Award-winning novelist Michael Cunningham has been hired as a part-time senior lecturer in the English Department, said Michael Warner, the chairman of the department.
Cunningham, whose novel “The Hours” received the Pulitzer Prize and inspired an Oscar-winning film of the same name, will teach two courses on creative writing during the spring semester over the next three years.
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“He’s coming here first and foremost because he is an extraordinary novelist,” said J.D. McClatchy, adjunct professor of English and editor of the Yale Review. “He is a writer whose work has exceptional narrative invention and emotional intensity.”
Cunningham, Warner said, is a well-known writer with extensive teaching experience who shares the Yale English Department’s philosophy on writing courses. Reading and understanding literature, Warner said, is as crucial to writing as workshops are. As such, Warner said, the writing concentration is a part of the English major at Yale, rather than a separate program.
“He himself is kind of a scholar of American literature,” Paul Grimstad, assistant professor of English, said, pointing to Cunningham’s inclusion of literary figures in his fiction as an example. Virginia Woolf is a character in “The Hours,” while Walt Whitman appears in his most recent novel, “Specimen Days.”
Cunningham taught at Columbia University for seven years and at Brooklyn College for six, while at the same time working on his own novel and film projects. But a year ago, he said, he decided he needed a break and left Brooklyn College. Just as he was beginning to feel ready to return to academia, he received a call from Warner, whom he has known since the early 1990s.
In conjunction with the English Department, Cunningham eventually decided to teach an intermediate fiction-writing course. He said he originally also wanted to teach a section of “Readings in American Literature” — which had independently added his novel “Specimen Days” to the syllabus.
But because the course timing conflicted with his schedule, he was forced to give up that idea. Instead, he said, he will teach a course that fuses the practice of writing with the study of literature — which he said is essential to being a good writer.
For Cunningham, teaching offers a respite from the daily work of writing, he said.
“As a writer, I spend days alone in a room trying to think of one sentence, and then another sentence,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is talk about writing. I want to talk about root beer and physics and where hemlines are headed next year.”
But discussing writing within the context of a seminar and teaching students, Cunningham said, is different.
“It’s great talking about what we do and why,” he said. “It keeps me thinking about the process.”
For the English Department, Cunningham is one of many professional writers who double as teachers, including Anne Fadiman, John Crowley and others. In the spring of 2007, the English Department brought in Jonathan Safran Foer, the best-selling author of “Everything is Illuminated.” And Warner said Cunningham’s three-year appointment is one the department hopes to offer in the future to other professional writers.
Christine Kwon ’11, who is majoring in English and hopes to concentrate in writing, said encountering writers such as Cunningham is refreshing.
“The people who teach here have been around for years,” she said. “They have a set curriculum, a set teaching style. But having someone like Michael Cunningham, who is really different and is a little more pop culture, is like a breath of fresh air.”
Cunningham said he is currently working on a novel centered on a man in the throes of an intellectual crisis about art.
“It has a lot of car chases and sex scenes,” he said with a laugh.