By Janet Somerville
The evening’s host and interviewer Carol Off welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning New York novelist Michael Cunningham by noting his “subtle, lucid prose” and his “profound empathy for conflicted characters.” Looking out at the candlelit tables in the Brigantine Room, Cunningham delighted in the cabaret set-up and introduced The Snow Queen as “a novel about celestial visions and love and mortality, drug addiction and shopping.” He read a short passage about Tyler, a character who “has renewed his citizenship in the world of people who connect,” and punctuated his delivery with encouraging, enveloping hand gestures to draw the audience even further into his words.
Cunningham’s reading was followed by an engaging conversation throughout which he and Carol Off batted ideas back and forth. When she asked, “Why did you want to evoke the Hans Christian Andersen fable with the title?” he responded: “The title came to me right away. There’s a shattered magic mirror and it’s about a boy who has to be rescued from a state of altered consciousness that seems true to him. It’s like Frozen without the songs.” His character Tyler is like that boy with the distorted vision that feels like clarity, and he needs to be rescued, too.
Cunningham and Off on stage © ifoa.org
Since the novel is framed by November 2004 and November 2008, Off wondered if Cunningham thought he was “preoccupied with politics.” His answer: “It’s difficult for me to imagine any citizens unconcerned with politics, and, as a result, Tyler has a way of not shutting up about politics and boring everybody around him.” And that question led to Cunningham discussing his most recent activist impulse, when he chained himself to a fence to protest Big Pharma: “Can I tell you that my ass is still cold from sitting chained for 5 hours in February in New Jersey?” Off noted, “You spend your political capital on the issues of your time.”
On the role of the novelist, Cunningham explained, “It is part of your job to suspend judgment. I’m sure very few people go home at night and say, ‘another day’s evil done.’ What is essential, but also irritating about novelists, is we tend to think, ‘it’s more complicated than that’ to be human.” About the trickiness of writing sex scenes, he said, “It’s really hard to write good sex, because sexuality is particular to each of us. What is sexy to me is going to be an ‘ewwww, you’re kidding’ to many of you. Everything in the world is about sex, except sex, but sex is really about power, as Oscar Wilde noted. It’s about who is kissing and who is being kissed.” Off added, “Fiction is a way to normalize what the world is all about. Your books reveal the interior lives of ordinary people. And, they are exquisite.” For Cunningham, his novels “feel true because people have felt that as well.” His books have “a happy ending where the character’s a little more whole, a little more alive, but he or she has had to survive something extraordinary.”
At his only stop in Canada on his tour for The Snow Queen, following his onstage conversation, Cunningham sat patiently personalizing copies of his books for so many delighted readers. His head bent to the page, listening attentively to each question or comment about his work, and responding with humour and grace, Michael Cunningham quitted himself like the genuine article he is.
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