Michael Cunningham on horror movies, Nicole Kidman, and his new novel
Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Hours, hasn’t published a book since 2005’s Specimen Days. His next novel, tentatively titled Olympia, doesn’t have a release date — but he published an excerpt from the work-in-progress in a new online/download-friendly literary magazine called Electric Literature, founded by Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum. Cunningham’s moving 19-page story charts the relationship of two brothers growing up in 1970s suburban Milwaukee, the flamboyantly gay Matthew (he even figure skates!) and his younger brother, the presumably straight Peter. It’s a self-contained gem that’s filled with wonderfully evocative descriptive passages like this one: “Their father, handsome but a little blank, unfinished-looking, vaguely Finnish, never fully adapted to his good fortune in marrying their mother, and lived in his marriage the way an impoverished relation might live in the spare room.” I caught up with Cunningham by phone from his home in Provincetown, Mass., at a particularly opportune moment in his creative process.
EW: How are you doing?
Michael Cunningham: At the moment, I just finished a chapter. I’m about two-thirds of the way through a new novel. I’m juggling that with the final drafts of two screenplays, a little thriller for Screen Gems called Beautiful Girl and the Dusty Springfield movie with Nicole Kidman. The Dusty Springfield film, as they say in Hollywood, just went into turnaround at Fox 2000, which is probably best all around. I like all the people at Fox 2000, but it’s probably not the right studio for this film. So now it’s just Nicole and me and Dusty. And we’ll try to find another home for it.
EW: Beautiful Girl is a thriller about a high school English teacher who exacts revenge on everyone who was cruel to one of his students. Let’s just say it does not sound like you at all.
Cunningham: Actually, I’ve always been a huge fan of horror films. I’ve seen all the horror movies. I have no limits when it comes to that. I’ve seen all the Saw movies. Do you know the writer Amy Hempel? She and I will go to any hack-’em-up movie, the gorier the better. So the genre has always appealed to me. Now, I should say that I have the highest respect for those who teach English literature, particularly in high school. But this individual is just a psycho. [he chuckles]
EW: You’ve always been a slow and steady writer, churning out a novel every five years or so. Does that mean we should be seeing another one soon?
Cunningham: “Slow and steady” is the right phrase to describe me. I’m closing it on my new novel. I could easily be finished by late September. It’s called Olympia.
EW: Will the excerpt that appears in Electric Literature be part of it?
Cunningham: Yes. That much I can say. I’ve gone through and ordered things, removed the major sections that don’t fit. It’s 183 pages now, and should be about 250 pages at the end. Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.
EW: And how did you come to publish this excerpt in Electric Literature?
Cunningham: Well, the guys who founded it were students of mine at Brooklyn College. T Cooper [who contributes another story] was also a student of mine. So it felt like a family project. They told me they were starting a literary magazine that would be primarily online and I thought: Go, young heroes.