Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Largest Possible Audience

Revisit some prophetic words from the great Edward R Murrow, which are featured in M. Allen Cunningham's Q&A, arriving in paperback and ebook in January 2021. 

(For best viewing results, enlarge the video to full-screen.)


Monday, August 24, 2020

Cunningham Presents PERPETUA'S KIN at Powell's Books - FULL AUDIO


Listen to "M. Allen Cunningham Presents PERPETUA'S KIN at Powell's Books" on Spreaker.

During this event at the fabled Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, Cunningham discusses his fourth novel PERPETUA'S KIN. A sweeping story of five generations in one American family, PERPETUA'S KIN spans much of North America, from the 1820s in Iowa to the American south during the Civil War to World War II San Francisco. In a structured presentation, Cunningham describes the story's origins, his research, the themes and characters, the influence of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and why this novel was 11 years in the making. He also reads short selections from the book. The event includes an audience Q&A. It was recorded on a rainy night in November 2018.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

What Would Leonard Cohen Do?


WHAT WOULD LEONARD COHEN DO? If you’re a hardworking creative soul striving to continue doing the work of the expressive imagination, striving to honor an authentic vision that resists the forces of market optimization, you could do a lot worse than immerse yourself in Leonard Cohen’s corpus and give that question your consideration.

Mentioned in this episode: Leonard Cohen; Cohen's "Hallelujah"; Songs of Leonard Cohen; Cohen's 1963 debut novel The Favorite Game; CBC Television; Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers; Cohen's performance style; Bob Dylan; Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat"; Zen; Mount Baldy; Leonard Cohen world tour; skipping at age 78; Cohen's album You Want It Darker; Cohen's album Thanks for the Dance; Feist; Beck; Damien Rice.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

VIDEO: The Poet & the Sculptor / Rilke & Rodin

In this video excerpt from a talk I recently gave to a class of brilliant young writers, I describe the interdisciplinary relationship between Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (a relationship depicted in my novel Lost Son). 

What can creative writers learn from what Rilke learned from Rodin?

The talk includes my own translation of Rilke's great poem "The Panther" (also found below).


The Panther
Rainer Maria Rilke
(transl. M. Allen Cunningham)

His gaze, from the passing bars,
has grown so weary that it can hold nothing more.
To him there are a thousand bars
and beyond the thousand bars no world at all.

The soft drop of his dread sleek steps,
conscribed to a tight circle,
is like a dance of stamina around a center
in which a greater will stands stunned.

Yet sometimes the curtain of the pupil stirs,
opens itself soundlessly -- then an image gets inside,
passes through the silent tension of the limbs
and -- snared in the heart, ceases to be.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

NEW AUDIO: Cunningham's essay "Variations on a Beginning"

Listen to "Variations on a Beginning" on Spreaker.


Cunningham's autobiographical essay, with musical accompaniment and slightly abridged.

"Variations on a Beginning" was originally published in complete form in The Timberline Review, Issue No. 3 (summer/fall 2016). You can read the full essay HERE.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Secure Your Copy of Cunningham's New Book

My new book Q&A will appear in print (and ebook) from Regal House Publishing in January 2021, and you can pre-order it now.

What's it about? Among other things: reality television, TV politics, the triumph of incoherence, and deception via screens. Sound familiar?

(My favorite designer Nathan Shields created that kick-ass cover, by the way. It's a custom linocut.)

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Prime Passages: Thoreau by Henry Seidel Canby (1939)

For Henry David Thoreau's 203rd birthday, 12 July 2020: some choice excerpts from Canby's brilliant 1939 biography -- reminders about the growth and plight of genius.

"Overflowing with thoughts, he yet looked around for more, because he was living so intensely that his own thoughts choked his utterance. This description will do for any young writer. Thoreau's advantage lay in his resolve to find out what he was living before he made a book about it--to be, as he said to Emerson, first the idea itself.
"When a deep excitement of the mind finds a favorable environment, as it did in this Concord which was, indeed, a power plant of idealistic energy stepping up the spiritual voltage of the nineteenth century, an authentic moment in the history of civilization often follows.
"The two conditioning factors for writing anywhere, any time, are the quality of the imagination and the nature of the market. Later comes the fork of the road -- one way toward the competent and salable, the other toward the excellent and possibly unsalable. The completely successful [person] of letters is not [they] who writes for nothing, but rather the writer who learns how to do what [they] want -- and how to make readers pay for it. The predestined commercial writer is seldom a frustrated [person] of letters. [Their] success in cash returns is due to a different set of qualities. Every author writes for money, for money represents an audience, and no creative mind writes for itself alone. The question is, how high a price will [they] pay for the money [they] get. That became Thoreau's problem; but at first his concern was with what he had to say, and to whom and how he could say it. When this was solved, the question of how he was to get paid enough to allow him to go on writing followed, and in solving that in his own original fashion he broke out of obscurity into fame.
"The great world had no need of him, and he in his turn found that, for him, the greater world was Concord. And so, having been an author without pay, and having learned how to place an occasional manuscript with insufficient pay, he came home [from a brief residence away at Staten Island] to take up from a new angle his problem of how to live and how to stay alive while living. He had learned that in order to do what he wanted in writing he would have to publish himself. And this inevitably led him to Walden Pond.
"The failure of [Thoreau's first book] 'The Week' when it was first published, must be charged to the failure of the audience to whom he finally addressed it, much as, I think far more than, to its own defects in composition.
"These ecstasies in prose, those hours of observation, this hard labor with the pen and hard study of science and travel, now, rather than Latin, Greek, and the Hindu classics, this daily filling up of reservoirs, and nightly refining of waters, all this was Thoreau's real business of living while he was by trade the surveyor of Concord. Surveyor indeed, but not only of lot lines and corners!
"Thoreau lectures in Boston [1852] on his life at Walden, but to a handful only of people; the clerks at the other end of the reading-room would not put down their newspapers to listen, even when urged by [Bronson] Alcott."

From Thoreau by Henry Seidel Canby, 1939.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Thoreau's Leaves: The Thoreau Podcast

Have you heard my new podcast, Thoreau's Leaves? started Thoreau's Leaves partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, out of a wish to share with listeners, in a uniquely atmospheric and meditative form, the consolations and inspirations I find in my regular explorations of Thoreau's journal. Thoreau knew how to stay at home, and he was so adept at finding the universe in his own backyard. This is an exemplary practice that we all, staying at home as we are and ought to be, can benefit from right now, but it has an enduring relevance beyond these times as well. As a portrait of consciousness, of a mind awake and alert to the natural world, Thoreau's journal is unparalleled.

Don your earphones, close your eyes, and see if you can muse again.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

For Mrs. Dalloway Day

Virginia Woolf's magnificent Mrs. Dalloway was self-published 95 years ago today (May 14th) by Woolf's own Hogarth Press. Almost a century after its appearance this novel remains a profoundly strange and inspiring literary work -- still in many ways much bolder and more innovative than so many of our contemporary novels. 

In honor of the anniversary, I'm sharing my lecture on Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway given recently to my creative writing students at Portland State University. If you're a writer working against the grain of the times, you might find something here.

Listen to "M. Allen Cunningham Lectures on Mrs. Dalloway for Creative Writers" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Introducing In the Atelier, the New Podcast Hosted by M. Allen Cunningham

Episode 1: In the Absence of Yes

Thoughts on a subject all too familiar to every writer: rejection. Believing in the worth of what you've produced is no easy thing. And deserving work is all too often passed over in sluice tides of manila envelopes. All that matters is what you're committed to. 
In the Atelier, a new weekly podcast premiering January 2020, is a place for occasional thoughts on literature, writing, and the life of the imagination. Each artfully crafted episode brings you reflections and real talk about subjects like the nature of creativity, the highs and lows of making art, inspiring works of literature and cinema, and the value and valor of staying true to your own creative vision. Produced by the award-winning literary press Atelier26 Books and hosted by author, publisher, and teacher M. Allen Cunningham.

Eager to hear more? Get exclusive early access to seven episodes with a tax-deductible donation to the Atelier26 Books 2020 Campaign.

Mentioned in this episode: Wallace Stegner; New York Times; Henry James; Andre Dubus; Gustave Flaubert

Music in this episode: "Door Knob" by Egon Stone; "Petrolchimica2" by Bottega Baltazar; "Rising Up" by OFRIN; "Seventh March" by C3NC (All music used by courtesy of the artists through a licensing agreement with Artlist)

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Prime Passage, Audio Version: The Artist of Kouroo by Henry David Thoreau

From Walden, Thoreau's original fable about the reaches and depths of time in art.

Listen to "The Artist of Kouroo" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Prime Passage, Audio Version: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

A reading from Woolf's inimitable work. "I need not speak, but I listen. I am marvelously on the alert." Includes musical accompaniment from Bach's Cello Suite No. 6.

Listen to "M. Allen Cunningham" on Spreaker.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

New Audio: Right Click

Please prove you are not a robot - Say "OK, Google" - Everyone's watching - Your identity is not confirmed - Click here to agree to our terms and conditions - Right click.
Listen to "Right Click" on Spreaker.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Prime Passage: "I am marvelously on the alert," from The Waves by Virginia Woolf

"They want a plot, do they? They want a reason? It is not enough for them, this ordinary scene. It is not enough to wait for the thing to be said as if it were written; to see the sentence lay its dab of clay precisely on the right place, making character; to perceive, suddenly, some group in outline against the sky. Yet if they want violence, I have seen death and murder and suicide all in one room. One comes in, one goes out. There are sobs on the staircase. I have heard threads broken and knots tied and the quiet stitching of white cambric going on and on on the knees of a woman. Why ask, like Louis, for a reason, or fly like Rhoda to some far grove and part the leaves of the laurels and look for statues? They say that one must beat one's wings against the storm in the belief that beyond this welter the sun shines; the sun falls sheer into pools that are fledged with willows. (Here it is November; the poor hold out matchboxes in wind-bitten fingers.) They say truth is to be found there entire, and virtue, that shuffles along here, down blind alleys, is to be had there perfect. Rhoda flies with her neck outstretched and blind fanatic eyes, past us. Louis, now so opulent, goes to his attic window among the blistered roofs and gazes where she has vanished, but must sit down in his office among the typewriters and the telephone and work it all out for our instruction, for our regeneration, and the reform of an unborn world.

"But now in this room, which I enter without knocking, things are said as if they had been written. I go to the bookcase. If I choose, I read half a page of anything. I need not speak. But I listen. I am marvelously on the alert. Certainly, one cannot read this poem without effort. The page is often corrupt and mud-stained, and torn and stuck together with faded leaves, with scraps of verbena or geranium. To read this poem one must have myriad eyes, like one of those lamps that turn on slabs of racing water at midnight in the Atlantic, when perhaps only a spray of seaweed pricks the surface, or suddenly the waves gape and up shoulders a monster. One must put aside antipathies and jealousies and not interrupt. One must have patience and infinite care and let the light sound, whether of spiders' delicate feet on a leaf or the chuckle of water in some irrelevant drainpipe, unfold too. Nothing is to be rejected in fear or horror. The poet who has written this page (what I read with people talking) has withdrawn. There are no commas or semicolons. The lines do not run in convenient lengths. Much is sheer nonsense. One must be skeptical, but throw caution to the winds and when the door opens accept absolutely. Also sometimes weep; also cut away ruthlessly with a slice of the blade soot, bark, hard accretions of all sorts. And so (while they talk) let down one's net deeper and deeper and gently draw in and bring to the surface what he said and she said and make poetry." -p.131-2
Virginia Woolf self-published The Waves through The Hogarth Press, 1931

Friday, September 13, 2019

M. Allen Cunningham's New Book Q&A: First Teaser

Q&A will appear from Regal House Publishing, fall 2020.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Interview in Poets & Writers

The current issue of Poets & Writers (Sept/Oct 2019) features my extensive interview with Ben George, Senior Editor at Little, Brown and Company.

Our wide-ranging conversation touches on the day-to-day experiences of a New York editor, the role of luck in publishing, the value of mentors, what it's like to spend an hour discussing a single paragraph, the plight of "midlist" writers, and lots more.
"In any editing experience you have to make the art the most important consideration, even as you keep the artist’s personal feelings in mind while you’re doing that. This is why I feel so privileged. As the editor, I’m being invited into the workshop, where there’s sawdust on the floor and half-finished things. It’s a delicate space for the writer. You’re being trusted, and you need to acquit yourself well." -Ben George 
Read the complete uncut version of the interview online HERE.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Tell Yourself the Ages Are Listening

Artists and writers: At some point, or several points, you’re going to receive the message that your work is insignificant, that your commitment to the work is futile, that you and what you represent as an artist do not matter.

At some point, or several points, you’re going to wonder what use there is in continuing to do and share your work. 

It’s unlikely that you will escape this unpleasantness. But when it arrives, remember that almost nobody escapes it — that you’ve come to a new threshold, and this one also you can cross as you’ve crossed other thresholds before it.

Take the upleasantness as a sign of your progress, of the strength of your commitment to the work. Take it as a reminder of how far you’ve gone, and as a renewal. 

Face the deafening silence, let outright rejection wash over you. Then say to yourself, if you can, "Art is freedom, beginnings are beautiful, rebeginnings even more so," and honor your practice by showing up even when nobody else will — especially then.

You’re strong of heart, with fire in your belly, and you’re endowed with gifts and disciplined in the daily work, the lifelong work, of honing these gifts.

From the start you knew this work would be one of the hardest things you could choose to do. Stand back and realize: there’s no surprise in this turn of events. Don’t look around for those more “lucky” than you. 

Don’t review your prior hours and days in terms of “waste.” And don’t think in terms of “arrival,” only in terms of the work at hand. Not “accomplishments,” only beginnings. 

Give yourself, if necessary, to posterity, or to your ancestors. Tell yourself the ages are listening. Do what you have to do to reorient yourself.

Then: notice the light in your window, the shape of the words inside you or already there on the paper, the instructions coming through the music even on your thousandth listen.

Ready now, enclosed in frightful privacy, get to work again, if not for yourself then for those of us you may never meet. We’re full of faith in you and we are waiting.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Prime Passage: "Good Sentences Are Why We Read" by Joe Moran

Among teachers and critics and in the community of writers, we need more advocates for attunement to the sonic properties of prose. Joe Moran's recent essay on sentence-making consoles me (and probably also the underrated writers I most admire). I immediately printed it out for use with my creative writing students. Here's a prime passage, but follow the link at the end to read the whole.
"When the writer has a tin ear for the sound of a sentence then the reader knows, just as when she hears flat or pitchy singing, that something is wrong, even if she can’t quite say why.
I can let a book fall open and tell, just from reading a few sentences, if I will like it. However compelling the subject of a book might be, I find it hard to carry on reading if its sentences are boring. I should be more forgiving, since I have written my share of boring sentences. I am not. Neither are you, even if you don’t know it yet. You think you are looking past this sentence into what it is saying—about life, love, the existence of angels, the design of the injection-molded polypropylene stacking chair, whatever it is— but no. You think you care what this is about, but really you care how it sounds. You are reading it for its sentences." 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Here's to the Small Books

As we roll toward the fall publishing season of "big" new books, big predestined bestsellers, the next big thing, etc., I would just like to say...

Here’s to the small books, the unsung writers, the unreviewed, the unbought and unawarded, the authors and poets quietly refashioning form from the margins and undaunted by the unlikeliness of success let alone a living.

Here’s to the denizens of the disappearing midlist and their beautiful literary disappointments. Here’s to those at the bottom of the Bookscan barrel.

Here’s to the readers who write and who hope to write, the keepers of commonplace books, the worried ones haunting their neighborhood independent and holding out against Amazon.

Here’s to the editors standing sentinel for the living voice, who circumvent or defy the deadening sales conference. Here’s to the individual publishers carrying more than their weight in a march to keep the word alive, even and especially where the profit potential is nil.

Here’s to the authors who help, especially the authors who have the means or hold a megaphone and turn these to the work of encouraging, supporting, and sustaining the less lucky.

Here’s to the writers who teach in order to instill creative freedom, clarity of thought, a spirit of experimentation, & a fidelity to voice & form however unconventional. Here’s to the small literary magazines & the volunteers who produce them for the pure love of literature.

Here’s to the literary souls who staff our independent bookstores and who, for every predestined bestseller, strive to lift up 10 small unlikely works.

Here’s to the unnominated, the unconnected, the unincluded and uninvited best of the best working without encouragement or reward. You’re there, you’re for real, you keep us going.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Honorable Obscurity, John Steinbeck Edition: "A Little Miserable Popularity"

John Steinbeck to his literary agent Elizabeth Otis, 1935:
"Curious that this second-rate book [Tortilla Flat], written for relaxation, should cause this fuss. In your dealings you need make no compromise at all for financial considerations as far as we are concerned. Too many people are trapped into promises by gaudy offers...we've gone through too damned much trying to keep the work honest and in a state of improvement to let it slip now in consideration of a little miserable popularity. I'm scared to death of popularity. It has ruined everyone I know...I suppose it is bad tactics but I am refusing the usual things--the radio talks, the autograph racket, the author's afternoons and the rest of the clutter--politely, I hope, but firmly."

Steinbeck to Joseph Henry Jackson, 1935. Upon learning that Tortilla Flat had won the gold metal for best novel from the Commonwealth Club of California, Steinbeck insisted that he could not attend the awards dinner:
"Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. The most I have had to dodge has been a literary tea or an invitation from a book shop to lecture and autograph. This is the first and God willing the last prize I shall ever win.
     The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism, a reverse egotism, of course, beginning with self-consciousness. And then gradually I began to lose it.
     In the last few books I have felt a curious richness as though my life had been multiplied through having been identified in a most real way with people who were not me. I have loved that. And I am afraid, terribly afraid, that if the bars ever go down, if I become a trade mark, I shall lose the ability to do that. When I do I shall stop working because it won't be fun anymore.
     This is not clear, concise, objective thinking, but I have never been noted for any of those things. If I were a larger person I would be able to do this and come out of it untouched. But I am not...I have no social gifts and practically no social experience..."

Monday, February 11, 2019

Audio Dispatch: In Ludwig's Room (with music)

To be in these rooms with this music in your ears is to sit for at least a few moments in Beethoven's mind and body. His music seems to grow more and more miraculous.

Listen to "In Ludwig's Room" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Interview with a Recluse (with music)

We are writing it down. Always we are writing it all down.

Listen to "Interview with a Recluse by M. Allen Cunningham" on Spreaker.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Portland area friends,  please come on out to Powell's Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne) on Monday 11/26! I will discuss the 11-year germination of Perpetua's Kin, share anecdotes from my research, and read from this novel that Powell's bookseller Dianah H. calls "Gorgeous. Devastating. Lyrical. Addictive." (There will also be cookies.)

Perpetua's Kin Book Trailer #3: San Francisco, 1944

Thursday, October 18, 2018

26 Books I Kept Close While Writing My New Novel Perpetua's Kin

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Nearly 20 years after I first read Byatt's Booker Prize winner Possession, her use of the epistolary form still dazzles me. She's unafraid to take up 50 to 60 pages with the "primary texts" of a correspondence. Surely she had editors nagging her to share only "the highlights" of her characters' letters. But that would have yielded a fundamentally different novel -- and probably a flimsy one. Perpetua's Kin has its own lengthy epistolary sections.

Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips
Phillips conjures mid-century America with such tactile vividness, familial tensions with such ease, and the scope of tragedy across 3 generations. Her structure here inspired mine in Perpetua's Kin.

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher
Sentence for sentence, Fisher's narration hypnotizes. She charged my batteries at a time early in my writing of Perpetua's Kin, when I (and the novel) really needed it.

Voss by Patrick White
Cited by Karen Fisher as an antecedent to A Sudden Country, the prophetic power of White's prose is always inspiring. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for good reason. His depiction of landscape and the small figure a man cuts against the earth remained luminously in my mind during my work on Perpetua's Kin. (As noted in the acknowledgments, Perpetua's Kin makes use of a few phrases from Voss.)

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
An epic metaphysical mystery spanning decades and continents, winner of the National Book Award, this inimitable novel gives us the prophetic and epigrammatic Wilder we know from The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town, but here he has the greater breadth of novelistic description and frequent rhetorical passages. I studied his commanding way of depicting small incidents within a massive canvas.

The Favorite Game by Leonard Cohen
Line for line, Cohen's overlooked jewel of a novel (his debut) goads me on to breathe freer, see clearer, and do and try more. 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I was first exposed to the immortal Dane via Franco Zeffireli's film adaptation, which I viewed in the cinema when I was 12. I've seen innumerable versions of Hamlet on film and stage since then, (including the Barbican's unforgettable 1997 RSC production starring Alex Jennings) and I've never stopped returning to the original text. I've described Perpetua's Kin as a reworking of Hamlet, and I'd wager that keen readers will spot the many allusions and outright quotations in the text of the novel (e.g.; Denmark has Elsinore, while my Northern California of the late 1880s has El Señor).
If you live in the West, you should know and read Stegner. If you don't live in the West, you should know and read Stegner. If you love literature, you should know and read Stegner. National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner and dedicated teacher.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje's distillation of "big-canvas" events through intimate scenes and relationships, his use of alternating points of view, his characteristically evocative turns of phrase, and his central placement and reliance upon imagery -- these are just a few of the things that The English Patient (and, for that matter, most of Ondaatje's novels) -- exemplify for me.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
It is no exaggeration to say that my first reading of Time’s Arrow changed my life. The sheer authorial bravura on display was like nothing I’d known in contemporary literature. Is there another contemporary work as technically daring and as gracefully executed?

The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
Busch's masterwork. His use of nineteenth-century parlance, his facility with the violent narratives of Civil War combat, and the sustained intensity of his language, treatment, and themes are all absorbing and instructive. One of the great unsung American novels of the last 20 years.

Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds
A precursor (by 22 years or so) to George Saunders' astonishing experimental-dramaturgical-collagist-novelizing in Lincoln in the Bardo. My first reading of Raising Holy Hell was for me the beginning of a new way of looking at narrative. And Olds' ventriloquism inspires much of Perpetua's Kin. (I thank my friend Jon L. for introducing me to Olds' work.)

From A to X by John Berger
A tremendously affecting epistolary novel by one of our greatest writers.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The cool and remote evocations of the savagery of the Civil War.
In both of these novels, Brian Hall demonstrates a breathtaking command of -- and flexibility in -- narrative voice. He is also constantly taking risks as a writer, whether inhabiting the first-person perspective of Sacagawea (and inventing a new narration technique to do so) or scrambling chronology while writing about Robert Frost.

The Journals of Lewis & Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto
A document of Manifest Destiny at ground level, and in the form of two unlikely and fascinating protagonists. The scale of history is, in the end, always human.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Postman's seminal work of cultural criticism has been on my mind for more than a decade now, and its lessons have in some way infused everything I've written in that time, fiction and nonfiction alike. "We have learned irreverence toward sun and season," Postman writes. And I put those words directly into the mouth of one of the minor characters in Perpetua's Kin.

Selves at Risk by Ihab Hassan
"The abiding question concerns the American quester, the motive, history, and space of his journey, how that space affects him, and the nature of his own self-apprehension as an other, an American, as he moves in the contemporary world. For Otherness is not merely given, an attribute of others; it can be an attribute of ourselves, either in self-alienation or in response to the relentless gaze of another." I kept this and many other passages from Hassan's book at hand while thinking about Benjamin Lorn's journey(s) in Perpetua's Kin.

Fame & Folly, Art & Ardor, and The Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick
Ozick is our finest living literary critic and essayist. Just go read her essays, please.

The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling
I've been reading Trilling since first being introduced to his work via Cynthia Ozick. If you love literature, then Trilling's perspectives, and his ways of thinking about literature on the page -- free from every critical hand-me-down -- are always enriching.

The Boys' Crusade by Paul Fussell
Fussell writes as a World War II veteran committed to tearing down vainglorious delusions about the "nobility" of war. He's a staunch realist, and also an elegant writer. I gleaned so much from this book as well as Fussell's memoir Doing Battle, and I'm thankful for his voice.

Perpetua's Kin Book Trailer #2: The Smoke

Friday, September 14, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Meine Wörter auf Deutsch

I'm very pleased to see an excerpt from Lost Son, my 2007 experimental biographical novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, included in the new issue of the International Rilke Society Journal.

Mit Dank an Erich Unglaub.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt. 2

Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can secure an early copy now by ordering HERE. (Orders ship within 24 hours.)

Manuscript page, 2007/2008

Final version, 2018

Friday, August 03, 2018

Perpetua's Kin Elicits Early Applause from Booksellers Across the U.S.

"Cunningham has once again raised the bar on the art of the novel...exceptionally rich...a distinctly American portrait, but the overarching themes are universal. I walk away from a reading like this ruminating on the largeness of life and the lasting influence that novelists can have on every one of us." 
- Nancy Scheemaker 

"Beautiful...takes the reader right in. Cunningham gives us a book to savor -- a fulfilling, substantial book, and a joy to read." 
- Janet Boreta 
founder, ORINDA BOOKS, Orinda, CA

"I very much hope Perpetua's Kin reaches as many readers' hands as possible...expansive in scope and ideas...enchanting." 
- Hans Weyandt

"A poetic, kaleidoscopic look at intergenerational pain, love, longing, and restlessness, through the lenses of war and telegraphy." 
- Carolyn Kulog
 BETTY'S BOOKS, Baker City, OR

"Expertly imagined...from the battlefields of the Civil War to Ocean Beach in 1940s San Francisco ... Much to contemplate in this thought-provoking novel." 
- Marion Abbott

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can place your order now through your nearest independent bookseller, or secure an early copy through the publisher (orders ship within 24 hours)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt.1

"Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

You can pre-order Perpetua's Kin HERE.

Manuscript page, 2007/2008

 Final version, 2018

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Green Age on "A.Word.A.Day"

This week I was delighted to see that The Green Age of Asher Witherow, thanks to its use of the word "saprogenic," earned a citation in Wordsmith.org's popular "A.Word.A.Day" feature. 

The New York Times has called A.Word.A.Day "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

How to Publish a New Novel in 2018

My fourth novel, Perpetua’s Kin, will appear this September. Those who know me know that this book has been a long while coming. For most writers of new literature, these are strange, hungry, inhospitable times. In this post I want to share why it’s taken so many years to publish Perpetua’s Kin and why I hope that if you appreciate literature, you will read this novel.

I believe Perpetua’s Kin offers a uniquely affecting and surprising reading experience. And let me be clear. when I say I believe, I’m not talking about stubborn, run-of-the-mill confidence or defensiveness (e.g., “I think it’s good!”). No, I’m talking about belief that comes of having paid the existential costs of the book’s composition and editing process.

You will know what I mean if you’re a novelist and you’ve undergone a sacrificial, years-long dedication to a book, i.e., to the act of writing, rewriting, effacing, writing again, shaping, and drastically reshaping a raw mass of words until it becomes a novel. Becomes is the keyword here, for you do not make or even write a novel so much as suffer its convulsions, confusions, and convolutions until it emerges into clarity all its own and becomes. In other words, the novel becomes an artistic creation thoroughly and surprisingly itself — a creation apart from you, which has answered to its own demands, and therefore, in some mysterious but unquestionable way actually surpasses you: speaks in ways you don’t know how to speak, knows more than you know, feels more than you feel.

All this may seem esoteric to non-novelists, but some years ago, watching as my agent sent this novel out among the “decision-makers” of the publishing world, watching as it came back again and again, I began to understand that rather than some innate problem in the book, it was the book’s essential literary merit — its autonomous completeness as an artistic creation — that prohibited it from finding an advocate in mainstream publishing. This kind of paradox is all too common in today’s publishing industry.

So I’m releasing Perpetua’s Kin through Atelier26 Books, the nationally recognized literary press I founded some years ago in order to lift up good literary work. As the editor of Atelier26 I’ve had the privilege of helping a number of marvelous authors bring their books to readers. I believe deeply in the beauty and power of each Atelier26 book I’ve edited and published, and I can hardly describe how gratifying it’s been to watch a few of these titles receive prestigious award recognition. I’m proud to see Perpetua’s Kin join the company of all the excellent works at Atelier26.

While some of my own prior books have borne the Atelier26 logo, I’ve never actively promoted any of them. Mainly they’ve served to bolster the Atelier26 catalog and generate some extra proceeds for the press as a whole, while I’ve poured most of my energy and focus as a publisher into supporting and promoting my other authors. Perpetua’s Kin will be different, which brings me to confront anew that stamp of contempt used by so many literary folks who wish to stigmatize and dismiss a book without even looking at it: self-published.

What does self-published mean anyway? 

I almost made that the parenthetical subtitle of this post, because part of what I’d like to do here, in providing my own professional history and personal perspective as an artist, editor, and publisher, is to complicate in some small way the stubbornly prevailing, mostly snarky understanding of “self-published author.” 

Again, maybe you’re a literary author yourself. Maybe, at this moment in your life you’d never dream of self-publication. Maybe at this moment you’re riding high, perhaps with your own work of new literature hot off the press from an established commercial publisher big or small. Maybe your work has been well-reviewed but not particularly hot in sales. I have first-hand experience of those circumstances. You may find my story interesting.

So, with Perpetua’s Kin as a case in point, here’s one way to publish a “new” novel in 2018: 

  • Between 2004 and 2007, publish 2 well-received novels with an established small press; 

  • watch as booksellers champion your novels (#1 Indie Next selection; Best of Indie Next; Indie Next Book of the Year Finalist; staff picks); 

  • in what will become the busiest 6 months of your life, fly from Oakland to Minneapolis, from Oakland to Memphis, from Oakland to Seattle, from Oakland to Los Angeles on a bona fide author tour through more than 15 U.S. cities, meeting lots of folks who have read your book(s) or are buying a copy in order to do so;

  • speak publicly before thousands of people collectively; lecture; teach;

  • start that “new” novel (novel 3) in February 2007, a year before your son’s birth;

  • immerse yourself, as you’ve always done, in novelistic research (in this case the history of the telegraph; Civil War campaigns and prison camps; the geography of the U.S. south) & travel from your home in Oregon to Missouri and Iowa for this research;

  • complete novel 3 & receive a publisher’s offer in 2010; 

  • decline the offer; 

  • wait, while your NY literary agent submits the novel to other parties; 

  • undertake your first Yaddo residency & start writing another novel (your fourth);

  • continue writing like hell, still awaiting responses to your agent's submissions of novel 3;

  • receive the news that the publisher of your first two books is cutting its operations way back;

  • watch the whole publishing ecosystem falter; 

  • watch newspapers & magazines vanish & with them scores of book review outlets; 

  • watch, dismayed, as independent bookstores (many of those that hosted you on tour) go out of business;

  • notice that online star ratings & customer reviews now stand in for literary criticism; 

  • continue writing like hell;

  • meanwhile you are your son’s primary at-home parent: he is an infant, he is a toddler, he is in preschool, he is in kindergarten... ; 

  • establish a publishing house called Atelier26 Books & try to help other writers by editing, publishing, & promoting their work (you will devote your more-than-full-time labor to this for years); 

  • return to Yaddo, still writing like hell, and start your fifth novel;

  • receive grants & fellowships; 

  • learn that your NY literary agent is retiring — you are now sans publisher and agent;

  • teach & lecture widely;  

  • rejoice to see the rise of innumerable new & viable small presses & the opening of many new independent bookstores;

  • marvel that your son is in 2nd grade ... 3rd grade ... ;

  • earn an MFA in Creative Writing after 7 books & 20 years as a writer; 

  • entrust that “new” novel — yes, novel 3, the one you started in 2007, a year before your son’s birth — to Atelier26 Books in 2018, your son’s 10th year.

What does self-published mean, anyway? Different things in different contexts.

I think of Virginia Woolf. Was she self-published? 

Woolf founded The Hogarth Press in order to publish works of prose or poetry “which could not, because of their merits, appeal to a very large public.” Through Hogarth, Woolf published other authors in addition to her own books. 

I think of Dave Eggers. Is he self-published? Eggers founded McSweeney’s Books, which publishes other authors in addition to Eggers’ own books. "McSweeney's exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it's found, how it looks, and who participates."

I think of James Laughlin, poet and founder of New Directions. Was he self-published? From the start, New Directions was "dedicated to publishing quality works with little regard to their chances for commercial success." Laughlin published his own work and others, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up and the reissue of The Great Gatsby when it went out of print. He also published work by Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh at a time when other publishers wouldn't touch them.

And I think of other purportedly self-published authors. Among them are…Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, James Joyce, Laurence Stern, Jane Austen, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Beatrix Potter, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe …

This list is far from exhaustive.

Am I self-published? There was a time when this question might have worried me, but no more. I recently turned 40 and I have too much work to do.

But I identify strongly with the author/publishers I mentioned above.

And as a publisher custodian of Perpetua’s Kin I’m also vigilantly aware of how problematic the perception and reception of literary work can be, especially when that work is subjected to a loaded catch-all like “self-published.”

So while I realize that the reactions of readers and critics belong to the department of things one can’t control, still I’m compelled to ask questions. My questions are much like those asked by C.S. Lewis in his wonderful and wise 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism. How should we judge the quality of a book? How might we assess literary merit and literary taste? Despite its turgid title, Experiment is written in a compelling, almost conversational way, and Lewis proposes sensible and humane answers. He writes:
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
What does self-published mean? Specifically, what does it mean to you as a reader, reviewer, bookseller, award judge, fellow writer — or whoever you may be in the literary community? Is a self-published book simply a book you can more easily and justifiably ignore? Are you allowing labels — or stigmas — to obtrude upon your reading process and preempt the recognition (and celebration!) of quality in works of new literature?

These questions fall to each of us. Especially in these times of instability, confusion, and loss of morale in mainstream publishing — which are also times of countervailing independence, innovation, and vivacity among individual authors and very small publishers — it falls to each of us to bear in mind what Lewis puts this way:
“We can judge any sentence or even word only by the work it does or fails to do. The effect must precede the judgment on the effect. The same is true of a whole work. Ideally, we must receive it first and then evaluate it. Otherwise, we have nothing to evaluate.”

Dear reader, it’s up to you.

And I’m looking forward to sharing Perpetua’s Kin with you. I believe it’s something special.

I’ll be writing more about Perpetua’s Kin in this space between now and the novel’s September 4th release. Meanwhile, Perpetua’s Kin pre-orders are open at the Atelier26 webstore.

{See my full author history HERE}