Michael Cunningham

The novelist on time, Instagram, and keeping the faith

Elliott Holt

Michael Cunningham’s writing has always been obsessed with time. Of his seven novels, four have titles that reflect this fixation: The Hours (1998), his Pulitzer Prize–winning riff on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; Specimen Days (2005); By Nightfall (2010); and now Day, published this month. Cunningham’s latest book explores, among other things, the sense of utter stagnation that attended the lockdowns of 2020: a time “so innocent of event as to edge into meditative profundity,” as he puts it in the novel.

Like much of Cunningham’s fiction, Day is narrated entirely in the present tense. The novel comprises three acts set on the same spring day in three consecutive years, from 2019 to 2021. The short sections set in 2020 are reminiscent of social media posts, offering prismatic glimpses into the characters’ lives. In Cunningham’s hands, Instagram, where one character has created an alter ego, becomes a metaphor for the way people experience life during an era of collective crisis: as a perpetual present, divorced from the past, without sight of the future.

Cunningham is Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Yale. I corresponded with him in early November about how the passage of time registers in fiction, in life, and on Instagram.


ELLIOTT HOLT Day is your first novel in nearly ten years. You were working on another book, but then abandoned it during the pandemic. What made you change course?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM How do you write a novel—which is, in a sense, a projectile shot into the future—when it starts looking like there may not be a future at all?

The answer, of course: all novels are gambles of one kind or another. If an era of particularly dim prospects stops us from creating anything at all, we’re that much more deeply in trouble. Still, I admit that I paused over it, over whether or not a new novel meant anything, in the face of actual annihilation. Then I got over it and got back to work.

That, however, led to the next question: how do you write a contemporary novel that incorporates the pandemic, without losing track of the human beings who reside at the heart of every narrative?

After several attempts, it seemed clear that if I suddenly inserted the pandemic into my half-finished novel, it would be exactly that—a novel with a pandemic inserted into it. So I decided, ultimately, to put that novel away and start a new one. This is the new one.

EH It has been argued that time is the subject of all fiction, but of course some novels, including this one, are more obviously about time than others. How did you arrive at the form of the book?

MC Time pretty much inevitably implies structure. Time doesn’t necessarily pass in an orderly, hour-to-hour way, but it does pass. You could say that all novels are not only about time but also about how time passes, and how it affects those of us who live within the passage of time. Which, unless I’ve missed something, is pretty much everybody.

You’re right, time and form are particularly integral to Day, which follows from that last, inciting question: how does a novel acknowledge the pandemic without being overwhelmed by it? The people in Day are profoundly affected by a virus, but a novel can’t be primarily about a virus. That’s a job for journalists.

I was stuck, until I came up with a form for Day. It takes place, literally, in a day, the same day in April, but the day is divided into three sections. Morning takes place in 2019, before the pandemic; afternoon in 2020 at the height of the pandemic; and evening in 2021, when people are shakily returning to a strange new version of “normal.”

How do you write a novel—which is, in a sense, a projectile shot into the future—when it starts looking like there may not be a future at all?

EH One of the main characters in Day, Robbie, has created a glamorous avatar on Instagram. You observe that “Instagram exists, after all, outside the time-space continuum.” The algorithm doesn’t feed us posts chronologically, so our sense of linear time is ruptured. What is your own relationship to Instagram?

MC Instagram is the only social media app I’ve got. I love it because it offers all those glimpses of other people’s lives. I, perversely enough, seem to prefer the more mundane ones: this is what we had for dinner, this is a really foggy morning.

For me, Instagram does what I’d most hoped for, from the early days of the internet: it helps us live in a larger, more densely populated world. Up to and including pictures of people’s pets, their birthday cakes . . . which of course can just as easily speak of a sort of numbing general ordinariness. But I don’t see it that way. I’m interested in the particulars of the lives of others. How else, if you harbor that kind of interest, are you going to get so many particulars about so many strangers?

Robbie does in fact create an avatar on Instagram, a composite figure he names Wolfe, who is, as you say, glamorous, but not too glamorous—he’s an idealized version of Robbie himself. Robbie doesn’t make Wolfe a superhero or a figure out of a romance novel. Wolfe is, essentially, Robbie, but a version of Robbie with the lights and volume turned up a little. A Robbie who’s made different choices, a Robbie who’s that much more confident, that much more charismatic.

Instagram is, essentially, nonchronological. You can, if you want to, see someone’s body of posts and know which is more, and which less, recent, but for most of us the posts exist in a funny kind of ongoing present. I still get the occasional Like on something I posted three years ago.

EH Relatedly: what can fiction do that Instagram cannot? Reading this book made me grateful that we have literature, not just social media, in our contemporary lives.

MC Fiction remains the most effective means of conveying to its audience what it’s like to be someone other than themselves. It can go all the way in, as even biographies are unable to do. I may know Emma Bovary and Leopold Bloom better than I know some of my friends.

That said, Instagram does things with narrative that fiction can’t do. As do movies, TV, anything that pertains to our collective lives. We bemoan, understandably, the decline in readership, but I feel confident that fiction will survive, and I confess that I’m not sorry to be able to see pictures of those of us, most of us, whose lives may not be material for great novels but whose lives are, nevertheless, part of the bigger picture.

EH Robbie creates his Instagram avatar Wolfe “not only by pilfering the posted photos of strangers (he’s amazed he hasn’t gotten caught yet) but by rearranging them into someone who doesn’t exist. Or, rather who exists as a garnering of other people’s specifics.” That description sounds like the process of creating characters in fiction, who are sometimes an amalgamation of real people. Is your own process of constructing characters anything like Robbie’s?

MC I could say yes but really, it’s more like, no. Not to be coy. Yes in that the people we know are our only source of information about human life. We base our imaginings on what, and who, we know.

But I seem to summon my characters from some kind of ether. They’re not, with rare exceptions, composites. They’re themselves. I can see and hear them more clearly as I write about them, but they have a way of appearing pretty completely, pretty early on.

There are aspects of writing that one can explain. There are others that one can’t, and probably shouldn’t. I’m not sure where these various people come from, but it’s almost as if I open a door, and there they are.

EH In the acknowledgments of Day, you mention your students at Yale. Could you talk a bit about how teaching informs or even serves your writing practice?

MC Outside of teaching, I don’t talk much to other people about writing. Most of my friends aren’t writers, and even if they were I wouldn’t be much interested in meeting in the evenings to talk about writing. I’ve been writing all day. I’d rather talk about almost anything else.

However. One semester a year I find myself in seminar rooms with brilliant younger people, talking not only about writing but about how and why we do it, what it contributes to the world at large, the almost infinite ways in which stories can be told . . . the list goes on.

It’s a tonic, for me. It recharges my batteries. It renews my faith.

Elliott Holt is the deputy editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
November 20, 2023


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