The author is ensconced in a suite at Atlanta's Four Seasons Hotel next to a stack of copies of his 2000 book, The Hours which, in light of the occasion, boasts the "movie cover" featuring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. The trio of actresses are the three heroines of Stephen Daldry's (Billy Elliot) adaptation of Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
It's a wonder Cunnhingham's very interior, time-bending novel even came to Hollywood's attention in the first place. Especially considering its difficult subject matter of AIDS, lesbians, suicide and perhaps the ultimate taboo, abandonment of a child -- all penned by an openly gay writer, no less.
His reaction? "Enormously surprised. First that they wanted to do it at all, and second that they intended to leave all of that in," he says. "It's not in any way sanitized or softened."
And yet, Cunningham notes, "Nobody's treating it as a lesbian movie. Nobody's treating it as some kind of little marginal thing about those people over there, which implies something hugely encouraging to me about our collective willingness to simply hear the stories of a lot of different people and to understand that our emotional lives are really not that much to do with our sexual orientations."
The Hours is a passionate film about the well of alienation and desire for escape that broods beneath the proper feminine comportment of smiles and pleasant words. The film's emotional urgency is underscored by Philip Glass' insistent, whirling music. Ah, the score, says Cunningham, "People either love it or hate it.
"When I saw the movie for the first time I was a little thrown by the music, because it's not background. It has a kind of independent life in the movie. And I realized what it's doing is sort of standing in for the language in the book. And its kind of big, muscular presence has to do with the story very much like what lyrical language has to do with the story in a novel."
Cunningham is a true postmodernist and an avid moviegoer who clearly respects the different artistic demands of film. He seems delighted at seeing his book reimagined in the entirely new medium of film, and how a Philip Glass score or a gesture from Meryl Streep can convey meaning in a way his novel couldn't.
Of course there are moments when a writer can't help but bristle when things are changed, for instance the Laura Brown character who is so unattractive in the book, is played by Julianne Moore in the movie.
"One of the frustrations about this movie thing is, there aren't a lot of actresses who aren't beautiful. And one of my themes as a novelist is love and sex and happiness and tragedy for people who don't look like that."
"But then, who's going to play the part?" he wonders.
As always in discussions of Daldry's The Hours, things inevitably circle back to one particular topic: The Nose.
The prosthetic snout Kidman uses to hide her own pert miss has become a major source of interest and amusement to anyone who has seen the film.
"I asked Nicole if she would consider continuing her career as Nicole and having a parallel career with the nose?" Cunningham laughs.
"I want a role for that actress. I want someone like that to be in Hollywood."
Cunningham is currently at work on an adaptation of his first novel A Home at the End of the World, which begins production in April under the auspices of the Über-hip Killer Films. The Hours seems to have enticed the author to see the fresh potential for storytelling in film. And The Hours has also created a surprising new second life for an unexpected writer.
Cunningham notes that Mrs. Dalloway is now showing up on some bestseller lists.
"Score one for Virginia," he laughs.