The Pulitzer for Fiction

April 20, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The fiction prize this year went to Michael Cunningham, for his novel, "The Hours." He has called it "a riff on British novelist Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’" which uses a highly intense, poetic language to get to the heart of human experience. Virginia Woolf is a character in "The Hours," which interweaves a day in her life with a day in the lives of two American women, each trying to make art of the ordinary. Michael Cunningham also won the Pen/Faulkner Award this month for "The Hours," which is his fourth novel. Thank you for being with us and congratulations with us, Mr. Cunningham.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, Pulitzer Prize, Fiction: Thank you.

The first great book I ever read.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This novel is haunted by Virginia Woolf. What’s the source of your — I can only call it — veneration for her?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Virginia Woolf’s great novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," is the first great book I ever read. I read it almost by accident when I was in high school, when I was 15 years old. I suspect any serious reader has a first great book, just the way anybody has a first kiss. For me it was this book. It stayed with me in a way no other book ever has. And it felt like something for me to write about very much the way you might write a novel based on the first time you fell in love, the first — your first seminal experience of any kind. This book feels like, I don’t know, something that happened to me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was it partly the substance of her work that you loved, her insistence on the sacredness of the ordinary?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Her insistence the sacredness of the ordinary is very much part of what I love about her. Virginia Woolf came along in the early part of the century and essentially said through her writing, yes, big books can be written about the traditional big subjects. There is war. There is the search for God. These are all very important things. But everything you need to know about human life, about human experience can also be found in two elderly women having tea in a corner of a little shabby tearoom some place, very much the way the recipe for the whole organism is contained in every strand of DNA. If you look hard and close enough, if you look with enough art at anything that happens to any human being, you can find the whole story there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I found your book on meditation, on creativity yourself. Would you read to us the pages about Mrs. Dalloway finding the gold — reaching the gold.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: This is Virginia Woolf on a day I imagine in 1923 when she is beginning to write the book that will be "Mrs. Dalloway." "At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, a rather parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It’s more than sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like the veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world. But then it is made of the same substance and when she is very fortunate, she’s able to write through the that faculty. Writing in that stage is the most profound satisfaction she knows but her access to it comes and goes without warning. She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across the paper. She may pick up her pen and find that she is merely herself, a woman in a house coat holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent, with no idea about where to begin and what to write. She picks up her pen. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," which is the first line of her immortal work, "Mrs. Dalloway."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, of course, that was Virginia Woolf, as you said. But both of the other characters, the Americans, are creative in their own way even if it’s only in making a cake. What did you want to impart about creativity in this book?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: I wanted to look at the highs and lows of the creative impulse and see how, in many ways, any creative act is essentially the same act. So I have on one hand Virginia Woolf beginning to write what will be a novel that will outlive us all. And another one of the three interwoven stories involves a housewife at the end of World War II in Los Angeles who’s baking a cake. And I found that I was able to write convincingly about that housewife, a woman named Laura Brown, by thinking of her as a serious artist, by thinking of somebody doing something every bit as serious in her kitchen, trying to bake a perfect cake, as Virginia Woolf was say the sitting down that day in 1923 trying to write the perfect novel.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Cunningham, I was particularly struck by the way each woman thought that she was a failure. That seems to be part of your story, too.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Yes, yes, yes. Well, it’s part — it’s part of the creative story — it’s part of the artist’s story. And I do think of each of these women in her way, as an artist. I know, speaking for myself, no matter what I’m able to do, no matter what book comes out and ends up on paper, I always had something bigger and grander in my head. I was always thinking this time I’m going to write the book of love. This time I’m going to write the book to end all books. Without delusions of grandeur, I don’t think you could do this at all. And yet with delusions of grandeur, there is the inevitable moment when you look at what you have’ done and see, oh, it’s just a book.

Many different kinds of love.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The novel is also about different kinds of love. One of the three women has a very traditional relationship in many ways, a long kind of marriage, but she is a lesbian. And you explore lots of different relationships in this book. It’s a major theme of your book, I believe.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Lots of different relationships?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lots of different kinds of relationships, I mean. Kinds of love.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I explore many different kinds of love. One of the things that’s so very gratifying about the particular recognition this book has gotten is what it implies about a broader perspective on human relationships, about the notion that you can write a book that’s about gay people and straight people and people of all stripes, people who love each other in all sorts of ways, and that it can find a place in the world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is also a novel that has darkness in it. Sometimes you call it the devil. I mean I would call it the abyss, which Virginia Woolf, for example, sees behind her when she looks in the mirror in one of my favorite passages, and yet I don’t find the novel ever dark. It’s almost illuminated. How did you do that?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Beats me. I can’t imagine wanting to write a novel that wasn’t about darkness in some way. I don’t feel like we need much help with our happiness. The Kodak moments we can manage on our own — I don’t mean to dismiss happiness. We can manage our happiness on our own. Our happiness is particular in our own. And I feel like what we need art for is a little bit of solace, a little bit of company in trying to deal with the darker stuff. And at the same time, I would never write a pessimistic book. I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do your characters find consolation without revealing the end? Can you tell us just a little bit about that?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: There’s a surprise at the end that we can’t give away.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. I’m not going to reveal it. It’s very surprising.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Let me just say that each of the three main characters eventually finds her way to some kind of transcendence, to some sort of happy ending, though it may not be the happy ending that she had in mind for herself.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the prize? One of the main characters in the book is actually getting a very, very prestigious literary prize. And it figures in an important way in the book. And you have him say "It would be far easier if one cared either more or less about winning prizes," which is kind of an odd thing to say. How do you feel about winning your prize?

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: Exactly the same way I had my character feel. It’s a wonderful thing. It was a shock. That’s putting it mildly. And it’s great to win a prize. At the same time, it’s an odd notion that there is a best book and that these other books were somehow not the best books. Look at all the incredible books that were published last year. I’m thrilled that my book was singled out, especially this book, this strange little book that I had fully imagined in my wildest dreams might sell a couple hundred copies. But prizes are problematic. Prizes are a funny proposition about what they imply about first place, second place, third place.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Michael Cunningham, congratulations again and thank you very much.