Michael Cunningham knows he has a tough act to follow, but it's certainly not Doris Kearns Goodwin.
She's the luncheon speaker preceding him at BookExpo America, the mega-convention where booksellers and publishers come to schmooze and buzz. Cunningham waits patiently as Goodwin goes on and on about her latest bio-historical opus. Finally, she yields the lectern and the novelist steps forward. "I seem to be the only one who hasn't prepared any notes," he begins. Sighs of relief can be heard.
No. The tough act Cunningham has to follow is himself.
His last novel was "The Hours," whose combination of narrative complexity, self-consciously literary theme and highbrow presiding spirit -- Virginia Woolf -- had scarcely seemed a winning commercial formula. "I think it's safe to say that nobody connected with 'The Hours' expected it to do much more than sell a few thousand copies and march, with whatever dignity it could muster, to the remainders tables," he tells his audience.
Wrong, wrong, wrong: The book won a Pulitzer for its author and sold more than 1.5 million copies in paperback, thanks in large part to the Nicole Kidman/Julianne Moore/Meryl Streep film version.
The lesson he took from "The Hours," he goes on to explain, is that "if you write a book that's a little unconventional, maybe a little difficult, maybe just doesn't have any sex scenes or car chases, there's every possibility that people will still read it." Having absorbed this lesson, he decided to go ahead and write "the book I'd really like to write."
That book, "Specimen Days," turned out to be a triptych of linked novellas that take the form of a ghost story, a thriller and a science fiction tale. Each part boasts a character who blurts out Walt Whitman's poetry as if speaking in tongues. In the end, the whole enterprise hinges on whether Cunningham can create a convincing love affair between a cyborg and a 41/2-foot lizard from another planet.
They don't have sex, mind you. But he did put in a car chase this time.
'Bad Marriages in Connecticut'
Perhaps you've somehow acquired the notion that being a literary novelist would be glamorous fun. Spend enough time with Michael Cunningham and you'll end up thinking: Maybe I should get that MBA after all.
Sure he made it. But it was a near thing, and it took him almost 25 years.
He is tall, dark and book-jacket handsome, with a face just lined enough to make you believe he's 52 and a half-smile that lifts the left side of his mouth. A day after his talk to the booksellers, he has suggested a stroll down from the Village to the Hudson River. It's the kind of ultra-blue-sky June evening that brings out swarms of urban walkers, skaters, bikers and loungers-on-the-grass, not to mention the yuppie couple with the his-and-hers parrots and the kid with the shocking-pink teddy bear.
The sun will set over New Jersey soon. The twin towers, were they still standing, would loom behind a nearby clump of trees.
The novelist is recalling how Woolf got into his DNA.
He was in high school in Southern California, maybe 15 years old, more into rock than reading. A girl he knew introduced him to "Mrs. Dalloway," which was the first great book he'd ever read. "I had never seen language like that," he says. "I had never imagined you could do that with just ink and paper. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, she was doing with language something like Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar!' " Laughing, he elaborates. He meant the riffish quality and passionate recklessness they share, "the way a Woolfian sentence and a Hendrix guitar riff will slalom out and out and out and then kind of come back in on itself and reveal itself to have had a pattern all along."
Like some lives, perhaps, though he doesn't say so.
He runs through his early history: "Born in '52 in Cincinnati. Lived from the ages of 6 to 10 in Germany, in Frankfurt" -- where his father, oddly enough, had a job in advertising. "From 10 on, we lived in, though it's gotten into my bio as Pasadena, it's actually a town called La Canada."
Went to Stanford. Wasn't happy there.
"It sort of cured me of any ideas I might have had about joining the team -- you know what I mean?" he says. "I thought: Wow. If this is who is running things, I'm so out of here."
For the next few years, he "knocked around and lived all over," though he parked himself in Iowa City long enough to get a master's at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. While there, he published short stories in the Atlantic and the Paris Review.
Then came a lost decade.
"I spent almost 10 years writing steadily, and none of it was any good," he says. "I think I was trying to write the kind of stories that would be published to wide acclaim. They tended to be about bad marriages in Connecticut, about which I knew nothing at all."
Why was he doing that? "Fear of failure, and a desperate desire to be loved." He was trying to join the team after all.
He panicked as his 30th birthday approached. Finished a novel just to show he could, and got it published, too. Is embarrassed by it, because "it wasn't the best book I could write, even at the time."
Finally, after years of bartending and doing odd jobs to support himself while he wrote, he came to grips with a painful possibility: Maybe he was going to fail. "Most people who want to be writers are as determined as I was and have some kind of gift for it, as I do," he says -- and most of them never make it.
Failure was "so not what I wanted." But if it came to that, he decided, he'd keep writing anyway. "And you know, doo to do DOO!" -- he imitates a trumpet fanfare -- "something happened."
Cunningham's editor, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, downplays the idea that those 10 years were wasted -- he's seen too many other writers go through the same thing. "But if feeling that way allowed him to dare more," Galassi says, "more power to him."
The novelist's longtime partner, clinical psychologist Ken Corbett, whom he met around the time of his I'm-going-to-write-anyway decision, puts it differently. "Maybe it takes that long to settle into your talent," Corbett says.
Whatever the reason, Cunningham started writing better. He began the novel that would become "A Home at the End of the World." Corbett suggested he send one of the opening chapters to the New Yorker. Cunningham laughed at him -- it was about children on drugs, and sex in a cemetery, and violent death; they'd never publish it! -- but sent it anyway. After it ran, a dozen publishers called his agent, asking if he had a novel they could look at.
The late Roger Straus went them one better. "If he can write something I like this much," Cunningham remembers Straus saying about the New Yorker piece, "I will publish his novel. Send it to me when it's ready."
"That kind of faith is so rare and makes such a difference," Cunningham says now, still marveling. "That made me the slave of Roger Straus and Farrar, Straus & Giroux for life."
'I'm Still Here, Michiko'
Not that his future was assured, mind you.
"A Home at the End of the World" came out in 1990. It got good reviews, but hit no bestseller lists. The idea, Cunningham says, was for his next effort -- 1995's "Flesh and Blood" -- to be "my big hit, my crossover book."
No such luck.
He was happy with it, but the reviews were mixed, and among them was an "especially virulent" slam by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who compared his work to "a pretentious writing-school variant" of "The Bridges of Madison County."
"It wasn't one of those 'Oh, honey, nice try but this one didn't turn out' things," he says, still shaking his head over it. "It was a really mean -- bad, bad, bad review."
"I'm still here, Michiko."
By this time he was living "very, very carefully" on his income as a writer, still checking the prices on Chinese takeout menus. ("No, we can't get the lobster sauce, that's $7.95!") He was about to take his biggest literary chance.
His first books had been written as more or less conventional narratives, though they were less conventional in other ways. Gay themes were not isolated, for one thing, but blended in with more all-inclusive ones. "He didn't want to be typecast as a gay writer," Galassi says. "He was in the vanguard of writers who are gay, who made no bones about it, but didn't make it the focus of his work."
"The Hours," however, was a structural leap. It consists of three interwoven narratives set in three separate locations and time frames, all playing off Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," in which the action takes place in a single day, much of it inside one woman's head. Cunningham told an interviewer once that he thought of his novel as working "the way a jazz musician might do a riff on an older established piece of music. It doesn't claim or conceal the older piece of music, but it takes that music and turns it into something else."
It turned his life into something else, too. He's still not sure why, but days after he won the Pulitzer, he got seriously depressed.
"There was something about the attention, there was something about some crazy sense I had of people's expectations," he says. He had written for so long from "a certain fury at feeling underregarded and underrecognized and underpaid, and then overnight I felt sort of overregarded and overrecognized and overpaid . . . so that old fuel didn't run the engine anymore."
He stalled for a while. Used his movie money to help buy a two-story condominium in Provincetown, Mass., where he and Corbett had been renting for years. Set down some Cape Cod impressions in a nonfiction book, "Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown."
Meanwhile, he had an impulse in the back of his mind that was almost as old as wanting to riff on "Mrs. Dalloway." It wasn't elaborate or sophisticated, just this:
"I'd like to do something with genre stories."
He was thinking ghost stories, thrillers, science fiction: The kind he'd gobbled up when he was young, when he loved Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft and the movie "The Haunting." He thought about Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw," about Raymond Chandler, about Samuel Delany -- "a really interesting science fiction writer who, because he writes science fiction, is not really as well known as he should be." He wasn't thinking imitation, just strong voices to bounce his own off.
He was also thinking he wanted to start in the early days of the industrial age and carry his tales through the present and into the apocalyptic future.
The three linked novellas that make up "Specimen Days" -- the title is borrowed from a collection of Walt Whitman's autobiographical writings -- begin with a Victorian ghost story set in the grim and grimy, rapidly industrializing Manhattan of the mid-19th century.
They continue with a terrorism-based thriller set in the tense psychic landscape that is New York after Sept. 11, 2001. And they conclude with that unlikely interspecies love story, set in the kind of future where thrill-seeking tourists pay to be mugged in a theme park called "Old New York" and where the masters of the universe use alien lizards as nannies.
Cunningham links his stories in a number of ways, from their shared New York settings to physical objects that show up in each to the three major characters -- a woman, a man, a boy -- variations on whom inhabit all three.
The other link is Whitman and his poetry.
It was not his original intention to include the poet, Cunningham says. For one thing, he didn't want people thinking "well, he made a bundle off Virginia Woolf, I guess he's trying to cash in on Whitman now." And yet: As he started to write about the poverty-blighted, polluted, child-labor-driven city that was industrial New York in the 1860s, he was struck by the idea that walking through all this was the author of "Leaves of Grass," insisting that "we needed to learn to see the world as entirely beautiful in all its aspects."
Before long, he'd inserted himself into the other stories as well. In each, there is a character who speaks Whitman's lines -- under radically different circumstances -- as a way of trying to expand his horizons, to justify his actions, to become more human.
"Specimen Days" has had good reviews and bad. The Times's Kakutani found some things to like, but wasn't buying the Whitman part at all. ("I don't think we're a good match," Cunningham told one interviewer after her review came out.) Farrar, Straus & Giroux fired back with a full-page ad in the Times touting the "coast-to coast praise" the book had received, including this from NPR contributor Alan Cheuse: "Line by line, page by page, one of the most beautifully executed experiments of the decade."
Key word: experiments. Nobody can accuse Cunningham of resting on his laurels. He's trying to write about "the biggest possible world."
"I think we live in a bigger world than anyone has ever lived in before," he says, meaning that there's more and more we have to take in, if we're trying to make sense of things, than there was in, say, Jane Austen's time. He thinks the world started getting dramatically bigger with the Industrial Revolution, which is why he started his book there. The triptych form, with its linked sections stretched out over decades or centuries, is a way to deal with this bigness, too.
"One story about one life, or one story about a series of interrelated characters, no longer feels sufficiently resonant and metaphorical," he says. "It just feels too small."
'Where the Books Are Headed'
And yet: Small worlds can be beautiful, too, as Cunningham reveals when he shows off his favorite bookstore.
It's called Three Lives & Co., after one of Gertrude Stein's books, and it's truly tiny: One medium-size room on West 10th Street in the West Village, with pressed tin ceilings and beautiful wooden shelves packed with lovingly selected, mostly paperback, titles.
"I sometimes come here when I need a book," Cunningham says, "and I sometimes come here to just hang around and be reminded of where the books are headed."
It is small, but contains multitudes.
Look, here's a photograph of Virginia Woolf behind the register ("the one Man Ray did late in her life, which she wasn't happy about"). Here's a novel by a woman Cunningham once taught. ("That's lovely to see -- the children are growing up!") Here's Don DeLillo's "Underworld." ("I love, love, love Don DeLillo, even though he's erratic; I like that he's erratic. . . . You can almost feel him trying to juggle more balls than anyone could juggle.")
On a display table, Cunningham finds a new paperback edition of Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel "Housekeeping" -- a book, he says, that allowed him to see it was okay to write in something other than the then-oppressively-fashionable style, with Raymond Carver-like sentences that were "as plain and beautiful and balanced as a Shaker chair." On a shelf behind the table he spots his own work.
"There's the Cunningham section," he says.
And it seems suddenly clear -- even without knowing that he once asked the former owners if he could be buried under the floorboards in the southwest corner -- that Michael Cunningham has found a team he wants to be on.