USA | 2004, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016
Michael Cunningham received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, for his novel
The Hours, which was filmed in 2002, directed by Stephen Daldry, and starring Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. He is also the author of two earlier novels,
A Home at the End of the World (1990) and
Flesh and Blood (1995). His work has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1993) and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1988).
Among Santa Maddalena’s more remarkable qualities is its ability to be a sanctuary – you could even say a sanitarium – and, at the same time, a place where enormous amounts of work get done.
I was particularly aware of its dual nature when I spent eight days there in June.
I was in the middle of what felt like an unusually exhausting book tour. I’d been traveling across the U.S. and Europe for almost three weeks.
I arrived at Santa Maddalena after a series of days and nights like this:
Give a reading in Toronto;
Wake up in Toronto, do an hour-long live radio interview there (the microphone, by the way, malfunctions in the middle of the interview);
Fly from Toronto to Washington, DC, and give a reading there that evening;
Fly from Washington to New York City, and fly overnight from New York City to Amsterdam;
Give six interviews that day in Amsterdam, and a reading that night in The Hague.
I offer the above only by way of conveying the human wreckage that was me, when I washed up at Santa Maddalena.
Where actual healing occurred. Where there was great company – people possessed of enormous intelligence and deep kindness. Where there was the calm of the gardens, as they gave up their last roses to the summer heat; where the bees and hares and pheasants were all going about their usual business; where the pool was always ready for a plunge.
And where, in addition to feeling restored, I wrote the treatment for a TV show I’d promised to an American cable network. The relaxation I felt at Santa Maddalena led naturally to the work, and the work back to the relaxation. After almost three weeks of thinking only about the next interview, the next airport, I could think of narrative, of character, of that for which my particular brain is so much better suited.
Santa Maddalena is something of a miracle. I do not exaggerate. It’s become difficult to imagine my life in a world without Santa Maddalena. I ardently hope I never have to.
When I arrived at Santa Maddalena late one afternoon in June of 2004 I was shown around the house and grounds, guided to my impossibly beautiful bedroom and studio in the top two floors of a tower, and informed that dinner would be served at eight. I spent roughly five minutes marveling at my good fortune, then plugged in my laptop and began immediately to write.
I never do that. I’m not that kind of writer – that is, I’m not one of those unstoppable demons of productivity who furiously produce fiction at every free moment, in airport lounges or checkout lines, on laptops or napkins or the backs of their hands. I’d love to be that kind of writer. I am, however, rather delicate and languid, prone to ritual and regularity, easily distracted. If anything, I’d worried that Santa Maddalena would feel wrong to me, and that I’d be unable to work there even if the conditions were technically optimal. I’m like that.
There is, however, something in the air at Santa Maddalena, something so potent it affected even me, a generally balky and resistant spirit. I more or less sat down that day in early June and got up four weeks later with the final third of my novel, Specimen Days, completed.
The final third of the novel was, as it happens, a science fiction story, and so it was particularly fortunate for me to find myself in a strange environment. Tuscany can hardly be said to be another planet, but still, on my home planet we don’t have fat purple bumblebees or big brawny hares jumping through the olive groves, we don’t have honeysuckle sprouting from every chink in every ancient wall, our windows don’t offer views of the remote Arabian Nights follies of long-dead princes. I was, as it happens, trying to invent an alien character – a being from another planet who I hoped would be compelling and complicated but not in any way human. I was blessed by the periodic appearance on my windowsill of a lovely little green-gray lizard, whose intensity of being and strange but undeniable beauty were precisely what I was trying to create for my novel. I may not be the only writer to have based a character on a Tuscan lizard, but I feel confident that I’m a member of a very small group.
Santa Maddalena offered a perfect balance of solitude and company. Two floors below me, the Hungarian novelist Peter Esterhazy was working on something new, and on the far side of the rose garden, in the main house, the English novelist Zadie Smith was similarly engaged. There were moments when I felt as if we were all monks (well, monks and nuns) in a hilltop monastery, blissfully copying out illuminated manuscripts, though we of course were inventing our manuscripts as we went along. Still, the experience had something of that about it – a sense that I, we, were engaged in work that was at once new and ancient. This is always true of writing, but is harder to experience directly in my studio in New York.
What Beatrice has created at Santa Maddalena is rare, precious, and fabulous. It is also an ongoing act of profound generosity. I will always be grateful.