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SWF 2011

SWF 2011: Michael Cunningham in conversation with Caroline Baum

Monday, May 23, 2011
There’s a real sense of excitement among those people rushing in to see Michael Cunningham in conversation with Caroline Baum at the Sydney Theatre. Even Melbourne lit blogger and tweeter, Angela Meyer (aka Literary Minded) admits via Twitter that she’s not taking notes during this one – she just wants to concentrate on everything Cunningham has to say.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours, and most recently By Nightfall, immediately charms the audience with a wonderful story about a reader called Helen. Helen was a woman he worked with many years ago in a bar in Laguna. She was in her forties, had four children, and her husband had just left her – he walked away from their kids and also left her with a lot of debts. So Helen was working three jobs to make ends meet. Despite what could reasonably be called a difficult life, she always found time to read. She spent just an hour before bed, every day, reading. Her favourite books were thriller novels and Cunningham gave her a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. She finished it in just three weeks.

Helen’s complete lack of pretension where reading was concerned had a huge impact on Cunningham’s writing. “I moved from writing literary art for abstract reasons to writing books for Helen.”

And so started a session so full of insight into the writer’s life my hand started cramping from all the note taking. Rather than attempt to condense all his wisdom in this one post, I’m going to choose just three of the topics covered by Baum, and give you his responses. (You should also check out Valerie Khoo’s interview with him here.)

On the moral message of his novels
Baum was interested to know what the underlying moral message was in his latest novel, By Nightfall. While Cunningham admits “writers exist to complicate the world”, he doesn’t believe any writer should use their work to push any particular agenda.

“Personally I don’t feel a novel’s primary purpose is to be moral or political. But there’s nothing like a novel to show you what it’s like to be a person other than yourself. Novels create empathy.”

He believes that citizens are responsible for activism, not novelists. They need to understand that everybody has a story, and their job is to portray the innerness of people. Morality just gets in the way of that process.

On the rhythm of writing
It’s well known that Cunningham’s prose is closely linked with music. He tells us that By Nightfall was written with the music of contemporary composers Philip Glass, Brian Eno and John Cale in mind. He says: “Language is about meaning but it’s equally about music. Any novel I admire is going to have a certain rhythm or beat.”

On planning a novel
Cunningham admits that he never knows where a novel is going. While he likes to deliver what he calls “the expected surprise” (or twist), he doesn’t plan extensively to deliver this. “I worry that if I plan a novel, the best it will do is just get there.”

He also admits that once he finishes a novel, it’s “never quite the cathedral of fire” he imagined it would be, but this drives him to always be better.

There was more. Much more. Cunningham is an incredibly generous and inspiring speaker, full of quotable quotes, like this one:

“Writing is something that feels like life, using only language and ink and paper. That’s wild.”

Video interview with Michael
We talk to Michael about the phenomenon that become "The Hours", the pressure of this success on his writing, how music plays an intrinsic part of his writing, his writing routine and much more.


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