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'The Hours' Takes Fiction Pulitzer

By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 1999


So, Michael Cunningham. Anything bad happen to you during the last week?

"I bought a brand-new sweater that got a big snag in it, and I'm afraid they're not going to take it back."

Don't worry about it. You now have the bright lights of stardom to keep you warm. You won the Pulitzer Prize for your novel "The Hours," four days after it took another top fiction award, the PEN/Faulkner. In 19 years, only one other writer has won both. You're well on your way to being an overnight sensation.

"One of those overnight sensations who's been doing it for 15 years," Cunningham noted yesterday by phone from a friend's apartment in New York. The 46-year-old author of four novels contemplated his onrushing stardom. "The metamorphosis is already beginning. I'll get a cigarette holder and a big mink coat."

In scattered cities across America, Cunningham and seven other artists all got the news that they had become stars yesterday. The history Pulitzer was won by "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898," by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. The biography prize went to "Lindbergh," A. Scott Berg's book about the aviator. In poetry, Mark Strand won for "Blizzard of One." John McPhee's massive book on geology, "Annals of the Former World," won for general nonfiction. Melinda Wagner won the music prize for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.

The drama award was won by a 37-year-old elementary school teacher who had never before written a play and doesn't expect to write another. Washington-born and -bred Margaret Edson's "Wit" is the account of a university poetry professor who faces incurable ovarian cancer. The drama, which premiered in 1995 at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., is now playing at the Union Square Theatre in New York.

Edson's heroine, Vivian Bearing, is a pedantic scholar, the kind who writes her doctoral dissertation on the use of punctuation in John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud." She finds that she needs different skills to deal with the fact of her own impending demise.

When reached by an Associated Press reporter at Atlanta's Centennial Park Elementary School, Edson said, "We're in the middle of studying insects and nothing can take me away. I will continue teaching. I enjoy it."

Unlike Edson, John McPhee is an old hand at the writing game – but he, too, was also teaching when he got the news. In his case it was his class in the Literature of Fact, a Princeton institution that has spawned numerous fine journalists.

During a break, McPhee got a phone message from a journalist, spoke to him briefly, and then went on lecturing about structure. He didn't tell the students about the prize. Later, he commented about his first Pulitzer: "There are lots of rewards in writing, and I've had plenty of them. The deepest reward is in the one-on-one relationship between writer and reader. . . . I scarcely have felt that anything was missing at all."

"Annals of the Former World" is the culmination of more than two decades of work on a geological history of North America, first published as four separate books and then combined and refined into one massive tome.

If McPhee was as low-key as a slab of granite, Melinda Wagner was keyed up.

"I'm shocked and of course thrilled, my God, 100 percent thrilled," she said from her New Jersey home when informed of the news. "I'm incredibly honored and very surprised – I don't think of myself as someone who easily wins awards. It might be true for most composers that we apply and apply and hope that one piece out of 10 will work out, get some recognition, but you try not to think about it when you're writing music – you don't think about that at all. So when one comes through, like this one, my God . . ." Her voice trailed off into delightful, breathless giggles.

Her winning concerto, which the music jury called "by a considerable extent the finest work in this year's list of entries," was given its premiere May 30 by the Westchester Philharmonic in Purchase, N.Y.

There was a second music award: Duke Ellington won a special citation "in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture," the Pulitzer Board announced. Ellington's centenary is being celebrated this year.

A Pulitzer jury in 1965 had tried to give an award to Ellington, but it was overruled by the board because jazz was not deemed worthy of the prize. Last year it was, for the first time.

Mark Strand had been in his publisher's office until moments before news was announced at 3 p.m. When the first reporter starting looking for him, he had ducked out.

"I thought I'd take a walk," he said. "I was writing a memorial piece for Harry Ford, my editor, who died. I was walking around primarily to read my piece, and think about what I was saying. In the meantime, I bought a white shirt."

Strand is a much-honored poet, one of the masters of modern American verse, but he seemed a bit at a loss for words. "There are lots of things I've won, and lots I haven't won. You never expect to win anything if you're a writer. If you thought you'd win everything, you'd be disappointed most of the time. So I don't think about it much."

It's traditional to ask the Pulitzer poet to describe his work. It's like a free ad. Here's Strand's take: "Some of it's humorous, some of it's dark. I try to write about essential matters – that is, those that have to do with the way people live their lives. But who knows, someone reading my poems will say I don't do any of that. I'm not funny, not dark, don't write about serious matters. But I do the best I can."

The arts Pulitzers usually come unexpectedly – the names of the runners-up aren't known until the winner is announced. But during the past week, rumors about the three fiction finalists leaked out. In addition to Cunningham, Barbara Kingsolver was up for her huge bestseller about an American missionary family, "The Poisonwood Bible," as was Russell Banks for his huge historical novel about abolitionist John Brown, "Cloudsplitter."

Since the Pulitzer is supposedly for a novel concerned with American themes, the odds seemed greatly to favor either Kingsolver or Banks. What hope was there for a small novel inspired by and partly about the English novelist Virginia Woolf?

None, Cunningham figured, and while he didn't think he would win, he found depressing the thought of sitting around his Manhattan studio and finally being told by someone – a friendly reporter, his publisher – that he hadn't got it. He went over to a friend's apartment, finally learning the news when he checked his studio's answering machine.

"Complete incredulity" was Cunningham's reaction. "It implies something encouraging about how big and broad the notion of an American topic can be."

"The Hours" is about the fullness of time, and reading and writing and trying to live authentically, if only for just one hour. It started off modestly – the first printing was 20,000 copies – but, considering how influential awards are now, it will soon be inescapable.

That will take a few weeks. In the meantime, Cunningham was still trying to absorb the shock. "I called my family and my closest friend, Kenny – I don't know what to call him – my partner, my lover and mentor and muse, who is responsible as anyone for the way the book turned out. He canceled his last couple of patients – he's a psychologist – and is coming over here. And we'll just take it from there."

Special correspondent Pierre Ruhe contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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