This is the first part of a two-part interview
I love when interests intersect and such is the case with this interview. Please allow me to explain.
I find history fascinating. It is one of the reasons I, a Southern California native, love living where I do in Hagerstown, Md., surrounded by such historic landmarks as Gettysburg about an hour's drive one way and Antietam Battlefield a 45 minute drive another way. This also means getting to know Civil War re-eneactors, who I find fascinating and wrote nearly 100 articles about for the Hagerstown newspaper.
Also within an hour's drive is Harper's Ferry, W. Va, a famous national park for several reasons but for me it's best known as the place where John Brown made his last stand.
John Brown is, to me, one of the most fascinating men in American history. Was he a hero despite being guilty of cold blooded murder? Was he a psycho who just happened to be fighting for the right cause, namely freeing the slaves? When he was hanged at Harpers Ferry did they realize they would make him into a martyr, someone whom would be discussed centuries later?
Well, he is. Enter John Michael Cummings, who grew up in Harpers Ferry across the street from the John Brown Wax Museum. John wrote this fictional book which is partly about John Brown.
I was reading Bookpage at my library about a month ago and noticed they alluded to a new book aimed at young adults on the topic of John Brown. I did what I normally do these days when I see a book that interests me, namely i fired off an email begging for an interview with the author.
I have been to Harper's Ferry several times both to write news stores and to show it to friends and family. I have frazzled tour guides with my questions about John Brown, particularly asking if they had read Cloudsplitter, a brilliant book about Brown by Russell Banks, written from the perspective of one of John Brown's sons puzzling over the usual questions: Was his dad a religious zealot who went too far? Was he in the right ethically even when in the wrong legally? You know, good light reading.I was told in no uncertain terms that the park had no position on that book which I found odd. I do suggest checking that book out but only after, of course, first reading the one we are talking about today.
John Michael Cummings did something great - not only did he write this fantastic book and agree eagerly to this two-part interview - but he joined Newsvine. I think he is the first author I have interviewed who joined the community prior to the interview's publication. John has posted a few comments in this article where I solicited from the community (in an attempt to make this more of a community interview) suggested questions for this interview. John and I also exchanged opinions about writing and editing in my memoir piece about teaching.
Now, without further ado, here is the first part of our interview. The second part will focus more on the book itself. His is one of about 12 books I've packed to read during my week off Newsvine as I travel to Jamaica for work.
It is not really about John Brown. My novel is about how John Brown's legacy influences a boy's need for a father figure and ultimately inflates in him a sense of hero worship of, debatably, a saint or madman.
If I could not write this story, then I did not know my own life. This happened to me, at one stage of my life, growing up in a little house across from the John Brown Wax Museum, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of Brown's raid and capture.
I should add that if I could not find enough grist for a novel out of a childhood in Harpers Ferry, then I had better see a career counselor!
Research was fairly minimal, in that this novel, in large part, is about a boy's idolization of Brown, so the basic facts were enough. There are fictional embellishments that are in keeping with the young hero's sense of imagination and exaggeration, but the essence of Brown is accurate.
Keep in mind it's a native's view of a town that raises John Brown up in historical accuracy, letting the world weigh in on the moral controversy on their own time. It is also a town that won't admit he's a historical figure as a commercial icon.
Some research was done on John Brown's trial. What I did in my novel is a fictional treatment of this trial, enhancing the essence of John Brown's words for the sake of my young hero.
My brothers and I had the misfortune of a harsh father, and in many ways, our problems in life have been much worse than his ever were. There is a cruel irony to how abuse reverberates. I don't really care to go beyond that at this point, other than to say that this is a powerful adult novel that must be written second.
No, not at all. In fact I was barely familiar with the genre before it was suggested to me. My original plan, with a previous version, was to make it a memoir. Revisions led to the idea to make into a To Kill A Mockingbird-like coming-of-age novel. But this met with the rigid reality that the book market has long been pushing these types of dark-bordered novels far across the aisle into YA, where they must be "child safe" for schools and libraries. I soon accepted that if I wanted to get published, I had to adopt this story to the YA genre, losing some of its harsher elements.
Still, I am glad I did. YA writers know how to punch their stories forward. They don't laze around in literary abstractions - they go for the sizzling concrete. My editor constantly showed me how to "tighten for power" - I could have used her help on my adult short stories!
Since my novel is more about Brown's legacy in the modern-day town in which he was captured, the word slavery doesn't arise other than to briefly define who John Brown was. To the townsfolk, he's the Jay Leno guest of history stars. To the young hero of my novel, he's a man who did something with his anger, rather than just wallow in it.
Still, had slavery itself been looked at more closely in my novel, I'' not so sure it would be foreign to young readers. Kids today relish in make-believe acts of cruelty - all stripes of video games, to say nothing of whatever a computer can hook up to. They know all about the Iraq War of course. Black men in old-time chains could be tame stuff in their minds compared to what a snazzy assault rifle can do to the living.
I think I know what might be more foreign to kids today than slavery. Given the frivolous entertainment value of our presidential election - square in the face of American citizens who sit still and take this mockery of our most fundamental and crucial right -what might be foreign to kids today is how a past nation could have had the fire and guts to become so divided as to fold up into war, when we as a nation today seemed more interested, say, in whether Palin is spunkier and cuter than Obama is young and handsome.
Short stories have always been easier for me, as they probably should be, but succeeding at a novel has been a tremendous triumph. There is no denying the bliss of spreading a fabric of writing across two or three hundred pages. It is the difference between a journey and an outing. Naturally, it's umpteen times harder, too. More than that, there's an irreplaceable feeling of playing in the big leagues now. It will be hard for me to return to the short story form
I started some time back, but regrettably became sidetracked. I've heard nothing but good things about it.
This is a wonderful question! I'll take the liberty of making him a reincarnated John Brown.
What were you thinking that fateful day - letting the eastbound B&O train go freely out of Harpers Ferry and on to Washington to spread a warning call of your attack?
Are you surprised it took a hundred years (a whole century!) after your death and a four-year Civil War for our nation to enact the Civil Rights Act?
Clearly you have no compunctions about letting a nation purge its sins by its own blood, as you foretold. As you look at the changes in our society today - equality of sexes, multilingual communities, a black presidential candidate - you have to admit surprise. You undoubtedly also know we have recently been attacked by those who hold themselves out as righteous martyrs. Given your role in history, how do you see 9/11?
Certainly not a "cold-blooded" killer - Brown was nothing but hot blood - but a killer, yes. He was also a hero against a barbaric wrong.
The problem is, Brown can't be captured by any one word, because our language is not set up to easily name people of his deeds. Behavior like his is simply too uncharacteristic. He leaves us with the Rashomon effect.