His hero is Virginia Woolf, and like Woolf, he says, he lacks confidence in his own work: “I always find that the novel I’m finishing, even if it’s turned out fairly well, is not the novel I had in my mind. I think a lot of writers must negotiate this, and if they don’t admit it, they’re not being honest. You have started the book with this bubble over your head that contains a cathedral full of fire — that contains a novel so vast and great and penetrating and bright and dark that it will put all other novels ever written to shame. And then, as you get towards the end, you begin to realize, no, it’s just this book.”
Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for a book inspired by Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway: that book is The Hours (1999), and it’s about three women — including Virginia Woolf herself — whose lives are connected by Mrs. Dalloway. One of the characters, Laura Brown, was based on Cunningham’s mother. She died before she was able to see the movie based on The Hours, but Cunningham was able to show her a few scenes of it: “I sat on the sofa we’d had since I was a kid, with my mother, who would die in another week, watching Julianne Moore play her — as if she was being reincarnated while she was still alive. I think something about the movie made sense to my mother in a way the book didn’t quite. It was a great moment.”
Cunningham’s most recent book is a story collection called A Wild Swan and Other Tales (2015).