From: "Dianne Hunter" <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: FW: Admirers Of Michael Cunningham Only
Subject: Admirers Of Michael Cunningham Only
'MRS. Dalloway' started writer on path to fame
Salisbury Post - Salibury,NC,USA
... Cunningham told the packed auditorium about his long-time fascination
with Virginia Woolf and what he called his "transforming" experience reading
By Katie Scarvey, Salisbury Post
When Michael Cunningham wrote "The Hours," he thought he was writing an
"arty little book," and everyone, including him, figured he'd be lucky if it
sold a few thousand copies. At that time, Cunningham considered himself
"under-recognized, under-appreciated and underpaid."
He assumed that the book would "march with whatever dignity it could muster"
to the remainder table, he said.
Still, one of his friends, Joel Conarroe, told him, "You're going to become
a household word, at least in households where superb literature is taken
As it turned out, Conarroe was right. "The Hours" won two huge awards in
1999: the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/ Faulkner Award. And if all that
literary acclaim weren't enough, it enjoyed popular success and was made
into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.
Now, said Cunningham during a press conference at Davidson Monday afternoon,
he's "over-recognized, over-appreciated and overpaid."
Cunningham was in Davidson Monday as part of the annual Joel Conarroe
Lecture Series honoring the 1956 Davidson graduate who has served as
president of PENAmerican Center and executive director of the Modern
At 8 p.m. in the Duke Family Performance Hall, Conarroe introduced
Cunningham as "the poster boy of the basic unfairness of life," pointing to
his talent, good looks, intelligence and agreeable nature.
Cunningham told the packed auditorium about his long-time fascination with
Virginia Woolf and what he called his "transforming" experience reading
Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway" in high school.
As a student in California, he dutifully read what was assigned -- "The
Grapes of Wrath," "Ethan Frome" and "The Scarlet Letter." Nothing captured
"I had never been exposed to a book that really thrilled me," he said.
While he was trying to impress his high school's "pirate queen" alpha
female, she asked him, "Did you ever think of being less stupid? Why don't
you read a book or something?"
She suggested Eliot or Woolf, and since Cunningham couldn't find any books
by Eliot in his school's "band-aid colored" trailer on cinder blocks that
served as the library, he checked out "Mrs. Dalloway."
He didn't quite understand the novel then, but he couldn't stop thinking
"I began to know that I had never seen sentences like this," he said. "I'd
never known that sentences could be dense, musical, intricately balanced" --
kind of like the music of Jimi Hendrix, he said.
"Mrs. Dalloway" showed him what a book could be -- "magic with ink and
"It turned me into a reader and showed me how much life can rise up off of
paper and into your face," he said.
Ultimately, it changed his career plans, making him want to be a writer.
(Initially, he wanted to be a rock star, a career objective arrived at
because he wanted to wear leather pants and set his hair on fire. "Doesn't
everyone?" he asked.)
Before Woolf, he said, great books were expected to be about big subjects,
like quests, wars or the search for God. In such books, Woolf didn't see her
life, which was more about "errands, naps, and the occasional boring party,"
But that life, and any life, he said, is worthy of attention, is epic and
comic and beautiful and heroic.
"She set out to look at outwardly ordinary lives in order to discover their
epic greatness," he said.
"'It made me realize that every life is fascinating and vitally important.
"The galaxies and subatomic particles are equally vast," he said. "Woolf
focused her attention on the subatomic, and I love her for that; I venerate
her for that. She changed our collective sense of what is and is not
Although he wanted to be a writer when he was 17, Cunningham says that he
panicked in his late 20s, realizing that he hadn't really produced anything.
So at 29, he churned out a novel, "in about 45 minutes," he said. It was
called "Golden States," and he never felt good about it because he knew it
wasn't the best he could do. Still, it was important because it got him
going as a writer, Cunningham said.
He published several more books -- ones he felt much better about -- before
writing his break-through novel "The Hours."
An homage to "Mrs. Dalloway," "The Hours" is written in a distinctly
Woolfian style. In this startlingly original book, Cunningham describes a
day in the life of three women. One is Woolf herself. Another is a
modern-day Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan. And the third woman is Laura
Brown, a pregnant California wife and mother in the 1950s who is reading
"Mrs. Dalloway" and feeling trapped in a life that doesn't feel right to
While Cunningham was initially hesitant about "The Hours" being made into a
movie, he loved how the film turned out. "I thought they did a beautiful job
with the movie," he said.
Commenting on the movie's popularity, he said, "It's nice to be reminded
that the American public is not as stupid as it's made out to be."
He had only one argument with screenwriter David Hare, who wanted to have
the character of Laura Brown take a gun with her when she drives to a hotel
to read "Mrs. Dalloway." Cunningham had to convince Hare that his character
would simply never do that, and he was grateful when actress Julianne Moore
backed him up. Double-teamed, Hare backed down.
"I hear novelists who are afraid Hollywood will ruin their books," he said.
"I don't have that thing about the 'precious and sacred' text -- that always
feels a little sad to me." A book is not a holy relic to be kept in a
vitrine like the fingernail of a saint, he said.
"If people you respect want to move your book to another medium, I say,
'take it away.' If you think you've created a perfect object, then be
content with that.
"I love doing the movies, but it's very important to me, after 'The Hours',
that I not start thinking about how (my books) would work as movies."
Cunningham wrote the screenplay for his novel "Home at the End of the
World," which will be coming out later this year. Like "The Hours," the
project attracted some major Hollywood players, who all agreed to work for
scale to be part of the project. Colin Farrell, Sissy Spacek and Robin
Wright Penn star in the movie.
He is working on a trilogy of what he describes as "short pulp novels,"
including a ghost story, a thriller and a science fiction book. What will,
perhaps, take the series beyond "pulp," other than Cunningham's skill, is
that each book involves Walt Whitman. In the ghost story, Whitman is
himself; in the thriller, he's a terrorist; in the science fiction novel,
he's a "mythical scientist."
Cunningham mentioned English author Jim Crace ("Being Dead," "The
Florentine") as an "ongoing source of inspiration." He also likes the work
of Joanna Scott and recently read and loved the science fiction novel
"Solaris" ("not the terrible movie," he cautioned).
He also mentioned Samuel Delaney. "He may not be the only gay
African-American science fiction writer, but he's the best," Cunningham
Of writers no longer living, he mentioned Flaubert, Flannery O'Conner and
Overall, contemporary literature is in "pretty good shape," he said.
In talking about his Pulitzer Prize, Cunningham mentioned that the actual
award was kind of a disappointment. "I was thinking of, like, a Heisman
Trophy," he said, stretching out his arms to indicate something large.
Instead --"well, the word 'knick-knack' comes to mind," he said.
"But it's nice to have," he added.
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