Two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for "The Hours," novelist Michael Cunningham is attractively modest. "I'm not one of those writers who thinks what they have to give is the best," he admits. "I definitely think, Oh God, this could be so much better! But then I realize, No, this isn't just for me. It's for others as well. You wouldn't bake a big cake and it eat all yourself, now would you?"
"The Hours" is a tribute to Virginia Woolf and her renowned novel "Mrs. Dalloway" in its discussion of three complicated women including the esteemed Mrs. Woolf herself. The Pulitzer was awarded for Cunningham's believable depiction of the essential American experience. The book also received the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was recently made into a movie.
In the book, Laura Brown, a depressed, pregnant housewife in suburban post-World War II Los Angeles, feels obligated to bake a cake for her husband's birthday, but would rather hide away in a hotel room reading "Mrs. Dalloway." In a parallel story that takes place in modern-day Greenwich Village, Clarissa Vaughan called Mrs. Dalloway by her beloved AIDS-inflicted friend feels obligated to throw a party in honor of that friend who gave her the moniker when she was 18. The book also follows Virginia Woolf as she begins to pen "Mrs. Dalloway" in between bouts of depression and mania, on the outskirts of London, the city to which she so badly wishes to return but is not allowed.
Why Mrs. Dalloway? Why Virginia Woolf?
Just like his fictional 18-year-old, Clarissa Vaughan, Cunningham tells his own real-life story of being an impressionable youth. "I was a sophomore with a crush on a senior," he recounts. "She was beautiful and smart and mean and terrifying. And one day, I was trying to be impressive and was talking Bob Dylan to her, and she said in a puff of Marlboro smoke, 'Sure, he's great, but what do you think of T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf?'"
It was then, in the middle of the '60s, Los Angeles and rock 'n' roll, where a teen-age Michael Cunningham realized that books mattered. "But what I didn't understand then," he says, "and what I understand now is how Virginia Woolf insisted on the importance of ordinary lives. I was a kid in the suburbs, and to actually think that what was happening to me was grand and heroic just sort of stuck."
As for writing a tribute to Virginia Woolf, Cunningham always had the idea in the back of his mind but never felt ready enough to begin. "But then I realized," he says, "you never feel ready to do anything. You may as well start at your present point of inadequacy. You have to say to yourself, It's ready, set, go."
After three years of trial and error, "The Hours" came to be. And though the book is so structured and so filled with parallels and symbols, Cunningham admits that there wasn't as much calculation as it appears. "I just had to let it go its own way," he says. "Of course I had to be willing to discard some shocking number of pages, but the end result was something that exceeded my expectations. I'm trying to write books that are a little smarter than I am."
A Stanford graduate with a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa, Cunningham's obviously no dummy. However, his decision to be a novelist wasn't received as highly as his recent work. "I experienced every conceivable barrier," he confesses. "Everybody thinks you're insane."
Cunningham could have given up as he's seen some people do. "The longer I live, the more I am convinced that to be a novelist, you do have to have a gift, but you almost have to have a preternatural stubbornness to keep going, to want it more than anyone else."
You can't think, like "The Hours'" Laura Brown, that your cake is never good enough, he says. Now he's writing his next novel a compilation of three linked novellas, all of different genres. "I think the trick is not to be unafraid, but to write it anyway," Cunningham says. "And if everyone hates it, then I can write whatever I want after that!" S
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