16 Dec 2023

Michael Cunningham on time, triangles and his new novel Day

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 16 December 2023

Although Michael Cunningham began writing Day A Novel​ during the Covid pandemic, his new book is not a "plague novel".

"I want to read about people and their relationships and how they survived being alive", the Pulitzer Prize-winning author tells Susie Ferguson.

Michael Cunningham has just published his first book in a decade, 'Day'.

Photo: Richard Phibbs

Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel The Hours - about the final days of English writer Virginia Woolf - was adapted into an award-winning film for which Nicole Kidman won the Best Actress Oscar.

Day is about a love triangle featuring Isabel, who is realising a "traditional family" is not actually what she wants, her husband Dan and her brother Robbie.

Cunningham says he loves a triangle and three is a magical number.

"You look back in time - the Father, Son, the Holy Ghost, three acts in a play.

"A couple of fun facts about three... If two separate storm systems are headed for land, they just move along side-by-side and nothing bad happens if there is a third storm system, they collide and destroy your city.”

Like his other novels, Day is centred on an “untraditional form of love".

“Isabel is married to a man named Dan and the marriage isn't going especially well. And they are both, each in their own way, in love with Isabel's gay, younger brother Robbie.”

Robbie, although romantically unavailable to the other characters, represents a romantic ideal, Cunningham says.

“They are all three kind of stuck in this emotional suspended animation.”

Day unfolds over a single day, he says, but one that is spread over the three years of the pandemic.

“It is in three parts and it takes place on a single day in April. Morning takes place before the pandemic, Afternoon takes place at the height of the pandemic. And then Evening takes place in what I'll call post-pandemic.

“That felt like the best way for me to tell a story about human beings who lived through the plague, most of them, without the book being dominated by the plague ... I don't especially want to read a plague novel."

As well as triangles, Cunningham is fascinated with the concept of time, which the pandemic taught us a lot about - "from the suddenness of its arrival to the relative suddenness of its departure".

“I mean, who doesn't know where they were when the pandemic started? And when they got their first vaccine. The pandemic is about time.”

Our very notion of time was changed by lockdowns, he says. “Time felt incredibly long and also incredibly short.”

Cunningham has a pact with a friend to disallow any self-criticism they hear from each other about their use of time during the pandemic.

"If one of us ever starts to wonder 'Why didn't I learn Spanish then? Or why didn't learn how to play the piano? we are going to remind one another - if we get to that point - that lockdown had for many of us this sort of 'deer in the headlights' quality, which is weird.

“There you are at home all day and you would think you could use that to explore various forms of self-improvement. But that wasn't the effect that had on me. And I know that wasn't a lot of people.”

Virginia Woolf, whose To The Lighthouse was the first “great book” Cunningham read, was similarly intrigued by time.

“One of the things I love about To The Lighthouse is that it's two sections that take place at different times with a short connecting section called ‘Time Passes’.

“When Woolf was making her notes for the book, she drew it as sort of two squares with a little connection between almost like a barbell.

“God, I mean, that particular astonishing work of genius was first conceived geometrically and I love that about her.”

Although The Hours is now 25 years old, people still want to talk to Cunningham about the novel.

“Often when somebody says they're fans of my work, they mean The Hours. You know, it's easy to feel indignant about that and I'm certainly not going to write The Hours II. But I always stop myself and remind myself that people are still talking about that book 25 years later. How many novels have that kind of life in the world? So I keep my mouth shut. And just think about the next book and the book after that.

“Because it would be a real mistake to be a slave to your hit book. Consider yourself lucky to have had a hit book and let it go and move on.”

Cunningham was halfway through writing a different novel during the pandemic, which he put aside to write Day.

He says he might one day go back to it or may just let it go.

"One of the things about doing what I do is you really have to be willing and able to let things go.

“If it's lost its way, if you've lost your way with it …it's not an economical proposition. If I owe a third of my income to the government in taxes, I owe at least a third of my writing time to the trash can.” 

Frustrated by the fairy tales his mother read to him about princesses going off to live happily ever after with a prince, Cunningham says he's never been one for a forced happy ending.

“I would say 'come on...' and my mother would say 'that’s the end'. But what if she doesn't like the castle? She didn't even know this prince. What if it doesn't work out?

“My mother would light a cigarette and say 'well, that's the end'. You could say I have devoted much of my adult life to taking us past happily ever after.”