A writer’s retreat | Michael Cunningham on Provincetown


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours splits his time between New York City and Provincetown in Massachussets, at the tip of Cape Cod – a pretty, small fishing village that is also a haven for counterculture and the arts. From Norman Mailer to Tennessee Williams, the town has become a celebrated writer’s retreat on the Atlantic shoreline. It’s the first place that the Pilgrims landed when they reached the US on the Mayflower in 1620. It’s also the gayest place in America and has its own branch of Marc Jacobs.

Michael Cunningham Provincetown

Michael Cunningham, by Mark C.O’Flaherty

Civilian: Cape Cod, and Provincetown in particular, seems to be a very popular retreat for writers and their egos. You used to know Norman Mailer when he was living here in his shack in the dunes, didn’t you? What was he like? Was he wild?

Michael Cunningham: I used to encounter Norman out walking on the beach, in his dotage. He was entirely lovely and harmless. It was difficult to imagine him throwing any of his wives out of windows at that point. We had several dinners together. I remember having supper at John Waters’ with him and Patty Hearst. It was like a mad tea party.

People are very interested in how writers write. Do you write standing up like Philip Roth? Are you up early or burning the midnight oil or both?

Well, perversely I lay claim to the room without a view, because I get easily distracted. I’d be better off without any windows at all. I am not especially delicate though. It’s okay if a dog barks. And the two little boys next door are very noisy. One of them, Jonah, might wander in naked in a pair of goggles, and that’s fine.

I have to write first thing in the morning, and I can’t write in the afternoon. There is something about the actual world – the real world – that is so persuasive, that if I spend any time in it I come back and look at my computer and think “this is just some story I’m making up, it’s a tissue of lies, and not very convincing ones at that”. So I need to segue straight from sleep and dreams into writing.

Everyone knows you for your fiction, but you wrote Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown, which really captured the town. Did you approach the book as “travel writing”? It’s far removed from Bill Bryson. Thankfully.

They aren’t painting in the hope of a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney or writing with the hopes of critical accolades and huge sales

It is not a travel book exactly. It is about the place and its heart and soul and the predilections of its people. I love Provincetown. I love it more unreservedly than I love any other place. I am totally aware of its drawbacks, peculiarities and absurdities.

I think probably it’s the people that make me think of it as home. Unlike in New York City, you can have a sense of the daily lives of the people around you. In New York I have friends who I try to meet up with every three or four weeks. We go to a restaurant, bring each other up to date and then go and live our lives and get material for the next dinner in three or four weeks time. Here you see people everyday and there is a different kind of intimacy. There are a surprising number of very intelligent and gifted people here, many of whom – unlike say me – aren’t so ambitious. They aren’t painting in the hope of a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney or writing with the hopes of critical accolades and huge sales. I like that.

So would you say that there’s a kind of small town mentality here?

The social circle used to revolve around a café called Frappo 66, which closed last autumn. To some degree, Provincetown is like High School, but a better one that values eccentricity. It is like high school with many of the horrors removed, and Frappo 66 was clearly the High School cafeteria. This summer there’ll be some other place that people will hang out in. The location constantly changes. For the longest time it was the Post Office steps. The evil postmaster decided we were somehow impeding the egress of the customers, so moved us on. After that there was a store nearby with a porch and the owners calculatedly encouraged people to hang out there, usually comely young men who were good for business.

How did you end up buying a house here?

For years we’d come down and rent a place for a couple of weeks at a time. When The Hours was optioned as a film, the producer told me what they could pay and it was generous. Nothing had brought me that much money before. In the same week, Melanie and Molly who live next door called to say “this is a long shot, but the house adjacent to hours has been sold, the deal fell through and I thought you may be interested”. The property was on sale for almost exactly what I was being paid for The Hours. So that’s how it happened.

And does this feel more like home than New York?

I like our apartment in the city a great deal and if we lost it, it would cause me a brief period of sorrow before I’d go and get another one, but this place means so much to me.

This place was pretty much a mess when we got it. As is often the way with old houses, it had been improved and reimproved and re-reimproved. There was a gigantic 1950s suburban fireplace. It’s hard to imagine why anyone thought that would be a good idea. There was linoleum upstairs. The house is about 100 years old and was originally an inn.

This place feels profoundly like home in a way I’ve not felt since being a child. I have had 50 different apartments in 40 different places and this is the first time I feel totally and utterly at home. I feel as if something terrible and unnameable happened, as long as I could get back here, it’d all be okay.