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The Art of Being Swell

Michael Cunningham: The Man Behind The Hours

By Allison C. Lewis

Michael Cunningham’s remarkable novel, The Hours, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and was made into an award-winning film with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. I had the opportunity to speak with Cunningham on the phone Friday.

Cunningham was honestly friendly though a bit haughty, perhaps because he’s sure of himself. But who wouldn’t be after having written a prize-winning novel? He exuded pleasant confidence, a personality trait I’m drawn to, and something that makes Michael Cunningham one swell guy. One swell writer, to be exact.

“Everybody says they’re a writer,” he says.

“Why do you write?”

“I just do.”


He talks about his background. He was a high school student in Los Angeles, obsessed with an older girl who said to him, “Have you ever thought of being less stupid?” She told him to read Virginia Woolf. That’s when Cunningham first read and first loved Mrs. Dalloway. He admires the “beauty, complexity, [and] music” of Virginia Woolf’s writing, and so his fascination with writing and reading began. He had wanted to write about the “profound transforming experience of reading a book,” and The Hours sprang from this idea.

When comparing the book with the movie, Cunningham says he is hugely satisfied with the movie, though it has a life of its own. He first watched the movie in a “deranged” state.

“[Watching the movie for the first time was] surreal, the strangest experience ... I couldn’t put it together.” By the second watching, he began to realize it’s a “work of art unto itself.” A work of art worthy of awards, for sure.

But he didn’t enjoy the Golden Globes: “Not that much fun, ... not a party at all,” he explains. For Cunningham, the after-parties were more worthwhile. He danced with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

When writing The Hours, he focused first on characters, writing about all kinds of people, based on the traits of people around him. “Composites,” he says. “Laura Brown is based [loosely] on my mother.” Then there’s the subtle theme of homosexuality in his writing. He explains, “As a gay man, I write about what I know.” He also calls himself “absolutely a feminist” and loves his “sisters.”

But writing The Hours held certain difficulties. Number One: Solitude. Which is why he loves living in New York. He never feels quite alone with “everybody in the world right out in the streets.” Number Two: Accepting that “this is the best I can do.” He explains that his work never turns out as planned and feels that it could always be better.

So, how was he able to tackle Virginia Woolf? How could he justify transforming her into a character, or taking on her writing style in his novel? Cunningham says he was terrified and embarrassed and found the task hugely daunting. He ended up, however, with one incredible novel.

The Hours is a day in the life of three amazing women -- “brilliant, tormented, inspired, complicated,” in his words. They convey a “sense of certain hope that survives the worst that can happen to people.” But why women?

“Because I am a woman,” he says, only half-jokingly. He goes on, “I’m only interested in writing about people different from me ... these are three brilliant, complicated women full of difficult emotion. [The story is] not easy, not light.”

And so he was surprised to find his “quirky” book and the subsequent movie become successful works of art. “It’s so difficult to produce anything good,” he says.

But Cunningham has written something good. He’s a writer, in every way, shape, and form. And, lucky for me, he’s also a pretty cool guy to talk to.