Joseph Éamon Cummins Interview

Irish author Joseph Éamon Cummins taught creative writing and psychology for ten years, earning multiple Best Professor citations. Before that he opted for a less conventional life, over a long period hitch-hiking throughout America and touring with carnivals.

What inspired you to write?
In Ireland there is an ancient tradition of storytelling. Some people believe that the gift is passed down; it's in the blood, they say. The storyteller, known as the seanachai (Shan-a-Kee), was - and still is - revered. That idea inspired me. But also, for me, writing felt natural, something I never had to think about doing; I had pen friends and kept a diary since I was ten or eleven. Learning how to write came next, and as all writers know, this is arduous and demanding, regardless of how natural writing feels.

If the question refers to my recent bestselling novel On the Edge of the Loch, I was inspired to write this by coming across a beautiful woman waiting alone, over a number of days, in a small, remote train station. The book tells the story of this incident.

Did the inspiration to write come to you suddenly, or had you been thinking about it some time?
Not suddenly, no. I've always been a writer. Though, of course, that's not enough; there are no 'born' writers. We all need to study hard and learn how to write, as W.B. Yeats cautioned us. He said, 'Poets and writers, learn your craft!' And as every writer knows, there are few tasks harder than writing well, and no shortcuts. We need to read a lot and study good writing in order to analyse how it is done. But we also require inspired teachers who can help us on that journey. It's only then, when we have developed appropriate degrees of skill and discernment, that our own individual style can legitimately emerge.

How did you tell your story? In other words, did you use an outline, or just write your story from start to finish?
I've worked with and taught many writers. The vast majority worked from an outline, as I did with On the Edge of the Loch. Of course, I've heard that some successful books have been written spontaneously, with little or no preparation. But I'm not entirely convinced. When it is true it is the exception. Almost all fiction writers write better when following an outline.

Did you receive any encouragement from family and friends, or did you work on your book alone?
Writing is a very solo pursuit. We spend a lot of time alone; we agonise and curse and swear alone, and pull our hair out alone, because that's what it takes. So that’s the bargain we must make and feel happy with. Encouragement is nice, certainly, but how necessary is it? For many writers it's not critical. They recognise the urge deep inside, and respond. This is the power that’s needed; maybe all that is needed, the compulsion to forge ahead with or without encouragement. To answer your question, I never sought encouragement to write; I was going to write regardless; I was doing it for me. Later, the pats on the back, or a book’s success, or just completing the project, is the icing on the cake.

What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
Getting every word right, every sentence right, getting the order right, the flow, the feeling. Making sure all of these carried the tone and the emotion and the nuance and the information required to ensure that the words on paper created the reaction in the reader that I intended. Or as close as I could get to that objective. And of course what I've said here captures only a tiny percentage of the difficulty every writer feels while writing. Writing is like film in particular ways; every prop and every scene and every line of dialog must be deliberate and necessary to tell the story. Whatever is superfluous or not working must be deleted, regardless of how ‘beautiful’ it is. As writers we aim to tease and exploit and manage the same emotional reactions as the filmmaker, but we do it with words alone.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing your book?
Reviewing a passage and recognising that I captured exactly what I was trying to. This is the ultimate reward. Ironically, it is often hard to see this as the piece is being crafted. But when it comes together, when it 'sounds' and 'feels' right, often after many revisions, it's like the angels are singing, like something magical has made the bits fit together into something greater than the elements.

Did you experience any personal transformation after the book was published?
No, I can't say I did. Satisfaction, yes. And on that note, I heard Amy Tan say that when she received the first published copy of The Joy Luck Club she wanted to make changes on every page. All writers know that feeling. None of us gets it perfect, there's no such thing in writing. And, like Amy Tan, I always find myself wishing I could re-write my finished work. Always feel I could improve it. Ironically, that’s a positive feeling; it indicates growth. If I were to look back on a piece of writing and feel that I could not better it, I’d be far more concerned.

What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity?
A too-uncompromising pursuit of the right wording, the right intonation, the specific emotion. I still need to learn to press on, do fewer early revisions, get the flow recorded. This habit doesn't really inhibit my creativity in the moment; instead, it slows my progress, and this slowing can negatively affect creative flow, which is especially critical in first and second drafts. It's usually best to get those early drafts down on paper quickly, raw as they might be. What’s on paper can always be improved. But ideas that are lost are frequently not re-capturable.

What strategies do you use to deal with criticism?
I am my own worst critic. I listen well to - and seek out - qualified, constructive criticism. However, one major problem for writers is that the ‘critics’ are rarely offering valid advice, and are usually eminently unqualified for the role of literary critic. Everyone can have an opinion; there's nothing wrong with this as long as the writer can differentiate between opinion and valid critique. Beginning writers need to inoculate themselves against unqualified criticism. This is why I do not approve of beginning writers ‘critiquing’ beginning writers, which seems to happen in just about every writing workshop. The only advice or criticism that has any value comes from qualified sources; that’s who we must seek out and heed.

Where did you grow up and what is your favorite/worst childhood memory?
I grew up in Dublin and for a short while in London. My favourite memory is being free to play in open fields and woods, to explore caves and old castles and charge through farmlands and bogs and roll down hills. Life was about living close to nature, being innocent of it yet enjoying it in a totally natural way.

Do you have a favorite quote?
I have thousands. Picking a favourite is almost impossible. What comes immediately to mind is Emily Dickinson's: 'We never know how high we are till we are called to rise. Then if we are true to form our statures touch the skies.’

What is your favorite show on TV?
I rarely watch TV. Haven't had a TV for most of my life. On those occasions when I do watch, it's sports.

Favorite movie?
I’m not really a movie buff. But one movie I will watch is On the Edge of the Loch. I'm kidding, of course, I’ve received no offers (so far!). In my experience, most talk about adapting a novel into a movie goes nowhere. And few books that do get optioned ever get made into a film. Having said that, one producer contacted me about On the Edge of the Loch. So, we'll see. I’m not being negative but neither am I holding my breath.

Favorite book?
First, Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald. Second, The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner.

Who would you want to meet if you could? Dead or alive.
Jesus Christ.

Is there a talent you wish you had?
I'd have liked to have been able to run fast enough to break four minutes for the mile. And on that question of talent, I work in the area of human achievement and performance, and what I see far too often is the belief that our talents are inborn. They're not. Talents are developed. You or I might have a particular natural aptitude for design or science, for example. But that doesn't preordain that we will be successful in those fields. Nor does it mean that we can't be very successful in totally different fields. Our achievements come from deciding that we are going to accomplish this or that, and being willing to fail along the way. We decide. Not our genes.

What’s something about you that would surprise us?
I committed very early to an unconventional life. Yet that did not stop me qualifying in different fields, becoming a psychologist, writer, professor and a few other things. The point I make to my students and clients, is this: Don't sell yourself short! Most people do; they fail to discover their own true capability. To get back to your question, just about all of my colleagues in any of the fields I've worked in, would have followed a predictable, convention career path. I didn't do that. For those who don't quite 'fit in with the norm' (lots of writers in this category) there are alternate ways to reach any goal, especially today, more opportunity than ever before. So the message is, believe! Then follow your own drummer, as a man born two hundred years ago told us, Henry David Thoreau. Be brave, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes. We all have failed; how we deal with this is what make us what we can be.

Describe yourself in 3 words!
Compassionate, goal-focused, resilient.