The day of my interview with Michael Cunningham, a clear, bright October afternoon, I was on my way to his sixth floor walk-up when I noticed a man with a distracted expression walking down the street carrying a large cardboard box in his arms. I called out a greeting. He turned and looked at me in surprise.
Michael Cunningham—I recognized him from a photograph—was on his way to the post office, he said, to send a package to his sister. But he might just as easily have been a character in his new novel, The Hours, which is based (primarily) in literary Greenwich Village and features characters and plot appropriated from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; events appropriated from a day in Virginia Woolf’s life in Richmond, England in 1923; and a narrative set in Los Angeles, California in 1949, as a housewife named Laura Brown reads Mrs. Dalloway for the first time.
Having just read The Hours, I found the sight of Michael Cunningham wandering down Thompson Street with a cardboard box evocative of Clarissa Dalloway (of Mrs. Dalloway) going out to buy flowers in Westminster, and Clarissa Vaughn (of The Hours) going out to buy flowers on West 10th Street. Cunningham’s look as he went about his mundane chore in Greenwich Village, wandering through this dazzling bright and pretty fall day, was, like that of both Clarissas, somewhere between appreciative wonder and thoughtful abstraction.
A half hour later, Cunningham and I met again, more formally this time, at the tenement he uses as a writing studio. The cluttered kitchen featured a bathtub that doubled as a sink. The second room held a desk, an upholstered chair, several lamps, some pictures, and many, many books. This was certainly not the ordered graceful world of either of the Clarissas—or even of Virginia Woolf. If anything, it suggested the apartment belonging to Cunningham’s character, the deranged poet, Richard (based on the deranged poet Septimus of Mrs. Dalloway). But of course it wasn’t Richard’s apartment, or Septimus’s, either. It was Cunningham’s. This wasn’t fiction, this was life.
Before we began our interview, Cunningham presented me with a cup of strong black coffee—he apologized, the milk had turned—then sat with his back to his laptop computer and warned me that he might smoke a cigarette (he didn’t). Beyond the desk, the open window looked out over Greenwich Village rooftops and deep blue sky.
Justin Spring You’ve described your interest in Virginia Woolf as long-standing. When did it begin? Can you trace it?
Michael Cunningham I can trace it specifically. I read Mrs. Dalloway in high school. It wasn’t assigned reading, my high school in southern California was very much devoted, in the late ’60s, to making education palatable. We tended to analyze Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Which was fine, I had a perfectly good time doing that. But there was this girl who was a year older than I was—the coolest of the cool and the meanest of the mean, with wild hair and long fingernails—who used to smoke cigarettes out on the access road behind the gym. She was very wild and very smart, and she had many rants for many occasions. One day I was hanging around with her and she started in on how this stupid, fucked-up joke of a school wasn’t teaching us anything real, was just feeding us pabulum. She was reading Virginia Woolf, she was reading Eliot, that’s the real thing, she said, the teachers had no idea . . .
JS T. S. Eliot or George Elliot?
MC T. S. Eliot. “The Waste Land.” And she was reading To The Lighthouse. I went and read Eliot. I got Mrs. Dalloway, which was the only Virginia Woolf the bookstore had. And it went right through me. It was the first great novel I read. It’s stayed with me in a way that no other book quite has.
JS The idea of a teenage boy from California reading Mrs. Dalloway and having that moment of recognition . . . it’s almost funny—it’s so far out.
MC It is funny; I was a funny teenage boy. And it wasn’t at all what I expected to be moved by. Here I was, an aspiring criminal, an authority on the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and something in this novel that chronicled a day in the life of a 52-year old, upper-class English woman just knocked me down. That book feels almost as much a part of my life, my experiences, as my childhood does, or the time I lost my virginity, or the first time I fell in love—the experiences everyone has that are some of the traditional material for novels. Mrs. Dalloway got mixed up in there, along with falling in love and losing my virginity. It felt like part of my own life story.
JS Did you identify with Mrs. Dalloway? Did you, as a teenage boy, think, “Now, what would Mrs. Dalloway do in a situation like this?”
MC If anything, I identified with Septimus, the deranged poet, but it wasn’t really a question of identifying with this or that character. It was the level of the art that mattered. I had never imagined that such a thing was possible. I’d never imagined that using ink and paper, someone could conjure a world like this. I identified not so much with Mrs. Dalloway or any of the other characters as with Woolf herself. What came up off the paper, her incredible gift. It was a level of art that felt prescient to me. And I had to admit, great as Bob Dylan was . . . here was somebody greater. (laughter)
JS The art of Virginia Woolf aside, wouldn’t you agree that there’s a cult of Virginia Woolf? A cult that dwells on the fact of her suicide, her brilliance, the fact that she was abused as a child?
MC Oh, absolutely. But I was drawn to Woolf by art, not her cult. I vaguely remember, when I was a kid and first reading Mrs. Dalloway, that I had some image of Virginia Woolf as a very tall woman who stepped out of a lighthouse and walked into the ocean with stones in her pockets. I’ve learned a lot more about her since then. But what most draws me to her is the mystery of her art. Bloomsbury and all that is all very interesting, and historically and culturally significant, but my main fixation has always been on the books themselves.
JS It seems to me that your novel The Hours plays with both the art of Mrs. Dalloway, and the tragedy of a great writer’s suicide. Besides the Virginia Woolf character and the characters from her life, there are several characters drawn from her novel Mrs. Dalloway in your book, as well as a young housewife who is actually reading Mrs. Dalloway. Your novel starts like a mystery, with a factual death, and you unravel the death over the course of the novel. I’m not saying that you’ve written a mystery, but the novel dwells on the mystery of a suicide; the suicide of an enormously talented, successful, beautiful, intelligent, and well-situated person.
MC There’s a way in which I feel like Woolf’s suicide and people’s fascination with it obscures her genius. It places her biography in front of her accomplishments. This seems to be changing, but it has always rankled me that in the general estimation, Virginia Woolf has long been considered the most gifted crazy woman who ever lived, but not an artist as deadly serious as, say, Joyce. You don’t hear a lot about Joyce’s life.
JS No, it doesn’t have that sort of power over the imagination. That’s why I talk about Virginia Woolf as a cult. She has devotees, people see her as an icon. Something larger than an author, more like an emblem of a certain sort of suffering. Our Lady of Literary Sorrows.
MC I don’t think there’s anyone who’s inspired this level of devotion and fascination and adulation. And while I do get a little cranky over the way that her life and particularly her death can get in the way of the plain fact of her genius, her tremendous accomplishment; the fact that someone who could see as deeply and clearly as she could, who could write about the world with the incredible fullness and generosity and depth that she brought to it, the fact that someone like that would in fact, ultimately choose to kill herself. It’s difficult to imagine anyone more acutely aware of the simple wonder of being alive. That’s what Mrs. Dalloway is, after all. It’s a testament to the terrors and marvels of the everyday. And I think it means something, it means something large and mysterious, that somebody who could love the world that fully—in a true way, not a deluded or willfully optimistic way—would ultimately choose to die. That is mesmerizing. And it is, I think, to a lot of people.
JS But it’s not the mystery of suicide that you address in this novel: why did she do it? Rather, it’s why people don’t do it.
MC If anything, this novel contemplates, among other questions, the question of why people do not commit suicide. Why people choose to go on living.
JS Was it difficult to live in that suicide-aware consciousness? You must have spent—how many years writing this novel?
MC I spent about three years writing The Hours.
JS Three years coping with these characters’ awareness that it might be easier just not to be.
MC Yeah, it was difficult. It’s been a strange time.
JS I wondered as I read the novel, if it was hard for you to put yourself in that suicide-aware state. And then I thought, maybe he exists in that state normally and it was a relief simply to write about it.
MC I’m not especially suicidal.
JS But it seems to be a condition that you have lived fully enough to be able to re-create compellingly in fiction.
MC Well, as a novelist you either find your way into a body of emotions, or you don’t. I can’t imagine writing believably about feelings I’ve never had, and sure, there have been moments when I’ve thought, What if I just didn’t have to be alive anymore? But I tend to inhabit the characters I write about more or less the same way an actor inhabits a character he’s playing. I take what I know, add whatever I’m able to intuit, and try to work my way under another person’s skin. I don’t suppose we can ever know, precisely, why anyone commits suicide. I try to understand my characters as thoroughly as I can, but I try to respect their essential mysteries, too.
JS What I felt reading was an enormous sense of relief that somebody else has experienced this consciousness, and has actually put it down on paper. That’s one of the great reliefs of reading fiction, the sense of commonality. You read things and you recognize them and suddenly you don’t feel like you’re crazy for having felt that way. You know that other people have been there.
MC That may be fiction’s main purpose in the world. It’s there to accompany us. I don’t think it’s there to teach us anything in particular. Eudora Welty said something great along these lines, which I can quote to you in its entirety because it happens to appear in this month’s Vanity Fair, of all places. Welty says, “Not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”
JS Mrs. Dalloway is a sort of companion to your character, Laura Brown, the ’50s California housewife. She wants to escape the life she’s living but feels trapped in; getting back to reading Mrs. Dalloway makes her feel like she exists. Even though she’s not asserting her essential self in the act of reading, she’s receiving someone else’s essential thoughts. And the act of reading is in itself, for Laura, an act of self-identity.
MC She is accompanied by Virginia Woolf and it does make some kind of real difference for her.
JS Clarissa Dalloway is certainly the sort of person one would want for a friend—even if only as an imaginary friend. I can understand Laura’s attraction to her. People who have that lovely, appreciative, life-affirming consciousness, people who live in a state of child-like wonder at the infinite beauty and mystery of everyday life don’t come along all that often. Or do they?
MC People who can express it don’t come along all that often. Those are the saints and the poets, I guess. Even Clarissa, Woolf’s as well as my own, doesn’t go around extolling the beauties of the world to the people she encounters. It happens internally. We’re moved to the depths of our souls, or whatever you want to call that ecstatic faculty, and we run into somebody on the street and say, “Hi, nice day, are you coming to my party tonight?” That’s where the novelist comes in. That’s part of why we have novels—to reveal the life-affirming consciousness, or whatever, that people don’t wear on their sleeves. That’s why the fictional Clarissa is better, more potent company for Laura than an actual, flesh-and-blood Clarissa would have been.
JS Perhaps that’s why she’s such a compelling fictional construct. Your Septimus character in The Hours is a poet named Richard who is nearing the end of his life, wasting away from AIDS. His mind is going. And your Clarissa is his best friend, his caretaker and former lover. You say that as a teenager you identified most closely with the Septimus character in Mrs. Dalloway, but I see little of you in Richard.
MC I’m not sure the whole question of identification, that is, which character the author most resembles, which one the author really is, if you will, is a very profitable one where novels are concerned. I am, to a very real extent, every single character I write about. Some of them are easier to infiltrate, because their experiences are more like mine, or because they want some of the same things I want. But if I didn’t feel like I was a character, even a minor one—if every single person I write about in a novel didn’t seem in some way like autobiography—I couldn’t write about them at all.
JS Clarissa’s New York life is really the center of The Hours. A relatively well-to-do lesbian in mid-life, living in a perfect West Village apartment, and all too aware of the many opinions people hold about her. Here is where your gift for comedy really sparkles. Her dealings with Richard’s former love Louis, now a drama teacher in San Francisco, who drops in unexpectedly: it makes an incredibly touching moment of high comedy—all the more so because Louis is so prickly.
MC Poor Louis. He’s my equivalent of the Peter Walsh character in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and I’m afraid he suffered a bit of a demotion in my book. Peter Walsh is arguably the third main character in Woolf’s book, after Clarissa and Septimus. He has long scenes of his own, and he’s the one who internally delivers those famous last lines “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? . . . It is Clarissa . . . For there she was.” I’ve reduced him, really, to a walk-on. I think that’s a big part of what’s comic about Louis. And what’s tragic about him, too. It’s one of the oldest of human dilemmas. In this version of the drama, you’re central and irreplaceable. In that version, you’re a sad little peripheral character complaining about the lack of love in the world.
JS Clarissa’s life is, in this way, quite different from Laura Brown’s. Laura, the California housewife, lives in what nearly amounts to a social vacuum. No wonder, then, she’d rather stay in bed with Mrs. Dalloway.
MC Sure, but it’s more that she identifies with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and because she gets a vicarious thrill from Mrs. Dalloway’s social life. Laura does live in a social vacuum, and Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t, but both of them live in emotional vacuums. Mrs. Dalloway loves her husband but sleeps alone, in her own room, and goes to bed with a book every night. Laura is an intelligent, passionate person who’s got the wrong life. It is, to some extent, an accident of time and place. She shouldn’t be a housewife, she shouldn’t be married, at least not to a nice, regular guy like Dan, and she probably shouldn’t be a mother, at least not yet. She doesn’t quite fully realize any of that, at least not consciously, not yet. She empathizes with Mrs. Dalloway’s disconnectedness. Mrs. Dalloway married the wrong person, too. Mrs. Dalloway, too, is simultaneously very serious about her own life and capable of doing and feeling far, far more.
JS But Laura’s immersion in Mrs. Dalloway never leads her to any breakthrough in her own life. There’s a moment where she’s aware of her own anger and a feeling of being trapped by the circumstances of her life, but she doesn’t act on it, she doesn’t actually have the moment of realization. The anger just flares up and dies down.
MC And then dies down, and then flares up again much more dramatically in a scene that I didn’t write, when she does in fact try to kill herself and fails. But the act of trying to kill herself blows her out of her life. She moves away and starts over.
JS I love the way she checks into that hotel room to read Mrs. Dalloway. It feels like an assignation or a suicide attempt, but reveals itself as a desire to carve out a few hours, to create a room of one’s own.
MC It is exactly that, an attempt to create a room of her own, and it was, in my mind, an assignation. A little bit like having an affair with death. In early drafts you may let yourself write a phrase like that, and then you judiciously remove it later.
JS I’ve always considered Virginia Woolf a woman’s domain. Were you worried that women would reject the fiction because you’re not female?
MC The thought has certainly crossed my mind. Woolf is, among other things, a feminist icon. It’s presumptuous for anybody to do what I’ve done in this book. To imagine a day in her life, and pretend to imagine what went on in her mind. It’s all the more so for a man to do it.
JS I picked up the review copy and thought, He’s really asking for it. (laughter)
MC We’ll see. I don’t know how people will respond. It’s one of the things you just can’t worry about as you write. I wrote the book out of nothing but respect and admiration for her, and tried to do it as conscientiously and truthfully as possible, with the understanding that it is, by definition, a violation. I’m presuming to portray the inner life of somebody who has died and can no longer defend herself.
JS Not just somebody, but a recognized literary genius.
MC Not to mention the obvious danger of exposing my own puniness in the face of an intelligence so vast. And clearly, what I’ve done is write about a fictional character named Virginia Woolf whose life very closely resembles that of the real Virginia Woolf. But I don’t imagine I’ve cracked the code of Virginia Woolf, that I’ve entered her mind. I couldn’t. I just used my sense of her.
JS What was it like to get literary permissions for the book? You do quote from Mrs. Dalloway. Did it worry you as you were writing?
MC The thought crossed my mind. I called my editor early on and said, “I want to quote Mrs. Dalloway, do you think that will be a problem?” He said he thought it wouldn’t be, to just go ahead. And it hasn’t been, the Virginia Woolf estate has been very generous.
JS We were talking before about how there’s actually a plot to the book, this mystery element which changes the terms of the book from being fiction-about-fiction, into something else. A story about people coping with a very particular state of mind. Do you read much fiction-about-fiction, say, Peter Handke? Have you read his latest, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay?
MC I haven’t read that one. But years ago I was a huge fan of Peter Handke; I don’t know what it would be like to read him now. As a reader I’m much more interested in human beings, and what it’s like to be one, than I am in writing about writing about writing. Obviously I’m not uninterested in writing about writing, but first, last, and always, I’m concerned as a writer—and a reader—with what it’s like to be alive, for a minute, in the middle of everything.
JS I didn’t find the sections where you were writing about writing, or writing about reading, to be any less interesting than the sections about people interacting. But I did feel there was a kind of guilty pleasure in reading the writing about writing sections, and the writing about reading sections.
JS I caught myself thinking, You’re not really allowed to do this in a novel. Or, How is he managing to do this and not seem self-indulgent? Because it doesn’t feel self-indulgent. It feels vital.
MC Good. I just wanted it to be as alive as possible.
JS Have you had any response yet from British readers?
MC No, it won’t be published in England until January. Fourth Estate is doing it.
JS Are you nervous about going on radio chat shows in England, or fielding questions from English critics?
MC Oh, well, I’m sort of nervous about everything, but . . .
JS You’re the new kid on the Virginia Woolf block.
MC (laughter) And it’s a big block, populated by a lot of very, very smart kids. There aren’t many figures in the 20th century, or ever, really, who have inspired this particular kind of ardent, hair-splitting devotion. In Rodmell, the English village where Woolf committed suicide, there are always people, every single day, tracing the route she took from her house to the river. There’s a considerable body of people in the world who know everything and I mean everything about her life, the way certain Civil War buffs know every single thing about every single battle. I understand it. I’m a devotee, too. Though I am, as I said, a bit more of a fanatic about her art than I am about her life.
JS You cite a lot of the biographies at the end of the novel as having helped you. Which of them did you enjoy the most, or would you recommend most highly?
MC If anybody came to me and said, “Who is this Virginia Woolf? and, what do I need to know about her?” I would give that person the novels, of course, but after that I would give them Hermione Lee’s biography. It was cracklingly intelligent and beautifully written. It’s a little difficult to imagine having written this book without her book. I actually started The Hours before Lee’s biography came out, so it would have existed in some form, but it would have been substantially different.
JS You also cite Janet Malcolm’s article on Woolf. Your novel has the same sort of page-turning energy as the Malcolm piece, elements of a mystery novel. Her writing almost always reads like a detective story.
MC I’m a great fan of Janet Malcolm’s.
JS Where did you get details of Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Nelly, her cook?
MC Nelly Boxall. From Hermione Lee. The Quentin Bell biography, which was the first biography of Woolf, is also a remarkable book. There’s plenty about Nelly Boxall in that, too. Woolf has been thoroughly chronicled. How many biographies of her are there? A dozen, give or take a few. So the facts are pretty well-known. It seems more to be a question of the infinite variety of interpretations. Was Leonard a saint and her helpmate, assistant and devoted husband, or was he her oppressor and jailer?
JS Her keeper . . .
MC He’s been portrayed both ways. And many other ways. Was she a lesbian? Was she bisexual? How much did it matter that her half-brother molested her when she was young?
JS You mention that quite a few essays about childhood sexual abuse in relation to Virginia Woolf were helpful to you in the writing of this book, but there’s nothing really about it in your book.
MC No, it’s something that was in my mind, that affected the way I wrote the book without being actually named. It just wasn’t part of this book. But Louise de Salvo wrote an interesting book about Woolf as an incest survivor.
JS Did she point out to you that Virginia Woolf had certain behavioral traits common to incest survivors that you incorporated into your fictional Virginia Woolf?
MC Do incest survivors have common behavioral traits? Aren’t they as variable as anyone? I don’t remember getting specific behavioral traits from de Salvo or really from anybody. What I did was read just about everything I could get my hands on, pretty much everything Woolf wrote, her novels and her nonfiction, her letters and diaries, and then, several biographies, the de Salvo book . . . and then just put them all away, and tried to imagine her. My character was a creation of my own based on what I’d learned about the real Virginia Woolf. I tried to write the prose in my own way, having been deeply immersed in Virginia Woolf. I didn’t want to parody her style. I didn’t want to duplicate it, I couldn’t. It would have made me look like a fool. I just tried to be as influenced by her as I possibly could, and then stop reading anything written about her or written by her, and start to write on my own.
JS There’s your opening quote, the “Beautiful caves behind each character.” That idea of catching people’s consciousness as you drift in and out of conversations, of falling inside of somebody for a moment, and then snapping back out into the action of the plot.
MC That was very much my intention to try to learn from her, and be deeply affected by her without trying to imitate her.
JS At the end of Laura Brown’s story you’ve written a wonderful passage. Laura thinks about how preferable it would be simply not to exist. In your words, “nothing but a floating intelligence . . . just a presence that perceives, like a ghost might. It’s a little like reading, isn’t it—the same sensation of knowing people, settings, situations, without playing any particular part beyond that of a willing observer.” Throughout this novel, reading and writing serve as a palliative for the excruciating difficulty of simply being conscious on a daily basis, from hour to hour.
MC Certainly for her.
JS There’s one moment where the son sits with his mother and looks at her as she is considering not existing anymore. That located you in the novel for me, or rather, it established in my mind the person who created the novel that I was reading, and why he had written it. I felt that moment for that little boy is the starting point for what turns into a compelling and freestanding fiction. I don’t know if that was a construction of my own. But it hit me so strongly. Bam.
MC No, it’s real . . . in early drafts, the Laura Brown sections were specifically autobiographical. It was about my mother. And I used her name. Initially, the book was going to involve a section that was entirely fiction, though based on previous fictions; an imaginative section based on a deceased person, Virginia Woolf; and a section that was as close to fact as I could possibly make it, about my mother, Dorothy Cunningham, a housewife in Los Angeles. And to my immense relief, as I wrote, it began to drift away from that.
JS It wasn’t necessary anymore.
MC It felt tricky. It felt increasingly necessary to alter and manipulate what really happened. But that was where that character came from. I had tried to lift a day out of my childhood with my mother, who then metamorphosed into Laura Brown. In the early drafts, it’s my mother. If it felt necessary to the book, it would have been a strange experience for her. I’m relieved that the book just turned away from that.
JS As if the book picked up and floated off on its own, you didn’t have to have this closer connection to it.
MC One hopes that a book will defeat your expectations in some way and turn into something else.
JS Yep, turn into its own thing and walk away on its own two feet. But that leads me to another, more personal question, about your mother’s response to your fiction. Because the mother in A Home at the End of the World was also an amazingly compelling character. A creation that lives very strongly in my memory of the book, even though I read it four or five years ago.
MC There’s some kind of potent mother figure in every book of mine.
JS And why not?
MC And why not? They all start out to be very much like my mother and invariably turn into somebody else. The woman in A Home at the End of the World is really nothing like my mother, who is a very forceful, charismatic person, but not at all the woman in the book.
JS Is your mother a big writer, or reader?
MC She’s a very good, smart, appreciative reader, and she reads whatever I write. Though it’s difficult for my parents; they have a hard time with my writing. Interestingly, I think what troubles them most is the suggestion, the strong implication, from my novels that I’m unhappy, much more than the sex parts or anything like that—although I suspect they’re not so thrilled about those either. I think what’s really painful to them is the pain in the books. Mothers, don’t raise your sons to be writers. Because they’ll just come back to you with big tomes chronicling their sorrows and disappointments.
JS It must also make them self-conscious in a way that they’re not used to being. Its not as if all sons and daughters actually go around baring their souls in everyday life.
MC True, but I suspect most mothers are nervous most of the time. The ones I know are. They’re always up before the grand jury. They’re probably the most scrutinized people in the world.
JS And families, which you write about constantly, are all about not talking about what they’re actually feeling or experiencing. A family reunion would be impossible to live through if everybody came to the table . . . (laughter)
MC . . . And told the truth. Horrifying to contemplate.
JS What will your next novel be about? Have you begun to think about it?
MC I’ve only just begun to think about it. I’m working on a screenplay right now. Which is relief, its good to have something other than a novel to work on. I’ve the very faintest stirring of something that feels like some sort of ghost story, and it’s hard to say much more about it than that. I’ve been reading Dante and Henry James and trashy ghost stories. Forgotten things from the late 19th century that involve visitations and graves and crossroads. And I don’t know where its going to lead.
JS The Hours is so much a 20th century novel that focuses on the individual consciousness, interior moments . . . it’s hard to imagine this novel as a movie.
MC I mentioned to my agent periodically, as I was working on it, “Remember, don’t be looking for a movie deal on this one!”
JS But you also have a real interest in 19th-century novel-type constructs. That is, plot-driven narratives?
MC I do. And I have some very unformed idea at the moment, about a great, classical ghost story, like The Turn of the Screw. It won’t end up being that. It will surely evolve into something else. I don’t have any interest, certainly not now in my writing life, in 18th, 19th-century forms. We’ve got plenty of 19th-century novels, many of them great. I don’t feel like I need to add another one to the stack. But I do feel inclined, for some reason, to start from there. I may want to do something that messes around with and explodes a fairly traditional form like the classic ghost story. The best example of what I’m thinking about, but very, very different from anything I would attempt to do is actually a play, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Which is a sort of ghost story, involving two periods in time which go on simultaneously onstage. And we eventually see how the people who lived in the previous time haunt and inhabit the people who inhabit the present time.