A Quest For Higher Power In 'The Snow Queen' NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Michael Cunningham about his new book, The Snow Queen, in which his characters plunge into a metaphysical world while navigating family relationships.

A Quest For Higher Power In 'The Snow Queen'

A Quest For Higher Power In 'The Snow Queen'

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NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Michael Cunningham about his new book, The Snow Queen, in which his characters plunge into a metaphysical world while navigating family relationships.


The writer Michael Cunningham is probably best known for his book "The Hours," which won him a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film. Like "The Hours," Cunningham's new novel, "The Snow Queen," explores inner lives and family dynamics. But the characters in this new book also plunge into the metaphysical world. When I spoke with Michael Cunningham this past week, I asked him to read from a section of his new novel. It's a scene where one of the main characters, a man named Barrett, sees an ethereal light in the skies above N.Y.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: (Reading) He felt the light's attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz, a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps, ever so slightly, to illuminate him so that he was brighter than he'd been, just a shade or two, phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so. Nothing of swamp gas about it, just a gathering of faint blood light that rose to the surface of his skin.

MARTIN: This happens to him while he's walking through Central Park. He's not expecting it. How does it change him?

CUNNINGHAM: It throws him into a deep quandary. Not only has he seen this light and been convinced that the light sees him, he doesn't know what it means. If something god-like has chosen to show itself to him, what does that vast metaphysical entity want him to do? There's been no message. There's been no enunciation. There's just been a light. What do you do now?

MARTIN: Toward the end of the book, Barrett illustrates this search that he's on. He says, I keep waiting for something, you know, more than looking for love and wondering where to go for dinner. What does his search represent for you? Why is that something you wanted to explore?

CUNNINGHAM: I think the search for something beyond love and what to have for dinner is a big one for a lot of us. I think of Barrett's desire for a sense of meaning, a sense of transcendence, a sense that his life is about more than just the events of the days. Well, it's certainly something I think about.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about character development, if you don't mind, a little bit, and voice and how you achieve that because in "The Hours," you skillfully managed to inhabit this inner world of several female characters and were noted for doing so. And in this book, you also delve into the inner lives of your characters, very intimate thoughts as well as just kind of the quotidian stuff of life. Does this just come naturally to you? Is this just how you think? Or is this something that you set out with intention that you have to work to get to?

CUNNINGHAM: You know, I'm going to have to say yes and yes. I mean, I do think in terms of what did you really mean when you said that and what are we hiding? What do we find unsayable? And yeah, I work at it.

MARTIN: When you're doing something like developing a female character, what does that work look like?

CUNNINGHAM: You know, I like women, which I think makes, actually, a big difference. I think there are a lot of male writers who actually don't like women. And that probably gets in the way of their ability to portray fully developed female characters. And when I am finished with a draft, yes, I show it to some women. And they have been hugely helpful in talking to me not about what women would do, but what they think this woman would do.

MARTIN: And getting back to the plot of this story, we started talking about Barrett and his quest to look for something bigger in his life, some greater significance. He doesn't necessarily find it. Is that OK with Barrett? Has the change he is looking for come to him in a different way, even though he hasn't found the concrete answers that he's looking for?

CUNNINGHAM: Like many people, Barrett does find something, but it's not what he thought he was looking for. And he begins to wonder at the end of the book if he's found the right thing and was looking for the wrong thing. So many novels are sort of fancy, complicated surfaces laid on relatively simple stories, you know. Love is powerful. That's really what this book is about. It does, in fact, conquer, if not all, a great deal.

MARTIN: Which is a lovely note to end on. Michael Cunningham teaches creative writing at Yale. His new novel is called "The Snow Queen." He joined us from our studios in New York. Michael, thanks so much for taking the time.

CUNNINGHAM: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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