Q1: When did you start writing and whom influenced you the most now and currently?
Paul: I think I wrote my first short story in eighth grade. Pretty sure it was Final Fantasy VII fanfiction. Between 7th and 8th grade, I was assigned books like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. Then everything changed when my 9th grade English teacher assigned Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which references T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock.” I believe this was the first banned book I read. I remember parents losing their minds over this book because of a vague masturbation scene. One kid was pulled out of the class over this book. This led me to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I suddenly wanted to read every banned book. She also assigned Edgar Allan Poe, which had a major impact on me—and led me to Baudelaire. With encouragement from that same teacher, I ended up transferring to a private charter school to study Creative Writing. During my last two years at the new high school, I read Howl (which hilariously required a permission slip), Neuromancer, Maus, Autobiography of Red and more. My poetry instructor ended up gifting me a copy of Johannes Göransson’s translation of Aase Berg’s With Deer. Not only was this the first translation I read (aside from the bible), but Berg’s poetry had a significant impact on my writing. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing comparable. A continuous influence.
Q2: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Paul: A guidance counselor once sat me down in her office and asked me what I wanted to do with my future. I told her I wanted to be a writer. She told me there are two things in life: hobbies and vocations. “Writing is not a vocation,” she said. That’s the moment I knew.
Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career?
Paul: Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney. The things I’ve learned from them—the experience I’ve gained working for Action Books? Invaluable.
Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work?
Paul: I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh—in Beaver County. Geographically, the Ohio River was a constant presence. You were always crossing it, or driving alongside it. When I think about home, I think about that river. And trains, abandoned factories, and functional factories. Old steel factory towns and ghost stories. The legend of The Green Man, haunted cemeteries, George Romero. I think about drugs, too. Especially heroin. Beaver County has experienced a major opioid crisis for years. District Attorney David Lozier recently said the county sees 700 overdoses a year. I think all of this has fueled my Gothic/Decadent sensibilities since a young age.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Athens, Greece twice. I’ve done some of my best writing in Athens. I love it there. I wrote the entirety of The Inmost the first time I visited Athens in 2017 after visiting the Temple of Apollo.
Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you?
Paul: My first book—The House of the Tree of Sores—written in English and Swedish, is my Ulysses. I spent six years writing it.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Paul: I like a good porch swing.
Q7: What is a favorite line/ stanza/lyric from your writing?
Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration?
Paul: My go-to karaoke song is Annie Lennox’s “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Modest Mouse’s Interstate 8 holds a special place in my heart. Choir Boy and Boy Harsher are two of my favorite bands currently. I like bands that remind me of Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode and Destroyer. I like how gay yet how Mormon a band like The Killers is. I get a lot of weird ideas for stories when I listen to Sam’s Town. I have a fondness for Gerard Way’s solo album. I listened to “Action Cat” a lot in 2021 apparently. I like to listen to Prince or Abba or Lizzo when I’m having a bad day. David Bowie was the closest thing I had to a religion growing up. Looking forward to the new Björk album.
Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, etc that you would like to promote?
My second full-length book of poetry came out in January—Fall Garment. It’s available from Schism Press for $9. If you email Carrion Bloom Books, they will send a you a free digital download of my chapbook The Inmost.
Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey?
Paul: I was once introduced at a reading series as “Paul Koon-ing-hahm.” The surname “Cunningham” is Scottish (and I have no Swedish ancestry), but I think all the Swedish publication credits must have confused the host (understandably so) and “Koon-ing-hahm” was born. To this day, I still have friends who will say, “Time for a beer, Koon-ing-hahm?” “Well, well, well—Koon-ing-hahm decided to show up.” It’s honestly one of my favorite things.
Bio: Paul Cunningham is the author of Fall Garment (2022) and The House of the Tree of Sores (2020), both published by Schism Press. New poems and translations are forthcoming in Texas Poetry Review and A Flame Called Indiana: New Writing from the Crossroads (Indiana University Press, 2023). His translation of Sara Tuss Efrik’s short story, “A Woman’s World Behind the Lace Curtain,” was published by the Center for the Art of Translation. His short film adaptation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Outgoing Vessel recently premiered in Sophia Kalkau’s “Ung Som Bly” installation at the Rønnebæksholm cultural center in Denmark. He currently serves as the Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame where he also co-manages Action Books.
Paul Cunningham Managing Editor, Action Books
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