Michael Cunningham: ‘Some people have never forgiven me for not just writing The Hours again’ | Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham: ‘Some people have never forgiven me for not just writing The Hours again’ | Michael Cunningham

Let’s just say,” Michael Cunningham tells me, “sitting at the kitchen table with a laptop in my underwear at two in the afternoon just makes me feel ridiculous.” He has a distinctive voice – deep and soft – and he is explaining to me over Zoom why he leaves his home in Brooklyn every day to come to his studio in Greenwich Village. With a “Bye honey!” – honey is his husband, psychotherapist Ken Corbett, with whom he has been in a relationship for 35 years – he crosses town and gets down to it, which puts me in mind, I say, of the writer John Cheever, though Cunningham’s commute is significantly longer.

“I love that story! He got in the elevator in a suit with a briefcase and went down to the basement and worked and then went back up in the elevator at night to torture his wife and children.” Cunningham is dressed more casually – does he have a briefcase? “Oh, no, no, no. John Cheever required more trappings than I require. I just need to leave the premises, is all.” Well, Cheever probably had more issues. “John Cheever’s issues! Whoa!”

If Cunningham doesn’t have issues, at least on that sort of scale, his characters certainly do. His best-known novel, The Hours, braided the stories of three women facing serious emotional challenges: Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs Dalloway he read as a student and credits as the catalyst for his love of fiction and its possibilities; Laura Brown, a distressed housewife and mother in midcentury Los Angeles; and Clarissa Vaughan, a modern New Yorker throwing a party and beset by reflections on her sexuality and romantic attachments. An immense success when it was published in 1998, the novel won a Pulitzer prize and the PEN/Faulkner award; four years later, when David Hare wrote the screenplay for Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, it went stratospheric.

“I was really surprised by the success of The Hours,” recalls Cunningham. “It’s a novel about three variously depressed women, one of whom is Virginia Woolf. Nothing about it when it was in progress said: ‘This one’s really going to sell.’”

Why does he think it took off? “It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of readers, many of whom are women. You know, in The Hours Laura Brown leaves her family, which turns out to be one of the last of the taboos. ‘She blew up the building, she killed 100 people, but she was a good mother.’ And when I was doing readings I lost track of the number of women who came up to me afterwards and said: ‘I did that, and no one has ever written about a woman who does that with any kind of empathy.’”

The Hours was Cunningham’s fourth novel, and now he is publishing his eighth, Day, after a gap of nearly 10 years, which sees him returning to his favourite tripartite structure to deliver an acute portrait of life in Brooklyn on three single days, each a year apart. His triad of central characters – there is also a pair of ingeniously drawn children – are Dan and Isabel, whose marriage is failing in a kind of middling way (“it’s not quite good enough, but neither is it bad enough to call it off”), and Isabel’s brother Robbie, an integral part of their household who, nevertheless, feels it might be time to move on.

There is also the pandemic: Day parachutes us into 5 April in 2019, 2020 and 2021 and although the virus is never named, its effects are evident everywhere, with Dan, Isabel and their children confined to a cramped apartment together. Cunningham was halfway through a different novel – a multigenerational saga arriving at the present day – when Covid hit and he was struck by the realisation that it was impossible to write a contemporary novel and ignore it. If he had introduced it into his work in progress, he says, it would have been like Godzilla arriving at a slightly awkward party: “Who expected a 50ft tall, fire-breathing lizard? So with some regrets, I just put that one aside.”

He didn’t especially want to write – or even read – a novel about the pandemic, “And yet, and yet, and yet. You just have a certain responsibility to the reality in which you find yourself.” But Day is about an awful lot besides a dangerous virus and the havoc it wrought on so many people; it’s also a moving exploration of the idea that, when our lives feel suffocating to us, we feel there must be a better iteration somewhere else. Robbie and Isabel fantasise about buying a house in the countryside and create an Instagram account for an imagined doctor called Wolf (an unconscious nod to Virginia, he insists), who posts endless pictures of his beautiful life, while Dan looks after the children but nurtures his desire to return to his former life as a musician. All three are trying to escape.

That impulse, he thinks, finds particular expression in the “melancholy and rage” of US culture: “Let’s just keep going and going and going. And then you hit the Pacific Ocean and that’s the end of the continent and you have to double back on yourself. I think that combination of this limitless, verdant landscape, which actually does come to an end, is a part of the American character.”

Cunningham, who is now 71, was born in Ohio, grew up in southern California and later studied creative writing at the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But as much as his work embodies aspects of the American experience, it was Europe that supplied his most fruitful influences: Woolf, naturally, and 19th-century novelists such as George Eliot, whose The Mill on the Floss – which also features an exceptionally bonded brother and sister – features in Day. “It’s possible to imagine that George Eliot may have been the most gifted, intelligent person who ever lived. No disrespect to Virginia Woolf, who was also enormously gifted and intelligent, but the scope of Eliot’s imagination, her ability to vividly conjure that many people, is just staggering to me.”

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It is Woolf, however, with whom he will remain associated, and for whom he has the utmost respect – not least because her work was created against the backdrop of paralysing mental illness. “She went to the lowest circle of hell from which she returned, as she said, bloodied and ready for the fight. And among the things I love about her is it’s hard to imagine anyone better acquainted with just how bad it can get, and at the same time, it would be hard to name another writer who wrote so thoroughly and convincingly about the pure joy of being alive. A spring day in London! I feel like there’s an optimism you can trust.”

When I ask whether the success of The Hours has ever felt like a double-edged sword, he says, with humorous ruefulness, that: “I know some people have never forgiven me for not just writing The Hours over and over and over again.” He pauses. “But it’s not nothing to be recognised like that and established like that, and to continue to write another one and another one with an undeniably increased sense that they can’t really make you go away any more.”

In other words, it’s a nice problem to have? “If I am ever tempted to feel sort of indignant about people who still want to talk to me about The Hours – ‘What about the other books?’ – I just stop myself and remind myself that it’s a remarkable thing that people are still talking about a novel published 25 years ago. So shut up.”

Day by Michael Cunningham is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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