Michael Cunningham on writing for Hollywood -- The author of ''The Hours'' talks about becoming Hollywood's unlikely go-to guy for new scripts

Specimen Days

”I just left a message for Julia,” says Michael Cunningham blithely, settling down for an interview in his closet-size Greenwich Village writing studio, where a framed, unhung poster of The Hours, autographed by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore, rests in an overcrowded corner. ”Julia,” of course, is Julia Roberts, and Cunningham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of both The Hours and a peculiar and sometimes beautiful new novel called Specimen Days. The blockbuster movie queen and the esteemed literary novelist are now odd-couple collaborators.

”I’m doing a screenplay for her,” explains Cunningham, leaning back barefoot in his Aeron desk chair, his 52-year-old bod looking as toned as a Hollywood actor’s. His script is an adaptation of Lolly Winston’s 2004 novel, Good Grief, for Universal. ”Julia and I have been working together — but don’t get me wrong, I’m writing it!” he says. Roberts is just helping flesh out ideas on the character she might play, a widow who hits the skids. ”The big question was whether Julia and I would click on this,” he says. ”She and I talked on the phone for the first time, and we were like” — he snaps his fingers rapidly in the air — ”right there. ‘What about this?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ So there we are. I just called her and said, ‘I have another 40 pages.”’

The Hours — a surprise 1999 Pulitzer winner, a surprise best-seller, and the basis of a film version that made Cunningham (as he noted in an essay in 2003) ”one of the only living American novelists happy about his experience with Hollywood” — gave this previously under-recognized writer the boost that made the new career as a screenwriter possible. It also made Specimen Days, his first novel since, a whole lot tougher to corral onto the page. ”This was the hardest book I ever had to write, by far,” he says, ”partly because I’m battling a self-consciousness I’ve never felt before.”

He responded by taking the book really far out there. Days is three connected novellas — a 19th-century ghost story, a contemporary terrorist thriller, and, riskiest of all, a futuristic sci-fi love story between a humanoid man and Catareen, a 4 1/2-foot-tall lizard woman with flaring nostrils. Cunningham was starting work on the sci-fi story in a writer’s-retreat farmhouse in Tuscany when, one bright morning, he spied ”a lovely little lizard, a mottled green thing,” darting across the windowsill, and decided to use it as inspiration for his 22nd-century love object. He ran with the idea — ”It was magic” — and a month later the story was just about done. A big fan of Bradbury and Heinlein growing up, Cunningham calls the sci-fi tale his favorite, though he suspects it will stymie many readers. Which he’s okay with.

”What I really did,” he says, ”was resist the temptation to tone things down out of fealty to some sort of hypothetical book group on Long Island who loved The Hours. There will surely be people who are disappointed that this book isn’t The Hours 2. But at the same time, the success of The Hours really demonstrated for me that there are readers out there for unorthodox books.”

Specimen Days
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