INTERVIEW: Girls gone wild, sort of; Michael Cunningham on “The Hours”

Dressed in the perfunctory black-sweater-blue-jeans-black-boots, Michael Cunningham is the comfortable portrait of a writer. Smiling warmly, he apologizes for his smoking (American Spirits), sits and throws both legs over the arm of his chair.

In 1998 Cunningham released “The Hours,” which earned him both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award. As beautiful as it is subtle, the novel carries its reader along with ease, weaving masterfully in and out of complex stories.

The novel follows the lives of three women in a decisive day, all linked together by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf is one of the three women in the book. On this day she is beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. Laura Brown, a stifled 1950’s housewife, is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Finally, Clarissa Vaughan struggles with the realization that she is living the superficial life of a modern day Mrs. Dalloway.

A film version of “The Hours,” featuring Nicole Kidman (Woolf), Julianne Moore (Brown) and Meryl Streep (Vaughan), is currently in theaters.

In many ways, the movie is a truncated version of the book; there are missing scenes, subplots and characters. However, screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry in particular do a decent job of transforming a complicated book into film. As a whole, the movie preserves a sense of artistry.

The film The Hours has garnered much critical acclaim, as well as two Golden Globes, including one for Best Drama.

As for Cunningham, he recently released a nonfiction book, “Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown.” He is currently at work on the screenplay for his first novel, “A Home at the End of the World” (1990), which will begin filming in April.

Hatchet: How did you prepare to write about Virginia Woolf, and did you ever feel invasive assuming her thoughts?

Michael Cunningham: It felt like a huge imposition. I really hesitated over it. Both in terms of respect for her and, in a more practical sense, whether I could actually do it in a way that would feel plausible. But really, when I got down to it I just decided, well, why not?
H: You shifted to nonfiction now. So are you trying something new again?

MC: The nonfiction happened because I had just won the Pulitzer Prize, I was bouncing off the walls and trying to think what I was going to do next. The phone rang and it was Random House saying they were starting a series of not-travel books, but they were asking different writers to write about their favorite place. It was just the right offer at the right time. But I am really a fiction writer.

H: What are you working on now then, fiction again?

MC: Yes. I am in the middle of another novel. After this week, when I am done with this tour, I go back to New York, turn off the phone and finish the book.

H: Is it fulfilling to be working with fiction again? It’s been a long time – are you finally happy as a writer again?

MC: I am anticipating being happy as a writer again when I get to actually be a writer again. It is what I do. It’s the main thing I do and I can’t wait to get back to it.

H: So, are you comfortable with Hare’s nicks and tucks (in the screenplay)?

MC: I think they did what they had to do to turn a book into a movie. There are characters missing. I was wondering how the characters were going to come alive in a movie, where you can’t go into their heads. Then, as they filmed it, I realized that you get Julianne Moore’s ability to look at her child with this mix of love and terror; you can’t do that stuff on paper.

H: How did you feel as a male writer writing as a female?

MC: I think everybody can write about everybody, but the farther you move from your experience, the more careful you have to be. I think men know what women are like, I think women know what men are like. It is just that the occasional crackpot will spend three years really thinking about it, while the rest of us have other stuff to do.

H: What do you do when you are not writing?

MC: I teach. I taught for years at Columbia, at their graduate writing program there. I got so sick of Columbia. It is too expensive. When I started doing it, I needed the money. But I always felt a little queasy about being attached to any institution that was going to separate young writers from more than $50,000. I teach at Brooklyn College now.

H: Does it help your writing? How does it make you feel as a writer?

MC: It feels great. I can’t teach too much, just one class a semester. Most of my friends are not writers, as it happens. But I also really love sitting in a seminar room, talking to intelligent, gifted people about writing. What is it, why do we do it, who it is for, how does it work?

H: Who is it for?

MC: (laughs) I started out thinking, well, I don’t know, it is for eternity. I have lived with the same guy, Ken, for 15 years. He is a smart, smart fucker. And I really think of books as being for Kenny. It is a big, capacious, multi-chambered intelligence to write into. If other people want to read the books, too, that’s fine. But they are really for Kenny, and that has been a huge help to me.

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