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Interview with M. Allen Cunningham

I have very little anxiety about being influenced. In fact, I tend to seek out influences and I’m fairly transparent about my mine, as I’ve shown by listing a handful of them above. I guess I tend to view literature as a collective celebration of sorts, in which the strengths of one generation or school are freely hailed or reincarnated or played upon in another. I think that to fear influence is to let the electrical currents of art, cross-generational and cross-categorical, go astray, instead of harnessing them and letting them galvanize new work in powerful ways.

I recently read and reviewed The Green Age of Asher Witherow, a fascinating debut novel by a new California writer, M. Allen Cunningham. The more I reflected on the dark, ineffable themes of the novel, and the more I thought about the novel’s vivid characterizations and descriptive narrative, the more mystified I was about the ways in which the author had—with such apparent ease and mastery—fashioned the elements of fiction into such a memorable novel. My mystery turned into curiosity, and my curiosity turned into an email exchange with the author who then generously agreed to an interview in which he answered my questions about himself and his novel. The results of the interview follow below:

TIM DAVIS: Before we talk more specifically about The Green Age of Asher Witherow, let me begin by asking the obligatory opening questions for all such interviews: How did you become a writer? When did you begin? What led up to the moment you could finally say of yourself, “I’m a writer.”

M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM: I’ve always written, in the sense that back in my elementary school days the assignments I enjoyed most and worked hardest on were the creative writing assignments. I’d find myself constructing whole stories out of 15 spelling sentences—that kind of thing. By my eighth grade year I was absorbed in the purely extracurricular activity of writing a potboiler about the mafia (though many of the book’s plot points were lifted directly from one TV movie or another). My interest in writing was driven from the start by an innate interest in the English language—a tactile interest in the shapes of certain words and the various configurations that a sentence could take. I found it amazing and mysterious how words could become more pleasing in one order than in another. And synonyms were fascinating to me. I won a Thesaurus in a fifth grade spelling bee, and that book seemed to have huge magical properties. The decision to devote my life to a pursuit of writing as an art—and possibly a living—came during a semester in England when I was nineteen. One literary pilgrimage after another through that country gradually made my commitment to writing inevitable. I really come to writing from a life a reading, in the sense that I couldn’t write seriously till I’d learned to read seriously. The moment of saying to myself “I’m a writer” cannot be isolated, I’m afraid—partly because every time I sit down at my desk I find myself beginning over again: working toward that never-attainable sense of identity as a Writer (with capital W).

TD: Do you consider yourself now principally a writer, or are you engaged in other endeavors (as livelihood, avocation, hobbies, or distractions)?

MAC: At the moment writing is the main endeavor, and that’s entirely by the good graces of my wife, Katie, who is a high school English teacher and who earns our bread. But other endeavors at the moment include: being a husband, reading, walking, observing nature. And since I’ve been principally a writer for most of the last three years or so, I’d say that I’ve slowly come to understand that just “being a writer” isn’t enough—that kind of existence can become a bit of a vacuum, to the extent that creativity actually suffers. It’s good to try to stay well balanced, to have a life as an inquisitive person, a life which has to do with pure, unloaded interest in one thing or another. In my first year of being solely a writer, I found myself becoming too obsessive about my work, trying to channel everything into my fiction, such that every experience started to have the ulterior motive of being great “material.” You just can’t live that way—you get too myopic about everything and, ironically, you lose the ability to really observe or absorb what’s important.

TD: What kinds of writing experiences—good and bad—led up to your novel?

MAC: The bad first, or more aptly, the painful: I wrote a first novel that was not publishable, but from which I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. The good: I had the great fortune of connecting with a wonderful new agent who was interested in helping me shape the manuscript of The Green Age editorially. The book, with her help and the help of her colleagues, became a much more powerful, lively, engrossing thing.

TD: What kinds of audiences do you see as the target audiences for your novel? Who are your readers?

MAC: I sought to write the kind of book that I myself love to read. It occurred to me recently that I tend to write as a reader, and to read as a writer. So I’d say that my audience is anybody who likes the kind of books I like. Those tend to be books that are very lyrical and image-driven; books that are unique in their regard for every sentence as a cellular building block to the world the author is evoking; books that are unique—and often daring—in their approach to simile; books not afraid to revisit the age-old, elemental themes of love, death, and God. A major guiding light during my writing of The Green Age was John Steinbeck (however faux pas it may be to invoke his name in admiration these days, given the poo-pooing his reputation has suffered from the more elitist of the American literati). Other writers I love are Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Ondaatje, Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, Andre Dubus, Thomas Hardy. By no means do I rest convinced that I’ve created a work comparable to those authors’ works, but I did write a book I’m proud of, and a reader will probably find echoes in it.

TD: What kinds of reactions—among readers and critics—have you gotten? Any pleasant or unpleasant surprises? Any shocks?

MAC: The book has received a large number of highly positive, even glowing reviews. My publisher, Unbridled Books, arranged an extensive tour through the Northwest, Midwest, and South, which brought me into contact with lots of wonderful booksellers who’ve been great champions of the novel (which means a lot to me). I’ve also gotten to meet some readers for whom the book really resonated. Pleasant surprises, all—and much more than I’d bargained for, really.

One unexpected thing has been the manner in which word of the book has spread. I naturally assumed that the media and reviews would start strongest here in the novel’s locale (the San Francisco Bay Area), but that was not really the case. Instead, the book was championed immediately in the southern U.S., and was a bestseller at a bookstore in Arkansas several weeks before it was even mentioned in any Bay Area press. And still, to date, while the novel has garnered extensive praise from publications all over the American heartland, the interest by major Bay Area media has been slight, though my publicist and I both focused a great deal of our energies here. But, that said, the bookseller response has been tremendous, particularly from the independents. The #1 Book Sense selection in October, plus the Book Sense Book of the Year nomination were both powerful votes of confidence. And the local bookseller support has really sparked word of mouth that is now spreading like prairie fire. I’ve had the pleasure of receiving mail, e-mail, and personal responses from a great number of readers whose compliments have been overwhelming. One lady in particular told me it’s the best book she’s ever read! That, from a 70-something woman of wisdom, is more than I could have dared to hope for.

TD: Harold Bloom, the scholar and critic, has said that most writers are working against the anxiety of influence from other writers. What literary or cultural influences have most interested you? Influenced you?

MAC: I have very little anxiety about being influenced. In fact, I tend to seek out influences and I’m fairly transparent about my mine, as I’ve shown by listing a handful of them above. I guess I tend to view literature as a collective celebration of sorts, in which the strengths of one generation or school are freely hailed or reincarnated or played upon in another. I think that to fear influence is to let the electrical currents of art, cross-generational and cross-categorical, go astray, instead of harnessing them and letting them galvanize new work in powerful ways. I guess Bloom speaks partly to the fact that an important tension naturally exists between works that have come before and those now being created—I find that tension to be very creatively invigorating, rather than something to overcome.

TD: Your protagonist Asher Witherow is provocative and compelling. Talk a bit about his genesis and development. What did you admire when creating him? What surprised you? If you were forced to explain young Asher Witherow in one word, what is the word?

MAC: Asher came about, first of all, due to the fact that my template for this novel was the historical arc taken by the real, no-longer existent California coal-mining town of Nortonville. The town sprang out the earth in 1860, flourished intensely for several years, and by 1885 had essentially fallen apart. I saw its 25-year existence as the perfect framework for the early years of a protagonist, so Asher became in certain ways a personification of the town itself: born when Nortonville is born, having his most formative and dramatic experiences when the town is at its height, then acquiring a destiny that outgrows Nortonville at exactly the time that the actual town is folding up. I admired Asher’s propensity for finding the transcendent qualities in the grimmest of circumstances. He’s sort of born with this tendency to perceive the esoteric glints that lie at the heart of arduous realities—he can sublimate, without disacknowledging the hard stuff. Asher’s character, and subsequently the book as a whole, really took a turn when I began to explore the journey that the elder Asher, the detached 86-year-old narrator, takes by looking back on his early years. The old man’s journey became just as significant to the story as the young man’s, and once that was the case I really felt I’d found a whole other level of Asher’s character. Here was a man who had a lot of understanding yet to do. One word to describe Asher Witherow? Awestruck.

TD: Asher’s conscience (his avoidance of responsibility and his sense of guilt) and his innocence (emotional and sexual) are intriguing character traits. Some readers may see those traits as troublesome flaws. What do you think?

MAC: They are flaws, certainly—particularly his shirking of responsibility. A major part of the story’s fascination for me comes of the increasing tension that emerges the longer Asher refuses to acknowledge his faults. The plight of Nortonville sort of morphs into a moral or even spiritual experiment that he himself is unwittingly orchestrating. I think he feels that Nortonville’s drama is teaching him a lot about certain mysterious, universal laws, and that all this chaos might show him the way to his own deliverance out of the industrial lifestyle that he’s fated to—and that’s something that nobody else is showing him, other than Josiah Lyte. On a certain level, I always regarded Asher as an allegorical figure, in that he’s a sort of catalyst for transition in the town—almost a natural force in himself. Whatever it is that caused Nortonville to spring out of the earth and then disintegrate back into it is somehow personified in this young man. So his actions, while not defensible, are certainly sympathetic, especially if taken on an allegorical level. It’s a difficult question, but looking at it on a human level, even if Asher does nothing to stop the chaos, we can somehow relate to this failure, in that it exposes his existential need to let things play out in the hope that they’ll eventually make sense.

TD: What other characters interested you or surprised you? What should readers make of Josiah Lyte and Thomas Motion? They have, as I see it, enigmatic and ambiguous roles that defy simple analysis.

MAC: Josiah Lyte and Thomas Motion, as their names suggest, first appeared in the story declaring themselves to be somewhat allegorical—or at least to serve as human indicators of a metaphysical, metaphorical strain at work in the book. The events surrounding both of them invite the reader to a less literal reading of a book that operates as much on mythological terms as on realistic terms. Specifically, I liked the idea that Thomas Motion and Josiah Lyte represented two opposite poles of influence for Asher. Thomas initiates Asher into an inward-landscape that is beyond the pall of reason, and is almost aboriginal, while Lyte introduces Asher to a more outward world-view that is concerned with religion and with mankind as set against the greater processes around him.

TD: Readers might be surprised to know about the realities of your geographical setting. Nortonville, no longer on the map, and Mount Diablo (“Thicket of the Devil,” with all of its Native American spiritual powers) now seem almost like suburbs of the Concord, Pittsburg, and the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, although there is not much made of that proximity in the story. What is it about the setting that fascinated you so much that it became the dominant core of your novel? I understand you did a tremendous amount of research into the history of the area; the richness of details and the incredible accuracy are so impressive that one would almost think you had lived a previous life as a coal miner. What was the catalyst for your research?

MAC: Thanks for those kind words! My interest in setting a story in the suburban Bay Area of the 19th century was really a surprise to me. Before beginning work on the book, I knew nothing of the extensive coal-mining operations of the region, let alone of coal-mining in general. But I’d been reading Steinbeck, and had become particularly enamored of an early novel entitled To A God Unknown. That book had really fired my imagination regarding the feasibility of California as a mythic setting—and I’d long since come to admire my local landscape. Then I stumbled upon this incredible human history right in my own backyard—this coal-mining town that had come and gone so abruptly, but had managed, in its blink-of-an-eye existence, to assert itself as a tiny empire, both economically and culturally-speaking. Suddenly something clicked in my mind, and it made incredible sense to me that so many of the legendary works of literature in English are stories set in the native haunts of their writers: John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner. I figured these guys were all on to something, and I thought if I could somehow emulate their inflations of provincial stories, I would maybe benefit from whatever power is drawn into a narrative that has emerged from that process. Years before starting East of Eden, Steinbeck said in a letter, “I want to write the story of this valley, but I can see how I would write it so that it would be the valley of the world.” I love that. I was working toward that effect in The Green Age.

TD: Related to the geographical (physical) setting, the secular cultural and mythological traditions enrich your story? How did you happen to become interested in the Welsh folklore? What other cultural influences do you see as particularly important to your story?

MAC: Before writing a word of the novel, I spent a few months just gathering information regarding the fabric of life in the historical Nortonville, the basic timeline of the town, etc. A big part of this process was looking into the Welsh culture and traditions which would have been a major element of these immigrant coal-miners’ lives. As a serendipitous result of this study, I found a number of old Welsh legends that dealt with subterranean realms and the mystical power of the infernal regions. So I began to see the underground existence of these mining people as conducive to begging certain metaphysical questions. In terms of other cultural influences important to the story, Hinduism became a major facet of thematic interplay within the narrative: a wonderful counterpoint to the Christian dogma espoused by the pietists in Nortonville, and a great outlet for young Asher’s burgeoning world-view. I thought it would be interesting if Josiah Lyte’s Hindu perspectives could somehow serve to acquaint Asher with another way of interpreting the world—a way that might at first seem contradictory to his Christian upbringing, but that would gradually become more and more complementary. The local Native American myths and stories surrounding Mount Diablo were also hugely important in helping me orient myself to the presence of the historical, geological, and spiritual layers that comprised Nortonville’s natural history.

TD: You adroitly manage the allegorical qualities of the story without succumbing to the common tendency towards the didactic. How conscious were you of the allegory and the pitfalls of attempting the form?

MAC: My initial interest in the real-life coal-mining history was mainly in how immediately allegorical the story of Nortonville seemed, so I’d say I was pretty conscious of allegory from the beginning. I think the pitfalls you’re speaking of are exactly the things that caused my first book (that unpublishable manuscript I mentioned above) to fall apart. That having been the case, I guess I was sensitive on some subconscious level about avoiding those dangers in this novel, and I’d have to say that what saved me from didacticism in The Green Age was a constant reliance on landscape and setting as driving characters in the story. Somehow, when your driving characters are these natural elements, you lessen the danger of having characters appear who are acting just as mouthpieces for one idea or moral or whatever.

TD: If I were to make the statement, “The paradox of religion—in its most orthodox, unorthodox, comforting, disturbing, and destructive forms—is at the very heart of the dominant theme of the novel,” to what extent would you agree or disagree with my reading?

MAC: I like that a lot. Religion, in this novel, certainly plays a variety of roles, both on the universal level of Nortonville’s fate as a community, and on the very personal level of Asher’s existential dilemmas and perspectives. And the difficult reckoning with the past experienced by the 86-year-old Asher comes of his deep, religious need to strike some sort of balance before he dies, to really come to terms with the elemental forces, alternately creative and destructive, to which he’s been subject his entire life, as we all are. Religion is man’s one truly profound response to the pain and mystery of the cycles we find ourselves locked into. But religion is so vulnerable to misuse—the global strife of today is a plangent demonstration of that. A major part of Asher’s struggle is the way religion was misused in the Nortonville of his boyhood.

TD: Talk a bit about your experiences after the novel’s release. Your informative and entertaining blog (which I would recommend to all readers of this interview and readers of your novel — mallencunningham.blogspot.com) contains some wonderful writer’s insights and great anecdotes about your promotional tours and bookstore visits. What has the post-publishing experience been like? [Feel free to repeat any of the blog material.]

MAC: Thanks for mentioning the blog! I’ve been putting stuff up there without any idea of whether anybody will actually enjoy reading it. The promotional experiences in the wake of publication have been intense and uplifting and fatiguing and inspiring, all at once. I’ve begun to understand why some writers, like Salinger and McCarthy, cherish their reclusiveness so much. The promotional aspect of publishing, which a first-time novelist cannot really afford to not be involved in, requires character traits that are pretty much antithetical to the identity of most writers. I’ve found that while I’ve enjoyed a great many things about promoting, it has been very difficult to continue working in my old regular ways at the same time. Doing one public appearance after another, I get into this groove of ultra-social behavior, which is not a natural behavior for me, and several weeks of that at once can be pretty scattering. It takes a while to wind down, to reacclimatize to sitting alone in a room at a desk—which is what is most necessary, after all. Still, I’ve enjoyed many parts of the promotional process: making new friends, meeting readers, etc.

TD: What are you planning for future projects? What will we be reading next?

MAC: I’m in the thick of a new novel, which is set in Europe between the late-nineteenth century and the outbreak of the First World War. It will deal with the life of one character traveling all over the continent. I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the year. There’s that, and then I’ve got enough short stories for a strong collection, which I’d love to publish at some point, but the new novel may have to come first.

TD: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your time.

Interview March 16, 2005

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