MFA Spotlight: M. Allen Cunningham
Under the pen-name M. Allen Cunningham, Mark is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, including a biographical novel about Rilke called Lost Son, and The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which was his debut at age twenty-six and was named a #1 Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association. His shorter work has appeared in many outlets, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, and Poets & Writers. In 2011, Mark founded Atelier26 Books out of deep personal convictions as a reader and writer, and he brings a writer’s sensibility to his publishing practices. At Atelier26 he has edited and published new work by acclaimed authors Harriet Scott Chessman and Elizabeth Rosner, as well as the debut short story collection by Margaret Malone entitled People Like You, which became a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and won the 2015 Balcones Fiction Prize. In 2017-18 he will publish Sidney Wade’s new poetry collection Bird Book, and A Thousand Distant Radios, the debut story collection by Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award winner Woody Skinner.
Funny-Ass Thoreau, which Mark edited, is the first volume ever to collect humorous extracts from the author of Walden, and was published to coincide with the 2017 bicentennial of Thoreau's birth. Mark's introduction was featured on Lit Hub.
What encouragement might you offer to me (and those like me) who are only beginning the exploration of this complicated writer? (And would you agree that “complicated” is an appropriate word for Thoreau?)
I think “complicated” is a fine description of Thoreau as long as we take “complicated” to mean rich and varied, rather than forbidding or impenetrable. Thoreau is actually an extremely inviting and entertaining writer. To any new Thoreau readers, I’d point out that there are many avenues into the man and his work: one can start with the essay “Walking,” for instance, and immediately find the naturalist/environmentalist at his most poetic. One can start with “Civil Disobedience” and find the “activist.” One can start with “Getting a Living” (included in Funny-Ass Thoreau, and published elsewhere as “Life without Principle”) and find the nonconformist philosopher of daily life. Those are a few of his shorter pieces, and each is a terrific entrée into his work. But Walden is in many ways the essential Thoreau (outside of his two-million word journal, anyway), because it is so multi-faceted and endlessly explorable. The main encouragement I’d offer to new readers of Walden is this: the book is not a “memoir” as we understand that term today, so don’t take the opening chapter “Economy” too much in earnest or it will seem unnecessarily dense and difficult. In fact, “Economy” is a deeply witty and irreverent chapter, and if you allow it to set the tone in this way, it propels you right into the vibrant spirit and lifelong pleasures of Walden as a whole.
Do you find that you relate more to Thoreau now in the learned context of his sense of humor? Or, at the heart of it, is your 14 year old self still most comfortable with the Thoreau he knew?
Thoreau was an idol to my fourteen-year-old self. He was the godhead and prophet of my own neo-transcendentalism. That youthful, fiery earnestness of mine was bound to subside. These days, what I see much more clearly in Thoreau is the hardworking artist and teacher that he was and is — and yes, this is thanks to the leavening, humanizing effect of his humor, but it also has to do with my own maturation as a writer and artist: I understand him and his work better on those terms now than I ever could back then. The Thoreau I relate to most nowadays is found in Walden, “Walking,” and his journal. The journal, especially, is a spiritual document unlike anything else in American letters.
What remains your favorite thing about Thoreau as a writer, humorist, or human? What is the thing that appeals to you most? (Can it be quantified?)
I greatly admire, as I always have, his steadiness, his enduring commitment to a nonconformist vision and to a life in nature. Everywhere in his work and journals one finds an exemplary presence of mind coupled with a great gift of recording, in words, that mind’s perceptions. It’s in this presence of mind that writer and human are one.
On a more general note, what do you find draws you to your subject matter? (In this case, Thoreau. In the past, Rilke, among so many other things.)
As an epigraph for my novel about Rilke, Lost Son, I used the following quote from the cultural critic Lee Siegel: “We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory’s contested shores.” With regard to the focus on history or historical figures in my work, those words pretty well stand in for my own feelings. More broadly, as a writer there is usually some central, resonant image that draws me to a particular story or subject matter. With my first novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which is about a coal-mining town in nineteenth-century California, the image was of a solitary mountain — Northern California’s Mount Diablo — standing as a timeless backdrop to the brutal and tumultuous boom and bust of this little coal empire at its foot. That was my lure into the novel and into all the fairly tedious work the novel demanded; i.e., researching coal-mining and life in California at that time, etc. And in the finished book, that image does remain extremely important to the story’s concerns: the mountain becomes an image of eternity, against which transient humanity is set.
Are you able to discuss what’s next in store for you?
I’m finishing up a new novel (my fifth) set in the 1950s United States. I also have another novel (technically my third, finished some time ago) which is in search of a home: it’s a sweeping, partly epistolary story of five generations in an American family, from Iowa in the 1840s to San Francisco during World War II.
Author Photo Credit: Sabina Poole/Oregon Arts Commission
Interview Credit: Rachel A. Phelps