Walt Whitman Inspires 'Specimen Days'

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham discusses his new book, The Specimen Days, which comes out today. The novel, comprised of three stories, takes place in three different time periods, with the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman as muse in all three.

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Mr. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author, "Specimen Days"): I always try to write the book that's at least a little bit too difficult for me to write. I always try to write something that feels beyond me.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The author Michael Cunningham gets noticed when he tries to write something that seems beyond him. One of his books, "The Hours," won a Pulitzer Prize and became a movie. In his latest effort, called "Specimen Days," Cunningham tries to stitch together three stories that may not seem to belong together at all. The stories stretch across hundreds of years of life in New York City. The cheerful words of a famous poet tie the stories together, even though the stories are not cheerful at all. When the novel arrives in present-day New York, the city is coping with a new terrorist threat.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Children who are terrorists who strap bombs to themselves and walk up to a stranger on the street and just blow themselves up along with the stranger.

INSKEEP: What made you, as a resident of New York City, think of that?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: As a resident of New York City since 9/11, I am aware, as are so many of us, of something that the rest of the world has lived with for centuries, the notion that you can just be going about your business on the most ordinary of days and bam.

INSKEEP: You tell the story of a woman who is not precisely a detective. She's in the Office of Deterrence.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Which is entirely invented. In my fictional account, it's something that was set up after 9/11. It's staffed by forensic psychologists whose job it is to talk to people who phone in various threats and try to determine their level of seriousness.

INSKEEP: And while there might not be a formal Office of Deterrence, you have to suspect that somebody is given that job of doing it somewhere in a building.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I hope somebody is. Yeah.

INSKEEP: What a job. Why that job? Why focus on that?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I wanted the character to get to know the terrorist as a disembodied voice. I wanted a way for the child, who is, in fact, though sort of innocently, a terrorist, to come through as himself, somebody who is first and foremost a frightened child, and the phone seemed the best way to do that.

INSKEEP: When you write about people sitting around in their cubicles, trying to field all these random signs and phone calls from everywhere and trying to figure out what's dangerous and what's not, do you feel like we're all doing that?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. I think anybody with half a brain spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what's serious and what's not, what's true and what isn't true, how paranoid to be. It's ludicrous to imagine that what's on the news and what the government tells us is necessarily true. Look at the track record.

INSKEEP: So you write about this group of innocent killers who are guided by the words of Walt Whitman...

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Of Walt Whitman.

INSKEEP: ...one of the great American poets.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you begin thinking you wanted to write something about the influence of Walt Whitman on America, or did he sneak in later?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Walt Whitman snuck in later. When I was researching New York in the mid-1800s for the first story, the ghost story, I was very much aware that it was a dark and difficult place. It was polluted. There was this sort of coal-smoke-laden sky that hung about 12 feet over everybody's head. Most people worked 12-hour days in factories six days a week. And through all this walked, yes, Mr. Walt Whitman, our great dervish, our great transcendental poet, saying, `How beautiful. How remarkable it all is.' And I was interested in that, and I gave him a small role, a walk-on, if you will, which expanded as I wrote the first section, and then I thought, `Well, if Walt Whitman is going to be in one of the stories, he should be in some way or another in all three of them.'

INSKEEP: Well, you've got this poet who, as you point out, is--maybe optimistic is not the word--but whatever he looks at in America he loves it, and you set his words against three different stories, progressing in time, and things may actually be getting worse from story to story. They're certainly not getting any better.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Right. Whitman functions as, to some extent, the soul of the book, that hard-won, profoundly intelligent optimism that simply won't go away no matter how bad things get.

INSKEEP: The last of these three stories takes us into the future in which--well, let's just say that New York City is being overwhelmed by immigrants and leave it at that.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: OK.

INSKEEP: Why did you want to cast your mind into the future?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I wanted to start with the Industrial Revolution, with people working in factories, and end in a sort of highly technological future, though in my particular highly technological future, none of it works very well. That was largely inspired by the clicker for my VCR. I'm constantly aware that in many ways, we find ourselves living in the future that was envisioned in the '50s. It's just that it's dingier and less effective than we thought it would be. I just wanted to write about a sort of worn future in which the machines tend to go awry and people live as best they can in a highly advanced world that's falling apart.

INSKEEP: Well, we're all making this future day by day collectively. What are we getting wrong?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I don't know why things don't work better than they do. I mean, I think it's hard to make anything. It's hard to write a novel. It's probably hard to design a television clicker that really works.

INSKEEP: You haven't become one of these technophobes, have you?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, no. No, no, no. I like technology. I'm not the least bit phobic about it. I love my computer.

INSKEEP: Is there something reassuring about the idea that as technology gets more and more sophisticated, it will still break down?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. And I think one of the things that we have been learning is that a lot of what we imagined were big organizations and mechanisms that ran flawlessly turn out, like, oh, say, the CIA and the FBI, to have been sort of haphazard and clownish and badly run. I get a kick out of people. That's why I write books about them, and the fact that it's difficult for us to run the FBI or design a car that works is simply part of who and what we are.

INSKEEP: Michael Cunningham is the author of "Specimen Days," a novel.

Thanks very much.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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