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More from Michael Cunningham

Arts & Entertainment9402005-06-072005-05-19

More from Michael Cunningham

The author of The Hours takes us inside his new novel, Specimen Days

The author of The Hours takes us inside his new novel, Specimen Days

By David Bahr

"I try to model myself on artists most heroic to me," Michael Cunningham says in an exclusive interview in The Advocate's Summer Books issue, "people who ignore their obvious gifts to try something new and see what happens." The writer takes quite a few risks with Specimen Days, a trio of interrelated, genre-bending novellas set in New York City involving Walt Whitman. The first, "In the Machine," is a ghost story at the height of the industrial revolution; the second, "The Children's Crusade," is a contemporary crime thriller about a kids' terrorist ring; and the third,"Like Beauty," is an interspecies romance between a lizard lady and a male robot who traffics in homoerotic S/M fantasies circa year 2150.

With The Hours you took on Virginia Woolf. Why now Whitman?
I hadn't planned it. Actually, the first part was always set in New York City around 1865. As I did research, I realized that New York then was an extremely difficult and dirty place for everyone but the very rich. Most people had a 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week factory job. There was a coal-laden sky that hung above everybody's head. I thought how interesting that out this blighted environment sprang Walt Whitman, the greatest transcendental poet, and, I think, the greatest American poet, period.

In the second novella, "The Children's Crusade," a character refers to Whitman as "a lover of boys." Not everyone believes that he was gay. Where do you stand?
I don't think there's any question that he was gay. There are many gay passages in Leaves of Grass, many references to his love of men. And OK, there are some references to his love of women as well.

Do you think he was bisexual or gay?
I think he was gay. There is nothing in his biography to suggest a serious, sustained interest in women.

Romanticism runs throughout Whitman. Do you see yourself as a romantic?
Oh, yeah, almost to a fault. If anything, I try to undercut the romanticism in my work, at least until it hovers at a certain level of plausibility.

Did you always have the idea to frame the book as three novellas?
I did. I wanted to work with genre. What was really interesting to me was what some of the various genres, like ghost stories and thrillers and science fiction stories, are telling us about human life and mystery. It's time to reconsider redrawing the boundary lines in literature and consider the notion that some of the thinly veiled autobiographies in the serious literature sections are not nearly as deep and interesting and adventuresome as some of what's across the aisle in the science fiction section.

Who is your favorite sci-fi writer?
Samuel Delaney, who is probably not the only gay male African-American S/M science fiction writer but undoubtedly the best!

The first novella is my favorite. I prefer your more lyrical, realist fiction focusing on human relationships. But I understand the desire to attempt new things as a writer.
Yeah, then you are writing the same book over and over again. You just have to hope to live enough to cover the whole range of experiments to find out what you really can do.

Bahr has written for The New York Times, GQ, and New York.

Specimen Days(
The Hours(book
The Hours(tlavideo)
Leaves of Grass

Excerpted from The Advocate,FalseFalseSUMMER BOOKS
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