Time and Tide
BY Ari Karpel
October 13 2010 4:00 AM ET
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.”
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