Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham did a reading at Pomona College on Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Cunningham was born in Cincinnati and grew up in Pasadena. At first a painter, he shifted his focus to writing as a student at Stanford University and eventually ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He defined his beginning as a writer by the lack of trust he had for his writer’s instincts, combined with a naïve assumption that he would end up among the minute number of writers ever to receive widespread recognition.
“I sent these fraudulent little things to The New Yorker every month,” he said, until the editor sent him a polite request to stop. At the time, Cunningham was pushing 30.
“I realized, you know, well, I want to keep doing it. Even if I end up teaching at some junior college and it never goes anywhere. And then finally I got a story published. That’s when everything changed for me.”
Cunningham began the reading at Pomona with passages from several of his novels. One described the reaction of a man who sees lights in the sky over Central Park. Another talks about a man struggling to write a wedding song for his dying bride-to-be.
“I like to walk the edge of sentimentality. Hopefully, I don’t fall in,” said Cunningham. “Most modern writing is governed by the risks and the irony, the wry. That feels very under-nourishing to me.”
This sentiment resonates with the inner conflict of the protagonist in Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall. Peter Harris, an art dealer in Manhattan, has a fatalistic obsession with beauty. This complicates his feelings toward the gritty modern art he sells and, more pressingly, the Romanesque attractiveness of his wife’s younger brother.
In the question-and-answer session after the reading, one audience member asked if Cunningham had a take on gay characters.
“Not like the professional homosexuals,” joked Cunningham. Then, he gave a simple response.
“I’m a gay man, and so I’ve written a number of gay characters,” Cunningham said. “But I’ve written a number of straight ones. I don’t have a take on gayness.”
From his writing, one can sense that it is not the sexual orientation of his characters that Cunningham prefers to explore, but the nuanced terrains of their relationships with each other and themselves. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, a novel about how Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway affected three generations of women. The book was later adapted into a film, which garnered nine Academy Award nominations.
“After I got the [Pulitzer] prize, I was happy for three days, then depressed for three months,” said Cunningham.
He felt the pressure of the possibility that he was a one-hit wonder. In his mind, there were already bad reviews waiting for his next book. Then he stopped to ask himself, “Do you really need to turn such a great stroke of luck into trauma and loss and all that?”
As for the movie, Cunningham knew it would be “fatal” to assume that everything he wrote from then on would automatically garner movie contracts. The next two novels he wrote were completely unfit for the screen, Cunningham said.
For aspiring writers, Cunningham has advice much like his writing—compassionate without falling into the territory of cliché:
“Write. Write as truly and passionately as you can.”