Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham will appear on Tuesday, June 3 at Trinity Church as the first annual speaker sponsored by the O’Connor Foundation’s Ashley and Terry Usrey Memorial Lecture Series.
Cunningham’s novel The Hours won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Other Cunningham books include Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days, and A Home at the End of the World, which was also made into a movie.
The decision to invite Cunningham as the first speaker for the series was influenced by Cunningham’s reputation as an admirer of Flannery O’Connor, who lived in Savannah as a child and died in 1964 at age 39.
“A number of years ago there was a Publisher’s Weekly piece about Cunningham,” says Bill Dawers, president of the O’Connor Foundation board. “He had some Flannery O’Connor quotes on his chalkboard when the reporter came by.” In a recently published book about faith, Cunningham “specifically brought up O’Connor in the book,” says Dawers.
He notes thematic and stylistic similarities between Cunningham and O’Connor. “With his portrayal of Virginia Wolff in The Hours, Cunningham frequently has these shifting points of view. He writes equally well about men and women, probably better about women. His first novel [A Home at the End of the World] has some amazing perspectives of the child, something that O’Connor did all the time. There was something really fitting about the combination.”
“Then throw into the mix the fact that he won the Pulitzer Prize and two of his books have been turned into highly acclaimed films,” says Dawers.
The Ursrey Lecture Series, underwriter for Cunningham’s appearance, was established earlier this year by Perry, Georgia resident Alene Ursrey in memory of her sons Ashley and Terry. The funders describe the brothers as “native Georgians who, like Flannery O’Connor, were lifelong devotees to all things Southern, particularly the art of storytelling.”
Terry Ursrey, who died in 2006, had many friends in Savannah, often traveling to the area for stays at his family’s Tybee Island cottage and as a sales rep working in the publishing industry.
“Terry was such a southern character, he almost stepped out of Flannery’s books,” says Betsy Cain, a friend of Terry Ursrey’s who, along with Dr. John Hunt, helped broker the partnership between the Ursrey family and the O’Connor Foundation. “What an amazing coup to get Michael Cunningham for this first lecture.”
Both Cain and Dawers describe the Ursrey Lecture as building on the momentum of the Savannah Book Festival and other literary events in the area.
“If we can keep repeating that in a stimulating way with different kinds of authors, that’s what we’re after,” says Cain.
“We really want the O’Connor Childhood Home to become a literary center,” says Dawers. “We’re hoping that the cachet of Flannery O’Connor and Savannah would put us in a position to attract some ‘literary stars.’
Lecture by author Michael CunninghamWhen: 7 p.m. Tuesday June 3Where: Trinity United Methodist ChurchCorner of Barnard and President StreetsCost: Free Reception and signing to follow in fellowship hall