Michael Cunningham has written four novels, including the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Hours,” which was made into the 2003 Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Cunningham was recently hired by Yale to teach writing courses for the next three years. Yesterday, scene sat down with him to discuss Walgreens, the pleasures of eucalyptus and the guest list for the perfect hot tub.
Q. So, you’re about a month through your first semester teaching at Yale. How’s it going?
A. I love it! I’ve been teaching for years, and this is by far the best experience I’ve had. The students are really engaged, and Yale as an institution really respects the faculty.
Q. Have you gotten a chance to explore New Haven at all?
A. Not much, because I come in from New York City on Wednesdays, then it’s nighttime, then it’s Thursday and I teach my Thursday class. I just went to the Walgreens. New Haven has an exemplary Walgreens.
Q. I’ve been hearing a lot about the number of English majors declining due to the recession.
A. One of the reasons I enjoy working with students of English literature is that I know they know that their futures will be difficult in a material sense, and they’re studying what they’re studying because they love it — not because they hope to get in on the ground floor of some start-up literature corporation.
Q. I wonder what that would look like.
A. Yeah, yeah. We had a fortune in semicolons. It’s not going to happen. As a book geek myself, I love and respect other book geeks and anybody who is passionate enough to do the impractical thing, to do the thing you love rather than the thing that is going to take care of the rent.
Q. You said in a talk a few years ago that your writing process is to “take a stupid idea and see how it expands.” Have you had any stupid ideas lately that you’ve been playing around with?
A. I just finished a novel, and my stupid idea for the next one is a kind of existential murder mystery. Check with me in three years when it’s done … Who knows what the actual finished thing will be?
Q. It seems that you like to experiment and play around with different forms. Where do you think the future of fiction is headed?
A. I do think the Internet is already having a profound effect on writing. I think graphic novels are enormously interesting and hugely important. And at the same time, I can’t help but notice that nobody seems to be particularly tired of a good old-fashioned page-turner. Of all the art forms, I think [fiction is] the one best equipped to convey a sense of empathy with others. Some of the needs that readers bring to fiction have not changed since the days of Hawthorne and Dickens and are not likely to change soon.
Q. If you could be in a hot tub with three writers, living or dead, who would they be?
A. I’d say Virginia Woolf, but she would never get into a hot tub. I’d have to say George Eliot would be a kick. George Eliot, Walt Whitman. I’d say Dickens, but I’d be afraid that he would dominate the conversation. Let’s put Jean Rhys in the hot tub, just because there should be two voluble characters and one tragic character in any hot tub. And she would take care of the drinks.
Q. Have you read any good books lately?
A. Sure, I read new work all the time. The Colum McCann book, “Let the Great World Spin,” I thought was fantastic. “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” by Geoff Dyer. I read a writer by the name of Joshua Ferris — his first novel was called “Then We Came to the End” — I’ve got his new one on my desk.
Q. You grew up on the West Coast, but you’ve lived on the East Coast for a while now. Do you consider yourself an East Coast or a West Coast kind of guy?
A. I’ve lived on the East Coast for longer than I’ve lived on the West Coast, but I feel a little bit like an expatriate on the East Coast. There’s some Californianess in me that doesn’t seem to be entirely extinguishable.
Q. What do you miss most about California?
A. I love the way it smells. There’s a kind of eucalyptus and sage thing in the air that I miss.
Q. Two of your novels so far have been turned into movies. What’s your take on the book-to-movie transition?
A. I’ve been enormously fortunate in that both of my novels were made into good movies, but of course when you agree to sell a book to the movies, it could very well turn out very badly. It’s a gamble. I have never felt particularly strongly of my novel as some kind of sacred and sacrosanct text. If someone you respect wants to transform it, to find other resonances and depths in it, why not? Make it into an opera, a sitcom. My very favorite adaptation story is that my novel “Flesh and Blood” was made entirely illegally into an Internet soap opera in Brazil with drag queens. I can imagine that some writers would be upset about that. I was thrilled. It seems like such a testament to the life of that book.
Q. Is the show any good?
A. No, it’s terrible!
Q. How involved do you get when one of your books is adapted into a movie?
A. With “A Home at the End of the World,” I was very involved. There is an in-the-trenches guerilla aspect that’s great fun. With “The Hours,” I wasn’t as involved. One of the things you learn about a movie set is that if you don’t have some very urgent business on a set, it’s just a big bore. You should meet Meryl Streep and kiss her on the cheek and go home.
Q. That sounds worth it.
A. Oh, absolutely, but don’t stick around.
Q. One of the characters in “The Hours” is a postwar housewife. Do you have a process for inhabiting time periods that you didn’t experience directly?
A. I do, and I find that the process for me is not dissimilar to the process that some of my actor friends go through. I try to imagine what it’s like to be this person. When Nicole Kidman was getting ready to play Virginia Woolf, she told me that she was in costume, and she discovered that the costume designer had put a hanky in the pocket of her dress. She had pulled out a hanky and was rolling a cigarette … and she said, as small as that moment was, she said it was at that moment that she knew what it was like to be Virginia Woolf. It was really about a hanky and a hand-rolled cigarette. Laura Brown, the postwar housewife, wakes up, and on the bedside is a Lucite alarm clock that she regrets, that she bought on a whim thinking it would be smart and fashionable, but now it’s just a constant reminder of a certain kind of foolishness. It was the idea of that clock that got me into the beginning of a sense of what it was like to be her.
Q. Do you have any ugly Lucite alarm clocks hanging around?
A. Do I own objects that I regret having bought that feel embarrassing and indicting to me? Why, yes I do.
Q. Care to share?
A. (laughs) Yes, a pair of pale blue velvet dining room chairs I got at a flea market that I thought would be sort of pomo and perverse and fabulously wrong turned out to be simply ridiculous and wrong. If Laura Brown is a woman who regrets her alarm clock, I am a man who regrets two blue velvet dining room chairs.