'A Wild Swan' Flies Beyond Happily Ever After Author Michael Cunningham was fascinated by fairy tales as a child — but he always wondered what happened after the story ended. His new collection, A Wild Swan, tries to answer that question.
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'A Wild Swan' Flies Beyond Happily Ever After

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'A Wild Swan' Flies Beyond Happily Ever After

'A Wild Swan' Flies Beyond Happily Ever After

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MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: (Reading) Most of us are safe. If you're not a delirious dream the Gods are having, if your beauty doesn't trouble the constellations, nobody's going to cast a spell on you.


Author Michael Cunningham is weaving a spell. His latest book is a retelling of his favorite fairytales. It's called "The Wild Swan." If you were looking for a hero or heroine to root for, Cunningham is really an advocate for the everyman and woman.

CUNNINGHAM: (Reading) Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only power and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees coupled with grace, generosity and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn't want to [expletive] these people up?

MARTIN: Michael Cunningham is no stranger to retold tales. He re-imagined Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Hours." And his latest novel took Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen" as its starting point. And he's always had a close relationship to fairytales.

CUNNINGHAM: You know, when I was a kid, my parents, God bless them, read to me every night because I insisted on it. You know, I was like an addict. I needed a story or two or three or however many I could get. And...

MARTIN: Always fairytales or what?

CUNNINGHAM: A lot of fairytales - all kinds of things. But I was big on fairytales. I was also one of those, oh, ever-so-slightly irritating children who ask unanswerable questions. A couple of my favorites were, one, the prince and the maiden go off to his castle together and lived happily ever after. And I sort of thought that - well, go on. (Laughter) And my mother or father would look at me and say, that's the end.

MARTIN: That's it.

CUNNINGHAM: And somehow...

MARTIN: That was unsatisfying to you.

CUNNINGHAM: It was unsatisfying to me because I felt like, OK, one part of the story is ending. But another part of the story is beginning. She's been awoken from her slumber. She's been rescued from the tower. Her foot fits the slipper. Now what? So part of this collection is my attempt to think and write about the question, now what?

MARTIN: How did you decide which tales to include?

CUNNINGHAM: There's no real organizing principle beyond the fact that these were my favorites. And I think they were my favorites, as a sort of implied organizing principle, because they were the ones that were most baffling to me, the ones that elicited the most questions. Because not only was I big on so what happens when they get to the castle, there were some - and there's some of the stories in the collection - in which what the people were doing just didn't make any sense to me. Like in "Rumpelstiltskin" was one of the stories in the book. Miller's daughter is made to spin three rooms full of straw into gold - one, two three. And each time, if she fails to spin the straw into gold, the king will have her executed. With the help of Rumpelstiltskin, she does, in fact, manage the trick and spins the straw into gold. And then the king marries her (laughter).

MARTIN: What in particular was vexing to you?

CUNNINGHAM: OK, I'm a charming and lovely but inquisitive child. And all I can do is - why would she marry him? This guy was going to have her killed three times in a row if she couldn't perform the impossible. And then she says, great, let's get married? What's that about?

MARTIN: I think she may not have had much choice in the matter - is my guess.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, but still, in my "Rumpelstiltskin," we get into a little bit of what's that about.

MARTIN: Can you talk about your version of "Hansel And Gretel," what you call "Crazy Old Lady?"

CUNNINGHAM: My "Hansel And Gretel" is really about the witch. Hansel and Gretel figure very briefly at the end. My "Hansel And Gretel" is really about, why would you want to build a house made of candy deep in the woods? What's that about? And, of course, the original offers a perfectly plausible answer. It's about eating children. But I somehow wasn't quite satisfied with that. I thought, you know, but isn't there something sexual and desperate and more than just cannibalism going on here? It's one of the writer's jobs to - how to put this - complicate the world, to insist - it's why we can be irritating. It's part of your job to say, oh, I don't think it's that simple. You know, I think there's more going on than is immediately apparent. That's what we do.

MARTIN: So this story - we don't want to give it all away - but there's a lot of time spent on what happened in this woman's life to put her in this forest in a candy house.

CUNNINGHAM: Right, right. How did she get to the point at which she decided, yeah, I'm just going to build a house made of candy and wait and see who shows up? How do you get there? I mean, I'm about to build a house made of candy myself (laughter). Looking for property is tough in New York (laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) There is a moral to the story, so to speak, in your collection. You are defending the outcast, right? Whether it's this crazy old lady, the witch, the young guy who has a wing for an arm. In another tale, it's a kid with a mangled arm.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I think that's a really good way to put it. It's defending the outcast, which does have a certain moral aspect. But that, as opposed to the more traditional, straightforward meaning of a moral, which implies this - you will be a better person for reading this story; you will learn a lesson from this story. I don't have any lessons to teach anybody. I think of my readers as being a little bit smarter than I am. So I'm not here to improve you in any way. I'm here to tell you a story.

MARTIN: Michael Cunningham's book is called "The Wild Swan." Thank you so much for talking with us, Michael.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

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