Hay Festival: Michael Cunningham on The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham reads the opening pages of The Snow Queen

I had not one but THREE brief chats with my author hero Michael Cunningham at Hay Festival—at his author event, at his book signing and, by sheer coincidence, at the bar of the Old Black Lion. No, I wasn’t stalking!

Unbelievably, in my opinion, this was Cunningham’s first appearance at Hay Festival. He told me he’d been waiting for an invite.

Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for his exquisite fourth novel The Hours, which happens to be my favourite novel of all time. The film version of the book was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Clare Danes. In his Hay Festival conversation with Rosie Goldsmith he said, “I must be the only living author who’s happy with the film of their book.”

Incidentally, his fifth novel, Specimen Days, was written in three parts and included a science fiction element. I asked about this foray into SF because of my own writing inclinations and he said that science fiction was definitely part of the zeitgeist at the time he wrote the novel.

The Snow Queen is his latest novel and it opens thus:

A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, fours days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.

This is a brilliant first sentence. It tells us so much, and leaves us wanting to know more.

The Snow Queen’s Premise

According to Michael Cunningham, “I wanted to know what would happen to a regular guy, someone who would pass for ordinary… what if a guy like that had a vision.” He explained that Barrett Meeks is not a religious man and the celestial light presents him with a dilemma, namely, what now? “It sets him off on a sort of quest.”

snow queenThe story centres on Barrett’s relationship with his brother Tyler and Tyler’s girlfriend Beth who is seriously ill with cancer. “The brothers are really too close, two halves of a single person. And they’re part of the first downwardly mobile generation.” Barrett is trying to escape the grand expectations that surrounded his youth. Tyler is a yet-to-be-discovered singer-songwriter and he’s struggling because he can hear songs that he can’t play, said Cunningham. “He can only play folky approximations.”

The novel raises an interesting question about the nature of failure. Cunningham asked the audience, “Are they failures? I don’t see them as failures any more than I see the bank bosses as successes.” That raised a cheer.

The tone of the novel is understated; it follows the everyday humdrum lives of the main characters. We gradually learn more about their inner lives. There is, however, a major crisis for the two brothers but this crisis happens off-page. That is, the reader is only told after the event.

I asked Cunningham if this major event (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) took place off the page because it would otherwise jar against the overall tone of the novel. In other words, did ‘plot’ present a problem within a novel that Cunningham himself described as a spiritual novel. He replied that he didn’t wish to describe the crisis scene because there was a real danger of the novel becoming mawkish, too sentimental. He even commented that he’d have felt intrusive writing that scene.

Interestingly… Cunningham’s own determination to avoid sentimentality in The Snow Queen is mirrored by Tyler in his struggle to write a song for his sick wife.

Cunningham told the Hay audience that he chose the title before he started writing. And his insistence on the title caused a rare fight with his editor. “It’s my favourite fairy tale; it’s kind of crazy.” His novel is not a retelling of The Snow Queen though the story opens with snowy scenes!

As I expected, the prose in The Snow Queen is exceptional. Any aspiring writer would do themselves a big favour by reading any of Cunningham’s works.

I’ll be quoting from The Snow Queen on twitter this week. So, see you over there!

1 reply
  1. Corr Patricia
    Corr Patricia says:

    What a treat to meet Michael Cunningham – The Hours is one of my favourites, too and I’m looking forward to reading The Snow Queen.


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