Narrative Arc: A Writer's Journey From Early Rejections to Multiple Books
John Michael Cummings has been published in over 75 literary magazines and is the author of The Night I Freed John Brown, published by Philomel Books (Penguin Group), a book for young readers. He grew up in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the historic town that set the scene for his fictionalized autobiographic short stories and debut novel.
Interview by Hadley Catalano
What got you interested in writing short stories?
I started as a reporter, worked as a reporter and I loved seeing my work in print, but I couldn’t include my own perceptions in a news story. So I started writing in first person, almost like letters home, using a lot of “I’s”, but realized that if those were to be published as stories they needed to have something at stake, some resolution of which the reader is curious about, strong plot, point of view.
Short stories are amazing, I enjoy capturing the tiniest little snippets, like buying a plant, the things people overlook, the things that get lost in novels.
How did you first get published in literary journals?
I sent my work virtually everywhere, broke every rule out there. If they said we don’t accept multiple submissions, it didn’t stop me. If one got published, I quickly contacted the others. I didn’t wait around. I tried to make my language flourish in a more organic spontaneous way, yet highly stylized. They were more like vignettes, meditations, and stream of consciousness writing. A jumble of ideas, descriptions, emotions captured in an unraveling string, well polished and well delivered. There is a beauty in literary journals, who are so defiant of mainstream. Eclectic is a famous word for journals, that’s what is so wonderful about them, they keep more with the way reality is, it doesn’t wrap things up like a book.
What advice would you give aspiring writers looking to get published?
I would suggest research better than I did. I shot-gunned it, not sure where my story should go. Each reader has to define his/her work to know where to submit. Each writer has to make up her/his mind about how they feel about it; the more you know your work, the more you can line it up. But, that only goes so far. I say the high volume method, keep in touch, and keep submitting.
Also, try to have a good sense of beginning, middle, end to your story. Create an arc, make sure your reader stays interested, be crisp, move the story along, don’t indulge, say it once in a sharp direct, penetrating way. Write a lot, be short and edit your work tightly.
I tired to emulate John Updike’s story style, starting with statement about a character and turning it completely upside down and the character winds up in a completely different place, but a little better off.
How did growing up in the historic town of Harpers Ferry influence your childhood?
Harpers Ferry is a National Park and it very much influenced me. It was like living in the 1860s, it was a preserved period, pre civil war. Like I was on a Hollywood movie set. Like a mini Williamsburg, Virginia, park rangers wearing period pieces from the Civil War. It was fairly fantastical, and how exciting that was for my writing, having such as backdrop. Course there was the story of John Brown and his famous raid on Harpers Ferry. Not a typical town at all.
It looks beautiful.
It is. That’s a really good point. It's extremely grand with high beautiful mountains that surround the little village and the natural confluences of the two rivers, the Shenandoah and Potomac. It’s shaped by its settings. There is something extremely rare about growing up on the rocky peninsula where three states and two rivers come together. It’s an interesting paradox.
Do you have a personal connection to John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Thomas Jefferson?
They were well represented in the (Historical) Park. I was always aware of them as a boy, especially John Brown, there were images of him all over town. There was a wax museum across the street from our house that had wax tableaus of him in various positions that told the story of his raid in Harpers Ferry. He was very omnipresent. John Brown was like a crazy uncle that lived across the street… in wax. I couldn’t get away from the guy (laughs).
How did you adapt your novella, House of my Father into the novel for young readers, The Night I Freed John Brown?
It was a lengthy drawn out process. I was living in New York and we (Cummings' editor) began revising the novella into a novel. It was virtually rewritten at least once, the language, no longer on adult level, it was now for young readers. The word choice, sentence structure, scene, very extensive process with many different revisions. I hope I don’t go through that ever again. I hope it’s much more efficient next time.
Do you find a repeating theme or concept in your short stories?
Self doubt, no self-esteem, generally unhappy. You’ll find that in everyone one of them, a feeling of inferiority. The Charlie Brown outlook (laughs). I wrote to get rid of the unhappiness and drew from autobiographical experiences and fictionalized as much as I could to protect the living (laughs, again). The whole irony is that they won’t read it anyway.
Why did you move to Florida (from New York)?
I began teaching writing classes here and am in school for my MFA at the University of Central Florida. I am working on my third book, which is serving as my thesis. I’m finally getting a masters degree after all these years. I’m trying to pick up that 7/10 split.
Where were some of your early short stories published, and what was the nature of the first story that was published?
Portland Monthly Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Buffalo Spree Magazine—these were some of my first credits. The first published short story, “Electric Church,” was about a glowing ornate church spire in Newport, Rhode Island, where I was living way back in 1991. The church tower, white and wooden, would light slowly at dusk, the orange glow matching the fall of night over half an hour or so until—there she was, in full Harvest Moon-electric glory against the black sky. Quite a sight. Then, one night the church didn’t light. What was up? The story tells the answer.
Do you still submit to literary magazines, or are your current books/thesis taking precedence?
My current novel and thesis (one in the same) is consuming all my time. I hope to submit stand-alone chapters to Missouri Review, The Southern Review, and the like.
How many times were you "rejected" before a literary magazine published your work? Along the same lines, now that you've made a name for yourself, how often is your work "rejected" and do you have any tricks for keeping up morale?
My stories were rejected probably a hundred times before the first was accepted—accepted only because Colin Sargent, editor of Portland Monthly Magazine, was generous in cutting and reshaping my story for me. He gave me a chance. Today, I have the beginnings of a track record in writing and publishing, but I remain largely unknown. Whether I’m unknown or famous, my work will likely be rejected to the same degree it has always been. I sincerely believe this. Editors don’t lower the standards for published writers—in fact they may go up.
What are some of your favorite literary magazine and in which ones are you still seeking publication?
I have great respect for The Missouri Review and The Southern Review and, as a graduate student at University of Central Florida, a special fondness for The Florida Review, produced by the MFA program.
Have any literary magazine editors helped you shape or craft your writing?
My favorite question! In fact, my grateful acknowledgment to editors comes in the following list: Moira Forsyth, Paul B. Roth, Martin Tucker, Terry Dalrymple, Mary Azrael, Kendra Kopelke, Ginger Murchison, and David Hamilton.
You have a book coming out in October; can you tell me about that?
These are coming-of-age stories which have previously appeared in literary journals. There are 13 short stories, though it’s more like a novel, a kind of chronicle of the episodes of one boy growing up, in 13 interrelated stories. It is set in West Virginia and will be published by West Virginia University Press.
Title of the book?
It’s called Ugly to Start With.
Hadley Catalano is a freelance photojournalist living on the Big Island of Hawai`i. Her writing and photography has appeared in many island based magazines and newspapers, as well as online travel guides and journals.