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Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in southern California. He studied literature at Stanford University and later returned to the heartland, where he received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1980. As a writer recognized early on for his promising talent, Cunningham was awarded several grants toward his work, including a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa in 1982, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988. He spent two years in Iowa City, 1979 and 1980.

The Hours

Cunningham’s pivotal work, The Hours (1998) established him as a major force in American writing. He received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/Falkner Award for this work. The novel is a tribute to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and reworks the events of this classic novel, setting them alternately in 1980s Greenwich Village, 1940s Los Angeles, and Woolf's London. The Hours was adapted into a major motion picture starring the powerhouse trio of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman in December 2002.

Cunningham described the genesis of the novel in an interview with the now defunct magazine Other Voices: [fn]Other Voices, # 37/2002, http://www.webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/CunninghamInt.html[/fn] “I read Woolf for the first time when I was in high school…in southern California. I was not an especially precocious student. I didn’t really read, except what they forced me to read. I was much more interested in movies and music. I was preparing for my career as a rock star, which I intended to pursue—I think, admirably undaunted by the fact that I had no talent. I just wanted to wear leather pants and light my hair on fire. Who doesn’t? I was talking to an older girl, the pirate queen of our high school—every high school has somebody like this. She was tall and mean and beautiful and smart. I was yakking away to her about how I thought Leonard Cohen was ultimately a better poet than Bob Dylan, and she said to me—really, not without a certain stern compassion—“Have you ever thought about being less stupid?” And I had thought about it—and had pretty much decided I was happy with the amount of stupid I was. But she said, “Why don’t you read some books? Why don’t you read Eliot and Virginia Woolf?” I wasn’t a complete moron. I knew who Eliot and Woolf were, I just didn’t think that I would ever read them. But I went to the library—the bookmobile, the trailer on the cinder blocks where they kept the books. They didn’t have any books by Eliot. They had one book by Woolf, which was Mrs. Dalloway—which no one had ever checked out but me. I tried to read it. I didn’t know what it was about; I literally didn’t know what was going on. But I did get something about the density and complexity and musicality of those sentences, and I remember thinking, “Oh, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.” I still stand by that analogy. Woolf and Hendrix, I think, are more alike than they are dissimilar. And it really excited me. I didn’t finish [Mrs. Dalloway] then, but I read far enough into it until I was just overwhelmed and had to take a nap. Enough to see how she had lavished these incredible sentences, this miraculous perceptivity on London in the twenties and how incredibly, eternally alive and important London in the twenties was. I looked around at where I lived and, really, a more deracinated suburb is hard to imagine. It was Southern California, with little bungalows and little lawns with patches of brown grass and a little palm tree here and there. But it was my world. It was where I lived, and I thought, wouldn’t it be something to be able to do with this something like what Woolf did with London? To be able to create this world of mine which is so plain, but which I know to be sort of magic and amazing.

[And I] thought about it for years.”

Iowa City: Two Accounts

From Other Voices, 2002: [fn]Other Voices, # 37/2002, http://www.webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/CunninghamInt.html[/fn]

“I finally applied to a coup le of MFA programs after I’d been out of college for a couple of years. I was working at a bar in Laguna Beach and doing my best to write, but living with people who I loved, but who didn’t even read. Everyone else was off at the beach and I was inside—it was a dark and stormy night—feeling like such a crackpot. I was starting to go down, I was losing my faith in what I was trying to do. And I didn’t want to sling drinks forever. So I applied to these programs. Weirdly—though I certainly wouldn’t feel that way now—there was a certain embarrassment. It felt like a kind of desperate effort, to go to writing school—like it was charm school or modeling school. Something advertised on a subway. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. I got in and really wavered up until the last moment about whether I was going to go at all, but finally went.

Got in my car, drove to Iowa City. There it was. And actually, though I don’t think I can really credit the man behind the curtain at Iowa—because I think there is some real mean-spirited stuff that goes on there—it made a huge, huge difference to me. What it really did for me more than anything else was put me for two years in a local economy. It was Iowa City and there was no place else to go; no one else to know but the other writers. There I was among people who were willing to come to blows over questions of sentences, who cared that much about them. There was intrigue about fiction. There were people—a group of them—who I really respected, who agreed that writing a beautiful sentence was a significant thing to do with your life. That mattered to me more than anything. I had some friends there and we sort of educated each other. For years afterwards, I wrote for them. I still write for people—different people now. But it could not have mattered more to me that they were there in Iowa. Then we scattered—but they were still there, and I knew that they were writing and I knew they were thinking of me writing.

I think MFA programs, though they can do harm as well as good, are great. It’s not like there’s anything else out there for young writers. I really don’t want to be one of those people who says, it’s better in France, but I’ve traveled a lot the last few years around Europe, and I can tell you that, in other places, the fact that you are trying to write, even though you haven’t published anything yet, is more likely to be treated with the kind of response it deserves. Which is, thank you, hero, for undertaking this very important, difficult work, knowing, as you must know, the odds against it ever paying or giving you anything of any material worth. Thank you. Here people tend to excuse themselves and get another drink if they hear you’re trying to write, and I think MFA programs are sanctuaries, places where it’s taken properly seriously. “

From Conversations From the Iowa Writers' Workshop with Kecia Lynn, 2008:[fn]http://media.uiowa.edu/btn/cunningham.html[/fn]

 

“I started writing when I was an undergraduate, without any particular conviction that I was any good at it. It’s not false modesty. But I loved doing it. It was the first thing I’ve done that I loved so completely, and I graduated from college and kept doing it. And after a few years working in bars, and writing during the mornings, you know, one of the classic things that a young aspiring writer does … I found myself in this little beach town in Southern California, working in a bar in a Mexican restaurant: it was not a glamorous sort of life. I didn’t really know anybody in this little town in Southern California who had ever read a book, much less who could talk about writing. So, with some trepidations, I applied to a couple of MFA programs, and was accepted at Iowa and came here.

I’d never been to Iowa before. I loved it! I loved Iowa City, I loved my two years here. They weren’t always easy, of course. And when I was here it was [sighs] competitive. I hear that it is not quite so hard on students now as it was when I was here. But the funny thing is, it was good for me in a way, it was difficult for me, it was difficult for all of us. I was just this sort of hippie-ish kid from Southern California who had been trying to write, and unsure about whether writing fiction was even enough to do with a life. What about getting hungry? I’m gonna write stories as the world collapses? And there was something about that very rigorous, competitive environment. There was something about having big ugly fights in the seminar rooms with people who I knew to be intelligent and gifted that woke me up, that made me feel I was a member of this swat team, that we were all engaged.

It was two years in a place where everyone agreed that nothing could possibly matter more than writing a beautiful paragraph. And that made a huge difference to me.

What is so great about the program at Iowa is that you are by definition a member of the community. You can’t help but be a member of the community. It’s not like Columbia where, after the program is over, everybody vanished into Manhattan. And here this is your people, these are the people you’re living with, fighting with, and having affairs with, spending all your time with. And there is nothing like that out there. In any other city there is no bohemian quarter where the poets gather at night to discuss sonnets and the future of the novel. There’s no comparison. This is about the closest thing I know.”

Bibliography

Novels

Golden States (1984)

A Home at the End of the World (1990)

Flesh and Blood (1995)

The Hours (1998)

Specimen Days (2005)

By Nightfall (2010)

Nonfiction

Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (2002)

Screenplays

A Home at the End of the World (2004)

Evening (2007)

 

 

Composition: Zlatko Anguelov