Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

Author, alumnus discusses award-winning novel The Hours

The Lane Lecture Series' 2002-03 season kicked off last week with a home-grown talent.

Stanford graduate Michael Cunningham read from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours (1998), before a packed Kresge Auditorium Nov. 25 and answered questions about his life and work. The occasion also served as an opportunity to celebrate the lecture series' 21st anniversary. On hand were Bill and Jean Lane, who endowed the series. The couple received an enthusiastic round of applause.

Three Lane Lecturers come to campus each year to read and discuss their work, but there is always an extra buzz when that person is a Stanford alumnus, according to Eavan Boland, the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor for the Director of the Creative Writing Program and Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities.

Cunningham, 49, earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from Stanford in 1975. A few years later he was accepted to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. His first novel, Golden States, was published in 1984, followed by A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995). But it's The Hours, which also won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award, that has cemented his reputation as one of America's greatest living fiction writers.

The novel is an impressionistic riff on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway that interweaves three different stories set in three different eras of the 20th century. A film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman (who, sporting a prosthetic schnoz, plays Woolf), is scheduled to hit theaters around Christmas. The celebrated British playwright David Hare wrote the screenplay.

It's hardly surprising that The Hours caught the attention of Hollywood; Cunningham is a highly visual writer. He is able to render emotional impressions as easily as he does objects or sensations--­ a flower shop is "dim," "deliciously cool" and "solemn in its abundance"; suicide "might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow. It could be dreadful and wonderful."

Cunningham told the audience in Kresge Auditorium that he does not feel overly protective of his work -- "I don't have this thing about the sacred text," he explained ­ but initially balked at the idea of selling the movie rights to his book. Actually, he confessed that he hesitated for only about 45 minutes. (When it comes to monetary incentives, "I have a very weak moral sense," he quipped.)

Working with the filmmakers was quite pleasant and smooth, Cunningham said, adding: "I wish I had more interesting complaints about Hollywood."

During the Nov. 26 colloquium, he told the audience in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall that one of the novel's characters, the late-1940s housewife Laura Brown, is based largely on his mother, who died about a year ago.

After his mother fell ill, Cunningham called the movie's producer, Scott Rudin. "I said, 'Look, Scott, I don't think mom's going to be around long enough to see the movie, but I would love for her to see something of it. Is there anything we could do?'"

Rudin sent him about 20 minutes of film. "And I sat with my mother on the sofa ... on the last day, as it turned out, that she was going to be cogent enough to really understand what she was seeing, and watched Julianne Moore play her," Cunningham said.


Legacy of excellence

Bill Lane, former publisher of Sunset magazine, said he is amazed by the quantity and caliber of writers and poets who have visited Stanford as Lane Lecturers. Indeed, they comprise a virtual who's who of 20th-century letters: E. L. Doctorow, Louise Glück, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, John Irving, John le Carré, Ved Mehta, Joyce Carol Oates, Thom Gunn, Eudora Welty, Larry McMurtry and Toni Morrison, among many others.

The Lane family has been connected to Stanford since moving to California from Iowa in the late 1920s. (The Lane Publishing Co. published Sunset magazine from 1928 to 1990.) The Lanes have been generous supporters of the university. Among other gifts from family members, Bill and his brother, Melvin, endowed the directorship of the Creative Writing Program, and Bill and Jean contributed to the restoration of Stanford buildings damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

"The thing that's most impressive about the Lane Lecture Series is that it has honored the whole spectrum of writing," Boland said, noting the eclectic list of past lecturers. "The series, I think, does something that's absolutely at the heart of the Stanford Creative Writing Program: It brings together the community of the university and the community outside it. They come together to celebrate and honor and exchange with the writer."

The next installment of the lecture series brings California poet Frank Bidart to campus for a Feb. 3 reading and Feb. 4 colloquium.


By John Sanford

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints