Monday, June 14, 2010

INTERVIEW: John Michael Cummings - Award-Winning Author of "The Night I Freed John Brown"

Welcome to “Up Close and Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing their views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with the Award-winning author, John Michael Cummings. He is born 1963 in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He holds a B.A. in Art/Graphic Design from George Mason University.

He was a reporter for Times Community Newspapers March 1989 — August 1991. He reported business news for The Reston Times.

His short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review.

He was twice been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story “The Scratchboard Project” received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007. He is also the Newberry Honor recipient Ruth White award and Poet Laurete Fred Chappell award.

His novella The House of My Father, from which his debut novel was adapted, was a finalist in the 2006 Miami University Novella Contest. His other novella Chimney Rock was a Semi-finalist ,Winnow Press 2004 First Book Award for Fiction.

The Night I Freed John Brown is Mr. Cummings' powerful first novel for young readers and the Winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People

E.I. Would you share some early self-reflection to give us a sense of who you were as a teenager? What were you like?

John Michael Cummings: Shy, a little huffy, and very lost. That was me in my teens. God, not by choice, though. I so wanted to be happy and popular. But I couldn't find my smile, couldn't feel right around others, always felt small and less than enough. Inferior, in other words. Yikes! Those were terrible years.

Should I say why they were? My counselor provides an answer: a critical father.

But there was another side to me then despite him. I wrote 20-page love letters to a particular girl--nightly! She always said I would be a writer.

Or I stood in the town phone booth all evening long waiting for her to call; we didn't have a phone in my house, and by ringing the phone booth once, she would signal me to call her. (Phone booths allowed incoming calls then.) She had a house full of sisters, so her phone was always busy. Timing was everything.

So as knotted up as I was in crowds, I was a giant of devotion for this girl.

E.I. Give your readers three “Good to Know” facts about your first job experience.

John Michael Cummings: I was fired--fired because I kept making eyes at the waitress. I was a dishwasher, and I couldn't stop looking at her--fired, mind you, because the owner had a bigger thing going on with her. Maybe she liked the attention from a boy, and that infuriated him.

He died soon after he fired me. I always thought it was the food that killed him. It was a diner in West Virginia, after all. Need I say more about the food?

So I was a terrible dishwasher, but I knew a beautiful face when I saw it. That's my first job experience.

E.I. Tell, the inspiration for your writing career, any fun details or anecdotes that would enliven your page.

John Michael Cummings: Inspiration for writing has always come from joy, pain, and the curiosity in between. I write to capture the emotions that press against the lid of my head like a volcano. It's hard work, getting the words right. The fewest words, all of them dead on. But only language can answer the cry for understanding in us, and language, like us, is limitless.

Fun anecdotes? Me have fun? Never. Just kidding. Twice I drove up to John Updike's mansion in Massachusetts and left my manuscripts at his door, with a letter imploring him to read them. Twice he sent his Rottweilers after me down the driveway. Just kidding about the Rottweilers. Once, though, he did write back. "...nice touches," he said. "Try to create more curiosity. Keep writing, but don't keep sending your work to me. You need an editor. I'm a dead-end," he wrote.

John Updike a dead-end?

Rest his soul. I assumed he was too smart to smoke.

E.I. Also tell us about John Michael Cummings today -- the man behind the author.

John Michael Cummings has never been happier. He left New York City last July and is well on his way to the life he's always wanted--full of friends, love, and good writing.

I just finished a stint teaching college prep English and am about to embark on my master's degrees in creative writing at University of Central Florida. Go Knights! (No, I am not drinking a wine cooler right now.)

The man behind the author? Hmm... That is journey, isn't it? To realize the man behind the author. The new Christian. The loving boyfriend. The father figure. The decent neighbor. The good employee. The commuter. The smart shopper. None of these hats seemed to have any color in New York. Now they're brilliant.

E.I. What is it about the art form of writing that enchants you, and gives you the enduring passion to continue in such a demanding profession?

John Michael Cummings: "You'd probably die if you didn't write," my counselor once said.

That I'm telling you I have a counselor who's so intense to say this lets you know I'm not a pitted, sun-baked statue of a man, but a watery body, like a lake that ripples, mercurial with flitting fish.

A friend once said I had the head of a horse--sensitive. (I think this friend was drinking a wine cooler when he said this.)

Seriously, what enchants me about writing is the world of interactions, settings, and ideas that come to life on the page. Creation. Language has no limits. How can one not be psyched up by that?

E.I. Please tell your young readers about your novel “The Night I Freed John Brown.” What was it that sparked your imagination? What were your favorite aspects about this book?

John Michael Cummings: It's the story of a shy, mistreated boy growing up in the town where the controversial preacher-turned-revolutionary John Brown was captured in 1859 for his raid on a federal weapons depot. Brown believed he could free the slaves, and the guns at Harpers Ferry were to be the instruments of his change. Josh, in modern times, just wants to free himself, to belong to the community that lives in the historic town today. Being high on John Brown is one way to be with the in-crowd. It's a town where it's everything John Brown.

But Josh must battle his antisocial father and his way of clamping down on freedom.

The story's a modern-day parallel on the historic events at Harpers Ferry, a modern-day twist; Josh feels as liberated by John Brown as the slaves did a 150 years before him.

Imagination was not needed as much as a dramatic autobiographical treatment. I grew up in that stinking little historic tourist-trodden town I love so much. (I think I do need a wine cooler now.)

My favorite aspect was getting the novel published! That, and the gorgeous energy and details that my wonderful editor Patti Gauch lovingly and painstakingly helped me thread throughout it. Patti was the best! She made the novel twice as good as I could have ever made it without her.

I also had an excellent, outstanding, redoubtable agent: Jessica Regal. Jessica's phenom brilliance repeatedly shaped the book through critical stages. She's so young, but so good. It's scary!

Let me add that the novel took years! Five if it took one. Finding Jessica, revising. Finding Patti, revising again.

E.I. How do you weave so much fun of information while writing and creating the character ‘Josh’ and the metaphors involving John Brown? Did you work them out in advance, or did they evolve as you wrote the story?

John Michael Cummings: Patti first said to me, "I like the last twenty-five pages. Rewrite the rest." Next question, as far as anything worked out in advance.

Everything evolved as the story was rewritten. Boy voice, vivid details, narrator's voice, pacing, tension, and the constant little reminders of the story's big and small promises of a payoff that is, I like to say, worthy of literature.

E.I. You've created a cast of remarkably captivating characters: Josh, his new friend Luke Richmond, Alex, Daniel, Father Ron, Bill Connors, Katie, his two brothers Jerry & Robbie that your readers definitely clamor for more; how did you decide what level of details your readers will accept? How does your creative process work?

John Michael Cummings: Saying as much as possible in the fewest words was our motto. Letting no character be thin or weak seemed to be our next standard. Again, I drew from people I knew, so there was a direct line in the writing process to actual people. That is the key to real and memorable characters, I feel.

Level of details--what a challenge. It's all about keeping the story moving forward, the bicycle pedals pumping--one pedal story, or plot, the other pedal language, neither causing the other to skip off the chain or to get clogged with sticks.

E.I. If you were asked to read a page from “The Night I Freed John Brown” is there one that you would personally select to share with your fans? And why?

John Michael Cummings: The dedication and acknowledgments page. This novel came to fruition because of teamwork. That should never be forgotten or understated.

E.I. If you were allowed total control of the Hollywood version of “The Night I Freed John Brown” who would be in it? And in your opinion who do you think should direct?

John Michael Cummings: I would like Richard Thomas to narrate the audio book. Maybe the actor Richard Boone of the sixties or seventies could play the fierce father. Elijah Wood could play our young hero. How about Anthony Mann or John Sturges as director. (Jessica, are you reading? Sell the movie rights, please!)

E.I. How do you imagine audience as you are writing? Do you try to do character development, chapter outlines, various novel-related brainstorming? Do you have sheets of newsprint covered in a story boards all over your walls?

John Michael Cummings: I work on the page and hold my plans in my head and heart. I do use a simple notebook for ideas and especially for dialogue. But I am not messy with papers lying about. My filing cabinet is my heart.

E.I. And finally, when you finish a novel, it's off to your agent and publisher, then you're on to the next. Do you find letting your manuscripts, especially your characters, as easy to part with when finished?

John Michael Cummings: Not so difficult to let finished works go. By the time I have reread and polished them enough, I'm looking forward to new terrain.

E.I. Mr. Cummings, Thank you for contributing to my blog. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know your work a little better. Would you like to end your interview with a writing tip or advice for young aspiring writers all over the world?

John Michael Cummings: Uh, buy my novel? Also, find a good shrink. Finally, love what you do, and do your best. Have guts and stamina. You're special. Make sure your writing is too.

Photo of John Michael Cummings, courtesy of the author.
To purchase his book, please visit AMAZON and Barnes & Noble.

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