|Michael Cunningham signing books in Moscow, November 18|
Moscow is renowned for its unexpected and colossal traffic jams – and never more so as when you’re waiting for a speaker to arrive to a public lecture. Around 250 people gathered at the Oval Hall of the Russian Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow, eager to see Michael Cunningham (official website), the famous author of The Hours, a tutor in Creative Writing, and a kind of foreigner who seems to evoke respect more than notoriety. In Moscow, Cunningham doesn’t seem to enjoy the fame of Beigbeder or Murakami, and to me, it’s good.
So, we came to see him at the Oval Hall, and we went on waiting for entire hour before this lovely American could appear in front of us. In his words, he experienced “the most spectacular traffic” in his life, and we duly thanked him for making it through. He also was grateful: he thought that most of us would leave.
The questions we had to ask him corresponded well with the topics that traditionally interest the audience, from “how do you manage to write so convincingly about women?” to “where do you take your inspiration from?”
Cunningham’s is practically a thug-turned-artist kind of story. A teenager with “criminal potential”, he fancied a superindentant at high school, and because she was an all-around clever girl, he decided to take her lead. She was reading outside the curriculum, and that was “heavy stuff”, like T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, among others. So he went to the school’s library and was the first ever person to take out Mrs Dalloway. The book opened up a completely new universe to him, he started discovering his own passion for Literature and creative writing, and before long, the superintendant faded away, and Michael took writing seriously. Somebody asked, if anything had ever transpired with the girl; but apparently, she disappeared without a trace and not once congratulated her former classmate for his literary successes.
Cunningham is very methodic and disciplined. Every day he spends 5 hours at his desk, although this may result either in one line, or in 5 pages of text. He writes to the music, sometimes it’s Neil Young or Patti Smith, and sometimes it’s either Bach or Brahms. He takes inspiration from the world around him, but occasionally the story literally walks into his life, as it happened with Snow Queen he’s presently composing. Writing about women is easy, since there were enough women in his life to observe closely, but he believes that a true writer should be able to write about absolutely anything – for the goal is to allow the reader to learn about other people’s lives.
Perhaps more than anywhere people in Russia widely believe that, to be a writer, one has to possess a gift, and teaching Creative Writing belies the nature of art. To Cunningham, this is a curious thing to contemplate: “it’s OK for us that people need to learn how to play the piano or to paint, so why is there always a question as to why one needs to learn Writing?” He makes an important distinction: “You can teach how to write, but you cannot instill a talent“. At the Creative Writing course they teach students how to develop a plot and characters, they explore various techniques, methods, tropes, etc, they helps to find the voice and the audience. “Often when I ask my students “who do you write for?”, they reply: “I write for myself”. So, it’s like you’re baking this massive cake of several layers, you decorate it, even put a cherry on top, and eat it all yourself. That’s rubbish“.
Speaking of himself, Michael struggled with his “audience” until he’s found several readers, both male and female, who proved to be reliable, thoughtful, friendly, and erudite. They get to read his novels before anyone and don’t hesitate to cross out a reference to James Joyce “because no-one will get it“.
My question was about the adaptation of The Hours: how difficult it was to turn a book into a film, and how difficult also to find actresses for the leading roles. Cunningham was listening to Bach and Brahms when writing the novel, and in a way, The Hours is a verbal interpretation of the Requiem by Brahms. It was an hommage to his youthful infatuation with Mrs Dalloway that paved him the way into Literature. “Virginia Woolf was doing to language the same thing as Jimmi Hendrix did to music“, he explains, and this love and admiration for Woolf certainly made both book and the film so successful: the book brought its author a Pulitzer Prize, the film won an Oscar to Nicole Kidman.
It was originally a struggle to develop Clarissa Vaughan’s character in the script, and the actresses’ choice went along the usual Hollywood lines: apparently, you first approach the top actors and go down the list as each of them says “no”. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore agreed, and as for Nicole Kidman, she was initially ensuring the box office hit, and only during the filming did everyone begin to realise that she was going to pull the role that helped to discover her as a dramatic actress in her own right.
And when I asked, if he was content with the result, Michael was very honest: “I’m probably the only living author who likes the film after his book!” He went on to explain that for many writers a book is their “flesh and blood”, however “it’s only a book, for God’s sake, so if you are good enough to turn it into a film, please go ahead“. The music by Philip Glass completed the picture.
At the end there was a massive queue to sign his books, and I bought a Russian copy of The Hours for my mother to read. As it happens, one only wishes there was more time to ask the questions and more time to hear something you needed. But I feel even the hour we got to spend with this dedicated, talented, creative person was enough… for now.