Books

Michael Cunningham Couldn’t Help but Write a Pandemic Novel

Michael Cunningham has a gnawing suspicion that his books are boring. He can’t shake the feeling, he said, not even four decades and eight novels into his career, not even after winning a Pulitzer Prize and selling millions of copies of “The Hours.”

“I don’t know if this is my biggest neurosis, or just among my neuroses,” he said cheerfully while sitting in his office, a tiny, book-filled studio in Greenwich Village, one afternoon in late July. “But I have this thing, and it’s hard for me to shake.”

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As a young writer, that fear led him to abandon book after book. Even now, as he’s learned to manage, if not silence, his inner critic, it can still derail him, causing him to underwrite and gloss over things, he said.

“If you can’t exorcise your little writing demons, you’re going to at least learn to identify them. So I’ve got some little entities sitting on my left shoulder, saying, ‘Oh, shut up,’” he said, using an expletive. “‘This is just going on too long.’”

Cunningham, who is 70 and has a thicket of silver hair and a wide, frequently deployed smile, had to suppress those doubts again while writing “Day,” his first novel in nearly a decade.

The book, which Random House will publish on Nov. 14, is an intimate story about a New York family that’s barely weathering the abrasions of daily life when a global pandemic strikes, throwing them into forced proximity while driving them further apart. It is set to arrive at a strange moment, when the coronavirus remains an ever-present and grudgingly tolerated threat, but the pandemic and its aftermath are largely absent from film, television and literature. While some prominent writers, including Ann Patchett, Ian McEwan, Gary Shteyngart, Elizabeth Strout and Sigrid Nunez, have woven the pandemic into their work, most fiction writers seem to be ignoring the subject.

For Cunningham, it wasn’t much of a choice. Though he never used the words Covid or pandemic or even virus in the novel, Cunningham felt the coronavirus had to be part of the fabric of his characters’ lives.

“How does anybody,” he said, “write a contemporary novel that’s about human beings that’s not about the pandemic?”

Random House will release “Day” on Nov. 14.

“Day” unfolds in three acts, each set on a single day in April over three successive years. The novel opens on the morning of April 5, 2019, when Isabel, who works at a magazine, and her husband, Dan, a washed up rock singer turned stay-at-home dad, struggle to get their two children to school. Amid the daily chaos, Isabel’s brother, Robbie, a teacher who lives with them and is secretly in love with Dan, holds the household together.

The second section begins in the afternoon on April 5, 2020, as the pandemic paralyzes New York City. Isabel and Dan are quarantined at home with their two children, a confinement that causes their already fraying marriage to unravel further. Isabel sits alone on the stairs, scrolling through her phone; Dan posts videos of his songs on YouTube and develops a rabid online fan base. Their 6-year-old daughter, Violet, is terrified that the virus will float in through the windows. Robbie, who has quit his teaching job, gets stranded in Iceland alone in a cabin, where he maintains a fake Instagram persona of a man named Wolfe.

The final act, set on the evening of April 5, 2021, takes place upstate, in a dilapidated country home outside of the city, where Isabel lives. The family is shattered by grief and loss that is both particular to their clan, but also feels omnipresent.

“He’s written one of, if not the, best novels about the pandemic that I’ve encountered, but it’s also a novel about everyday life,” said the writer Susan Choi, a close friend of Cunningham’s. “What he did with the idea of a day, and taking a day from each of those particular years, reflects how all of us as a planet are still trying to process those three years in our lives.”

It wasn’t until vaccines were widely available in 2021, and a sense of a possible future began to take shape, that Cunningham was able to write again.Credit…Eric Ruby for The New York Times

Virginia Woolf, whose presence has hovered over Cunningham’s work like a patron saint, called the ordinary but profound moments that define a person’s life “moments of being.” “Day” is built almost entirely from such moments. Asked how he arrived at the novel’s structure, Cunningham invoked Woolf, whose novel “Mrs. Dalloway” takes place in a single day, and inspired “The Hours.”

“I do have to give credit to Virginia Woolf for helping me understand that a novel can have real scope without being physically large and without spanning a great deal of time,” Cunningham said. “That there’s meaning at the cosmos, but there’s also meaning at the subatomic level.”

Cunningham often tells the story about how, as an indifferent high school student in Pasadena, Calif., he picked up “Mrs. Dalloway” in the library and was bewitched by Woolf’s sentences. As a college student at Stanford, he hoped to become a painter, but discovered an affinity for writing after signing up for a fiction class. In his 20s, he worked as a bartender and wrote in his spare time. He got his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and published some stories, and started and abandoned about a dozen novels.

He was nearing 30, living in an unheated loft in downtown Manhattan and tending bar, when he gave himself a firm deadline to publish a novel before his birthday. The result was “Golden States,” a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy in Southern California in the 1980s.

His next two novels, “A Home at the End of the World,” about a complex love triangle between two male best friends and their female roommate, and “Flesh and Blood,” about three generations of an American family, explored the unconventional forms that love and family can take, a theme that echoes throughout his work.

With his fourth novel, “The Hours,” Cunningham repaid his debt to Woolf, and established himself as one of the country’s most talented and ambitious literary writers. Cunningham set out to write a modern update of “Mrs. Dalloway,” but realized he could never match the original. He did something almost equally audacious, casting Woolf in his novel and burrowing into her psyche, a choice he knew was presumptuous.

In alternating narratives about three women, “The Hours” follows Woolf as she writes “Mrs. Dalloway” and descends into depression; a dissatisfied housewife living in postwar California, who finds solace in reading Woolf’s masterpiece and was based on Cunningham’s mother; and a book editor in New York named Clarissa, whose best friend, a talented poet, is dying from complications related to AIDS. Cunningham’s audacity paid off: The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a star-studded feature film and an opera. To date, it has sold more than two million copies in the United States alone.

Writing didn’t get easier after that, though. Cunningham sank into depression, convinced that “it can only be downhill from here,” and struggled to start a new novel. It took him seven years to release his next novel, “Specimen Days,” a genre-bending ode to Walt Whitman that encompasses centuries. “I felt a slightly perverse liberation, because it seemed pretty clear that the book after ‘The Hours’ would not be well received, so I could do anything I wanted,” he said.

Cunningham has long been fascinated by unorthodox families. After he published his 2014 book, “The Snow Queen,” he began working on a multigenerational family epic that builds up to the present day. That intricately plotted tale fell apart when Covid arrived.

“It was all set to lead up to a present that did not involve a pandemic that affected literally every human being on Earth,” Cunningham said. He threw the book away, and struggled to start a new one.

“During the height of the pandemic, I kind of felt like, Who needs a novel?” he said. “A novel is sort of contingent on there being a future. And what if you’re in a period when it seems like, well, maybe there won’t be?”

It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, when the vaccines became available, that Cunningham felt he could write again. He and his husband, Ken Corbett, a psychotherapist, were home in Brooklyn after spending seven months in Venice Beach, and the story of a Brooklyn family began to take shape. When he came up with the three-day structure, the narrative started to fall into place.

“I wanted a certain consistency, a certain pattern, in a world that, certainly for a while, seemed to have lost any sense of consistency or pattern,” he said. “I mean, remember when we worried that the mail might kill us?”

About 70 pages in, he was struck by that old impulse to quit. He wondered if the novel was boring, if his characters were dull — just “privileged white people complaining about their lives,” he said. He relied on Corbett, who has long been his first reader, to point out anything slow or overly sentimental.

Cunningham also worried about making sure the novel matched the gravity of the moment without being too heavy or “operatic.” He fretted about the ending, aiming to strike “some balance between ‘and then everything was fine’ and total despair,” he said.

When he sent a draft to Andy Ward, his editor at Random House, Ward expected the multigenerational saga, which Cunningham had sold to Random House years before based on a partial manuscript. After getting over his initial surprise that Cunningham had written a contemporary pandemic novel, Ward was quickly sucked in.

“It’s the air that we breathe in this novel, it’s the backdrop to it, but it’s not about Covid,” Ward said. “He creates stories out of these small human moments, but he sets them against these much larger destructive forces.”

Even now, though, Cunningham can’t help but think about the better book he might have written — another of his untamed writerly neuroses.

“For me, the finished book is surrounded by various nimbuses, visible only to me, of the various other ways it could have been written,” he said. “And then, all that is surrounded, also visible only to me, by the impossibly great book that no one can write.”

Audio produced by Kate Winslett.

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