Adult Fairy Tales: An Interview with Michael Cunningham

By Michael MerriamNovember 26, 2015

Adult Fairy Tales: An Interview with Michael Cunningham
ARGUABLY, the practice of reimagining antique fairy tales started with the Brothers Grimm themselves, since their stories are recorded rather than invented. Or maybe it started with Beowulf. Whichever, the practice has become a genre, one that ranges in seriousness from the animated “Fractured Fairy Tales” of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show to the bold and stylistically dazzling stories in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. Michael Cunningham’s new book, A Wild Swan: And Other Tales, is very much for adults, and adulthood is arguably its major theme. It questions what might happen deep within the happy marriages of some of the human characters, and it explores the often cryptic motivations of the tales enchanted supporting cast.

Yuko Shimizu’s illustrations are, more than depictions, daring and pleasantly disquieting reactions to the stories. They seem to converse as much with us as with the prose. Aside from their obvious appeal, the images seem rapt, astute, and sharply aware. Taken together, they form a legitimately separate, ever-present character within the book, an ageless human listener whose experience of the tales is as viscerally immediate as Cunningham’s retellings are grown-up and sophisticated.

I spoke to Cunningham about his relationship to fairy tales and his collaboration with Shimizu.


MICHAEL MERRIAM: I heard you read aloud from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm at the Brooklyn Museum last year, and you were spectacular.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: I’m just a ham. I love being able to deliver stories directly to people like that. Generally the relationship for the writer and readers is pretty abstract. I don’t know who’s reading what at any given time and I get a huge kick out of being in the actual room in the actual live air with actual hearers and listeners.

Since these are fairy tale retellings, I have to ask, how would you have reacted to stories in this collection if they’d been read to you when you were a child?

They’re not really meant for children. They’re dark and sexual and I think of them as sort of adult versions of the fairy tales we were read as children. If you go back and read the original versions, they’re pretty dark and pretty upsetting. They’re nothing like the Disney versions, that’s for sure, and I do remember being freaked out by some of the fairy tales my parents would read. The Little Match Girl, freezing to death. That was fairly traumatizing to a five-year-old. We had a book of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales […] I wouldn’t get close to it. I had a fear of the object itself.

That might be a rare phenomenon these days; we may have lost that relationship to books as objects imbued with mysterious power.

There are many adults who collect first editions and are very much attached to books as objects. I’m not. I don’t really read, or particularly want, a rare first edition. I think of the physical book as a sort of vehicle for the language contained therein. I love books, I’m drowning in books over here, but I don’t feel particularly devoted to them as objects.

I feel like nothing would have pleased the Brothers Grimm more than electronic editing. I say that because they were lexicographers and would have appreciated the ability to redo sections of their books. To see people prefer a heavy, physical book to a digital file might have seemed like the worst kind of nonsense.

They knew all about writing down these tales that had only been oral, that been told by each generation to the next generation but hadn’t been recorded, and that was the big project the Grimms undertook. They were devoted to nailing these stories down, and not allowing them to pass away over time. There are a lot of weird ones which have gone unread. And one understands why.


They’re sort of incoherent. There’s one called the “Lettuce Donkey” [sometimes translated as “Donkey Cabbages”] that comes to mind. A man falls in love with a princess who turns out to be a donkey and there’s a salad that brings her back. There are some Disney will probably never do.

It’s hard to discern a moral to that particular tale.

Hans Christian Andersen was much more of a moralist than the Grimm Brothers, a much more stern and moralistic figure.

You named your book The Snow Queen after one of his stories, even though it’s not really based on the Andersen story of that name. What’s your process for titling your work?

I honestly don’t know. It’s intuitive. Some aspects of writing are explicable and some are mysterious. I just somehow knew the title of every piece really quickly. The Hours was pure thievery, I stole that from Virginia Woolf. When she was writing Mrs Dalloway she thought she would call it The Hours. I take no credit for that title.

Sure, but A Home at the End of the World?

I had a hard time with that. The book was more than half-finished, and I couldn’t think of a title for it, and it was so many years ago, but I think I was driving on a freeway in Los Angeles and it just sort of arrived.

Did you ever get any pushback?

Not on that one. The only time I’ve ever had any disagreement with my wonderful editor was over my book By Nightfall. The original title was Olympia, and he really hated that title. I didn’t feel so married to it as to insist on it, and it became By Nightfall. Well, alright, Jonathan [Galassi] wasn’t happy about calling The Snow Queen “The Snow Queen,” but in that case I had to say, “You know, we can’t rename the baby now, the baby is 35 years old.”

What was his suggestion?

He wouldn’t suggest titles; that would be too heavy-handed for Jonathan. But he was unsure about the obvious fairy tale reference, especially since the book doesn’t really refer all that much to the Hans Christian Andersen short story.

There’s this line in your story “The Little Man” (a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale) in which you say, “You’re afraid that anything you say would be embarrassingly earnest.” Is that a fear of yours, being too earnest?

Yes, yes, yes. You’re talking about feeling exposed by your writing. It’s funny that you bring that up, because I teach, and at some point in the semester I usually find myself saying to my students, “You should know that, as far as I can tell, you can’t really be a writer and be cool. The writer is essentially the geeky kid with the bad skin and the funny glasses who sits down at the popular kids’ table at the high school cafeteria and talks honestly about love. If that’s not okay with you, you should probably consider another undertaking.”

Did you get that warning at any point?

No, I just figured it out […] I feel a big part of writing is earnestness, an abandonment of cynicism and irony […] You are saying, “I think this matters. I care about it enough to have written a book about it.”

So, when it comes to fiction anyway, it helps to have a light heart?

You can’t take yourself too seriously, and I’m really just talking about writing as I practice it. There are plenty of books out there that are cynical and ironic and hard-hearted, and that’s not the kind of book I write. It’s not generally the kind of book I want to read.

That makes sense — there’s a persistent innocence to your subject matter, and all this yearning in A Home at the End of the World for innocent friendship.


You talk about children so much in this new book, and with so much insight.

I sometimes find my students thinking of children as generic, as if all five-year-olds were somehow alike. If you’ve spent any time with five-year-olds, you’ve seen how utterly themselves and idiosyncratic they are. Childness is not anybody’s defining quality, even at the age of five.

As an anthropologist of children’s culture, and of children’s games in particular, I often feel like children are all of them unique, but we adults are all … kind of the same.

Like you, I studied anthropology, and you’re always balancing universal qualities with a respect for difference. It’s a tricky balance. As a species, we are simultaneously remarkably similar and remarkably different. Both things are true.

What’s fascinating to me, reading fairy tales, is that some element of the story will be totally absurd, but I know that to a child audience, that absurdity will seem completely reasonable.

Right, right-right-right. I wonder about the motives of the characters in the original fairy tales. Why did they do that? Jack climbs up the beanstalk, the giant’s wife lets him in, Jack steals the giant’s gold, Jack comes back a second time, and the giant’s wife lets him in again — she once again admits the small young man who robbed her husband. What’s going on in that marriage?

Exactly, and you keep cycling back to absurdity. It’s a big part of your focus in this collection. What does it mean to you?

I think it even struck me as a child. Why would a king insist that a girl spin straw into gold on three consecutive nights, and then, once she pulled off the trick, why would she marry him? I’m certainly asking that question now, and I think I was probably asking that question as a kid as well.

Your gift for dialogue comes through really clearly. Are you working on a play?

I am working on a play, it’s about half-finished. I love theater.

Is it more difficult than working on a novel?

It’s differently difficult. It’s really hard to make something significant happen with live actors in a live audience. In trying to do it, I have ever more respect for playwrights who do it well. You’re right there, you’re nailed to time and space. And it’s hard. A good play is a miraculous thing.

Which playwrights do you look to for inspiration, or guidance?

I’m a huge fan of Sarah Ruhl. I really admire Suzan-Lori Parks, Edward Albee, and all the way back to Congreve, and you really can’t get away from Shakespeare.

In John Lahr’s interview with Ruhl, she said people hunger for magical transformations, such as we might find in Ovid, instead of Aristotelian transformations, you know, all character arcs and fundamental changes in outlook. Do you find the short story form gives you that opportunity, to write in a refreshingly different mode?

I need a bigger arc most of the time — the breathing room that you have in a novel. I don’t know if I’ll ever write more traditional short stories. The fairy tale thing is a bit of a fluke for me.

So how did it come about?

I wrote one, it was actually The Wild Swan, though what’s in the book is rather different. This was four or five years ago, when somebody was putting together a collection of fairy tales from people who don’t write fairy tales. It’s called “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me”, how’s that for a title?

It’s brilliant, it’s from “The Juniper Tree.”

Yes! I wrote a story for that collection, and then another, and then another, and they were really just diversions for me, I wasn’t really thinking of a collection. The great fun was working with Yuko Shimizu, the illustrator.

She’s a genius. That collaboration is just perfect. It seems like it went very smoothly.

It really did. I looked her up, I liked her work, and she very generously agreed to do it. And when we talked I said, “All I have in mind is: You should do whatever you want to do. I think of this as a collaboration, I have faith in you as an artist.” It worked out really well.

I was thinking about what this is similar to, and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber jumps to mind, but your work is almost more similar to Anne Sexton’s Transformations, because Anne Sexton doesn’t really change the story, she just turns it inside out for you.

I’m pretty true to the actual tales. I love both the Angela Carter and the Anne Sexton [collections], and I did wonder, is there room for one more?

What do you think you did that they didn’t do?

I think we all did what we did in our own ways — my retold fairy tales are in my own voice.

Sometimes you seem more like a scientist. You approach explanations for things, and you quickly dismiss them, but you leave us with your lab notes. In one passage, you say, “The king was abused by his father, the last king,” and then you dismiss that by saying “but then there’s always rumors like that.”

That was my way of bringing up and dismissing an oversimplification.

Why leave the trace of that oversimplification in there?

It feels true to the way we think. We are drawn to simple answers, as we naturally would be, and again, there’s so many tricky balancing acts in life, right? Abused children do often grow up to be abusers themselves, but not always. And it’s not that simple, but it’s not untrue; it’s just part of a larger picture.


Michael Merriam is currently writing a book on toy archaeology, and a translation of The Canterbury Tales.

LARB Contributor

Michael Merriam is an archaeologist whose work focuses on ancient toys, the history of games, and folkloric children’s literature. He lives in Los Angeles, on the 13th floor of a tower overlooking the La Brea tar pits. From there he maintains Pyrite Radio, his online museum. He is currently writing a book on toy archaeology, and a translation of The Canterbury Tales.


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