JOHN MICHAEL CUMMINGS
- GUEST AUTHOR -
Today, I interview an author from West Virginia.
Welcome, John Michael ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
“I didn’t ask to be born,” a distraught young friend texted me recently. “‘I am lonely’ is written across my forehead.”
If you want the truth about me, it has just been said in the text message above. That is, when my border personality disorder (BPD) strikes. The rest of the time, I am enduring the writing life, appreciating it if and when I can, and always living by its motivation.
I am single, childless, poor, alone, unloved, oftentimes emotionally miserable and unstable, physically disabled, and uncelebrated as a writer. I live in a 220-year-old house with no hot water and only one space heater. I have no TV, no stove in my kitchen, no washing machine, no dryer.
"Save your pity for toothless tigers and dancing bears," says Telly Salavas in "Vendetta," a 1964 episode of gritty TV drama “Combat!” “I will fight to the end, so we all can fight to the end of the end.”
On paper, one might say I have achieved some success. But it’s an illusion. One can publish a hundred short stories, several novels, win awards, write essays, report news to a quarter of a million readers, speak behind a microphone to hundreds, and teach college English—and be less of a person every day for it.
More of that in a moment.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
I turned to words when painting and drawing failed me, when pigment and charcoal could do no more for me. I blame Bruce Springsteen for making me a writer. That Jersey rat broke into fame when my life broke down. All I had were his songs to pretend were mine.
How could he know me better than I did? I wore out cassette tape after cassette tape of his music. Today, I hate him more than love him. No man should soar to interplanetary acclaim. Yet his grocery list, if mumbled, if strummed by a guitar, would see billions. If I ever chance upon him—say in Hell’s breadline—I’ll feed him a knuckle sandwich. Saved and ruined by a rat from Jersey. Imagine that. I shake my head.
WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
“Shoot from the hip”? Funny! I have two titanium-steel hips. Both femur balls were replaced two years ago.
To answer, I mentally outline. I prefigured where to begin. I hold in my heart the turmoil of the middle of the story or novel, and I hope, even pray, to execute a strong ending. But, no, I do not outline on paper. God, no!
Accountants do that. Heartache-ridden writers work organically. That is, we grow the story in the nitrogen-rich soil of our minds that brings up bleach-white magic mushrooms of a narrative.
That is the way of literature.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Sorry, but joy doesn’t figure into it. Making love to a kind and attractive woman is joyous. Writing is arduous. Oh, there are moments—brief moments—of elation when a poetic combination of words is discovered by invention. But perspiration, not inspiration, is the name of the game.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
The mental toil of excellence pulls at my mind as if it were warm taffy. The mind has rooms never to be unlocked. Demons kneel inside, naked, waiting in the black, waiting to spring free and cause madness, crying jags, violence, and suicide.
A warning to all writers: The mind is to be patrolled and guarded.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
Officially, my name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon. The Pope, Jullis II, said to me, “Buonarroti, you have paint in your veins.” I replied, “And you, my lordship, you have fewer marbles in your head every day.” I was sentenced to four years on the scaffold.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
I have no “greatest” achievement. That is, I have not yet reached the finishing line of a story or novel for which I feel entitled a gold metal of sorts.
Do I devalue my work? No, but I have no illusions of being other than largely unknown and unread.
I am a good writer, but I am a better writer because I am ravenous for success and faint from the hunger for it.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
The word is “magnum opus.” That is, my best writing, hard-fought and revised to the trillionth power and fired down the page in flames.
The plot centers of an estranged son struggling to care for his father who is failing to dementia. They inhabit a hunk of ugly raw woodland in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. Circling their ramshackle house and potshotting at them with a high-powered rifle is an inbred, genetic throwback with half a face.
Why does this creature insists that the land is his? What sin did the father commit? The answer is the payoff.
WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
A gal on LinkedIn recently said to me: twelve people will define “literary fiction” thirteen different ways. But literary fiction it is. “Genre” is a four-letter word. There is, or can be, even must be, romance, horror, and science fiction in any story, short or long. Good writing runs on the petrol of originality, sincerity, and effort.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Be inspired by the published writers whose words excite you. Study grammar. Know how to build a sentence like a carpenter with two-by-fours. Then, know when to break the rules of grammar for effect.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
No, but I suffer from clinical depression. The only medication that has helped also hinders me, because I vomit it up fifty percent of the time. Day are dark, and there is no solution but to suffer, which solves nothing, only causes pain.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
All day I work, if I can muster the mental energy.
I read between writing sessions, and I read for inspiration: any work by William Faulkner and William Gay. Ayn Rand’s novels whip my brain to a standstill, but I love every word she puts down—and to think she wrote, revised, and revised, and revised a 1000-page novel before the age of word processors. Today, there are lightweight bimbo beauties pushing their hackneyed self-published novelettes all over the internet. Then, there is Ayn Rand.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
The tiny middle bedroom in my ancient Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, home. The coal furnace in my cellar is 189 years old. This drafty old woman-and-man killer of a house is my writing hovel—littered with empty frozen dinner trays on the floor, an uncapped bottle of gin on my desk, and an orange tabby perched on my shoulder like a parrot.
His name is Ralph.
Once, maybe twice in my life, I have taken a laptop to a coffee shop. The distractions of people around me, walking behind me, maybe peeking over my shoulder and reading, and the insufferable prattle of voices—I cannot write a word. Complete privacy is mandatory.
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
As noted, I have tremendous regard for Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, simply because of the sheer power and breath of her sentences and because of the tireless expanse of her writing, as she writes a hundred miles into the earth and a thousand miles down the iron rails of this nation’s train tracks about social hypocrisy of altruism and the ever overheating motor of bureaucracy.
But I do not advance what has been called her philosophy of Objectivism. I simply think her writing is electrifying.
A word to misogynistic, sexist, and chauvinistic male writers: As sexy as Ayn Rand is, she’s also more a man than you all.
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
My debut novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, was scorched by a reviewer for School Library Journal. It killed the start of my career, I truly believe. The reviewer called my novel slow-paced, overworked, and uninteresting. It shredded my heart. Being a prominent, even supremely influential publication, School Library Journal could not be topped, or stopped, not by the many smaller review journals and newspapers that opposed her.
Today, the pain of her review is much less, almost inconsequential, because I now realize there is another power, another force, at play with the success of a novel: word-of-mouth. If the novel is strong and affecting, word spreads, despite reviews. That is, to an extent.
Ten years since the release of first novel, I am nearly indifferent to what reviewers run their mouths about. I know what I have done is good, I don't need their affirmation. They can kiss my ass.
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
My writings are largely influenced by happenings in my life. My works are labeled “fiction,” but I consider them truer, more factual, than books shelved as nonfiction. Why? Because for the last thirty years, I have been writing a running diary in which I publish in 500-, 1500-, 6000-, and 60,000-word entries.
"Write what you know," is said every day by writing instructors the world over. How else can we achieve an emotive affect. That is, how else can we make the reader care, or at least be curious, say, if then mean hero is eventually destroyed.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
If for some godfroresaken reason, I should surrender to failure at writing, I would return to making gravestones and memorial monuments, as I did in my twenties in Orlando, Florida. This time, however, I would seek out work on slate, rather than granite, grave markers in New England where they are popular, as those are the only ones not yet produced by automation and also where I would not sweat to death in canvas coveralls and a welder’s mask, both required to do the work.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Fortunately, no. I know grammar very well. I worked for years as a copyeditor, as well as a journalist. I know the narrative very well. I have an MFA in creative writing from University of Central Florida. I've studied the thickest books on grammar and editing and storytelling. From rough draft to submitted version, I’ve had no help, for most part.
But I strongly believe in collaboration—only if the other reader and editor is of skilled ability.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Two raw eggs and a shot of gin at seven a.m. Then six hours of writing with concentration and momentum. But any day is in the realm of good or even perfect when clinical depression doesn’t leave me numb and motionless in bed, eyes open, seeing nothing but gray or yellow.
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
Fragile author Carson McCullers who’s most known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I adore her. I would care for her, for she was ill most of her life. I would make love to her in the island surf, and we would enjoy fish fries with her at midnight around a campfire and talk about William Faulkner’s orotundity.
Carson was a very strange, very proper gal, and I am a very strange, improper man desperate to be a woman’s hero. I miss her. Though, how? I never knew her. She died at fifty, when I was just four. Time did not synchronize us, tragically, cruelly. Still, I love her.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
I would make ugly, barbaric world leaders read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust—backward!
But rather than say anything to them, I'd make them live in abject poverty for five years and depend on handouts. That would strip them of pride and vanity.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
My future is what most writers’ ought to be: to produce my very best every day. To muscle my mind and heart and soul against the banal and commonplace that the keyboard prefers to write. Further, to bring from my spirit a supernova novel like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, or the short story collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Yes, usually in the narrator and hero both, who are often one. Since I often write in first person, I take over the difficult job of superimposed roles as storyteller and character in one, as a result of which the “I” is called an “unreliable narrator,” a term that came about in the windiness of those who talk about fiction, rather than write it.
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
Much effort should go into it. I personally had little to say in the covers of my books, as I had gone the traditional route of publishing and publishers that usually a design staff.
In short, the book cover must be an invitation into the book, yet it should reflect it accurately.
ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
No. Hell, no. There’s an inherent advantage in this direction, I believe, in that since I am not paying for the service of being published, but rather being paid, I must earn this pay with my best writing.
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
"I am unhappy and lonely." May I have another measly five words? "I am happy and popular."
Along with my depression diagnosis, borderline personality disorder (BPD) creeps in. Those with BPD view life in extremes, such as all is good or all is bad. Their opinions of others can reverse quickly. Someone seen as a friend one day will be an enemy or traitor the next.
Terrible way to live. Takes constant self-monitoring.
WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
Indifference. Mindlessness. Detachment. Coldness. Women who love their dogs more than their husbands. Husbands who don’t bring their women flowers and make love to them. Arrogant, loud people. Opinionated people. Anything-goes Democrats. Racist Republicans. “Me too” women who lie. Men who swagger sexually with power. Criminals who beat their victims. Stupid judges who free them. Cop haters. Cop murderers.
I dislike Arnold Schwarzenegger immensely. I very much like Lou Ferrigno.
I deplore the predictable, whether in words, personalities, or in any respect of the world around us.
WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
"This life was never meant for me. "
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
I’m not happy now. I’m unhappy. Oh, I smile. I’m pleasant. But I’m totally faking it. People think I’m happy. But I hurt inside most of the time. I just refuse to give up my dignity by glowering at people or by being surly. I would only feel worse hurting others. What keeps me going, living, are the smiles I receive even though I am faking it.
ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed. I hope I have contributed meaningfully.
Clancy's comment: Well done. Thank you, John Michael. Loved your frank answers. Look after yourself, and keep writing when you can.