Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com interviews John Michael Cummings. John's short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.
Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest John Michael Cummings. John's short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.
In addition, John is the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY for Black History month.
He is also the author of the short story collection Ugly To Start With (West Virginia University Press, 2011), which The Philadelphia Inquirer calls a work of “sharp observation and surpassing grace.”
Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview. How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
John: In my early twenties, I was dark-minded, emotionally desperate, and full of insecurity, hurt, and growing anger. The one place I felt decent and safe was in my bubble-like VW Bug.
The insides of my little car clamped my head like big earphones. In here I could hear myself think. Collect my thoughts. Talk myself down.
With just a few K-Mart speakers stuffed into doors and the back window, music was ear-blastin’ good, Bruce Springsteen out of this world! His every breath struck forth in the gnarled boots of hard, lonely poetry, but by the end breathed a silk flag of freedom. That was triumphant!
I wanted that for my sadness and hurt.
But I was too frozen socially to sing on a stage and too unsexy to pluck a guitar. That left words on a piece of paper, like his lyrics folded up into a cassette tape. Snippets of poetry I figured. Maybe ballads, little stories. Perhaps even a rant, like a manifesto.
Anything to let the fire out. Anything to let the sun in. Sunshine to burn away the pain and hurt that covered my insides like the slimy, dirty sides of a cave.
Mine was a common story: critical, negative, harsh father.
The timing of my passion for words was odd. At 26 I was graduating from George Mason University with a B.A. in Studio Arts. All my life I had been “artistic” with pencils and paints. I had already held several jobs in the arts: silk-screen design, gravestone lettering (yeah, I made cemetery stones for a living), and computer-generated graphics in telecommunications. None of it was the answer for the hurt in my heart. The self-loathing kept growing.
With a college degree, I couldn’t write worth a lick. Art students weren’t expected to know a thing about words. We dreamy artists couldn’t do anything but be weird and make goofy things with paint and construction paper. But nobody could object because, after all, who was to say what was a big tomato soup can on a page or brilliant art?
No surprise my English papers had always been average (save my fancy cursive used to camouflage jumbled thinking and guessed-at punctuation). From elementary school through college, I had never given written language a second thought.
I was convinced that the key to my happiness was in my voice, in what I literally said, and for that, I’d need words. The right words.
Words would spell it out, and I could tell from The Boss, there was no limit to how clear and real they could make the hurt inside—and let it like blood.
And I’ve been on that bloody word road for the last thirty years.
What keeps me going? Fear of failure. Thanks to years and years of trying and failing, I’ve grown large and strong with the conceit and vanity that eventually I’ll “succeed,” and all the failures before me will be redeemed as misunderstood brilliance. Admit it—don’t you wish van Gogh would come back to life just to enjoy his success, then to die again this time with a grin and middle finger for us all?
While we wait for that, I’ll keep trying with writing.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer?
John: A character writer, but I work hard on plot.
Like many of my stripe, I stomp around in the junkyard of human nature. It’s a fool’s errand, but I can’t stop. Hoping to find a treasure, I drift back and forth across this scrapyard, kicking up hubcaps and twisting my ankles on door handles.
People are messed up. We make no sense, and we work really hard at making no sense. We’re obese with self-destruction, starved of spiritual wisdom, and paralyzed by our own conflicts. We can be Hercules one moment, Jabba the Hutt the next. We can stop a human heart, repair its valve like a bicycle tube, then start it back up for thirty more years of life. Or we can machinegun a village of old women and children and think nothing of it.
We marry, we cheat. We love, we hate. We read, pray, play violins and pianos. But we can’t stop repeating the sins of our past.
The question is, am I a plotter or character man? Well, you can’t have a real and believable plot without good motivations behind it.
The Alastair Sim’s version of Scrooge is a great character study of an iron heart resisting change, but being hammered down to nothing, broken open with shame and fear. Unlike other versions of “A Christmas Carol,” the Sim’s superlative shows in supreme detail and depth Scrooge’s life-deciding attitudes and actions. Scrooge is emotionally microwaved by all he sees of his past.
This depth and turn of character is what I strive for. My footsteps follow, I like to hope, Carson McCuller’s THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, to a lesser degree John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and just about anything by Faulkner. Their footprints, by the way, are elephantine.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
John: Privacy, quiet, being well-rested, a window with a nice view, sometimes soft music, lit candle—these all help. More so, belief in what I’m doing and vigor to do it. Material I can brave and live with every day for years, through revisions, rewrites, bouts of self-doubt, and emotional downpours.
Not many subject areas make that grade.
I ask myself who and what I love, miss, and admire, and I can count these people and things on one hand’s fingers. Those are my novels.
Norm: Why do you believe people read fiction?
John: As my librarian tells me, many read for escape. She’s referring mostly to genre fiction.
But I wouldn’t know about that word “read.”
You see, I don’t just read. I examine. I inspect. Mentally edit. I give words the once-over, then the twice-over, and on and on. This examination, I give not just my writing, but others’ writing too.
I can’t help myself. By having trained myself to scrutinize my own writing, to test the prudency and accuracy of every word, my expertise (let’s call it that) has become so programmed that whenever I look at any prose, half a dozen sets of eyes open up in my mind at once, power on, and hum. I can all but see them burn crisscrossing beams on the page.
I am not a reader; I am a multi-functional mobile English linguistics lab.
One set of lens focuses on literal sense and content of words. Another detects voice and personality while observing color and tone of word choice, particularly in image and metaphor. A third trolls line by line for grammar. A fourth gives the writing a reality check. A fifth does this, a sixth does that, and on and on.
I haven’t been an armchair reader since I was young, and even then in a very limited way. When the unhappiness in my family descended into every room, I escaped into the pages of The Hardy Boys Mysteries. Like millions of other boys, I was shoulder to shoulder with Frank and Joe as they crept up creaky stairs in an old house on the hill, as they KO’ed burly thugs in the midnight fog along the wharf, and as they white-knuckled it in a sputtering twin-engine plane over the treetops of the Canadian wilderness.
One big difference, though. Most of those millions of other boys were ten years old or so. I was eighteen. Eighteen and reading The Hardy Boys. I had a driver’s license. I could bench press two-hundred and fifty pounds. I had already made out with a girl or two. I was old enough to go off to war. But I was happiest reading “The Shore Road Mystery” and “The Mystery of Cabin Island.”
Was I a young man with a mind of a child?
In all my school years, I did well academically. I read Encyclopedia Britannica for book reports. In social studies, we read Time Magazine for class discussions. I endured Algebra word problems.
But I hadn’t enjoyed reading.
Except for one consistent, daily occasion prior to discovering The Hardy Boys. Whenever I filled my cereal bowl with Total flakes and splashed them with milk and the sweet icy milk and crunchy wheat tumbled into a mix of nourishing joy on my tongue, I immediately looked for something to read. Reached across the table and grasped for something. Anything. It seemed a reflex, an instinctive act. I must read! My eyes must find words. I glanced left. Not my mother’s Redbook. I glanced right. Not my father’s Popular Mechanics. And TV Guide was way out in the living room.
There was only one thing to read, and it was right in front of me—the Total box itself. Trivia, world puzzles, maps, reminders of how nutritiously complete Total was. Vitamin A…100%, Vitamin B…100%, all of them 100%.
Morning after morning I read the Total box. Not an auspicious start for a writer.
And The Hardy Boy Mysteries weren’t exactly Endora Welty’s Golden Apples either.
Only today do I realize the deeper reason I read those mysteries. Those boys were kind to each other. Their father was kind to them. Aunt Gertrude, though strict, loved them. Their chums were happy and nice to each other, and they all did fun things together. They swam and skied. They had picnics and ate with big hungry mouthfuls. They had dates. Their worlds were clean and simple, nothing hateful or sullen or negative. Their world was joy, adventure, and danger—a hatchet-faced man running through a crowd in front of them, a woman screaming behind them; a light winking in the second story window of an old house; burly shadows charging them.
Today, I listen to the 1950’s adult equivalent of The Hardy Boys, “the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account—America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”
Do you write stories to express something you believe or is it just for entertainment?
John: Hands down, something I believe. While there are entertaining qualities to certain scenes I write, entertainment doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning or park me in front of my computer for long hours.
As noted, my themes are fairly personal and heavy: my harsh father, my tragic brother, and my obese Walmart-sized home state of West Virginia.
Anyway, the boob tube has long been the unbeatable whorehouse of entertainment.
To quote The Boss:
So I bought a .44 magnum, it was solid steel cast
And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast
'Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbin' the almighty peace
Judge said "What you got in your defense son?"
"Fifty-seven channels and nothin' on"
—“Fifty-Seven Channels (And Nothin’ On)
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
John: I would ask this: what makes you think you can quit even if you want to? You don’t have conscious control of creativity, and it holds a priceless value in your happiness. It’s not a textbook to close, a switch to pull, a room to lock.
Can you say to your right hand—“I’ve decided not to use you any longer”?
Can you say to your stomach—“Sorry, I won’t be feeding you anymore”?
Expression is not a hobby or a summer sport. You can’t toss your heart’s outpouring into a corner like a baseball bat or hockey stick.
I would say this: toughen up, stop worrying about what no one can know, and just do it. Write. Buy yourself a Nike t-shirt and write as the slogan says: Just Do It!
Everybody has something to say and something worth hearing.
But keep this clear: your voice and vision is not a video game instantly gratifying, or a text message to zip off, not a high-octane movie in ninety minutes. Watch the great library film “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and you’ll understand that your dream is a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless.
Or read poor little Charlie Brown. He tries giving up. In one strip, he throws his ball glove down on the mound and shouts, “Ugh, I give up!” He stomps into the outfield to drop-ball Lucy and blares her upside-down: “I give up!” At Linus, Schroeder, even little Snoopy, he shouts he gives up. Then he looks straight at us and asks, “Where do I go to give up?”
Or read Nelson Mandela’s debated 1994 inaugural speech as president of South Africa:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
So why are you still reading me? Shouldn’t you be writing?
Norm: Please tell our audience a little about your most recent work, DON’T FORGET ME, BRO and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?
John: To use a dishonest phrase, my new novel is autobiographical fiction. To say it more honestly, I wrote about my oldest brother’s sorrowful life. Only it’s not factual because I can’t remember enough of the facts, was never aware of some, or they are too unclear to help, too painful to trench up, or too dreary to make a dramatic read. Nothing about my memories of Joe made good memoir material. So I fictionalized.
But the general facts are, when Joe was in his late teens, some bigshot head-shrinker with the county hospital branded him schzio when our father’s abuse should have been blamed for knocking the spirit out of my brother. The oldest son, Joe took the brunt of our father’s iron-rod temperament.
Think of my brother as a dog kicked over and over. He fought back the only way he could: he growled, snapped, and bit. When not belligerent, he was deathly gloomy. Hurt and shame sent his eyes downward. He became his own worst enemy and couldn’t see the fine man he still was: nice-looking, intelligent, well-mannered after our mother, a real gentleman.
When he died seven years ago at age forty-five after a miserable, shortened life as an overmedicated ward of the state—misery eased by heavy drinking and smoking—I was left with an energy ball of outrage in my heart.
I saw a way to solve two problems at once. I’d write a book that’d make a powerful impression in the market and, hopefully, heal some of my loss.
It healed nothing. I’m just as angry about Joe’s fate as ever. If my novel stands for anything, what it is, I’m not sure.
It’s left me exhausted. I had to pull my soul sideways through the keyhole for five years to get the right words down. Countless months of spinning in place, afraid of starting, followed by years of beautifully written wrong turns and dead ends, then years of a slug-like pace of ten pages forward, twelve back, three forward, four back, and on and on.
You see, my skills as a novelist are limited. I can pull off a novel only if I cling to the basics I know: a hero’s motivation set loose on the page like a Tasmanian devil, a good pace embroidered with original, clear characterizations, and a well-generated curiosity that fastens readers from chapter to chapter as if impaling them on meat hooks.
Given my lifelong learner’s permit with the novel, I’m amazed that what I came up with is publishable.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for the book?
John: Outrage. To throw floodlights on the lies and drag apologies from the guilty.
A child badly raised has been killed a thousand times inside. His self-esteem has been burned beyond recognition. Who are any of us without our personality, uniqueness, and confidence? Ahead: one hellish life.
Without self-love, Joe was a skeleton. Walking ribs. On the warmest day, he felt a cold November wind mingling with his bones. He leaked every drop of self-worth. His heart became a logjam of self-reproach, his mind clouded with sorrow and bad conscience. His thinking deformed by lumps of self-doubt, his feet plunged into piles of his own shame. Regret and condemnation were a jeering mass around him. Invaded by every strange glance, home to every foul odor, he never at a chance at life.
Now I ask you, forgive the one who did this destruction to him? His own father?
Abuse is wrongdoing in bulk, volumes of bad deeds to one person, and forgiveness is available only in a tincture, a precious combination of understanding, sympathy, and sadness.
My father never expressed remorse. If he were still with us, he’d be just as unloving, distrustful, and negative toward his sons. He was a weapon insistently loaded.
For a man who kills another one time, forgiveness is possible. For a man who kills his own son a thousand times, forgiveness lies six feet below the floor of hell.
Maybe some fault rests with my brother for not fighting harder to save himself, for not overcoming. Maybe I’m making excuses for him because I want to fight for him now.
I was there. I witnessed it. Joe was not schizophrenic. And I’ve done my research. Symptoms of schizophrenia and plain ole unhappiness widely overlap. Sure, Joe was downhearted and angry. You bet he detested his life and himself. Why not? Dad made everyone apologize for just being alive.
But Joe never had a single textbook symptom. He did not hallucinate. He knew all too clearly who was killing him.
Once drugged up, he was confused, even tricked by the medical jargon thrown at him. His voice fell monotone because of the heavy cocktail of drugs in him. Or he became hot-tempered and careless with his answers when questioned.
Most of all, he had no advocate.
No younger brother to fight for him.
Eventually he gave in and took the brand of schizophrenia on the forehead, and the rest was misery. Not only did he not love himself, he didn’t even like himself. He couldn’t tolerate himself, couldn’t endure being inside his skin.
Only the extraordinary few can fight this state of mind to live long enough to die of something else.
An alcoholic, even if sober for forty years, still calls himself an alcoholic to remind himself of his vulnerability, to give its destructive reach a wide berth.
I’ve been in and out of therapy all my life, and I’m still damaged goods. Though I may never have a family, I’ve gotten real cozy with all the brothers and sisters in the Prozac family. Paxil is a brother I just can’t get along with, but Zoloft is my sweet sister.
Daily affirmations, combined with tap therapy, work wonders. A neuro-linguistic effect—words tapped under the skin. Tap, tap, tapping the positive, loving words down to the bone.
Exercise, low-sugar diet, lots of water. Surrounding myself with positive messages and meaningful tokens.
Still I have bad nights and always will. Negative, obsessive thoughts prowl through my mind like German U-boats on the choppy, black Baltic. I’m an unarmed ship trying to submerge, begging to fall asleep, to swim down deep into the black water of nothingness. Sleep it off. Wake to a bright, calm morning on the blue sea.
Over the years, if I had ever owned a gun—bang to the brain! I still shudder, knowing that.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves in DON’T FORGET ME, BRO and what matters to you about the story?
John: Purpose? You know, whenever I hear authors say they want their books to make the world a better place or to help anyone who reads it, I want to scoff—“No, you don’t. You wanna be rich and famous!”
I know I want that. I hope to fly out to big ole Californië, and spend a weekend on Stevie Spielberg’s yacht.
Of course I want my novel to help. I wish my novel would catch on as the voice of the abused and victimized, of anyone who’s been called schizo or has been overmedicated and treated as a wild bear to keep tranquilized—when they’ve exhibited no signs of threat. That’s not making someone mentally healthy. That’s deadening their mind, locking them in a jail cell whose bars are not iron but a fog. An endless, impassible fog.
I myself have been overmedicated, not because I was ever violent to myself or others, but because a shrink freely wrote me prescriptions for overlapping meds, two meds for the same symptom, along with a third and fourth for something else, then sent me on my merry way.
“Now don’t start and stop these pills,” he warned. Keep taking them, he said. But wait six weeks to see me again because my schedule is full right now.
On these many pills, I felt all the sadder because I was gone from myself—detached, adrift, without energy, interest, concern, compassion, little more than a droning zombie.
And a cup of coffee or two doesn’t get clean this stuff out of your brain!
So, yes, it would be really wonderful if my new novel could make some sad fellas pee their pants laughing at my f***up characters.
In the end, I’d be satisfied if DON’T FORGET ME, BRO found a modest home on a library shelf.
Norm: What’s next John Michael Cummings?
John: You know, I’d like to write a Hardy Boys mystery. My brother Joe would be “Frank,” and I’d be, well, “Joe,” the younger brother. I like the ring of that name. Together, we’ll solve the Mystery of Happiness.
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.