its own vision and rhythms.''

And “there's nothing like the movies for getting your name out there,'' he says, “which means that my new novel is now the most anticipated book of all time''.

        With that, he laughs like a drain, albeit a nervous one. Despite the Pulitzer and Oscar and other awards, “it's still all just me sitting in this room''.

        The best thing about the success of The Hours, he says, was confirmation “that crackpots and oddballs can win recognition, even for a novel about two suicidal lesbians; a book with no sex scenes, no car chases, none of the traditional ingredients that one associates with life-changing sales''.

        And there's also the “implied notion that there are readers who will follow me as I try different things''. While he is “sensibly nervous'' about this, “I have to extend to myself the same courtesies I extend to writers I admire, which is that their failures are as interesting to me as their successes.''

        Hope rides shotgun on fatalism for an instant, before Big Apple boldness reasserts itself. “So how do you like New York?'' he asks as he shows me to the door. “For me, it's like being married to Maria Callas -- there are moments where you say `Oh c'mon, this person, this place, it's too hysterical, it's too much'.

        “I'm not one who loves New York unreservedly. I sometimes find it appalling. And it's gotten so ruinously expensive that for every aspiring artist who moves here there are 1000 stockbrokers. That can't be good for any place.''

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  25 June 2005. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

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