An interview with Cunningham, November 2011
I’m wondering how you came up with the sobriquet M. Allen Cunningham?
Cunningham: I settled on “M. Allen” for very practical, prosaic reasons, which over time have sort of lost their legitimacy amid the inconveniences and accusations that come with a pen-name. About ten years ago I published my first short story as Mark Cunningham, and had no reason to think I’d need any different moniker. But I was a voracious reader of American lit-mags, and I kept coming across my own name in various journals where I’d be listed as the extremely talented poet responsible for this or that phenomenal poem. In addition to Mark Cunningham, the poet, there was also, of course, the novelist Michael Cunningham. So when it came time to publish short story number two, it seemed important to differentiate myself somehow. I was on a road trip with my wife, we were in the car for ten, twelve hours at a stretch, which provided probably too much time to mull alternate names, and I settled on M. Allen Cunningham. My main reason for the enigmatic initial was that it seemed to be a useful visual mnemonic. I just thought it would be easy for readers to remember. Why did I think this? I had car lag, is my only excuse. Anyway, despite some embarrassment and half-hearted regret, I’ve come to live with M. Allen and accept it. Now I quite like having a spot of punctuation in my name, which is fun for the readerly eye (for mine anyway).
Your prose has a formal elegance that I admire. You’ve mentioned Wallace Stegner and Andre Dubus as influences. Who are you reading now?
I’m reading Patrick White quite a bit these days — The Vivisector, Voss, The Eye of the Storm. What a genius! White is one of our greatest modernist imaginations, no doubt about it. I’ve also been led back to Henry James recently, having spent the better part of this year enjoying Leon Edel’s towering biography. The Princess Casamassima, which I knew nothing about until a few months ago, is outrageously good! Who else? Edith Pearlman’s new book Binocular Vision. Cynthia Ozick’s essays, and the stories in Dictation. Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams and Lark & Termite. Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector and short stories. Updike’s stories.
Who else has influenced you?
Steinbeck is a constant source of inspiration and instruction, and I’ve just cracked his Travels With Charley for the first time — a joy! Thornton Wilder is an underrated and unjustly maligned great whose work undoubtedly feeds into my own, together with the writers just mentioned. Wilder’s novel The Eighth Day is a tour de force, a world unto itself. And his essay collection, American Characteristics, shows his brilliance in a way that gives the lie to the ignorant snark with which he’s generally regarded nowadays.
No college, no MFA? How did you find your way to these writers?
Wilder, actually, was instrumental in my developing love of literature back in high school, when I spent a period of a few solid years obsessed with — and involved in productions of — “Our Town” (another unjustly maligned masterpiece). If I really reach back I can pinpoint theater, my experience of the dramatized word, as my threshold into literature and a life devoted to it. Shakespeare was of major importance in that way too, of course. These days, what usually leads me to any given writer is a connective train of influence unearthed in whatever I happen to be reading at any given moment. For example, Karen Fisher’s magnificent novel A Sudden Country (2005) led me to Patrick White, whom Fisher cites as a major influence. Ozick’s essays led me to Edel who led me back to James, and so on. This is a pretty good way to read, it turns out. It lays the ground for lots of serendipitous overlap, and gives you a really nice sense of the interrelation of all literature. I often blunder my way to just the right book at just the right time. My own private MFA has consisted of roughly fifteen years of this curriculum. I had to learn to read well before I could write well. That’s how it works, I think.
Are there artists in your family?
No. My great grandmother was a silhouette artist and very talented in the visual arts generally. And she was an earning artist, too. I do feel a strong attachment to her, though she’s been gone for years and I never knew her extremely well.
Where did you get your encouragement?
Various teachers gave me strong encouragement concerning some of my earliest writing for class assignments and whatnot. That was meaningful. Beyond school, I found encouragement — of the spiritual, moral kind — in the voices of certain authors. Thoreau and Emerson and Rilke were a hugely important triumvirate for me, a major source of godspeed. I find they still are, in fact.
In your essay ["In the Absence of Yes," found in The Honorable Obscurity Handbook], you write not only about rejection—a writer’s constant companion—but also about writers that were unrecognized by our culture—out of fashion, in a sense—but who kept writing nonetheless. How do you sustain faith as a writer? What makes you keep writing? How do you separate the art from commerce, and stay focused on the art?
It’s been very important to me (and I’d suggest that this is important for any young writer) to learn about the lives of authors whose work I admire, to read their journals and letters where possible, and to find some window into their process, their gnashing of teeth, the ways they managed to spur themselves along. In Steinbeck’s East of Eden journals you see his constant self-counsel at work: “Once it is started it should have no intention save to be written.” In the Cheever journals you find a writer bemoaning “the contemptible smallness, the mediocrity” of his own writing. In Bellow’s letters, released this past year, you find him reacting to the frustrations of his nascent career by raging against his publisher. To learn these things about writers of great accomplishment gives solace, and sometimes counsel. Tillie Olsen’s bizarre and beautiful book Silences is all about this. There’s a kind of spiritual siblinghood that connects all persons, in any period, who undertake the struggle to write well, to capture something true, to give the reader something resonant — and who then must battle the innumerable forces arrayed against them in order to get the damned stuff out there onto the shelves!
The six years I spent working on Lost Son, my novel about Rilke, served in many ways as my personal journey straight through all the terrifying existential questions, conflicts, and creative hollows and summits that inevitably come with a serious commitment to life as a writer. Rilke was the ideal escort because he so single-mindedly consecrated his life to his art, and suffered the inevitable privations and loneliness.
I think John Updike said it all in a perfectly pitched statement in that little thing of his called “Why Write?” Just look how beautifully he balances bluntness and affirmation: “Energy ebbs as we live; success breeds disillusion as surely as failure; the power of hope to generate action and vision lessens. Almost alone the writer can reap profit from this loss. An opportunity to sing louder from within the slackening ego is his.”
You’ve said that “every fictional narrative, whether or not emergent from an actual history or preexisting story, will lay down its own laws,” and that “the narrative of a historical, biographical, or lit-spinoff novel moves along an arc no less autonomous or artistically absolute than that of any other good novel.” Both your novels have roots in history. Why is this important? Is there a bias? How do you move within history—write into history without letting it be restrictive?
Nothing, nothing on this earth is created without bearing some reference, whether implicit or explicit, to what’s gone before it. Even the most contemporary novel is in its way a historical novel. So, too, the most audacious avant-garde literary experiment has roots in something (no wonder Lionel Trilling found “Howl” unsurprising, dull). Like a human being, a work of art becomes what it is via reference to what came before it. The artist — however ignorant, innocent, or well-schooled — unavoidably breathes in the present cultural air the air of ages past.
And the reverse is also true: a historical work, no matter how scrupulously researched or authentic, receives seepage from the author’s present. Cynthia Ozick touched upon this matter in an interview once, when called out for purportedly failing to put enough Now into her fiction. She said, basically: Hey, I live in Now, I go to the grocery store of Now, I stand in the post office line of Now — how could that not find its way into what I write? I don’t have to write about grocery stores and post offices, do I, for it to get in there! Ozick’s dead-on. Whatever you write, you’re a writer of Now.
But I sense a kind of anxiety in the air among writers when these matters come up, because the term “historical fiction,” when deployed in literary circles, so often functions as an epithet. There’s this preponderant attitude that a historical novel, simply by virtue of being historical, neglects to engage the current moment as serious literary work should, and may therefore be relegated to the minor field, effectively dismissed. This is an incredibly narrow view, and it’s unfortunate how it impoverishes our conversation. And yet epithet-dread can bog a writer down if the writer happens to discover that he or she is writing something with a historical element.
Personally, I feel on a very visceral level that “historical fiction” is a bullshit label, a marketing ghetto, and has no relevance to what I write, what I’m interested in writing, or what I tend to read. (Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds would be a good place to start for any reader willing to have their own presumptions about historical fiction thrillingly challenged.) And to see quickly how useless and snarky the label is, one need only consider the number of our best contemporary novelists whose bodies of work are largely historical: Ondaatje, Doctorow, Ishiguro, McCarthy, Jayne Anne Phillips, to name a few. Nobody pegs these writers as “historical” novelists.
I didn’t set out to write historical novels, I’m not sure any serious writer does. Actually I tended to think of my books as inherently contemporary while writing them, because I came to each with contemporary questions and concerns, and in the end I believe they do have immediate relevance to contemporary life, which any good reader will see. The Green Age of Asher Witherow is concerned with the problem of unsustainable growth in California. It’s also about rival communities, and the human need to pinpoint bogeymen and designate scapegoats. How are these things not relevant today? Lost Son explores themes of status anxiety,
war, nationlessness, and goes into questions very much related to what we’re talking about here: how may we approach the past and its famous figures, how arrive at an immediate human understanding of their role in our lives today?
Does the research ever threaten to take over? How do you allow that space between research and imagination?
As you know, the writer is driven in pursuit of the red-hot germ of a character or story as it first got into his or her system (be it “historical” or no). Any writer’s process involves answering the questions: Why does this germ make me itch? How can I communicate this wonderful infection to the reader? Naturally then, when it comes to research, the motive is not Information but Imagination. The research is not about corralling facts — or not primarily that. It’s not so much acquisitive as inquisitive, not a harvesting and laying up of goods but more a surrendering to impression, a steeping in impressions, a sort of pilgrimage (pilgrimage was my central mode of research for Lost Son — hanging around in Rilke’s haunts in Europe).
That’s not to say I don’t take lots and lots of notes, more notes than I ever use, or that I don’t read a great deal of factual material. I do. The Green Age of Asher Witherow began with two solid months of nothing but reading and note-taking. But there tends to be this view — or anxiety — that for novelistic research to be respectable it must conform exactly to academic standards, as if the novelist, while in the library, should be a scholar dedicated exclusively to left-brain thinking and inquiry, and only when the research is complete and it comes time to write should the right brain be permitted play. To me, that’s absurd. (One could make the case that it’s this very attitude which accounts, in large part, for the writing of what bad, unimaginative works of historical fiction are out there — books that are neither really novels, nor histories.)
I approach research, always, as a novelist — meaning I don’t bifurcate myself. My imagination, my powers of observation, are at play every minute, no less than an author whose material is contemporary in nature. I’m dreaming amid facts, and I’m following these little breadcrumbs of setting or of contemporaneous attitude or mores, or of quotidian detail, and those I stay with and use are those that have led me to a new revelation about character, about inner life, about turns in a story, about dilemma and conflict. That’s my work, and it’s legitimate work. It’s about finding these little places where the inner life of history lights up, so that it actually ceases to be history, so that it’s alive, it’s Now.
You know, Don DeLillo has a historical novel, Libra, which no one ever refers to as a historical novel, and that’s because it perfectly embodies what I’m describing. We get the inner life of Lee Harvey Oswald (and of his mother, incidentally), something the factual record in itself does not supply us.
This is the artist’s prerogative amid inert mountains of documentation, this humanizing process. It’s my experience that at a certain critical point in the research a kind of leap takes place. As a novelist, you enter a zone in which you can intuit certain human truths that don’t call for verification. You can, with serene confidence, depart from research and not stumble. But the research has led you to that jumping-off place. The whole process is akin to the method actor’s — inhabiting a space, reorienting oneself to appropriate impressions, undergoing a psychological translation of kinds — until all the groundwork is in place and you can “be” your performance.
I imagine this is what Ishiguro means when he claims, to the shock of his interlocutors, that he did zero research (into butlers, 1930s class relations, etc.) for The Remains of the Day. Of course he did some form of research, of course he drew on some store of knowledge. But it was not “Research” as that term is used in academia. “The scholar generalizes,” said Jules Renard, “the artist individualizes.” Ishiguro simply took the imaginative journey that a novelist takes, and by claiming to have done zero research he’s really just asserting the prerogative of the artist, the prerogative of the humanizing imagination. It should be asserted more often.
(This interview was originally posted on the website Three Guys One Book. The interviewer was Victoria Patterson)