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AN INTERVIEW WITH Michael Cunningham Michael Cunningham Michael Cunningham is the author of four novels, including The Hours (1998), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His fiction has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Esquire and The Paris Review, among others. He has also published a work of nonfiction, Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown (2002). Born in Cincinnati and raised in Pasadena, California, he currently lives in New York City. James Schiff is an assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and the author of several books on contemporary American fiction, including John Updike Revisited (1998) and Understanding Reynolds Price (1996). This interview took place in front of an audience on the campus of the University of Cincinnati on March 5, 2002. An Interview with Michael Cunningham/James Schiff Interviewer: The Hours has been terrifically successful. But Tm curious about what you were thinking when you first began that novel. If someone had come up to me and said, "I'm going to rewrite Absalom, Absalom! or War and Peace," I would have said, "Oh, yeah?" Cunningham: I never thought of myself as rewriting Mrs. Dalloway. I would never presume to do something like that. What I wanted to do was more akin to music, to jazz, where a musician will play improvisations on an existing piece of great music from the past—not to reinvent it, not to lay any kind of direct claim to it, but to both honor it and try to make other art out of an existing work of art. To use something that actually exists as the basis of something new, very much the way novelists traditionally use their lives and the lives of people around them as their subjects. I thought ofusing Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as my departure point, as my subject, the way another novelist might use first love or the death of a parent as a subject and a departure point. I originally set out simply to do Mrs. Dalloway in contemporary New York. I wondered what would happen if someone very much like Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway were alive today and free of the constraints that were placed on Clarissa Dalloway in London in the '20s. What if she were set free? Would it be different or ultimately pretty much the same? Would she impose her own restrictions? And I got a certain way into that story, "Mrs. Dalloway Today"—I never called it that; I didn't know what to call it—before I realized what I probably should have realized a lot earlier: that it was just a conceit, really, and not a sufficiently interesting one. Tm conscious of the fact that the world is full of books, more every day, and what you're saying to somebody with a novel is, "Stop what you're doing and read this. Don't read any of the other books, don't have lunch, don't have sex, don't learn French. Read this!" It was an interesting exercise but didn't feel important enough or interesting enough to be making that kind of a claim, and I thought for a few dark The Missouri Review · 113 weeks, Oops! That one didn't work out. Six months of work. I'll just have to discard it and start something new. But I wasn't quite ready to give it up. I started noodling around with it, tried it this way and that way. Very gradually it turned into what it became, this kind of triptych about three different days in the lives of three different women. Interviewer: I read somewhere that you'd started with a male protagonist . Is that character anywhere in the novel, or was he a kind of male Clarissa? Cunningham: There's no real vestige of him in the finished book. He's all gone. You know, these things always seem like good ideas when you're alone in your room. I did want to transpose Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway into the contemporary world, but onto a different gender. I thought I was going to write a novel about a fifty-two-year-old uppermiddle...


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