A Profile of John Michael Cummings

Updike, Redux

It’s 1993. John Michael Cummings, an award-winning writer, is chasing John Updike down the main drag of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Cummings is clutching his latest manuscript, and he wants the celebrated novelist to read it. Updike, 60 years old and a smoker, jogs away in a blue t-shirt decorated with an upside-down question mark.

We’ll come back to this unlikely footrace in a minute.

Cummings is the author of three novels, a skilled and well-respected writer whose work should be much better known. His first book, The Night I Freed John Brown, published by Penguin in 2008, won The Paterson Prize for Books for Young People and was a Black History Month selection by USA Today. Ugly To Start With was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of Year Award, and Don’t Forget Me, Bro was featured in the Chicago Tribune. Cummings was also a finalist in the Miami University Novella Contest, a semi-finalist in the Winnow Press 2004 First Book Award, was nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and received Honorable Mention from The Best American Short Stories

Quiet Ambulances & Other Stories is Cummings’ latest work. The title story is about ambulances that run with the lights on but sirens off, because the passengers have already died. This is an apt metaphor that floats through his collection, stories of suffering, loss, and the immutable forces of nature. “Missing” concerns the face of a young girl who lives on in a missing person flier, “Mountains and Seas” is about a man’s love for the forest and his fear of the sea, while “Electric Church” tells the story of a married couple who spend their evenings staring up at the steeple of a colonial church. According to his literary agent, Chip MacGregor of MacGregor & Luedeke, Cummings’ work “offers insight into the human experience.” His stories grapple with the common difficulties we all face, from the mundane to the tragic, infused with “a common humanity shared by each of us.”

One of the most fascinating things about Cummings is that he never should have been a writer at all. He comes from the historic and exceedingly small town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, home to the abolitionist John Brown. As a kid, he had no interest in books, but was an avid juvenile delinquent. Cummings graduated near the bottom of his senior class, and no one in his family ever made it beyond the eighth grade. His father was an angry man who yelled, cursed and had many strong opinions, none of them tolerant or sensitive. Because of this, Cummings hid from words and language, for many years. In fact, he never read a book until he was 24, and that was a Hardy Boys mystery, for children. It’s a small miracle that, within a decade, he was writing novels and jogging with Updike.

How did he do it? In his 20’s, Cummings wasn’t studying English Lit at a highly selective university. No, he was engraving gravestones by hand in Florida, which was a solid education in its own right. He met a young woman on holiday, fell in love, and followed her back to Virginia, where she was a student at George Mason University. Although Cummings was by no means qualified to study at GMU, he begged his way into a few summer courses. He managed to pass his courses and eventually met Mark Craver, whom Cummings calls “the truest, most generous, nurturing man I knew. He saved me.”

Craver, an adjunct poetry instructor, encouraged Cummings to write and gave him the tools to do it. At the time, Cummings was plagued by depression and at loose ends. Language and books — which he’d rejected for so many years — suddenly became his lifeline. He soon began to write literary fiction, which he calls “a lonely art.”

Since then, Cummings has published over 100 short stories, many of which have appeared in leading literary journals in the US and abroad, including The Kenyon Review, The Barcelona Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The North American Review and The Iowa Review. He’s worked as a journalist in Fairfax, VA, an innkeeper in Newport, Rhode Island, a freelance reporter in Minneapolis, a copyeditor in Manhattan, and an English teacher in Florida. Cummings now has a BA in Art from George Mason University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. He’s a busy and driven man.

Let’s return to jogging with Updike in Massachusetts:

Mr. Updike! Cummings yelled. Mr. Updike!

I’m not Mr. Updike.

The writer was clearly lying. Cummings was running down the street with his girlfriend, who called out: “I loved the Rabbit series.”

She was lying, too. She didn’t like Updike. Cummings was the only one telling the truth. 

Deflated, he went back to his car. Soon, a woman approached. “Psst, I know where he lives.”

She gave Cummings the address, and later that day he drove to Updike’s house and left the manuscript at his front door, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Updike didn’t write back, so a month later Cummings returned and left another manuscript at his door.

After a week, Cummings received a letter from Updike. “There are many good touches in these stories,” it said. “Keep writing.” He was stunned and exhilarated. His hero had read his novel. Updike was encouraging and complimentary. The letter had one more line, though. “Don’t keep sending me your work.”

Like he says, literary fiction is a lonely art.

Cummings’ work is vibrant and emotional, but also restrained and unobtrusive. He doesn’t allow the rush of words to overtake the characters or their story. Instead, the reader senses a febrile tension lurking beneath the surface of his work, behind ordinary words and phrases, beyond the workaday characters and their lives of quiet inebriation. Consider the following passage from his third novel Don’t Forget Me, Bro:

At some point over the years, I decided enough was enough. I would keep in touch by phone. For me there could be no visiting West Virginia, period. Visiting was something I did with my dentist. In West Virginia, there were only reckonings.

The prose here is deceptively plain and unadorned, but within it we learn so much about the character—a life compressed into five sentences. This sense of economy and precision is typical of Cummings’ work. You’ll find a rumor of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Charles Bukowski, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolf and other minimalists, hyper-realists and chroniclers of down-beat blue-collar America. But he’s no minimalist. His stories and novels are dynamic and animated, filled with life, blood and story. Cummings isn’t afraid of driving over the speed limit. There’s a touch of the gritty and southern neo-gothic in his writing, echoes of Larry Brown, Harry Crews and even Donna Tartt.

Quiet Ambulances, like Don’t Forget Me, Bro and Cummings’ other work, is firmly rooted in the everyday: cereal boxes, Styrofoam coolers, soda bottles, highways and rest stops, fast food outlets, Walmart — the mile markers of American life. The prose is spotless and rugged, the dialogue painstakingly specific and true. 

Today, it’s harder than ever to find a publisher for literary fiction. When it comes to encouraging young writers, and guiding them, Cummings offers practical advice rather than slogans or mystical catchphrases. Work hard, he says, and get your writing out there. If you have to send out 200 submissions, do it. Don’t be afraid to network and get yourself, and your work, noticed. It may not be something you want to do, or feel comfortable with, but it’s often necessary. Be assertive and tell people your name.

With regard to the short story, Cummings has an unusual, but provocative, philosophy. Write like a newspaper reporter — finish a story in a week, even if it’s only 2,000 words long. Don’t nurse it for years, searching for inspiration. Instead, buckle down and do the work. It may be difficult at first, but the drive and dedication will make you a better writer. As he says, “I improved my work as a result of a sense of urgency.”

This makes sense. After all, Cummings had to make up for lost time. He didn’t read a book until he was 24, but with ambition, talent, and a strong work ethic he’s now the author of three acclaimed novels with a new book on the way. 

Cummings is a gifted writer who says he’s inspired by, among other things, pain, loneliness, “the magic of language,” and a profound fear of failure. When he’s starting a new work, he begins with the voice, and then character, setting and description. “Characters,” he says “carry the story’s setting on their backs like packs. But voice is always the peat moss in which writing grows.”

Cummings has a lot to teach us about writing, both through his advice and in his published books. He’s received a number of awards and accolades, and has many admirers, but he deserves to become a household name. His latest book, Quiet Ambulances, just might get him there.

 

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Andrew Madigan is a novelist, freelance writer, and editor from Washington, DC.