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Michael Cunningham's Sense of Place

Michael Cunningham's Sense of Place

Michael Cunningham's Sense of Place

About six years ago, author Michael Cunningham and his partner of 20 years, Kenny, bought a house in Provincetown, Mass., from the money he earned optioning the film rights to his novel The Hours. Then he went on to write the quintessential book about the gay Massachusetts resort town, titled Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown. The Pulitzer Prize'winning novelist's view on global gay bars, being married to 'place,' and cities of heaven:

Do you think a sense of a place can have a profound influence on someone?
Yes, absolutely, which is why I'd rather go to a few places for a longer time and feel like I have a chance to know them a bit. I guess I'm that guy who doesn't want to date but just get married right away. [Laughs] Nothing is less compelling to me than 12 countries in 14 days. I do like to travel, but I really like to stay with a place for a while and begin to sniff it out and get a sense of its essence, if you will, and its dailiness and what there is about it that it doesn't readily offer people who are just passing through.

What are some places that you've wanted to get married to like that?
Well, I am married to Provincetown, of course, and Cape Cod. I'm totally married to Barcelona. I just love it. I've always been a little leery of those small cities where the quality of life is supposedly better. I mean, Tokyo, yes; Stockholm, not really. Barcelona is small and, yes, "livable," but it has its own energy and its own life; it doesn't feel borrowed from other places. There is an originality that actually emanates from Barcelona that isn't imported from bigger cities. The whole city meanders very gently down one massive hillside and terminates in a harbor with clear, clean water where you can see fish swimming around. If heaven is a city, I would be most happy to find that it resembles Barcelona. Plus, you can stay out all night!

Any other long-term beaus?
I spent enough time in Rome to feel wedded to it. It's so ancient and so traditional. If New York is like "We need more novels, we need them now!" in Rome it's the opposite. "Novels? You think we need more novels? Are you crazy?" Which oddly has a liberating effect. There's so little urgency about it, it's kind of freeing.

Do you and your partner feel the need to vacation "gay"? 
I am quite happy meeting other gay people wherever I go, and I'm not especially eager to go to any place where I will feel any kind of pressure to treat my soul mate of the last 20 years as if he were some kind of casual acquaintance. Countries where we could be beheaded for exchanging a quick kiss in public' Not really interesting to me! I also found that when we go to gay bars in Europe, they are kind of generic, kind of like the gay bars here. It can feel a little bit like going to McDonald's. You know what I mean' Let's just say it: Gay culture is on its way to rivaling ancient Egyptian society, which changed almost not at all for over 2,000 years. We are probably going into the 30th year of an essentially static gay culture, where butch beats fem, where a certain gym-acquired muscularity is de rigueur, where the bars are all the same and the music always sucks.

Well, then what attracts you to the über-homo enclave of Provincetown?
I spend the summers in Provincetown and also sometimes go up in the off-season. It's one of the only places in America -- New Orleans and New York being others -- that genuinely prizes eccentricity and prefers it to normalcy. Most of America is obsessed with normalcy. There happen to be a lot of gay people in Provincetown, so the general ethos of eccentricity includes gay people. And it's one of the few places with a lot of gay people that is not primarily for men with a scattering of women or primarily for women with a scattering of men. There are big cohorts'not a pretty word'of both gay men and lesbians.

There's a theory that certain "end-of-the-road places" like Key West and Provincetown have that kind of feeling due to their very geography.
That may very well be. Ptown is not on the way to anyplace else. It always involves a certain effort to get there. I think in its early years, I'm sure there were gay people there, but it wasn't a gay town. It was a just sort of a town for nonconformists, the kind of people who would choose to live on a beautiful windswept spit of sand that's hard to get to. There's a certain adamant unorthodoxy that carries through to this day, even though now you can fly, drive, or ferry there during the summer.

Is there something about the atmosphere in Provincetown, an energy about the place?
People say that about it. If the place has an energy that is somehow emanating from it geologically or whether the people who have lived there for the last 200 years have created an energy, I cant say. But yeah, there's absolutely something about it that you feel almost instantly.

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