The author Michael Cunningham has a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and one piece of creative advice: For best results, take the stairs.
“Climbing stairs in the morning is like taking a little laser beam up to a spaceship,” says the Ohio native, who moved to New York in the 1980s and never looked back, except in his prose. (An early short story, “White Angel,” takes place in Cleveland and focuses on a “criminally advanced” nine-year-old boy who takes LSD with his morning orange juice.)
Today, Cunningham ascends six flights in his West Village walk-up before sitting down to write on a steady diet of K-cup coffee and homemade turkey sandwiches with ingredients he bags himself at Whole Foods. “I’m pretty simple about that stuff,” he says, “especially when I’m working.”
But the writer’s food can be basic because the writing fare is not.
Beginning in 1984, Cunningham has produced seven novels, including the critically acclaimed blockbuster The Hours, along with two screenplays, a New Yorker tote bag full of short stories, and — in 2020 — the catalog for the Costume Institute’s annual Met Gala exhibition. He currently teaches at Yale University while continuing to write fiction. His work is described by leading critics as “an extraordinary carrying on of a true greatness” (Kirkus Reviews) and “a thing of such beauty and surprise” (the New York Times) but pretty soon, you’ll be able to describe it as “the new book I just got,” because Cunningham’s latest novel, Day (Random House), hits shelves this November.
Day clocks in at 288 pages and features five main characters — six if you count the hunky Instagram catfish invented by one of the protagonists to cause thematically charged chaos. It begins in 2019 and ends in 2021, making it one of the first, and most eagerly anticipated, entrants into the emerging category of Covid-era fiction. (Alas, Grey’s Anatomy is not included in this prestigious scope, though, frankly, it should be.)
“I know words are my job, but sometimes it’s quite hard to describe a book I’m writing, or have just written,” Cunningham tells me from his rickety New York studio. “It’s a perfectly understandable question: ‘What’s your book about,’ you know? But then I hear myself delivering a synopsis, and I think, ‘Well, that sounds kind of stupid!’ I mean, imagine trying to talk about your favorite book to somebody who doesn’t know anything about it. Like, let’s pick an example.”
We settle on Moby Dick, then giggle for a second.
“Okay,” he grins. “If you’re trying to describe Moby Dick, you have to be, like, ‘Well, it’s about a whale, but it’s not really about the whale. It’s about obsession, but also, really, it’s about fear of becoming what you hate… It’s a story that’s in conversation with Jonah and the whale, but it’s also the opposite of Jonah and the whale. You get it?’ And, of course, nobody gets it!”
To be fair, Day is a little easier to “get.” There are no whales, just a misaligned married couple in Brooklyn, their two watchful children, a bewitching adult sibling named Robbie, and Robbie’s social media account of a hot guy who doesn’t exist. “I’m very big into Instagram,” Cunningham admits, “but I’m more of a browser. I search for artists or places and see what comes up. Personally, I don’t actually post much.” Cunningham’s sole account (very public, and in his own name) is mostly full of sunny blue cloudscapes that he snaps himself on an iPhone; his posts even served as an inspiration for the novel’s cover.
It’s a cool piece of metadata for book nerds, but the niftier thing about Cunningham’s new plot point — the idea of creating a virtual avatar, who in some ways feels more real than anyone you know, including yourself — is that, in a very “real” way, that’s what Cunningham has been doing for years, albeit with words instead of thirst-trap pics. Cunningham has never been female, yet his best-known protagonists are all forceful heroines. His novel The Snow Queen centers around a terminally ill woman who sells vintage designer clothing; his story Flesh and Blood follows two Greek-Italian sisters bent on upending the other’s idea of fulfillment; and his best-known work, The Hours, follows the inner monologues of not one but three 40-something women at the crossroads of their identities.
But Day comes on the heels of a new kind of cultural upheaval, one where books can be “cancelled” — or even literally cancelled before printing — if their viewpoints are deemed violations of others’ actual selves. On the whole, this is great and long overdue, since it allows writers from marginalized identities to claim their own lived expertise and, if they choose, turn it into riveting content. But there has been much hand-wringing (and, for sure, much keyboard slamming) from some established authors. The bombast at some Thanksgiving tables takes the stance that George R.R. Martin did not live in Westeros. Should Game of Thrones only be told by some writer in another dimension who powers their laptop with dragon fire?
“That’s a bad take,” Cunningham says. “It’s just needlessly dramatic and wrong. Look, if, as artists, we’re only allowed to write about our own experience, we are headed toward some sort of vulcanized literature in which every novel, and every story, is coming out as an oral history instead of a work of fiction. It’s a relatively small kingdom we can inhabit that way. And I think, as a writer, you have to claim the right to imagine your way into lives that are different from you.
“At the same time,” he continues, “I do have limits that I impose on myself. I wouldn’t really write anything from the point of view of a person of color, because I just feel like that experience is too far from mine. But women? Sure. Younger people, older people? Sure. I feel like one of the points of fiction is that it takes both the writer and then the reader into other worlds. Other lives… Like, I don’t think you’d have to be a Viking in Greenland to write about being a Viking in Greenland, for instance. Especially once you’ve done rigorous research. But I don’t see how you could write convincingly about an emotion you never felt.”
(Now seems like a good time to reveal that Cunningham will turn 71 on November 6, which makes him a Scorpio — and, therefore, statistically likely to have, indeed, felt every emotion, ever.) When Cunningham embarks on his book tour this winter, he’ll do it in his usual uniform: old jeans from Levi’s, a Hamro hand-knit sweater, and — the surprise — a pair of pre-scuffed Golden Goose sneakers. “Contrary to popular belief, my students [at Yale] did not inspire me!” he says, laughing. “Look, I am a relatively sturdy guy with large-ish, delicate feet. I just can’t wear most shoes for very long. Somehow, I got my hands on a pair of Golden Goose sneakers a few years ago, and I am obsessed with them. They are currently lying, abandoned, just behind me on the floor. But those fuckers are expensive, so I buy them really sparingly. Like, it’s $500 for a pair of sneakers!”
Cunningham is equally agog at the shoes on Selling Sunset, which he and his husband, Kenny, enjoy because it is equal parts batshit and beauty. “I have to say, I just adore Christine,” he says, naming the reality show’s über-glossy villainess. “She’s the glue that holds everyone together. She seems like an avatar herself, in a way… and her clothes! All the clothes on that show! Oh my god, they’re amazing! They’re like, I don’t know, if a parade float became a person!”
Mr. Cunningham does not mean that pejoratively. In fact, unlike many who assume another persona for artistic or Netflix success, he has some literal experience walking in someone else’s shoes.
“I was in Provincetown many years ago,” he says. “There was a hurricane on the way, and everyone said that the town was really about to blow… Almost all the stores in town were closed and boarded up, but the one place open was a drag shop, and right there in front was a pair of very high heels that fit me! I promptly took them to the proprietor, and he said, ‘Can I wrap them up for you?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to wear them right out of here.’ Well. That was… not wise. The immediate image is like Eva Marie Saint skittering across Mount Rushmore’s foreheads in North by Northwest. And that’s when I came to understand that high heels are not a game; they require serious dedication and practice. Walking in them was like having my toes jammed into steel caps with every step. And I came to better appreciate what my sisters have to go through. The pain,” he confirms, “is real.”
Day by Michael Cunningham (Random House) will be in stores November 14. It is available for pre-order online now.