Michael Cunningham has long since established himself as a prolific novelist. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1998 novel The Hours while others received critical acclaim as well as a loyal fan base. His last novel, 2014’s The Snow Queen, was influenced by a fairy tale, which led him into his latest project.
A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a short collection of folklore set in the modern world, retelling classic stories “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White,” among many others. The tales offer the same thematic warnings that those classics of the 19th century provided.
The author spoke over the phone from his writing space in New York City just before the release of the novel to discuss why he chose to write his first story collection and his writing habits.
The Millions: After writing numerous successful novels, why write your first story collection at this point in your career?
Michael Cunningham: You know, this one came about in a slightly funny way. Penguin did a collection a few years ago with the incredibly odd title My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. They asked 40 different writers to write fairy tales. I obligingly did and I wrote my own version of “The Wild Swan” by Hans Christian Andersen, which is different in my own collection than the Penguin collection.
It was fun. I got a kick out of it. In the years since…Well, sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you get stuck. It happens to everybody. You don’t know what to do next and I have learned just to let it sit for awhile. Don’t panic, don’t force it, just let it go until it starts to suggest its next step to you. But you don’t want to just not write, so I started writing these little fairy tales for fun. Believe me, I don’t often write for just fun. After about five or six [of these stories] throughout the years, I thought that maybe this was sort of a collection.
I wrote a few more and, poof, suddenly it’s November of 2015 and there’s this collection that is coming out. It’s the only book I’ve ever written without really expecting to write a book at all.
TM: You alluded to not writing for fun, but writing as a job. What does a normal writing day look like for you?
MC: I am very regular in my writing habits. I need to be. I get up in the morning. I get up, get dressed, and come to my [writing space] just like a regular citizen with a regular job. Then I get to it. Some days are better than others. I sit here for at least four hours. Sometimes there are five pages, sometimes there is one lame sentence. I always sit here for at least four hours. On a good day, when I’m really cranking, I can go for about six hours. Then I’m done; my brain has turned to mush.
Always in the mornings, first thing. It’s five or six days a week. It’s a little unglamorous, but it works for me.
TM: What’s unglamorous? The space where you write? Is it bare bones or filled with inspiration?
MC: I have a lot of stuff. I have 10,000 books. It’s sort of an object sanctuary. It’s souvenirs and talismans and all kinds of things. My desk faces a wall with a window. Every new project, I sort of put different things on the wall. It’s very intuitive; it’s sort of whatever objects I think I should be looking at while I’m working on whatever I’m working on.
Like right now I’m staring at the wall. There’s a cow’s skull, there’s a little paper rocket ship I made when I was a kid, there’s a picture of the moon, there is a little strand of rosary beads. I couldn’t tell you why those objects, but it just felt right.
TM: Speaking of what feels right: why did these specific fairy tales feel right to interpret?
MC: There was no real organizing principle. There are certainly the ones I love the most as a kid. I asked myself why did I love these more than others. I realized a couple of things. I liked the stories that don’t have rigid, Christian morals like some of them do. I never liked those stories. I like the ones that are a little less finger wagging. I also realized that when I was a kid I was a story junkie. I always had questions about the stories [my parents] read. One persistent one was when we got to the “happily ever after” ending. I would look at my mother or father, whoever was on story duty that night, and ask them to finish the story. They would say that’s the end: that they lived happily ever after. No! What was castle life like? What were their lives like? Happily ever after isn’t enough.
One of the ideas behind this collection, some of them anyway, was what happens after “happily ever after.” The other question that I never tired asking my parents was why would the characters do that. Like in “Rumpelstiltskin” the daughter was forced by the king to spin three looms full of straw to get gold, and if she didn’t do it she would be executed. As a reward, he marries her. I remember at the age of six asking my mother why the character would marry someone who would murder her if she didn’t do this impossible thing.
It was this underlying theme of these reconsidered fairy tales about what happened after they got to the castle and why would the characters do what they do.
TM: Did you want your writing style to mirror that of these traditional fairy tales?
CM: It just depended on what the story needed. In the original fairy tales, there isn’t much dialogue. I used this new slangy dialogue, but I wanted to be faithful to the original. They’re meant as homages. They’re not this wise-ass reconsidering of silly little stories. I took these stories seriously. I wanted to honor their forms to some degree.
TM: And how much of it was your choice to put these stories in this specific sequence?
CM: It’s entirely my choice. I’m open to suggestions. I rearranged these stories several times. I wanted tonal shifts. I finally came up with what felt like the proper order. The only one that isn’t a fairy tale, the one I made up, was the one with a really happy ending. That was always going to be the last one. I kept tinkering with it, but that was always in.
TM: I think the opening was perfect. “Dis. Enchant.” just really struck a chord with me. You write “Most of us are safe…” and relate it to the idea that the average person isn’t what fairy tales happen to.
CM: It was something I realized as I reread the fairy tales. I mean, the forces of evil never bother with ordinary citizens. It’s always maidens and princesses and the well favored. Those are who attract the attention of the forces of evil.
TM: It’s why these stories are so intriguing. It’s about the what happens “ever after” when they are just average again.
TM: You briefly mentioned rereading these. Was there a lot of research involved?
CM: I absolutely went back and reread all of them. I wanted to be familiar with the originals. In a few cases there is more than one version kicking around, so I read both. Yeah, I wanted to be thoroughly familiar with the originals, but once I reread them I put them away. I didn’t go back looking at my version and then checking back to the original. I worked from memory.
TM: A version of “A Wild Swan” was what kicked this whole thing off, but what was the final piece written for this collection?
CM: It was the Snow White one, “Poisoned.”
TM: And what was the most challenging for you?
CM: The most challenging was the “Steadfast; Tin.” It’s difficult to say why. I really wanted to do that one right. It took more drafts than the other ones did. I wanted to find a way to retell the story but stay close to the spirit of the story. That was the toughest part.
TM: Let’s shift away from A Wild Swan to not spoil it for those who haven’t read it and talk about writing in general. A few authors have mentioned to me that they don’t necessarily care about plot, but how it’s delivered. More importantly they care about the characters. What’s your take on this?
CM: It’s always about the characters. One of the things I’ve learned, and, I teach in spring semester, it’s something I always tell my students, it’s that you have fully imagined characters. You know not only what their lives are like, but what they want and what’s getting in the way of what they want. They always, always will produce a story. If you do it in reverse where you have a plot and insert characters into it, it tends to be a little wooden or artificial. The characters don’t feel like real people, but instead employees of the plot.
TM: So what excites you about writing or reading literature today? What are some things you like to see or that you try to include in your works?
CM: It’s a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. It’s never been entirely clear to me. The fundamental composition; the idea of taking ink and paper and the words in the dictionary that are available to everybody, and somehow using those elements to produce something that feels like life is endlessly interesting to me. It was from the moment I started writing. I’ve come to suspect that what we call talent is a little hard to distinguish from this other thing that is this bottomless interest by the problems posed by paint or astrophysics or whatever it is.
I was in an MFA program and there were tremendous writers there. One difference I noticed was that I would sit in a chair and write a sentence thirty or forty times until it seemed less bad.
TM: Do you normally get sparked by a specific sentence? Or are you working on a 1,000 ideas and hope one sticks?
CM: I’ll get an idea: a character or a situation or a vague notion of what people might do and where their lives might take them. I have a number of ideas, not tons and tons of them. What normally happens is that I’ll walk around for a couple of months with these people and their situation, and if they still seem compelling to me after several weeks, I’ll figure that these are my next people for my next book.
TM: Do you have that next idea now?
CM: Oh yeah. I’m about 100 pages into a new one.
TM: What’s the idea?
CM: I’m afraid I can’t [talk about it]. I don’t mean to be coy, but I found it’s never a good idea to talk about a novel at this point of it.
TM: It is a novel and not short stories though?
CM: Oh yeah, it’s a novel. The fairy tales were sort of a fluke for me. I love short stories and I read them all of the time, but I don’t ordinarily write them. It’s difficult for me to make something happen in 15 to 20 pages. I need the bigger arc that the novel provides. Even the short stories of mine that have been published have been chapters from novels.
TM: Let’s move on and talk about Hollywood for a bit. You’ve had a few experiences with it. What’s your overall experience with it?
CM: There have been experiences with it that have been great, and there have been experiences that have been less great. I wouldn’t want to name names, but it’s very different. It’s a business. Publishing is a business, but not on the same level. Publishers are very happy to produce a huge bestseller, but it’s not required. Your editor knows that most books don’t sell a lot of copies. Whereas a movie producer or a TV producer wants to do something good, but they also want it to be a hit. There’s not much interest, at least not with studios, in producing some little oddity that hardly anyone is going to want to see. You’re just working in a more popular form which I get kind of a kick out of.
I always going running back to fiction where the expectations are different. It’s kind of a kick to every now and then to write something that will speak to a broader audience. I especially love TV right now. It’s just an amazing period in television.
TM: How much do you want to spend working in television then?
CM: I’m taking cracks in television. I wrote one episode of Masters of Sex. That was kind of a fluke. They don’t usually invite [outside writers in]. I sold a pilot to Showtime, which I don’t think they are going to make. One thing if you want to write for movies and TV is that most things don’t get made. It’s a gamble. I’ve got a couple of pilots currently in the works, and fingers crossed. You just can’t tell if it’s going to go somewhere or not.
Image courtesy of Michael Cunningham.