Not long ago I received a collection of short stories under the title Ugly to Start With. Written by my guest today, John Michael Cummings, they feature a young man with a unique voice and clear-eyed view of the adult world, and I'm delighted that John, an accomplished award-winning author, agreed to this interesting and telling interview.
Please give readers a synopsis of your new collection of short stories, Ugly to Start With.
Here’s the synopsis the publisher and I came up with, which is pretty good: Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.
Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town.
Your main character, Jason, is an appealing teen with a distinctive voice, and the thread of the stories connects through him. Did you intend to write a collection, or did Jason drive the narrative?
No, I didn’t set out to write a collection. Some writers do, and it’s an admirable project—a unified body of short narratives.
For years I’ve been striving to publish book-length works. As far as I know, that’s how to offer readers something of prosy bulk they can hold on to; a story or poem in a literary journal is easily lost, I’m afraid. A writer could publish seventy-five stories in seventy-five different literary journals and magazines and never be a blip on the literary radar. I’m talking about myself! Before I published my first novel, that was my fate. I’m still largely unknown, but my first novel stands in the cosmos of print as a kind of point of light at least. Call it a nano-star.
So I’ve been striving for years to publish book-length works. Believe it or not, even with 75 stories in print, I could barely scrape together 13 stories (that’s how many are in this collection) that glimmer in any sort of sequence and offer both a variety and a cohesion—so so tricky to achieve.
The best way I can explain this trick is, think of songs on an album: 6 or 8 have the same flavor of voice, with one or two oddballs thrown in to keep it interesting.
So initially I managed to come up a theme of self-image for about 15 stories, and with the help of the team at West Virginia University Press, we reordered and shaped them to make them more continuous, cutting some, adding others. I should back up and say that of my 75 stories in print, the last 30 have been about Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where I grew, and rendered in an open, unfussy youthful voice. Those 30 tales gave me my best chance of finding a taut collection. (The others were largely showy and scant, and a little off-putting with a disdainful hero).
But again, without editors and outside readers for WVU Press—suggesting which stories bounced them out of the theme and where the theme seeking lacking so that others could be added in, the collection would not have been created. I myself just didn’t have the perspective. They did, and they were very good about it. They were also very good in line by line editing.
I should note that even though all the stories have previously appeared in literary journals, some changes were made to them for this collection, for the sake of cohesion. (To toot my horn, “The Scratchboard Project,” a kind of anchor story for the collection and also the longest, first appeared in The Iowa Review. It was both nominated for The Pushcart Prize and an honor mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.)
So to answer your question, Jason ultimately drives the narrative. His youthful voice has appeared in so many of my short narratives that eventually I came up with 13 jigsaw puzzle pieces to fit together into a collection.
I love the evocative setting. Please talk about what it means to you.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was my early world. Today it’s still the wallpaper in my brain; I can’t close my eyes at night without seeing the old historic town.
But here’s where it gets dicey. I love the place—I hate the place. I’m gigantic there—I’m tiny there. I’m happy, I’m despicable. I’m ambitious, I’m depressed. I’m healthy, sick. You see, the town splits me in half. Aesthetically, it defined me. Emotionally, it traumatized me.
The short answer is, the town may be the most hauntingly beautiful place ever. The other answer is, it’s a void, a hole of existential despair, a place where creeping emotions finish up in melancholy, where an aching emptiness clings to the mountainside, making faces in the rock as much grotesque as sympathetic. It’s a town where a sensitive sort can go mad with desires repressed and memories imagined, with obsessive, exaggerated reactions to the insidiously sublime world around them.
Do I sound strange? Perhaps yes. But this is my artist’s view of a town famous in history for the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid.
Souls who live there today are unwittingly confused, menaced, and irreversibly changed. The place laughs at time. It’s original name was “The Hole.” Need I say more. The place began and will end with an overriding hopelessness in its air. Yes, life goes on there, quietly importantly, but human existence is without meaning and purpose.
This I swear. You would not want me writing its travel brochure.
I’m sure readers would love to hear something about your “writer’s journey” – your first publication, early experiences, or any start-up stories you wish to share.
In 1989, I was a 26-year-old art student who probably hadn’t read his first novel. Secretly, though, I loved words, just not those written down, but sung. Bruce Springsteen’s songs, in particular, had as much meaning as my ears could hear. No artist put as much heart and soul into ordinary words as he did.
How could so much human meaning be captured on the page without music?
During an elective poetry course at George Mason University, I tried to find out. As an experiment, I typed out lyrics to a few of his songs, put in line breaks to make them look like poems, printed them out, and read them quietly.
They were terrible! I was shocked. Nothing. Flat. Where was all the heartfelt feeling so richly steeped in the music?
Whatever I would write in my poetry class, it would not sound like Bruce.
Around this time, by chance I opened a book by John Updike—and out poured sentences bejeweled with commas and printed in Technicolor:
Now this was writing! The visual artist in me was enchanted. His sentences were endless and ornate, like fancy, curly, golden lines on sensationally green Victorian wallpaper.
As I went on to finish my degree in art, I found myself writing. For years afterward, I referred to Updike’s Trust Me collection for technique and range in narratives. As my stories written in his style began to be published, I grew bigheaded and overly confident. I scowled at the idea of master’s program in writing. And why not? My undergraduate degree wasn’t in English or writing, but still I was getting published. (In fact, not six months after graduating, I even got a job as a newspaper reporter with my art degree by putting together a few mock news stories and pulling off a certain moxie in my interview.)
I was all the more smug. Writers aren’t made in classrooms, I told myself. They’re forged out in the real world or in their hovels, alone.
Over the next decade, leaving both formal education and journalism behind, I moved around, working odd jobs, writing creatively as much as I could: photocopy clerk at night in D.C., office temp in Minneapolis, and innkeeper in Newport, Rhode Island. I had few friends and romanticized my isolation. I was a writer after all, fated to suffer. Yet I remained highly ambitious. When I published ten stories, I had to publish twenty. Then thirty. What little money I earned went, in large part, to stamps for submissions.
Then I undertook a novel—and fell flat on my face. Manuscript after manuscript, revision after revision, was rejected. I was dumbfounded by the comments. What was meant by narrative arc? Didn’t plot exist necessarily? Rotating point of view—huh?
My lack of reading was clearly exposed. The fancy descriptive writing I had modeled after John Updike’s New Yorker stories, when spread out over a hundred pages, left a void where plot and action should have been. My novel didn’t develop. Worse, it repeated itself.
I was left with questions that took me back to the starting point. What makes a writer? What’s in his heart? Does he embody the truth? More important, what’s his mission and what are his limits? Then there were more specific questions. What was my unique style? Should I agonize over every word? Or should I be frank and plainspoken like my father and others where I grew up?
In my correspondence with publishers, I was referred to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, in the last chapter of which I found the commandment: “Write in a way that comes naturally…”
While I understood the general idea, it gave rise to more questions. What if nothing comes naturally? Or what if what “comes naturally” is bad writing?
I decided I would take my questions to the source. I drove up to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where, nosing around the antique stores, I came across a local lady all too willing to gab about the town’s most famous resident, American author John Updike, including where he lived. Following her directions, I turned at the bridge outside town and took the snaky road through the trees. I was brave and excited until I passed through a high gate and looked up to see a majestic white mansion on the hill overlooking the cold blue Atlantic. My car lost its rev, and the courage in my chest turned to lead. Meanwhile, the driveway was delivering me right up to the gleaming white Doric columns that stood on either side of Mr. Updike’s front door like well-uniformed sentries. It was evening, and I was slipping in during the rose-tinted hour between day and night. In an inglorious moment, I scampered out of my running car and up to his grand door, where I leaned my latest manuscript against the jamb so that the big envelope would plop down on the toes of his oxblood slippers when he emerged. In a no less inglorious moment, I scurried back to my car and zoomed away, my head swirling in disbelief. I had done it. Not very magnificently, but I done it.
Updike, to my surprise, wrote to me: “There are many nice touches in these pages. Try to generate more suspense the reader is curious about. Keep writing. But don’t keep bringing your work to me. I’m a dead-end. You need an editor.”
I’m a dead-end? The man could move publishing empires around with a phone call.
As I held his typewritten note in my hands, I could not believe what I was seeing. His typewriter had flying caps. He had left an “s” off “touches” and added the letter in blue pen. He missed a comma too--though who was I to make this assumption? He might be breaking a rule at his discretion.
I was seeing something else. He was polite. He was brief. He wrote in short, normal sentences. Strange, of all the lengthy, elaborate sentences of his I had read over the years, these few short, plain ones were ones I understood best. He was, for the first time, real.
At the time, I was working at a literary agency in New York, learning all about how big publishing is an unforgiving, money-driven business. I had already been urged by agents to forget Updike’s exquisitely vivid adjectives. Make me care, all the agents were crying. Don’t write tortuous, snakelike sentences, they said. Get in on the Toni Morrison style.
Amid all this New York palaver of writing, I was realizing that my voice came from my West Virginia roots, not from Brooklyn’s parade of writers, not from pugs like Norman Mailer or upstarts like Rick Moody. Keep it true, in other words. All the artfully bundled phrases in the world, all the dense and sweetly rhythmic words, can’t say the sky is blue.
Please tell readers where they can learn more about you and your books.
Here are three great sites: