Time and Tide
Michael Cunningham’s home in Provincetown, Mass., hews to the classic Cape Cod style. The shingles of his modest two-story condo along the water on the far east end of town are graying from the salty sea air. The house that The Hours built—or at least bought (“It cost almost exactly what [movie producer] Scott Rudin paid me for The Hours,” Cunningham casually reveals)—has the kind of sparkling bay views and voluptuous breezes that inspire you to take a deep breath and sink into vacation relaxation.
Which is why the author’s studio is the room without the view. “I need to detach from that,” he says, gesturing at the bay from the couch of his Ralph Lauren–perfect living room–cum–kitchen on an afternoon in early September. “I need to really focus and not be sitting there at 10 in the morning thinking, God, why aren’t I walking on the beach? Why am I sitting here like some latter-day Emily Dickinson, with life passing me by?”
Self-pitying drama and geography—Dickinson lived in landlocked Amherst, Mass.—aside, Cunningham isn’t likely to become much like the reclusive 19th-century poet, whose work was unappreciated until after her death. Not only did The Hours buy Cunningham and his partner, Ken Corbett, a summer house (they spend the rest of the year in New York City), the 1998 book became a 2002 movie starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, which won Kidman an Oscar for Best Actress. The novel also earned Cunningham perhaps the most coveted award of all, the Pulitzer Prize.
The Hours had another, less tangible effect: It elevated the gay male cultural conversation. For a time, talk of Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway—the inspiration for Cunningham’s a-day-in-three-lives novel—supplanted lots of chatter about Titanic and Teletubbies (hey, it was 1998). It revealed a collective yearning and latent capacity for literary discussion among gay people. “In my wildest dreams, I hope that’s true,” Cunningham says.
Now the dean of the gay literati has turned his gaze to the contemporary art world. Cunningham’s new book, By Nightfall, is tidier and less lofty than The Hours and his Walt Whitman–inspired 2005 follow-up, Specimen Days. Nevertheless it delivers sharp cultural and emotional insights. The novel follows Peter, a New York City gallery owner who launches into a midlife reexamination of his marriage (to a woman), his parenting (to an estranged college-age daughter), and his work (hawking less-than-substantial contemporary art to wealthy socialites) after a visit from his much younger brother-in-law.
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.”
Today, the trophy is in a drawer. “But that tinfoil chain is on my wall,” he says. Cunningham’s life has changed, but only outwardly. “I travel more,” he says. “I have more money, and they have to publish my next book no matter what.” And more of his readers are women. “I have lots and lots and lots of straight women readers now,” he says, a fact evident on his book tours. “I would have to say that if you remove women and gay men from the audience, there wouldn’t be an awful lot of people left.”
Sitting on his couch, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette, Cunningham seems at ease chatting about his work and his life. But there’s one moment when his face just lights up; that’s when the topic of teaching comes up. A graduate of Stanford University, where he studied English literature, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cunningham has taught for many years in the master’s programs at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. This year, though, he taught undergraduates for the first time, at Yale University. “I loved many of my graduate students, many of them are still friends, but there’s something about undergraduates, who are not so jaded and nervous. There’s a much lower incidence of people who are rolling their eyes saying, ‘I think Alice Munro is overrated.’ One of them decided to drop what she was doing—pre-med—to study writing, ” he says, beaming. “And she really should; she’s really talented.”
His friend Claire Danes finds Cunningham to be a natural teacher. “He’s such a wonderful, generous thinker,” the actress says. “He guides the conversation and leads me to bigger ideas, but he always makes me feel as if those ideas are my own.”
The two met while filming The Hours. They became even closer during production of 2007’s Evening, for which he cowrote the screenplay. When Danes wed actor Hugh Dancy just over a year ago, she reveals in a phone interview, Cunningham officiated at the ceremony. But she stops there, divulging no more about the intimate event.
A close and eclectic assortment of friends—gay, straight, married, single—seems to be Cunningham’s solace. Well, that and the beach. “Summer days are my favorite days of the year,” he says. “I’m productive, but I’m not so stressed. In New York, I can’t knock off at 4 and get on my bike and go to the beach.” That’s exactly what he’s preparing to do as soon as our interview is over. “When you and I are done here, I’ll do a couple of errands and then go out to Hatches Harbor, where my friend David Cafiero sets up a little shelter every day with bamboo poles and stretched canvas.”
Cunningham is smiling, probably already dipping his toes in the sand in his mind. “There will be anywhere from 10 to 20 people who I love and love me,” he says, “and not one of whom gives one shit about whether my next book is a hit or whether I write books at all.”