Michael Cunningham’s best-known novel, The Hours, was inspired by his mother, and she hated it.

She only changed her mind on her deathbed, as the book was being made into a movie, the New York-based writer says over the telephone.

Michael Cunningham: Moments in Time“She didn’t like the book, it was in her mind that she was exploited and exposed,” he explains ahead of his appearances here this weekend at the Singapore Writers Festival. He appears on a panel discussion about literary awards on Saturday, and on Sunday, hosts a literary meal and gives a lecture on the craft of writing. The lecture is 85 per cent full while seats for the meal are selling fast.

The Hours, published in 1998, took the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Pen/Faulkner Award in 1999. It became a worldwide bestseller, including in Singapore, after it was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.

The book is a stylistic homage to Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 stream-of-consciousness novel, Mrs Dalloway. The Hours tells the story of three women linked by Woolf’s novel, including the mentally troubled Woolf, a liberated modern-day New Yorker and a 1940s housewife reading the novel. This last character was inspired by Cunningham’s mother.

Cunningham, now 59, read and fell in love with Mrs Dalloway as a teenager. Fascinated by the character and its author for decades, he found a new story coming together as he thought about his mother, who he felt had been “trapped” in her housewife role.

It was not until the book was published that he realised she hated having her life on display. And instead of remaining “a literary book that would disappear”, The Hours was an “unexpected success”, sweeping awards, hitting the New York Times bestseller list and eventually becoming a movie scripted by British playwright David Hare.

Cunningham’s mother did not live to see the final film as she was in the final stages of cancer during production. The writer asked producer Scott Rudin for some of the raw, unedited footage to show her and received half an hour’s worth of video by courier.

“I sat with my mother on the sofa we’ve had since I was 15 and watched Julianne Moore play her. It was the most amazing experience. She was upset about being in a novel, but being played by a beautiful actress – it meant something to her, this sense of having been apprehended and brought to a movie screen.”

The film won Kidman an Academy Award for her portrayal of Woolf. It will be screened on Saturday at the Singapore Writers Festival and Cunningham will take questions afterwards. Attendance, as for the literary panel, is on a first-come, first-served basis.

A later film, the 2004 A Home At The End Of The World, based on his 1990 novel of the same name, was not half as successful. Its portrayal of unconventional families won positive reviews from critics, but it was restricted to small film festivals such as the Nantucket Film Festival and San Francisco International Lesbian And Gay Film Festival.

“Most novelists never make a living writing. I got lucky,” Cunningham says. “Until The Hours came out, I thought I would always live in tiny apartments and eat ramen noodles for dinner.”

For years, he paid the bills by bartending in Southern California, including at a joint called the Boom Boom Room, where he wore “a grass skirt and a lei and made cocktails for the undeserving public”.

Now he is a senior lecturer teaching creative writing at Yale University, scripting a new TV series for HBO and living the good life in New York, where his friends include art dealers and actors. For his most recent novel, the 2010 By Nightfall, he did an apprenticeship at a friend’s gallery, including putting on a suit and trying out sales patter. He did not make a single sale.

Like The Hours, By Nightfall is a homage to another classic, this time Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, the story of an ageing roue’s unrequited love for a young boy. Cunningham puts the protagonists in modern-day New York, where a middle-aged art dealer becomes obsessed with a young delinquent. The resemblance to Death In Venice was unintentional at first, he says, but then he decided he was “happy to visit an old theme that Thomas Mann got to first”.

While the story is about a man upset about ageing, the writer says he does not share the sentiments of his protagonist. He turns 60 next week “and I am strangely not upset about it”.

“It makes a difference, you stop in front of a mirror and check what you’re wearing, am I trying to look too young? But I like mortality, I like the ticking of the clock. What I would most like to say to my 23-year-old self is: ‘Don’t worry so much, have more fun, have less care.’ When I do that, I’m aware that standing next to me is my self at age 83 saying the same thing, love yourself. And standing next to him is me at 110.”

For such a gifted raconteur whose every sentence is quotable, surprisingly, Cunningham did not start out wanting to be a writer.

He was convinced he would be a painter until his first year at Stanford University introduced him to the magic of storytelling. “I was just endlessly interested in it, I was just bottomlessly fascinated with using ink and paper and the same language as anybody else to try to simulate life.”

In his 20s, he had a short story published in the well-known literary journal Atlantic Monthly, with others following in publications such as Paris Review. Apart from his bachelor’s in English literature from Stamford University, he did his master’s in creative writing from the University of Iowa.

But the best writing advice came from a waitress he met while tending bar in Laguna, California. “When I was just out of college, I was writing into the sky. I was writing for the unwashed masses, I thought I was smarter than them.”

Then he encountered co-worker Helen, then 45 and “enormously old”. A single mother of four children, she worked three jobs to keep a roof over the family’s heads but always found time to relax with a book at night.

Being “a pretentious young writer”, he suggested she read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. A few days later she told him that she had read the book, but it was not half as good as her favourite thrillers.

“I thought, well this is kind of great. Helen doesn’t have a sense of what she’s supposed to like. She responds to writers she wants to respond to.

“There was this transformative moment when I thought, a book is an attempt by the writer to give a gift to the reader. I began thinking of myself as a writer who would write something that would mean something to Helen at the end of a long day, capture her interest.”

Helen is no longer alive but he continues to keep her and other readers in mind. Chief among them used to be his partner of 25 years, psychologist Ken Corbett, but the two recently broke up.

“I’m a little lost,” Cunningham says with a sigh. “But I’m also 150 pages into something new. It seems to be going all right.”

For information on Michael Cunninham’s appearances at the Singapore Writers Festival, go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com. PHOTO: RICHARD PHIBBS


Prime reads

A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD (1990)

Picador/Paperback/352 pages/$26.70/Prologue, Books Kinokuniya

The plot: To resolve the love triangle among them, three best friends decide to set up house in a non-traditional family and raise a child.

Why read: This under-rated tearjerker will appeal to practically every demographic, from anxious teens to ageing singles. Part romance, part coming-of-age tale, it is a heart-breaking portrayal of people navigating relationships in the new millenium.


THE HOURS (1998)

Picador/Paperback/240 pages/$26.70/Books Kinokuniya

The plot: Three women separated by time are nevertheless all touched by the same book. Troubled writer Virginia Woolf is on the brink of her 1925 masterpiece Mrs Dalloway, to be later read by a bored suburban housewife in 1949 Los Angeles and an independent woman in 1990s New York.

Why read: The sheer energy of the writing carries the reader forward, much like the narrative style used in Mrs Dalloway. The Hours is, however, much more than a homage to Woolf. It is an aching representation of women trapped by social expectation and also a celebration of life.


BY NIGHTFALL (2010)

Picador/Paperback/256 pages/$25.95/Prologue

The plot: A middle-aged art dealer questions his seemingly perfect life, especially when his wife’s younger, troubled brother enters the picture.

Why read: This spot-on pastiche of the wheeling and dealing that goes on in galleries is also a light-hearted homage to Thomas Mann’s Death In Venic. Perhaps Cunningham’s funniest book, it casts a knowing eye on marital compromise and mid-life crises, wrapping the reader in warmth and wisdom.


Book it

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS THE STORY…

Where: Drama Theatre, School Of The Arts, 1 Zubir Said Drive

When: Sunday, 4pm

Admission: Selling fast, $20 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

EAT YOUR WORDS WITH MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

Where: Viet Lang @ The Arts House

When: Sunday, 7.30pm

Admission: Selling fast, $80 from Sistic

This story was first published in The Straits Times newspaper on October 30, 2012. Read similar stories online in The Straits Times Life! section.