Given the bucolic setting, poetic prose, and transcendental themes of The Green Age of Asher Witherow (Unbridled) -- a book that takes place in the late-19th-century coal-mining region of Northern California -- it comes as no surprise to learn that M. Allen Cunningham, author of this philosophically ambitious and impressively assured first novel and number-one October Book Sense Pick, came of intellectual age under the spell of some monumental 19th-century poets and thinkers.
"My freshman year in high school," said the 26-year-old Cunningham, "I read Walden, by Thoreau. That was the first book that I took a very personal attachment to; it seemed to ring really true with the personality I was developing as a young teenager. I started reading a lot of similar nonfiction philosophical things, by Thoreau and Emerson; I read pretty much all the Concord writers I could get my hands on. Then my reading life really hit full stride in college, where I started reading British literature -- Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge -- and took a world-mythology class that turned me on to a lot of the ancient stories -- The Hound of Ulster, Gilgamesh, The Ramayana -- where I got a handle on a kind of universal architecture that informs all good stories: mythological patterns that can stir up a lot of rich stuff in the consciousness of readers."
What is startling to discover is the lengths to which Cunningham went to tap into the source of his inspirations once he decided, at 19, that he himself was meant to be a writer.
Author M. Allen Cunningham
Photo: Jack Francis
"I kind of took a big leap," he recalled, "and moved by myself to Lowell, Massachusetts -- because I wanted to be in proximity to Concord, where my heroes resided: Thoreau and Emerson.
I actually started out trying to emulate [them]; I found myself writing these bizarre kind of nonfiction philosophical things: the ramblings of a young mind trying to sort out his ideas.
None of it was publishable, but I think it was helpful in the sense that it gave me a chance to gather my perspectives; and also just in the technical sense of getting me to sit down and write in a disciplinary way."
When Cunningham did find his eventual writing voice, it was back where he'd started: in the Diablo Valley, the inland area 30 miles east of San Francisco where he'd grown up and now lives.
"I moved here [with my family] when I was about eight years old," Cunningham said, "and I guess I have a real love for the land around here; it's just a beautiful landscape. The book really emerged from that love. The place is within commuting distance of Silicon Valley, so we have a lot of traffic; but underneath all of that, it still has a very pastoral character. You can drive out on some back roads and find the country in a state similar to what it would have been 100 years ago."
Here was where a young Cunningham, along with his sister and brother, had first gotten hooked on reading: "Twenty or 30 children's books at a time, from the library." And here, while acting in a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, was where he'd met the woman he'd eventually marry -- after a stint at Diablo Valley College, a semester abroad in London, and his Massachusetts apprenticeship.
Newly wed, with his schoolteacher-wife providing most of their income, Cunningham began in 2000, he said, to do research for what would become his first novel.
"I had really developed an abiding love for this region. And then I read a very condensed guidebook-history account of the coal mines in this area, particularly Nortonville. It seized my imagination
. We went out and took a look at the mine. There's nothing left of these towns, just open hills. The one thing that remains is a cemetery, kind of a crumbling graveyard, high on a hilltop. I knew that there was a story there, and I was actually surprised that no one had dramatized it in fictional form
. I had a lot of ideas about the mythological structure of stories stirring in my reading life. Somehow the history of Nortonville, and the very steep arc it took from boom to bust, suggested a template for me, where I could play with these mythological themes."
Writing The Green Age of Asher Witherow was "definitely an ordeal," Cunningham recalled. "It was a four-year process." At the end of his efforts, the author had written what he said is "in many ways a gothic novel, about an immigrant [Welsh] coal-mining town in California; by gothic, I mean that the settings, the events, and the whole course of the novel work to dwarf the humans in the book. So it's a human story, but set against a very large backdrop.
And I'd say there's an overarching mythological flavor to the book, where it begs some age-old questions, such as: Why are we here? How did we get here? Where are we going from here?
"I don't like to think that the book offers any explicit answers; but there's some kind of comfort to be derived just from asking. There's something in the asking that brings us together as humans, all experiencing the same journey."
And what of M. (for Mark) Allen Cunningham -- where is he going from here?
"Actually, I've started a second novel," the writer said, "and the writing of that first draft has kind of overlapped the completion of this novel. The new book will be pretty different in theme and setting, although the flavor and the tone will be similar.
It will take place at the end of the 19th century, but in Europe; it will trace the inner journey of one particular character who travels to all the major capitals."
Cunningham himself, so long ensconced in the imagined past of his Bay Area region, will soon also venture into the larger world: his publisher is sending him on an extensive book tour that will take him from Powell's, in Portland, Oregon, to Lemuria, in Jackson, Mississippi. --Tom Nolan