Michael Cunningham, world-renowned novelist, never dreamed of growing up to be a writer. “I was much more visual…I thought I would be a painter,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hours” revealed to an audience Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). But to the fortune of his fans, Cunningham took a writing class in college and soon knew he’d be trading in his paintbrush for a pen. “I understood almost immediately that the fundamental [essence of effective writing] — can you simulate life using ink, paper and the words in the dictionary — was endlessly fascinating to me.”
Cunningham is one of several notable authors featured this season as part of Eat, Drink & Be Literary — a popular BAM series, presented in partnership with the National Book Foundation — which this year entered its second decade of readings and discussions, preceded by dinner in the BAMCafé. Wednesday’s audience enjoyed a buffet meal catered by Great Performances and a steady supply of wine, courtesy of Seghesio Family Vineyards and Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg.
Cunningham recently published “The Snow Queen,” a novel about three characters who live together in Bushwick but follow decidedly different paths. On Wednesday, he expressed interest in the borough not just as a book setting, but also as a home for himself. “I live in Manhattan, but I’m determined to move to Brooklyn,” Cunningham revealed to this writer following the event.
Rather than focus on his past work, Cunningham shared something new with the audience, reading a section titled “Poison” from a book of fairy tales that Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish next November. The crowd watched in awe as Cunningham — whose performance of the text suggested yet another potential career path in acting — revealed a modern, even raunchy take on fairy tales, filled with edgy, relatable dialogue between a couple.
Following the reading, Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, joined Cunningham to moderate a discussion. The author explained that he is drawn to the genre because “if you’ve lived and written for long enough…you begin to see certain themes and trends.” He joked that the “unwritten subtitle” of his forthcoming book, titled “A Wild Swan,” is “What Was That About, Really?” Cunningham recalled his perception of such fables as a 6-year-old, quipping, “Now that I’m 106, I can rewrite fairy tales with those questions in mind.”
Cunningham and Treisman went on to speak about the success of “The Hours,” which was made into a hit feature film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. The author noted in jest that he might be “the only living novelist actually happy with the movie made [from his book]….it helped, by the way, that every great actor alive was in it.”
He recalled that at the time, people were unsure whether Nicole Kidman would be right for the part of Virginia Woolf — but the first time he saw her rehearsing, he was blown away. Of course, she went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for the role.
But while Cunningham is thrilled with the film adaptation, he indicated that he has since made a concerted effort to write books that stand no chance of being made into movies.
The novelist spoke candidly about his work and writing process. A writing professor at Yale, he said that “half of [my students] are smarter than I am.” He also shared that he had had his fair share of rejection before garnering widespread acclaim as a writer. The turning point for him, he revealed, was when The New Yorker published a section of what became his second novel, “A Home At the End of the World.” “It changed everything,” Cunningham said.
He emphasized the importance of his close friends and editors whose feedback he values, and explained that he’s at his best when he’s not necessarily seeking recognition. Things fell into place “when I decided it was OK with me to never get to be on a stage at BAM,” he said.
With a career spanning decades, Cunningham’s many successes have shaped his trajectory, but he confesses a continuing measure of self-doubt. “You get more confident…and less confident,” he reflected, noting that success and expectations might undermine one’s self-assuredness. Still, his fascination with the written word remains undiminished. “There is a certain way in which [writing] never changes.”