In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Jeanine Cummin’s The Crooked Branch was on my radar even before Jen selected it for inclusion in the March edition of Bloggers Recommend, old-school New York and dual narratives are right up my alley. And then when you throw in Jeanine’s love for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, well, let’s just say she moved up the tbr pile. Here is what Jeanine had to say about reading, writing, and how Yeats affected her life.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Yes! Thank you for having me. My first book was a memoir published in 2004 called A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath. It is the story of a violent crime my family suffered when I was a teenager, and writing it, publishing it, was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m happy to be writing fiction now. My new novel, The Crooked Branch, is the story of two mothers from the same family, many generations apart, and their parallel struggles to be good mothers in very different times. The modern-day character, Majella, is living in contemporary New York, and is struggling to regain her strong sense of identity after the birth of her first child. During this delicate postpartum time in her life, Majella finds the diary of a great-great grandmother, who was living during the harrowing famine years in Ireland of the 1840s. Every second chapter follows the trials of that historic Irish mama, and the impossible choices she faces in trying to keep her children alive. At its heart, this novel is about the universal grief and joy of mothering, in times both catastrophic an ordinary.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I am an avid reader, as I think all writers must be. I often read for research, and to learn how other writers deal with specific aspects of their craft, but most often I read for pleasure. It’s that love of reading that really motivates me to continue writing, even when it becomes difficult or I feel stuck. I’m also hugely inspired by music. So I don’t listen to music while I write, because my love of music is such that I end up focusing on that instead of my work. It’s too distracting. But whenever I ‘m writing about a specific culture or time period, I tend to infuse the rest of my life (away from my desk) with music from that time and place.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I am a mama to two little girls, so I think, at this point in my life, I needed to write a story about those first years, those first weeks of motherhood. The historic Irish famine narrative was a story I always knew I wanted to tell, and after I became a mother, I realized that the best way in to that story for me, was from a parent’s perspective. And then the contemporary side of this narrative was just really bubbling up in me – it was the fastest thing I’ve ever written, and that’s because it was just waiting for release. My experiences as a new mother were not unusual, but they were so raw and overpowering – and I was tired of the yummy mummy movement, where everything was supposed to be perfect and easy. I felt like there was room on the bookshelf for a more honest, unblinking look at motherhood, with all of its emotional complexities.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I’m reading Fever by Mary Beth Keane, and it is wonderful – the setting and the characters are so authentic, so particular to their time, that it’s hard to imagine how the writer did it, how she captured them so completely. She must have lived and breathed her research. I have pretty eclectic taste, as a reader. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sebastian Barry, Zadie Smith. I mostly read fiction, but really I love anything that has a compelling story and beautiful language. I’m a sucker for pretty words. I’m happy to say that writing hasn’t really changed the way I read – I know that it does for many people. Personally, my writing comes more from my gut than my intellect – I worry about craft when I’m revising, but not so much when I’m rough-drafting. But I do find the inverse to be dangerously true: often, reading changes the way I write. I have to be careful about what I read when I’m writing, because sometimes if I’m reading something with a really strong voice, I can find echoes of that voice leaking into my own work.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I’m always, always reading. Usually, when I’m writing a first draft of something, I find myself reading a lot of research – historical texts and fiction from the time and place I am researching. But once I’m through with the first draft and into the revision process, I revert back to reading whatever strikes my fancy.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
- Love in the Time of Cholera, for beauty
- The Hobbit, for magic
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, for empathy
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for awesomeness
- A Rip in Heaven, for my family
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
No, we really struggled with the title for this book. With both of my other books, I brainstormed (with help), and went through a lot of not-great-ideas before, in both of those cases – A Rip in Heaven and The Outside Boy – there was a eureka! moment, when I knew we had found the right title. That never happened with The Crooked Branch. We had to settle into it. The working title of the book was Hunger because, in many ways, the book is about all different types (spiritual, physical, emotional, familial) hunger. But everyone except me hated that title. My agent said it sounded like a nonfiction book about anorexia. I like The Crooked Branch, but it took us a long time to come up with it.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when I was maybe nine years old, and that book certainly changed my life, opened my mind, provided an insight I had never encountered before. That was the first time a book did that for me, and then lots of other books followed: To Kill a Mockingbird and Bridge to Terabithia, for example. But it was probably sometime late in high school or early in college when I read Yeats for the first time, that I felt compelled to add my own voice to the fray. I remember reading the Yeats poem, The Stolen Child for the first time, breathlessly, and then re-reading it over and over, and then reading every poem of his I could find. And then realizing that I would never, ever be able to write like that. But that I wanted to spend my life trying.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
Perhaps it is this: that I have not yet “arrived.” I think there’s sort of a standard misconception that, once you have written a bestseller or two, you must be incredibly rich and famous, and then you just sit around all day dictating prose to one of your many hunky, young typists while you eat bonbons and bark at the manicurists. Or maybe that’s just MY particular fantasy. But in fact, even with two bestselling books behind me, I’m still working hard in a rapidly shifting publishing landscape to try to “make it” as a writer. As much as I would love to rest on my laurels (just for a week or two!), I have to be relentless in the pursuit of my career.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
Oh yes – I live in New York, so you can’t swing a cat around here without smacking into some amazing writer. I just recently discovered that, in addition to Toni Morrison, the author of Fever, Mary Beth Keane is my neighbor!