Old news to many fans of The Hours, I’m sure, but news to me: Michael Cunningham explains how he came to read Virginia Woolf in the first place.
We lived in Pasadena [Calif.]. I seemed to be growing up to be sort of a skateboard kid. I wasn’t opposed to books — I thought they were fine, but I wasn’t especially interested in them.
One day, when I was a sophomore, I was having a cigarette, in a dusty little section between buildings. I was 15, smoking a Kent stolen out of my mother’s purse, trying to look as dangerous as possible.
I was standing next to this girl, a senior I can only describe as the Pirate Queen of my high school – every high school has one: tough, beautiful, sarcastic, impossibly cool. I, being more ambitious than realistic, started talking to her. I started talking about Bob Dylan vs. Leonard Co hen, that Cohen was undervalued, and she looked down at me and said, “Have you ever thought of being less stupid?”
I had, but I was happy with the stupid I was. She asked, “Why don’t you read a book? Have you even heard of T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf?”
Later on, I went to the school library, a Band-Aid-colored trailer, and there was no Eliot and one Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway,” and that was the one I checked out. I couldn’t make sense of it or tell what was going on, but I could see the beauty and clarity and muscularity of those sentences. I had never seen writing like that. It never occurred to me that you could do with words what Jimi Hendrix did in music.
“Mrs. Dalloway” made me a reader, turned on a little light bulb in my head. . . . I’ve come to think that most of us had a first book, not necessarily a great book, that cracks the world open for us.