Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michael Cunningham at Northeastern University

As a writer myself, I usually don’t get all giddy and “fanny” around authors. But last night, as I approached Michael Cunningham to sign my books, I actually found my hands shaking and my heart racing. Of course I was with Nicole who was one shriek away from a heart attack, so I had to play it cool.

All idolizing aside, what surprised me was the lecture’s focus on genre fiction. (I could see the literature professors cringing as Cunningham declared “I love genre fiction!”) He said he found it interesting how commercial fiction is considered disreputable in some way when, historically, novels themselves were considered disreputable. About two hundred years ago, literary folks read poetry. Novels were considered entertainment, not art. More impressive, was that he said what many so many readers are afraid to say.

“I get tired of reading about people sitting in rooms talking about people sitting in rooms talking. Take a children’s book. At five, you want to read about ghosts and monsters. You don’t want to read a book about how difficult it is to be five.”

I completely agree. If I look at my favorite books, the ones I can recite full passages word for word, there is always a conflict, a plot, a journey of some sort, whether it be internal and external. It was really exciting to see a Pulitzer Prize winner publicly state it.

He then went on to talk about how much genre fiction influenced his writing. He read passages from Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury, and then turned to The Hours and read the sections that were directly influenced.

“I learned about depicting seduction from Raymond Chandler,” he stated, before reading the scene from The Hours where Laura Brown and Kitty kiss. He had taken Chandler’s snappy writing style and paid homage to it in his own writing. It was amazed to hear both back to back at he had taken an aspect of one author’s writing style and turned it into his own. He continues to be influenced by great works, in fact, the scene when Anna Karenina throws herself under the train to show the world how unhappy she was, is the inspiration for his next book. Unfortunately, he is so wrapped up in his screenwriting projects, that it may be a while before that next book is completed.

My favorite story of the evening was about a reader that Cunningham worked with. He tended bar and she was a hostess with four kids and no formal education. She worked three jobs, but no matter how tired she was, she always read for an hour before going to bed. Because she didn’t go to college, she read everything, both fiction and nonfiction. Cunningham gave her Crime and Punishment to read and after she was finished he asked how she enjoyed it. She said, “I really liked it. It was better than Ken Follett. But not as good as Stephen King.”

I think people like that are wonderful, that they take books as books without dividing them up into high literature and commercial fluff. A good story is a good story, no matter which section of the bookstore it is located in.

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