Michael Cunningham’s Adventures in Time and Space
Michael Cunningham overcame failure, and success, to find the freedom to be his true self.
Michael Cunningham is an esteemed fiction writer best known for his Pulitzer-winning fourth novel The Hours.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1952 and raised in Pasadena, California, Cunningham studied English literature at Stanford University and earned an MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has published seven novels and a collection of short stories, beginning with Golden States (1984). His second novel, A Home at the End of the World (1990), became a 2004 film, for which Cunningham wrote the screenplay.
A life-long admirer of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham used the book and its writer as the inspiration for his hugely successful 1998 book The Hours. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Oscar-winning 2002 film starring Merryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Among his other awards, he won a 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award in 1994.
Cunningham is a professor of creative writing at Yale University.
Michael Cunningham was a teenager when he began to want more out of life. He dreamt of being a rockstar, a great painter, anything to get him out of the suburbs and into a bigger and more exciting world. But in high school, reality set in.
Michael Cunningham: I was, with my, shall we say, romantic relationship with reality, had to acknowledge, sort of sooner rather than later, that that I had no talent at all. I just wanted to wear leather pants and light my hair on fire. And it, I just said, “You know what? You have to be a little bit good at it to be an actual rock star.”
So he settled on trying to become cool. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1952, and raised in Pasadena, California during the 1960s, he wasn’t particularly bookish, preferring rock and roll’s revolutionary soundscapes over literature. But then, hoping to impress a popular girl at school, he set about reading the books she liked. He began with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It was the first time he found an author’s words as captivating as his favorite song lyrics. Woolf’s novel moved him deeply, but not enough to start writing himself. It took years, a brief detour into painting, and an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford, before he’d try his hand at it.
Cunningham: I graduated from college and, sort of, got into my third hand Toyota and drove out into the mad American night, thinking that I would find the stuff of my first novel out there, that I would just wrestle it down from the constellations, and up from the desert floor, and, yeah, three years later, I’m tending bar in a Mexican restaurant.
A Mexican restaurant in free-thinking 1970s Laguna Beach, California, where he enjoyed a hedonistic life of parties, booze, and sex. With no one to help guide his literary aspirations, his youthful self-confidence gradually turned into disillusionment.
Cunningham: At point A, he discards his cap and gown and, gets into his barely functioning car with his $200 in savings and drives, drives away. I thought, “Yeah. Here comes the young genius. Get ready, world.” A few years later, I felt like, I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, how, how many people think that they are going to be some kind of voice? And almost everybody is wrong and you, you think you’re the one who, who’s right. But me, but everyone thinks that. I still remember when, the idea of writing something good, which, and I was reading good things all the time, but the idea of writing that sort of felt like, “Okay, get to Jupiter in a rocket, using the materials you have in the house.” Like I just didn’t, couldn’t imagine how to get from where I was, to, I didn’t even feel like I was making half steps in that, in that direction.
Cunningham saw that his comfort zone was in the realm of the “What if?” And realized that if he was going to get to Jupiter, he needed to at least try to build that proverbial rocket.
Cunningham: Started seven novels and dumped them all. I couldn’t seem to, I couldn’t find any traction, and-
AJC: All unfinished?
Cunningham: Oh yeah. Yeah, and rightly so. I mean, they were crappy, and I just thought, “This has to change.”
So in 1980, he took off again in his ancient Toyota, leaving California for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There he found some like-minds who cared as much as he did about writing.
Cunningham: Here were people I admired and loved, who felt that writing a really great sentence was the greatest thing you could possibly do. Here were people you could call at midnight, and say, “I’m sorry I woke you up, but I have to read you this paragraph.” And they would say, “Fine.” And that really turned it around for me. That was so not making blender margaritas in Laguna Beach. Yeah. I was kind of aware, even then, when we were still in Iowa, that you had to be, if you weren’t obsessive you wouldn’t be there in the first place. But I was the most obsessive. I was the one who would write the sentence 35 times. And then the two years are over and you’re in Iowa with no money and what do you do?
There were more margaritas to make, but this time around Cunningham embraced the unglamorous sacrifices that made full-time writing possible for him. The skills he had been cultivating for more than a decade began to match his determination.
Cunningham: I remember what Marilyn Monroe said. “I wasn’t the prettiest. I wasn’t the most talented. I just wanted it more than anybody else.”
And Cunningham’s doggedness eventually bore fruit. He published his first novel, Golden States, in 1984 at age 32; Home at the End of the World in 1990, Flesh and Blood in 1995, and then came The Hours. Published in 1998, it was a passion project, nurtured by his lifelong love of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, and an enduring interest in characters limited by the world around them.
AJC: I like you very much for this, that you’re not, you’re not passing judgment and you’re not even inviting the reader to pass judgment on your characters-
Cunningham: No, that,
AJC: Which is a pretty neat trick.
Cunningham: Yeah, no, that is hugely important to me. One of the primary purposes of fiction, as far as I can see, is that it is, quite possibly, the most effective narrative medium, maybe the most effective medium of any kind, for letting us, as readers, know what it’s like to be a person who is not us. I don’t, I, I don’t go to fiction for the wicked or the snide. I get, the wicked and the snide abounds, and I take pleasure in it in all kinds of forms, but I really want, you know, that’s one of the reasons I, I love, Woolf as much as I do. Although there are whole pages full with just one impossibly great sentence after another, she is using her remarkable capacity for language to try to get at the heart of the heart of the matter.
The Hours became a New York Times Bestseller, and then an Academy Award-winning film. And in the fall of 2022, a major production for The Metropolitan Opera. But when it won Cunningham the Pulitzer prize at age 47, it didn’t, as he might’ve expected, make him happy ever after. In the wake of the celebration, he fell into a deep depression. Was that it?
Cunningham: It was kind of bad, but then I, then I kind of, with the help of some prescription pharmaceuticals and a very good doctor, I picked myself up, and dusted myself off, and told myself, “How about this? How about, you’ve already won. Now you’ve won the Pulitzer prize, and you don’t have to think about winning the Pulitzer prize. What if this meant you could just write whatever you want?” Because it can be oppressive; it can also be liberating.
Armed with this liberation from the fallout of success, Cunningham again found his mojo, and the words began to tumble from his pen: short stories, essays, screenplays, and in 2005, a novel, Specimen Days. By Nightfall followed in 2010, The Snow Queen in 2014, and in 2015, A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Here Cunningham imagines the lives of fairytale characters, in circumstances that he was only too familiar with: the reality that follows what might seem to be a story’s happy ending.
Cunningham: Again, why, why be coy about the complexity of it? There are days when I feel, “This is great. I’m free. I have the, I don’t seem to have gone away.” And there are days when I think, “Oh, I want to, I want to go to the premiere of the movie based on my other novel.” But I just feel like, like I don’t, yeah, there are times when I want to be like descending the staircase to the applause of, of many.
But on other days, Michael Cunningham sees, with greater clarity, the kind of happiness he thought success might bring will ebb and flow.
Cunningham: You have, yeah, a sense of, trying to, push it forward in some way, trying to be better at it.
AJC: Not repeat yourself?
Cunningham: With, with each book. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Every now and then somebody will say, well, you know, “The Hours was such a huge success, don’t you feel satisfied?” Well, in a certain sense, yes, of course. But also no! I’m not done.
And this desire to discover what’s next is what moves Michael Cunningham, and his life has shown that perseverance might just be the most potent fuel for action. Powerful enough even for a rocket to Jupiter, with the knowledge that flying towards the stars might just be more exhilarating than the eventual touchdown.