Some individuals have not been able to forgive me for not simply rewriting The Hours.
“Let’s just say,” Michael Cunningham says to me, “sitting at the kitchen table in my underwear with a laptop at two in the afternoon makes me feel foolish.” He has a unique voice – deep and gentle – and he is explaining to me via Zoom why he chooses to leave his home in Brooklyn every day and go to his studio in Greenwich Village. With a quick “Bye honey!” – referring to his husband, psychotherapist Ken Corbett, with whom he has been in a committed relationship for 35 years – he makes his way across town and gets to work. This reminds me of writer John Cheever, I mention, although Cunningham’s commute is much longer.
“I adore that tale! The man entered the lift in formal attire, carrying a briefcase, and descended to the lower level to work. Later, he would ride back up in the evening to inflict pain on his spouse and kids.” Cunningham, however, is dressed more informally – does he possess a briefcase? “Oh, no, no, no. John Cheever needed more props than I do. I simply need to vacate the premises, that’s all.” Well, Cheever likely had more problems. “John Cheever’s problems! My goodness!”
Cunningham’s characters often face significant emotional struggles, even if Cunningham himself does not. In his most famous work, The Hours, he intertwines the stories of three women who are dealing with serious challenges. These women include Virginia Woolf, whose novel Mrs Dalloway sparked Cunningham’s interest in fiction, Laura Brown, a distressed housewife and mother living in midcentury Los Angeles, and Clarissa Vaughan, a modern New Yorker who is grappling with questions about her sexuality and romantic relationships while preparing for a party. The novel was a huge success upon its release in 1998, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award. Its film adaptation, written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, became a blockbuster with its star-studded cast of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman.
Cunningham was taken aback by the success of The Hours. He remembers that the novel centers around three women who are struggling with depression, with one of them being Virginia Woolf. Despite this, there was nothing during the writing process that hinted at the book’s potential for commercial success.
What makes him believe it became popular? “It appears to have resonated with numerous readers, particularly women. In The Hours, Laura Brown leaves her family, which is considered one of the remaining taboos. ‘She destroyed the building, she caused the death of 100 people, but she was a devoted mother.’ During my book readings, I encountered numerous women who approached me afterwards and shared: ‘I have done that, and no one has ever depicted a woman doing it with empathy.'”
“The Hours” was Cunningham’s fourth book, and he is now releasing his eighth, “Day,” after a 10-year hiatus. The novel follows a familiar tripartite structure, exploring life in Brooklyn through three single days, each a year apart. The story centers around Dan and Isabel, a married couple whose relationship is slowly deteriorating (“not good enough to stay, but not bad enough to end”), and Isabel’s brother Robbie, a valued member of their household who is considering moving on.
The pandemic is also a factor in the story, as it takes place on April 5th of 2019, 2020, and 2021. Although the virus is not explicitly mentioned, its impact is evident everywhere, as Dan, Isabel, and their children are confined to a small apartment together. Cunningham was in the middle of writing a different novel – a family saga that spans multiple generations and leads up to the present day – when Covid-19 emerged. He realized that it was impossible to write a contemporary novel without acknowledging the pandemic. If he had tried to incorporate it into his work in progress, he likens it to Godzilla crashing a party: unexpected and disruptive. So with some sadness, he set that project aside.
He had no particular desire to compose or even peruse a novel centered on the pandemic, yet he felt a sense of obligation to acknowledge the reality of his circumstances. However, “Day” delves into much more than just a perilous virus and its impact on society; it also explores the concept that when our lives become suffocating, we yearn for a better alternative. Robbie and Isabel dream of purchasing a house in the countryside and create an Instagram account for a fictional doctor named Wolf (unconsciously referencing Virginia, he claims), who shares countless photos of his idyllic life. Meanwhile, Dan cares for their children but harbors a longing to return to his previous life as a musician. All three are attempting to break free from their current situations.
He believes that this drive is reflected in the “sorrow and anger” prevalent in American society: the constant urge to keep moving forward, until reaching the Pacific Ocean, the edge of the continent, and then having to turn back. This mix of an infinite, green landscape with a finite end plays a role in shaping the American identity.
Cunningham, who is currently 71 years old, was born in Ohio and raised in southern California. He later attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop to study creative writing. While his work reflects elements of the American experience, it was actually Europe that provided his most influential sources of inspiration. This includes authors such as Woolf and 19th-century writers like George Eliot, whose novel The Mill on the Floss, featuring a closely connected brother and sister, is referenced in Day. Cunningham admires Eliot’s incredible talent and intelligence, even going so far as to imagine her as possibly the most gifted person to have ever lived. He does not mean to disrespect Virginia Woolf, another highly gifted and intelligent writer, but is simply amazed by Eliot’s ability to vividly create numerous complex characters.
However, it is Woolf who he will always be linked to and holds in the highest regard. This is not only because her work was created while she struggled with debilitating mental illness. As she once stated, she ventured into the depths of hell and emerged battered but ready to fight. One of the reasons I admire her is her deep understanding of the depths of despair, yet also her ability to capture the pure bliss of being alive in her writing. Even on a simple spring day in London, there is an undeniable sense of hope and positivity that I find trustworthy.
When I ask whether the success of The Hours has ever felt like a double-edged sword, he says, with humorous ruefulness, that: “I know some people have never forgiven me for not just writing The Hours over and over and over again.” He pauses. “But it’s not nothing to be recognised like that and established like that, and to continue to write another one and another one with an undeniably increased sense that they can’t really make you go away any more.”
Is it a pleasant issue to have? If I ever start to feel annoyed by people wanting to discuss The Hours and not my other books, I have to remind myself that it’s amazing that my novel from 25 years ago is still being talked about. So I should just be quiet.