Thursday, January 20, 2011

Author Interview: Jeanine Cummins

Jeanine Cummins

The Outside Boy
A Rip in Heaven


Ireland, 1959: Young Christy Hurley is a Pavee gypsy, traveling with his father and extended family from town to town, carrying all their worldly possessions in their wagons. Christy carries with him a burden of guilt as well, haunted by the story of his mother's death in childbirth. The peripatetic life is the only one Christy has ever known, but when his grandfather dies, everything changes. His father decides to settle down temporarily in a town where Christy and his cousin can attend mass and receive proper schooling. But they are still treated as outsiders.

As Christy's exposure to a different life causes him to question who he is and where he belongs, the answer may lie with an old newspaper photograph and a long-buried family secret that could change his life forever...

When did you realize you wanted to be an author? 

I always knew I wanted to write.  I wrote my first book when I was about six years old, about a little girl who skateboards across America.  But when I was little, I also wanted to be an archaeologist, a veterinarian, and architect, and a jockey, among other things.  In high school, I started to realize that I had some potential as a writer, and I decided to pursue it in college, but I still didn't think I would be able to do it for a living.  Working in publishing for ten years made me realize that it wasn't a total pipe-dream, that people actually do write books for a living.  So that was the experience that made me feel like I could really BE an author.

What was the inspiration for The Outside Boy? Was it all your time spent in Ireland? 

Certainly living in Ireland piqued my interest in the travellers.  I was always fascinated by their culture - they seemed like a people so full of anomalies.  As a sub-culture, their relationship to the larger, surrounding population was interesting to me as well.  It's a precarious balance, living the way they do.  But ultimately, what drew them to me was their foreignness - the fact that I didn't fully understand them.  After writing my first book, A RIP IN HEAVEN (which was a memoir of a violent crime), I needed to write something with some emotional distance.  I chose gypsies in Ireland because I thought they would afford me that distance, but of course, as happens in writing fiction, that emotional distance soon dried up, and those characters became as real and close to me as family.

Did you have any real life inspiration for your characters? 

Sure, lots.  None of the characters is based on a single individual in real life, but most of them are amalgamations of people I know.  My main character in particular, Christy, has a lot of my own psychology.  Even though he's an almost-12-year-old gypsy boy living in Ireland in the 1950s, he's also me.  He shares many of my fears and my griefs, and even my triumphs.  I think it's impossible to escape that, in fiction.  No matter how you dress up the characters, you still end up writing the kind of humanity that's familiar to you.  The psychology and relationships of the writer's emotional landscape always show up on the page.

 Do you have a specific place, like an office, where you do your writing?

Yes, I have a home office, and I'm usually holed up in there three days a week, though I do take breaks to breastfeed my 5-month-old.  I'm lucky to have childcare in my own home, so I can still do that during the day.  Sometimes I'll go to a cafĂ© or a library, to escape the Powerful Distractions of the Internet.

 I know that you also have a memoir, A Rip in Heaven. Did you have a different writing process for your novel than for your memoir? 

Yes, very much.  Writing the memoir involved a lot more weeping.  But writing the memoir was easier in some ways - I didn't have to worry too much about plot, for example, because the story already existed, I just had to find a shape and a voice for it.  But emotionally, it was much more difficult - I had to learn things in my research that I didn't want to learn.  And then there was a lot of emotional fallout for my family, with that book - everyone has different memories, and different coping mechanisms for dealing with their grief (mine being writing).  So it was hard for some of my family to endure the publicity of that publication.  The novel was a lot more difficult to craft, but the writing process for fiction (while still emotionally trying, at times) involved a lot more JOY.  Writing fiction is a liberation. 

 If you weren't a writer what would be your ideal job?

It's funny how often people ask this question, and I still can't manage a satisfactory answer.  I think I would enjoy being Pope.  I'm mostly kidding, but I am Catholic and, as any thinking person would, I have some problems with today's church.  But Catholicism is still part of my cultural identity, and I (unlike many people) have had mostly good experiences with my faith.  I feel like being Pope would give me some magical powers of restoration, and I would be able to fix all of the hearts that have been broken by religion.  If I was Pope, I would give away free cupcakes and liquor at mass, and I would offer pony rides for children, and I would not discourage people from being gay or from wearing their football jerseys to church.  I would be a very happy and inclusive Pope.  Plus, I'd be the first girl-Pope.  Rock on.

 If you could have any exotic animal as a pet which would you have and why? 

Oh, gosh.  Definitely not a koala bear.  I hear they're mean.  Perhaps a monkey of some kind?  But that's probably everybody's answer.  Hmmm.  I would like to have a mermaid,  even though they are half-human, and therefore, probably don't qualify as pets.  And I would only really like to have one if she was able to transfer to me the temporary ability to breathe underwater, so that I could go to the bottom of the ocean and visit her exotic underwater city.  That would be terrifying and awesome and fun.

Thanks for the interview Jeanine!

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