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Irish Christmas in America Returns December 10, 2023!

Michael Cunningham's new novel is his first in almost a decade

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michael Cunningham has written his first novel in almost a decade. Did it take the pandemic to do it? "Day" brings us into a circle of family and friends in three days - April 5, 2019, 2020 and 2021. It spans the pandemic through which the world lived and during which so many people died and so many hopes and dreams were smashed and rearranged. Michael Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 novel, "The Hours," joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: We have interviewed so many novelists over the past year who said they found it hard to work during the pandemic because life seemed suspended. How did you begin to tell yourself, nah, this is what I want to write about?

CUNNINGHAM: Your phrase, smashed and rearranged, could've been the working title for the novel, but that didn't seem, ultimately, like the right thing to call it. I was in the middle of a very different novel when the pandemic roared in, and I just put that novel aside. There was no way to sort of work the pandemic in without looking like I was working the pandemic in. It didn't seem possible to write a contemporary novel that did not acknowledge the pandemic. But at the same time, how do you write a novel about human beings in the pandemic as opposed to writing a novel about the pandemic?

SIMON: Well, tell us about this Brooklyn family that is at the heart of the book - Dan, holding onto the rock musician he might have been; Isabel, his wife, who holds the family together; and their children, Violet and Nathan; and then Isabel's brother, Robbie, who lives in the attic - real New York arrangement, by the way.

CUNNINGHAM: It is very New York. They are prisoners of New York real estate, among their other qualities, yeah.

SIMON: Well, tell us about them.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, sure. The situation in which they find themselves in the first third of the novel, before the pandemic, is that Isabelle and Dan are in a marriage that isn't holding up all that well. It's not turning out to be quite what either of them had in mind. And each of them is, in certain ways, in love with Robbie, who is Isabel's younger brother, who is a single, gay man.

SIMON: Let me stop you there - they're both in love with Robbie. That's a complicated situation, even for Brooklyn.

CUNNINGHAM: It's about idealism. It's about the person with whom you cannot have an actual romance because he's your brother, because you are straight and married to his sister - you know, it's about the chimera of another person who looks as if they might have been a better bet, even though they probably wouldn't have been, but who comes with what can be a sort of strangely enlivening body of absolute limitations?

SIMON: The structure of this novel is a single day, taken across three years - your famed novel, "The Hours," obviously a single day. You have acknowledged not just a debt to Virginia Woolf - your life was - really changed direction when you first read her.

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I read her when I was pretty young and not much of a reader. I read Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," and I realized for the first time that it was possible to write sentences like that - to produce prose with that kind of grace and balance and complexity and musicality. And that is really, I think, what turned me into a reader and then ultimately into somebody who began to try to write.

SIMON: I have read that you were once a bartender.

CUNNINGHAM: I was. When I graduated from college, I got into my third-hand car and drove out into the mad American night, thinking that I would sort of wrestle a novel out of it - out of whatever was out there. And, you know, I kind of loved it for as long as I did. My very favorite job was my last one, before I went to graduate school, in a bar no longer with us called the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach, where the bartenders wore grass skirts and leis. And let's just say that I kind of loved it. It was so public. It was so fast. It was so chaotic. But I have retired my grass skirt and my lei...

SIMON: (Laughter).

CUNNINGHAM: ...And I promise you, no one wants to see me dress like that anymore.

SIMON: Well, it doesn't sound like the place that would fit the question I'm about to ask, but I'm still curious. Did people tell you their problems?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. People tell you their problems. They manifest their problems. You get their problems just coming - rampaging at you across the bar with or without an actual confession to the bartender. And, you know, one of the surprises to me was I wasn't, if you will, gathering material as I thought I would. Those people's stories were their stories. And I listened to them, and I let them go.

SIMON: In the course of the three years of this story, of course, some of the characters move - move away or just away from each other or closer. And there's a line near the end in which Dan, the old rocker, says - he finally realizes, to quote you, "an artist is someone who refuses to listen to reason."

CUNNINGHAM: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

SIMON: You include yourself?

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yeah. I would probably venture to apply that to almost anybody who writes, who paints, who acts, who does anything that is hard to feel recognized about - at least until enough time passes and you get lucky. You know the odds against anyone becoming a writer who is actually read, not to mention the fact that, going into year three working in a gay tiki bar in Laguna Beach, your parents begin to wonder why they sent you to college in the first place.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CUNNINGHAM: But for - I think for many of us, we just have to insist on doing what we want to do anyway, even though the odds are stacked against us, even though people are beginning to lose faith in us - whatever it is. You just sort of tie yourself to the mast and hope.

SIMON: Michael Cunningham's new novel is called "Day." Thank you so much for being with us.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.