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Flickr user Big Baby Miguel

A man walks through Central Park at night, thinking only of his latest failed love affair. He glances at the sky and sees a translucent, aqua light. The strangest thing is the light seems to be looking back at him, seems to see him. This vision begins Michael Cunningham’s new novel, “The Snow Queen.” It’s the story of two brothers facing mid-life who yearn to find some sense of purpose and belonging. One brother turns to religion, the other to drugs. Best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning work, “The Hours,” Cunningham once again creates a cast of characters with heart, humor and psychological complexity. Michael Cunningham on his sixth and latest work of fiction.

Guests

  • Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. His previous books include "The Hours" and "A Home at the End of the World."

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from THE SNOW QUEEN: A Novel by Michael Cunningham, to be published in May 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Mare Vaporum Corp. All rights reserved.

Snowqueen

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 novel, "The Hours," a reinvention of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." It was later turned into an Academy Award winning movie. Cunningham is known for incorporating literature and literary figures into his work. His sixth and latest novel takes its name from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, "The Snow Queen." But the setting for this story is a very real Brooklyn neighborhood, in the middle of the last decade.

  • 11:07:31

    MS. DIANE REHMThe book traces the lives of two brothers, Tyler and Barrett Meeks, as they try to make sense of their lives, loves and losses. Michael Cunningham joins me from NPR Studio in New York. We'll welcome your comments, questions throughout the hour. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Michael, it's good to have you with us.

  • 11:08:05

    MR. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAMOh, it's so good to talk to you again, Diane. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMI'm glad. Thank you. Tell us a little about Tyler and Barrett, how different they are and similar they are.

  • 11:08:18

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Well, Tyler and Barrett are brothers, who are very, very close. You could probably say a little too close for comfort. I don't mean anything, what, there's no hanky-panky, but they're kind of bonded in a way.

  • 11:08:37

    REHMYeah, they know each other very well.

  • 11:08:39

    CUNNINGHAMMakes it difficult for some of the -- yeah, for one of them to tell himself from the other, sometimes. Maybe the simplest and most immediate thing to say about them is that Barrett, the younger brother, regular guy, job, you know, history of failed love affairs, secular, you know, no religious affiliation of any kind, has a vision one night, in Central Park. He looks up into the sky and sees a light and wow -- what do you do about that? Tyler, on the other hand, is a musician, an aspiring musician, into his 40s, at which age the term aspiring becomes slightly problematic.

  • 11:09:32

    CUNNINGHAMAnd Tyler does -- takes drugs. He takes rugs that are bad for him in order to try to have a vision, in order to try to break through his own limitations and see the very light that has been visited, unasked, upon Barrett.

  • 11:09:55

    REHMDo you have the book with you?

  • 11:10:00

    CUNNINGHAMI never go anywhere without a copy. Actually, I have some passages written in magic marker on my chest. So yeah, yeah, no problem.

  • 11:10:09

    REHMI wonder if you would read, for us, the passage where Barrett sees the light beginning in -- a little beyond the middle of page seven and going over to page eight. The bottom of page eight.

  • 11:10:33

    CUNNINGHAMTo the bottom of page eight?

  • 11:10:34

    REHMYes.

  • 11:10:35

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Absolutely.

  • 11:10:36

    REHMPlease.

  • 11:10:36

    CUNNINGHAMAbsolutely. "There it was. A pale aqua light. Translucent. A swatch, a veil, star high. No, lower than the stars, but high. Higher than a spaceship hovering above the tree tops. It may or may not have been slowly unfurling, densest at its center, trailing off at its edges into lacy spurs and spirals. Barrett thought that it must be a freakish, southerly appearance of the Aurora Borealis, not exactly a common sight over Central Park. But as he stood, a pedestrian in coat and scarf, saddened and disappointed, but still regular, as regular.

  • 11:11:21

    CUNNINGHAMStanding on a stretch of lamp lit ice. As he looked up at the light, as he thought it was probably all over the news, as he wondered whether to stand where he was, privately surprised, or go running after someone else for corroboration. In his uncertainty, his immobility, standing stolid in timberlands that came to him, he believed, he knew, that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him. Now, not looking, apprehending, as he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.

  • 11:12:10

    CUNNINGHAMHe felt the light's attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz. A mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed, perhaps, ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he'd been, just a shade or two. Phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so. Nothing of swamp gas about it. Just a gathering of faint blood light that rose to the surface of his skin. And then, neither slowly nor quickly, the light dissipated. It waned into a scattering of pale blue sparks that seemed, somehow, animated, like the playful offspring of a placid and titanic parent.

  • 11:13:04

    CUNNINGHAMThen they too winked out, and the sky was as it had been, as it has always been. He remained standing for a while, watching the sky as if it were a television screen that had suddenly gone blank and might, just as mysteriously, turn itself on again. The sky, however, continued to offer only its compromised darkness and the sparse pinpoints of stars, powerful enough to be seen at all. Finally, he continued on his way home, to Beth and Tyler, to the modest comforts of the apartment bush work. What else, after all, was he supposed to do?"

  • 11:13:49

    REHMMichael Cunningham reading from his new novel, it's title, "The Snow Queen." Do join us. 800-433-8850. Michael, I found myself wondering whether you have ever had an experience like that yourself.

  • 11:14:16

    CUNNINGHAMI am sorry to say that I haven't. I scan the skies over Central Park and no mysterious light has ever appeared to me, but yeah, one of the great things about being a novelist -- it has its disadvantages, but one of the great things about it is you can make things -- I don't wanna say make things up -- you can imagine your way into situations, experiences that you haven't had yourself. And so, you live your own life and you live the life of the novel.

  • 11:14:49

    REHMAnd what's beautiful here is that Barrett begins to think that somehow, he has been given a gift with the appearance and the apprehending of this light. And we should say that Beth, Tyler's love, is dying of cancer. And Barrett somehow, in some way, feels that this light could be connected to helping her stay alive longer.

  • 11:15:44

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah. Part of what is so troubling to Barrett after this vision has appeared and disappeared is that it has, and I think it was evident from the passage I read, it hasn't really delivered a message, you know? If you, if you...

  • 11:15:58

    REHMRight.

  • 11:15:59

    CUNNINGHAM...imagine an enunciation, I think you sort of picture like an angel, like a giant Christmas ornament.

  • 11:16:04

    REHMSure.

  • 11:16:04

    CUNNINGHAMThat appears in your living room and tells you what to do. This light has simply appeared and vanished and left no instructions. So, where do you go from there?

  • 11:16:19

    REHMWell, you go inside and you begin to think what could this mean? What might it mean? Do I now have some extraordinary power that I didn't know I had, and how can I use this power? And, of course, Barrett sees this light when he's in the midst of his own darkness.

  • 11:16:54

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah. Yeah. Though, a very, you know, a very ordinary human darkness. Another love affair gone wrong.

  • 11:17:01

    REHMYeah. Yeah.

  • 11:17:04

    CUNNINGHAMWhat, what, what do I do with my life, really?

  • 11:17:07

    REHMRight.

  • 11:17:08

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, it's the, it's the -- I guess you would call it -- he's in a crepuscularity of -- he's in...

  • 11:17:13

    REHMBoy, that's quite a word.

  • 11:17:15

    CUNNINGHAMI know. I -- really, I really am so happy to have gotten to say that word on the air. I don't think it even is a word. I don't think "crepuscularity" is in the dictionary, but I was very pleased to get to -- thank you for giving me the opportunity to use the word. Yeah, yeah, Barrett is, Barrett is in a sort of limbo that I think a lot of people occupy periodically.

  • 11:17:39

    REHMYeah, exactly.

  • 11:17:40

    CUNNINGHAMOut of love, out of passion, out of work, out of luck.

  • 11:17:45

    REHMAnd why has he been out of work?

  • 11:17:51

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, Barrett is one of those people -- I myself know a couple of them -- who is enormously gifted and deeply intelligent and can't seem to find an occupation, a passion, a singular pursuit that sort of stands out above all the others. Some of us are fortunate enough to have known, since childhood, what we wanted to do. Like, for instance, you know, write novels or be a doctor.

  • 11:18:25

    REHMOr be a radio host.

  • 11:18:27

    CUNNINGHAMOr be a radio host.

  • 11:18:28

    REHMYou never know.

  • 11:18:29

    CUNNINGHAMCan we just pause to picture five year old Diane Rehm doing a radio show, possibly? You know, like using a kitchen spoon as a microphone? I can see that so clearly.

  • 11:18:41

    REHMMichael Cunningham, and his new novel is titled, "The Snow Queen." Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Michael Cunningham is on the line and on Skype with me from our NPR bureau in New York. I hope you'll be on the line as well. You can join us 800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet as two people have already done.

  • 11:20:41

    REHMThe first Tweet from Michael says, "Please don't let Michael Cunningham stop reading from his new novel." And the second from Elizabeth who says, "Michael Cunningham's reading has me transfixed." I thought you'd like to know that.

  • 11:21:03

    REHMThank you, thank you. Thank you both. That’s lovely.

  • 11:21:06

    REHMNow let's talk about the title of this book "The Snow Queen" referring to the Hans Christian Andersen tale. What role does that book play in your own novel?

  • 11:21:21

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, just very briefly I just want to announce to anyone who's listening here that I took a hit of acid before I came to the show. And I -- and Diane Rehm's name is Diane Rehm not Diane Rehms.

  • 11:21:36

    REHMOh, thank you. Thank you.

  • 11:21:38

    CUNNINGHAMI was -- somehow I went to that -- anyway, bear with me, thank you. Why the Snow Queen. The Hans Christian Andersen fairytale involves a -- two -- a brother and a sister. And the brother is sort of traduced by the Snow Queen as sort of ice maiden who lives way, way, way up north in the snow and the waste. And it's really about his sister's attempt to not only find him, but upon finding him, sort of bring him back to humanity because he has a bit of magic mirror lodged in his eye.

  • 11:22:23

    CUNNINGHAMMy novel "The Snow Queen" is -- refers to that Hans Christian Andersen story but only obliquely. It's about -- the title also refers to literal snow, it refers to -- I think that's, sort of no longer much used term for certain drugs, snow. I have promised my publisher that if anyone should buy the book and return it outraged about the fact that it's not actually the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, I will reimburse that person.

  • 11:23:01

    REHMAnd of course Tyler in this book gets a tiny, tiny piece of ice or snow lodged in his eye, which once again is a reflection on the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

  • 11:23:25

    CUNNINGHAMAbsolutely.

  • 11:23:26

    REHMWhat does that dwelling in his eye lead him to think or how to think?

  • 11:23:40

    CUNNINGHAMSure, sure. The little ice crystal that lodges in Tyler's eye is in fact a reference to the bit of cursed magic mirror that lodges in the eye of the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story. And the Hans Christian Andersen story is a sort of reference to the notion of impaired vision of something that masquerades as the truth as a kind of myopia. A kind of distortion that presents itself as greater clarity so that you are seeing the world in a very distorted way, and yet you believe that you're seeing it clearly for the first time, which is very much part of Tyler's nature.

  • 11:24:30

    REHMWell, it's fascinating because Tyler looks out the window and sees his brother Barrett running bare-chested in the snow. I couldn't quite figure out why Barrett would be bare-chested in the snow, Michael.

  • 11:24:56

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, it is a kind of self-mortification. It's like what some of the more extreme saints used to do, you know, binding themselves with thorns. When he goes -- when Barrett goes out again later that morning to go to his job, he's wearing a jacket and a scarf just like anybody. But for these morning runs he wants to be as exposed as he possibly can be to whatever the elements are. He'd run naked if he wouldn't get arrested.

  • 11:25:30

    REHMSo the question becomes why you decided to draw as heavily as you did on the myth that Hans Christian Andersen created. What was it that got you started there?

  • 11:25:50

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, I've always loved this particular fairy tale. It's a very odd one, by the way, and not nearly as well known as, you know, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

  • 11:25:59

    REHMQuite right. Quite right.

  • 11:25:59

    CUNNINGHAMAnd for me, it's -- understand it's shaggy and odd and characters come and go. It doesn't have the kind of compactness of Snow White or any of the more familiar ones, which is part of why I've always loved it. It's more like a novel. It rambles and has odd loose ends. And I think when I was young before I really understood why I liked this story better than that story, there was something about the idea of this boy who was not only imprisoned as figures in fairy tales so often are, but kind of brainwashed, kind of, you know, not just physically taken away but spiritually and mentally taken away. And I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

  • 11:27:00

    REHMSo that one's been in your head for quite a while then.

  • 11:27:06

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah, you know, one of the things about writing novels is it makes you especially aware that you, like everybody, have all kinds of things knocking around in the back of your head, all kinds of fixations and fascinations of which you may or may not be so consciously aware. And if you are fixated enough to actually sit down for years and write a novel, certain things kind of come up from out of the depths.

  • 11:27:35

    REHMRight. And certainly Beth and her illness, the fact that she is dying of cancer, and Tyler has done such a wonderful job of taking care of her, he really -- it has created almost another being in him.

  • 11:28:03

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah, yeah. Yes.

  • 11:28:05

    REHMOne that he bolsters with drugs. He needs the drugs to get him going...

  • 11:28:18

    CUNNINGHAMOr certainly believes he does, yes.

  • 11:28:19

    REHM...to continue to do his job. You've had experience as a caretaker.

  • 11:28:28

    CUNNINGHAMI have. I have. I have. I mean, I've -- which has ranged from the experience common to many, sort of helping my mother pass away and as a man who has survived the AIDS epidemic, I've had -- I probably had earlier experience than some people have had with the workings of mortality. And, you know, a young woman dying of cancer is a terrible risk involving, you know, sentimentality and a kind of cheapness. I mean, you know, yeah, right, a young woman dying of cancer.

  • 11:29:07

    CUNNINGHAMAnd I don't -- I wouldn't have thought of putting a character like Beth into the book if I didn't actually know somebody very much like Beth, a woman in her 30's who is in fact -- she's still with us and doing all right but has a terrible, terrible illness. And I -- she's a remarkable person and can speak with great depth and clarity about the experience of being mortally ill. And I kind of felt like I should do something with this. This is a gift being given to me by this person I know and I should try to pass it along.

  • 11:29:51

    REHMHow did you care for your mother?

  • 11:29:57

    CUNNINGHAMOh, I think the way so many sons and daughters do. I was with her. I was back in -- I went back to Los Angeles for the last couple of months of her life. And, you know, sat with her and gave her her medicine when it was time for her to have her medicine and talk to her and continue to talk to her. After it wasn't -- it was no longer clear that she could hear me. I was just -- may do a lot of things, but more than anything I was simply with her.

  • 11:30:29

    REHMAnd are there other siblings in your family who were also there...

  • 11:30:34

    CUNNINGHAMI have a younger sister, yes, who was very much there. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, don't let me give the impression that it was just me. My father and my sister were both there every minute and entirely heroic in the face of a really difficult experience. One of the "er" difficult experiences that people have been having since -- you know, since those first ambitious fish came out of the water and started to finally grow feet.

  • 11:31:06

    REHMExactly. I was interested in the fact that you bring 2004 and 2008 the elections into the midst of this novel. Some novelists try to create a space free and clear of what's happening in real life. But you have brought it right into the novel with Tyler very much involved as complaining about no weapons of mass destruction and the lies of politicians and so on. I was interested that you did this.

  • 11:32:01

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah, yeah. Well, just quickly, the novel begins on the eve of George W. Bush's reelection for second term and ends on the eve of the election that will make Obama the president, though in the novel we don't know yet that that's what's going to happen. And, by the way, in both cases Tyler is wrong. Tyler is certain that the American people could not possibly vote George Bush back into office. And he is equally certain that the American people could not possible vote for an African American as president. So Tyler is nothing, if not consistent.

  • 11:32:43

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, I'm finding as I get older and I write more and more that I am more and more interested in the world in which my characters live. And that very much includes the sociopolitical climate -- forgive that rather clunky phrase. I sometimes feel like some American writers -- I put myself in some earlier books -- seem to write as if we were just unaffected by politics, by our culture, which wouldn't occur to a South American writer, an eastern European writer, who couldn't imagine writing a novel in which the characters were not profoundly affected by who's calling the shots, by who's in charge.

  • 11:33:38

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One more thing, how old are you, if I might ask?

  • 11:33:48

    CUNNINGHAMYou might absolutely ask and although I have been tempted to knock a few years off...

  • 11:33:53

    REHMOh, why?

  • 11:33:53

    CUNNINGHAM...I feel honor-bound to tell you the truth. I'm 61 years old, yeah, 6-1. Thank you for asking.

  • 11:34:00

    REHMAnd these characters of yours, Barrett and Tyler, are both in midlife, so late 30's, early 40's.

  • 11:34:11

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah.

  • 11:34:12

    REHMSo life is beginning to feel for them as though it's where it's going to be.

  • 11:34:22

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah. Both Tyler and Barrett are, as you point out, Barrett in his late 30's, Tyler in his early 40's, that point at which -- it's just sort of midpoint I think in a lot of people's lives. You're not starting out anymore. You're not a beginner at anything. Nor does your fate feel like it has been sealed. There's still a sense of great possible changes to come.

  • 11:34:54

    CUNNINGHAMSo it felt right to tell this particular part of these guys' stories, which begin with their birth and with their deaths. At that point where it's on one hand, you're not a kid anymore, you're not just starting out, but on the other hand, you're not done. But what are you going to do now?

  • 11:35:17

    REHMWell, what I'm going to do now is open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Grace in Greensboro, N.C. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:33

    GRACEYes, I'm here. Thank you for taking this call.

  • 11:35:36

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:35:37

    GRACEI have enjoyed this program with Mr. Cunningham. I was enjoying the -- where he read about the bluish, greenish light shining on Barrett. And I was reminded of a legend that exists here in North Carolina about some mysterious lights that have been seen by many people called the Brown Mountain Lights. These lights have not been seen, I would say, over the last 50 years, but there are accounts from Native Americans maybe centuries ago that have seen them.

  • 11:36:18

    GRACEAnd I would recommend that perhaps Mr. Cunningham take a look at YouTube and go to several links there about the Brown Mountain Lights. And...

  • 11:36:34

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, yeah, thank you. I actually know about those lights. There are also mysterious lights periodically seen from Marfa, Texas. I've got a small mental list of the semi-frequent occurrence of mysterious lights in the world.

  • 11:36:55

    REHMAnd apparently some people have thought that they might actually be lights from unidentified flying objects or other-worldly gleamings. And indeed what we have to do at this point is take a very short break. We can talk about other lights, yours especially, when we come back. Michael Cunningham and the light he is shedding on his new book "The Snow Queen."

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Michael Cunningham is my guest. He's written a new novel, and has read from it today for us. It's titled, "The Snow Queen." And we have an email from Brian saying, "the reason Disney movie "Frozen" is based on the same Anderson story, by today's guest. What do you, Michael Cunningham, think of that movie, if you've seen it?" Which I have.

  • 11:40:47

    CUNNINGHAMI have not. I'm sorry to say. I'm in one of those funny periods when all my friends' children are either too old or too young to take to see Disney movies.

  • 11:41:03

    REHMOh, but you must see it on your own.

  • 11:41:05

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. No, I know. I know. I know. I will.

  • 11:41:06

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:41:06

    CUNNINGHAMI just -- but, in fact, I haven't. And what's funny about it is, you know, you find -- I found over the years, writing novels, that certain things just seem to be in the air. I mean...

  • 11:41:22

    REHMTrue.

  • 11:41:22

    CUNNINGHAMI don't -- I had no idea that the people at Disney and Pixar were thinking about "The Snow Queen" at the same time I was, and yet there you have it. This mysterious confluence.

  • 11:41:33

    REHMAnd there you have it. I must say the biggest events of the story, the wedding, Beth's death, these happen between chapters.

  • 11:41:49

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah.

  • 11:41:50

    REHMNow, it says though you're covering those events, and yet they're so major. Why, as a novelist, did you choose to do it that way?

  • 11:42:06

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, honestly, some of the choices you make, as a novelist, are intentional, and explicable, and some of them are intuitive. And I felt like, for this book, I wanted the build up to, and the aftermath of the weddings and the death bed, without doing the scenes themselves. I suppose it has something to do with, again, I was talking earlier about trying not to fall into some awful swamp of sentimentality, involving a young person with a terrible illness. You know, it's so easy to exploit human tragedy by focusing on it and kind of using it to dramatic effect.

  • 11:42:56

    CUNNINGHAMSo I suppose if there is a reason, it would have something to do with that, with trying to respect the character of Beth sufficiently, to take it to the point where we know what's going to happen. And then let her pass away in private. And we come back after that's over.

  • 11:43:20

    REHMAnd, of course, I'm gonna go back to the phones in a minute, but one of the goals that Tyler has set for himself is to write a poem for his and Beth's wedding. But he keeps snorting heroin or cocaine or whatever he's doing to such an extent...

  • 11:43:48

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

  • 11:43:49

    REHM...that he's just not getting to it.

  • 11:43:53

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. And, of course, what is sort of sad...

  • 11:43:57

    REHMWriter's block.

  • 11:43:57

    CUNNINGHAM...about Tyler is that he keeps snorting cocaine, and then he switches to heroin, because he hopes that that will -- that those drugs will open the door for him. That he will be able to exceed his own limitations. There's a great Lily Tomlin line where she said, "I worry that drugs are making us more creative than we actually are." And yeah, yeah, I mean, Tyler certainly isn't thinking of himself as sabotaging himself, or as escaping from the task he's set for himself. He's hoping that these drugs will provide illumination.

  • 11:44:40

    REHMAnd that's not.

  • 11:44:43

    CUNNINGHAMThey are notoriously ineffective in that department, though people continue to try.

  • 11:44:47

    REHMAll right, let's go to Sloane in Holland, Michigan. Hi there.

  • 11:44:54

    SLOANEHi, I'm so happy to be talking to both of you.

  • 11:44:57

    REHMGood.

  • 11:44:57

    SLOANEThanks for having me on.

  • 11:44:57

    CUNNINGHAMLikewise.

  • 11:44:58

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:44:59

    SLOANEMy question is I read -- I've been reading -- I think I've read probably all of your books since college and up until now. And a lot of them, I mean, you refer back to these different stories and different authors. You know, Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and all that. Do you read one of their books or a story from them and then draw inspiration from that for your book, or is it kind of the other way, where you begin your writing process and then, you know, think to tie the stories in that way?

  • 11:45:30

    CUNNINGHAMOh. Oh. You know, very much the former. You know, they say write what you know, which is a bit of a cliché, and has its limits, but yeah, but, yeah, write what you know. And part of what I know is my own autobiography, which is the kind of traditional material from which many novelists draw. And part of what I know is Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and the people -- the great authors I have been reading since I was very young. And they and their work feel to me like part of my life, just as surely as my adolescence does.

  • 11:46:11

    REHMWhat do you think turned you on to books, as a young man? I mean, this is an issue parents grapple with all the time, that some children are simply born readers and others stay away from books. I, myself, probably did not become a reader until I was in my 20s.

  • 11:46:41

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, my parents read to me. I can't remember a time when my parents didn't read to me. So, I grew up with books, since well before I could read them myself. They just seemed like a part of life. There was a nap, there was bedtime, there was the bath, and there was the book. So, and I very much credit my mother and father for simply insisting that it's story time now. And it seems to have worked its way into my bloodstream, somehow.

  • 11:47:15

    REHMSo that when you got into a place where you could read yourself, it felt very natural for you to pick up a book at leisure time or...

  • 11:47:29

    CUNNINGHAMYeah.

  • 11:47:30

    REHM...were you not outside, outdoors playing, but rather reading?

  • 11:47:36

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, I prefer to be indoors reading. I did, I did, I did venture outside every now and then. I feel like I should know whether it was winter or summer, and see what I could find out. And yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean, I, I, I have always felt like it is possible to have a life in the world and have a life in books. And that you don't really, really, absolutely have to dwell entirely in one realm or another.

  • 11:48:09

    REHMWow.

  • 11:48:10

    CUNNINGHAMAnd, of course, by the time I got to high school, I was really reading in order to be -- try to impress people and get dates. And then when that didn't work, I went back to reading just for its own sake.

  • 11:48:24

    REHMAll right. Let's go to David in McKinney, Texas. Hi there. David, are you there?

  • 11:48:34

    DAVIDYes, I am.

  • 11:48:35

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 11:48:37

    CUNNINGHAMHello.

  • 11:48:38

    DAVIDHi. I wanted to ask -- first of all, thank you so much for taking my call. I wanted to ask if you had any comments for new authors who are trying to work on new works of their own.

  • 11:48:50

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, the only advice I would dare to give a new author, an aspiring author, is don't panic. It can take a very long time for the work to start to feel like your own. It can feel very -- it can take a very long time for anyone but you and maybe a couple of your friends to recognize your work. It took me 10 years to get published. I was writing and submitting...

  • 11:49:18

    REHMBut did you panic? Did you panic along the way?

  • 11:49:22

    CUNNINGHAMOn occasion, which is why I feel confident that "don't panic" is good advice. Because finally, finally, the people who get to be writers have to have some knack for it, but maybe -- well, at least, as important is, you have to be the one who won't give up. The one who will just sit in the chair, and sit in the chair, and sit in the chair and write this sentence over and over and over again. And who refuses to be discouraged by rejection notes, by whatever comes your way as you're making your way.

  • 11:50:01

    REHMWere there rejection notes early on?

  • 11:50:05

    CUNNINGHAMOh my God, yes. Oh God, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that -- I think The New Yorker published maybe the fifteenth story I sent them.

  • 11:50:12

    REHMAh. A short story.

  • 11:50:16

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah. Well, actually, it was a chapter from a novel I was -- my first novel, though I submitted it as a short story. And by that time, I had sort of a relationship with an editor there, who's moved on and -- Dan Menaker, and part of Dan's job was to just wait for some story from Michael Cunningham to come in and reject it immediately, with a nice note. And we got to be friends, in a funny way.

  • 11:50:40

    REHMHow many times? How many?

  • 11:50:43

    CUNNINGHAMReally, really, I think, I think that I think the story they finally bought was something like number 12, 13.

  • 11:50:49

    REHMWow.

  • 11:50:50

    CUNNINGHAMThere were a lot. There were a lot of stories that came right back. And then, finally, one didn't.

  • 11:50:55

    REHMHow did you feed yourself in this period, when you kept writing and writing and writing, and the rejection notes kept coming? How did you support yourself?

  • 11:51:11

    CUNNINGHAMYou know, I worked in bars.

  • 11:51:14

    REHMYou worked in bars?

  • 11:51:15

    CUNNINGHAMI did. I did. I was a bartender. I need to write in the mornings. I learned early on that I couldn't put in a day of whatever and then go home and write, that I was so derailed by the events of a day that I was unable to enter this sort of parallel, imaginary world. So, I got out of college, and I thought, well, OK, night work. Night watchman? Cat burglar? Bartender. And the first seemed too boring, the second, I really felt like I lacked the skills for, and yeah, yeah. I, I -- and working at bars, which was a great solution. I -- you don't show up until four or five. You've done your writing. And then it's time to make margaritas for the drinking public.

  • 11:52:07

    REHMAll right, so when that first short story was finally published, did a book contract follow pretty quickly?

  • 11:52:19

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

  • 11:52:20

    REHMIt did?

  • 11:52:21

    CUNNINGHAMI got that -- the story garnered a lot of attention. It was an unusual story for The New Yorker to publish. It happened to coincide with the departure of --people called him Mr. Sean. William Sean, who had been the editor of The New Yorker for decades...

  • 11:52:40

    REHMYes.

  • 11:52:40

    CUNNINGHAM...and left, and was replaced by Robert Gottlieb, who had been the publisher at Knopf and so it was a...

  • 11:52:45

    REHMWho was my editor.

  • 11:52:48

    CUNNINGHAMWas he?

  • 11:52:49

    REHMYes. Yes.

  • 11:52:50

    CUNNINGHAMYeah, and there was -- so, among the people who care about such things, there was a lot of conjecture about how The New Yorker might change under Gottlieb's guidance, after really, I think, at least 30 years of Mr. Sean. And one of the first stories he published was this story of mine, which was, as Dan Menaker, my pal, my rejecter, my tormenter, and then finally, you know, it's freely said. I couldn't have bought this story when William Sean was the editor. He would not have run this story. So, it garnered an unusual amount of attention. I got a lot of calls from editors, who said we'd love to see a novel, if you have a novel.

  • 11:53:34

    CUNNINGHAMAnd I got one from Roger Straus, the late lamented Roger Strauss of Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux who did not call and say, if you have a novel, I'd be interested in seeing it. Roger called and said, if you can write something I like this much, and you are working on a novel, I'll publish it.

  • 11:53:56

    REHMHow wonderful.

  • 11:53:56

    CUNNINGHAMA gesture of faith like that is so rare, and I was Roger's slave ever after.

  • 11:54:04

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Ted in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi there. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:18

    TEDOh, hi Diane. Thank you. Hey Mike, I just wanted to say great work, great description of seeing the light.

  • 11:54:27

    CUNNINGHAMThank you.

  • 11:54:27

    TEDIt really does fit what I saw, and gives me inspiration that someday, I'll find exact words that I need to say.

  • 11:54:35

    CUNNINGHAMI was hoping somebody who had seen a celestial light would call in. Did you see a light like that?

  • 11:54:41

    TEDWell, yeah. It was -- it just floated across the room at me. It was...

  • 11:54:45

    CUNNINGHAMWow.

  • 11:54:46

    TED...bright white with a really dramatic blue in it.

  • 11:54:50

    CUNNINGHAMWow.

  • 11:54:51

    TEDIt just floated across the room at me.

  • 11:54:53

    CUNNINGHAMWow.

  • 11:54:54

    TEDIt was right in the room. Right there.

  • 11:54:57

    CUNNINGHAMI'm very -- I'm glad to hear that. Like I said, I was hoping to hear a report from somebody that's seen a light. Thank you.

  • 11:55:03

    REHMYou know, I had the feeling, Michael, that should we look for it, there probably are a fair number of people, in this world, who would say that they have seen...

  • 11:55:21

    CUNNINGHAMYeah.

  • 11:55:21

    REHM...or experienced, may be a better way to put it, some kind of light.

  • 11:55:28

    CUNNINGHAMOh, absolutely.

  • 11:55:29

    REHMSome kind of vision, and vision may not even be the right way to put it. The right word to use.

  • 11:55:38

    CUNNINGHAMYeah.

  • 11:55:40

    REHMBut, I think it happens to a fair number of people.

  • 11:55:44

    CUNNINGHAMI'm sure it does. You know, one of the interesting things about publishing novels is any novel you write inspires a certain number of letters from people whose experience exactly matches what's been portrayed in the novel. This is a more unusual experience than what I ordinarily write about, but you are inevitably, when you invent a story, as it turns out, telling the story of other people who are -- who you don't know, and who just have happened to have -- you've somehow stumbled upon their story and told it.

  • 11:56:19

    REHMAnd one last question. Are you happy with this novel?

  • 11:56:26

    CUNNINGHAMOh, that is such a good question. I would say this is the best version of this novel that I'm able to write. And I hope this won't sound like some kind of terrible false modesty. I know this to be true of other writers who are friends of mine. Yes, you're glad to have written this book. You did your very best. It turned out reasonably well, but you had a bigger book in mind. You...

  • 11:56:58

    REHMReally? Bigger?

  • 11:56:59

    CUNNINGHAMYeah. You should. You should. But that's as it should be. You should always be reaching for more than you can achieve.

  • 11:57:07

    REHMThat's a wonderful thought to keep in mind. Michael Cunningham, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 11:57:15

    CUNNINGHAMThank you. Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

  • 11:57:18

    REHMMine. And the novel is titled, "The Snow Queen." The author, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Michael Cunningham. Thanks for listening everybody. I'm Diane Rehm.

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