Mrs. Dalloway is the first great book I ever read. I was fifteen, a not very promising student at a not very good public high school in Southern California, where I read the books that I was made to read but thought of literature as a dying art form. One day I was out having a cigarette where we went to have cigarettes, and suddenly found myself standing beside the pirate queen of our school. She was beautiful and mean and smart, she had long red fingernails, and long straight hair. Fringe, pretty much everywhere. I found myself standing next to her, and I thought, “Uh oh, uh oh . . . Think fast, be suave, say something that will make her love you forever.” So I said something that I thought then–and I think today–was very winning, about the poetry of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She was kind to me. She sucked in her entire Marlboro in one drag, but the ash didn’t fall, and exhaled an immense cloud of smoke, and said, “Well, yes, they’re very good, but how do you feel about T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf?”

Now, I wasn’t completely illiterate–I had heard of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and I knew Virginia Woolf was very tall and insane and lived in a lighthouse and jumped in the ocean, but I never expected I’d have to read either one of them. I went to the library, the Bookmobile, the little trailer where the books were. They didn’t have any Eliot, but they did have one book of Woolf’s, and it was Mrs. Dalloway. I took it out, and I took it home and read it, tried to read it, and I didn’t know what was going on. In another way I did get it. I did get the depth and density, and the sentences, and it did turn on some little light inside my stupid skull.

Everybody who reads has a first book—maybe not the first book you read, but the first book that shows you what literature can be. Like a first kiss. And you read other books, you kiss other people, but especially for those who are romantically inclined, that first book stays with you. I felt wedded to Mrs. Dalloway in a way I’ve never felt about any other book. I finally, finally, finally grew up and wrote The Hours, in which I tried to take an existing work of great art and make another work of art out of it, the way a jazz musician might play improvisations on a great piece of music.

I learned so much from Woolf as a writer. I think what I learned most importantly was her conviction that the whole of human existence, while it is copiously contained in foreign wars and the death of kings, and the other big subjects for big novels, is also contained in every hour in the life of everybody, very much the way the blueprint for the whole organism is contained in every strand of its DNA. If you look with sufficient penetration, and sufficient art, at any hour in the life of anybody, you can crack it open. And get everything. Virginia Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor, in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own, where he or she was the hero of another great tragic and comic tale.