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Off the Page: Michael Cunningham

With Michael Cunningham
Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer in Fiction
Thursday, January 29, 2004; 2:15 PM

What's always struck me about The Hours, the novel that won Michael Cunningham the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, is its sheer audacity. Who dares take on the genius of Mrs. Dalloway along with the life of Virginia Woolf? I almost didn't want to read it--he couldn't possibly pull it off.

But Cunningham most certainly does, with a touch that is light and penetrating at once, putting a modern spin onto Woolf's classic novel in a way that both taps its themes while honoring the book.

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In conjunction with Book World's Book Club, which is discussing The Hours this month, Cunningham joined Off the Page Thursday, Jan. 29, at 2:15 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

And be sure to check out the Book Club introduction and its live discussion at 3 p.m. ET.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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CaroleBurns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to Off the Page. We are honored to have Michael Cunningham, winner of the Pulitzer for The Hours, as our guest. Welcome, Michael. And we'll get to our first question.

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London, UK: I am only partway through Mrs. Dalloway, and having read your (wonderful) novel first, I view Mrs. Dalloway as a culmination of your characters! Obviously that isn't the case at all, but I would like to know how you decided which of your characters was attributed with characteristics from Clarissa Dalloway and other players within Woolf's novel?
P.S. Have you ever been to Richmond? It really is quite lovely nowadays!

Michael Cunningham: I have been to Richmond, and it is lovely. I went and walked around when I was writing the novel, and tried to get a feel for the place.

In an earlier draft of The Hours, the correspondences between Woolf's characters and mine were more direct. I tried to more thoroughly incorporate Mrs. Dalloway into my book. And when I looked at what I had, it felt a little lifeless. It had a certain precision that was more like a Swiss music box than a novel.

I went back and read Mrs. Dalloway again and was reminded that part of what I love about that novel is its looseness, its riff-ish quality. The way it reads almost like a jazz musician playing improvisations. It has loose ends, it has stray threads. And I decided it would be more appropriate, it would be a better tribute to Mrs. Dalloway, if I loosened up my own book, if I didn't insist on such strict parallels, if I injected into The Hours a rough correspondence to Mrs. Dalloway and didn't insist upon making so precise.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Cunningham, a pleasure. I really enjoyed the novel and the Daldry-Hare film--also used "The Hours" to spur me to "Mrs. Dalloway" and Gorris's 1997 film. (You included "Redgrave" in your novel.) Any plans to do another "canonical-reflective" novel in the future?

Thanks much.

Michael Cunningham: Not exactly. It would be a little crazy to set up some sort of cottage industry, in which I just continue to produce variations on great novels in Western literature. One per career is probably enough.

And yet I have found to my surprise in the novel I'm working on now that Walt Whitman is one of the characters, which had not been my intention going in. So clearly I have some sort of bent toward the canonical that may not be reformable.

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Studio City, Calif.: I read a review of the movie version of The Hours that suggested that the suffering of all the protagonists - Woolf, Clarissa, Richard, and Laura - sprang from being queer in a world of repression. Is that what you were trying to say?

Michael Cunningham: It's not in any way what I was trying to say. And a review like that, though probably well intended, is the sort of thing that disheartens filmmakers and a novelist. I write about a world in which everyone is queer, everyone is trying to live as best he or she can with repressions in society and in our own natures. To insist that these problems are particular to people of a certain sexual orientation seems a very small view of what the book and the movie were trying to do.

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CaroleBurns: We all know The Hours draws from Mrs. Dalloway, and A Home at the End of the World has a Wallace Stevens poem, "The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain," as an epigraph.

How did these two works shape yours? And what do you think of the impulse to respond to art with art?

Michael Cunningham: Both Wallace Stevens and Virginia Woolf are part of my consciousness, as is Pamela Lee and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I write from everything that influences me, Woolf and Stevens being two of the more presentable. I am obviously interested in the notion of making art out of art, because I feel that art should be honored as a living thing. And I think that if we take art seriously, we understand that it is material every bit as rich and viable as our personal experience.

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Mt. Lebanon PA: What made you think you could be a writer? Did you concern yourself at all with making a living? Did you jump in with both brains? As a kid, did you think of yourself as a writer? Or is writing something you took up because you failed out of barber college?

In essence, what's the genesis of your own career?

Thanks much. By the way, I've never heard of you.

Michael Cunningham: It took years for me to think of myself as a writer. I wrote for quite some time in secret because I felt like it would be presumptuous and pretentious of me to say that I was a writer. I was just hacking around at it. But gradually, over time, I began to realize that this is what a writer is, someone who sits down every day and tries to write. There is nothing especially magic about it. There was no transformation about to take place. And I began to own up to it. Which was difficult. Because of course, when we start saying to the world or to anyone who will listen, "I'm a writer, and here's what I've written, it's the best I could possibly do," we set ourselves up for rejections of the most withering kind. I've come to believe that a novelist is more than anything else someone who refuses to stop writing and who can stand the disappointment.

As to trying to live while writing, it's just about the hardest part of the whole enterprise. Questions of inspiration pale beside the simple need to pay the rent while writing, which is in itself a full-time occupation. I tended bar, because I could write in the mornings and work at night. And just about the time I was becoming a rather seedy and elderly bartender, the writing started to pay. I am profoundly grateful.

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Washington, D.C.: I once heard you say that you published a story very early in your career ("so what's the big deal about this?" you thought at the time) -- then nothing was accepted for many years. What sustained you during that time? Did you lose faith in your calling? What did you learn -- what changed -- in you, in your craft?

Michael Cunningham: I did reach the point of despair, more than once, as the years went by, and I just couldn't give any of this stuff away. And I reached a point at which I decided I'm just going to keep writing even if no one ever publishes anything. And what happened is I stopped trying to write what I thought someone would publish, and that's when people started publishing me. It was only when I stopped trying to please and started to write what mattered most to me that it all took off.

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Annandale, VA: Can I ask about how you write? Is it something you force yourself to do? Do you have to give something up to write or do you find it a pleasurable experience? I guess I'm looking for a how-to-write statement.

Michael Cunningham: Some days I find it a pleasurable experience. Some days I'd rather do just about anything else. Every writer seems to need to develop his or her own relationship to the process. I know writers who write sporadically, in huge fits of inspiration, and then nothing for long periods. I know writers who write in pure agony one hour a day, which is all they can bear.

What I do is this: I get up every morning and go straight to work, and on the good days I write with pleasure. On the bad days I just sit there, waiting to see if something will come. On the bad days, if I'm lucky, I'll come up with a lame sentence or two, thinking, I'll delete this later, it's terrible but it's all I've got today. I've found, though, that when I look back at what I've written six months later, I can't distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad. I've come to believe that the inspiration is always there, like an electrical current, and what varies is our access to it. And I've found that the best way to cope with that is with diligence, is with a kind of daily determination.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: So, how does Walt Whitman unintentionally become a character? Did you realize he was just the person needed for a storyline?

Michael Cunningham: The novel I'm working on is three interrelated novellas, each in a different genre. There's a gothic horror story, a thriller, and a science fiction story. The first, the gothic horror story, is set in New York City in the mid-1800s, toward the beginning of the industrial revolution, when people who had been working on farms, living according to the seasons and their needs, were suddenly working 12-hour shifts in factories. And I was struck, as I did my research, by the fact that this is when Whitman appeared, and walked the streets of Manhattan saying, "I sing the body electric, and every atom of me as good belongs to you." It was interesting to me that this great transcendental poet appeared just then, and I was struck by the ways in which Whitman was a great and immortal poet, and was also writing poetry that did not entirely contradict the desires of the factory owners. Whitman said, every man is a king, including those who work these terrible jobs. Whitman said, the redwood tree loves the axe, because that's the redwood tree's destiny, to be felled. So he became a character in the first novella, and I decided, if Whitman's going to be in one, he should really be in all three. so then in the second, the thriller, he's a terrorist, and in the third, he is a mythical scientist who has disappeared with a great secret.

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Washington, DC: I enjoy your work and look forward to reading more.

A Home at the End of the World is such a clear-eyed, tough-minded book that doesn't pull any punches. I understand there is a movie in the works. What are the chances that a Hollywood ending neatly tying up loose ends can be avoided?

Michael Cunningham: The movie, which is finished, and will be released this summer, does not in any way involve a Hollywood happy ending, or any other such nonsense, I'm very glad to say. It was a low-budget production, and we've been left very much alone to make the movie we wanted to make. It's convinced me that if I'm ever involved in a movie again, I only want to make very cheap movies, because those are the ones in which you are most likely to be left alone.

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Green Bay, Wisc.: What did you think of the movie adaptation of your novel?

Michael Cunningham: I liked the movie very much. I'm thrilled that it has its own identity, that it doesn't feel like an adaptation, but like a real movie. And I'm proud of the people who made it. I suspect you can imagine it wasn't easy to get a movie like that made in a Hollywood studio. They fought for almost everything. And I'm pleased to say they won almost every time, which seems to imply that if you're making a movie, you have to be even tougher and meaner than the people financing it.

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Washington, DC: Do you teach now (or will you in the future)? If so what are some of the things you try to pass on to students? What things do you as a writer gain from teaching?

Michael Cunningham: I do teach. I taught for years at Columbia. I teach at Brooklyn College now. I love teaching. If I didn't love it, I wouldn't do it. I don't know a lot of other writers. Most of my close friends are not writers. And I don't especially want, after a day of trying to string one sentence after another, to sit in a cafe and argue about sentences. I'd rather talk about physics and politics and fashion when I'm done working. But once a week, I sit in a seminar room and talk to a dozen intelligent, talented people about writing is, why we do it, and how we could do it better. And that's hugely valuable to me.

What I want for my students more than anything is to help them write the fiction only they can write, fiction that doesn't quite resemble anything we've seen before. And I try to remind them that what they're doing is important, that I love them and others love them for wanting to do it. And that it's better to try too much than to try too little. I'm a big fan of the ambitious failure. And I try to urge them to overreach, to go too far, then look at what they've got and begin to shape it.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Do you believe, personally or as general guidance, in a preferred "first" component from which an author best creates a story? A character (protagonist or antagonist) first? A message? An emotion? A setting? Other?

Michael Cunningham: I always start with a character, and can't really imagine doing it any other way. A characte of course implies emotions and situations and conflicts and you go on from there. One of the things I learned from Virginia Woolf is that every day in everybody's life contains just about everything we need to know about human life, more or less the way the single strand of DNA contains the blueprint for the entire organism. And I believe that if we look carefully enough at anybody and look with enough compassion and discernment, and bring to that person a certain merciless clarity, we have a novel by definition. I never think in terms of message. I don't know anything my readers don't know. I have no wisdom to pass along to them.

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CaroleBurns: Thanks so much, Michael, for joining "Off the Page" today. And thanks to our readers--as always--for wonderful questions.

Remember, you can keep discussing The Hours with the Washington Post Book Club discussion Book Club discussion, which start live right now.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

Please join us next week, when we have the Canadian writer Frances Itani, who will discuss her new book and first novel, Deafening. She has published four acclaimed short story collections in Canada--this is her first book published in the U.S. See you then!

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