Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham prefers not to plan out his novels in detail.
“Everybody writes differently,” he said. “But I like to take a stupid idea and see how it expands.”
More than 100 people crowded into the Taft Library in Jonathan Edwards College Monday night to listen to Cunningham read excerpts from his work and field questions about his old and new projects, writer’s block and baking cakes.
The author of three novels, Cunningham is best known for “The Hours,” which intertwines the life of Virginia Woolf with the lives of two women from more contemporary generations. The book won Cunningham the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award before being adapted as a movie in 2002.
Cunningham said the novel’s success surprised his agent and publisher.
“One of the first obstacles to any writer is the number of intelligent, well-meaning people who say, ‘This doesn’t have enough sex scenes, this doesn’t have enough car chases,'” he said. “Not that I don’t like sex scenes and car chases.”
The author said his original “stupid idea” for the novel was to reimagine Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” in his neighborhood, New York City’s Chelsea.
“It very, very slowly evolved into the book it became,” he said.
After asking the audience members to choose a work for him to read from, Cunningham read for half an hour from his new novel, a work in progress that is divided into three distinct narratives, like “The Hours.” In the excerpt he read, a 12-year-old boy takes his late brother’s job in a New York City iron works in 1865 after a work-related accident has taken the older brother’s life.
Cunningham said he decided to move in a different direction after the success of “The Hours.”
“After someone writes a successful novel, everybody’s going to hate the next book,” he said. “I do it, too. You want the same novel, but you want one that you haven’t read before. So I said, ‘Fine.’ It freed me to do what I wanted with the new novel.”
Cunningham followed the reading from his new work with a reading of his critically acclaimed short story “Mister Brother” and a question and answer session. He said his key to avoiding writer’s block has been to make himself write for several hours a day regardless of his mood.
“One of the virtues of having done this for a long time is you get the faith that inspiration will come back,” he said.
Asked why his novels all involve baking scenes, Cunningham said he feels baking is a creative act that should be held in higher regard. He compared baking a cake to writing a book.
“If you take away the end result and put them both on the shelf, they’re almost equal enterprises,” he said. “It’s only the end product that pushes esteem one way or the other. And after the first book, I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s enough with the cakes,’ but then I decided, ‘No, they all have to have cakes.'”
Rachel Khong ’07 said she was impressed with Cunningham’s speaking, and found his discussion of the writing process particularly interesting.
“I’m a writer myself, and I loved his comments about how he thinks writing should be communicative and sexy, the writer communicating directly with the reader,” Khong said.
Khong said she had already read “The Hours,” but some attendees who had only a passing familiarity with Cunningham’s work said they wanted to read more.
“So far, the only story of his I’ve read was ‘White Angel’ when it first appeared as a short story,” Trevor Swett ’07 said. “But now I think I’m going to go read a lot more.”
Cunningham’s other two published novels are 1995’s “Flesh and Blood” and 1990’s “A Home at the End of the World,” which he later adapted as a screenplay. The film version is scheduled for release later in 2004.
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