Time and Tide

BY Ari Karpel

October 13 2010 3:00 AM ET

 The author shadowed a Chelsea gallery owner to learn about that world, but understanding a marriage required no such research. “Part of the experience that I write from is the experience of a long marriage,” Cunningham says. He’s been with Corbett, a psychoanalyst, for 24 years. At 57, Cunningham can’t imagine what his writing would be like without the guiding influence of his relationship. “I really don’t think the books would be the same if I had been single all this time or if I’d been with someone else,” he says, noting that Corbett reads all his writing before anyone else. “Would they have been lesser? I suspect they would have been.”

And yet he doesn’t feel moved to write about a long-term gay relationship. “Maybe that’s too close to my own life,” he says. “I don’t feel I need to write books that are good for the gays. I just have to write the best books I can.”

His early novels, A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood, gained Cunningham critical respect and a large, if mostly gay, following. “No one expected The Hours to be a hit,” he says. “Not my editor, not my agent, not any of the people who are supposed to be able to predict these things. Everyone thought it would sell a few thousand copies and march with whatever dignity it could muster straight to the remainders tables.”

And then came the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. “We had a bunch of people over the night before [it was announced], and my friends Sally and Melanie had made me a little tinfoil crown and a little tinfoil chain to put around my neck and the crown on my head. They said, ‘We declare you a winner no matter what.’ ”

After winning, he says, self-doubt set in. “I came home and I held up the rather modest crystal trophy that you get and said to Kenny, ‘Michael Cunningham: the pre–has-been years.’ There’s a sense that now there’s nowhere to go but down.” That notion was tough to bear. “It made me happy for about three days, and then it gave me a nervous breakdown for about four months,” he says of the award. “I had a really hard time with it, which is crazy, but there you have it.”





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