A Writer’s Path: John Michael Cummings

Writer John Michael Cummings, BA Art (Studio) ’89, is the author of three novels and has published more than 100 short stories. His novels include The Night I Freed John Brown (Penguin Group, 2008), Ugly To Start With (West Virginia University Press, 2011), and Don’t Forget Me, Bro (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015). He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Central Florida. The non-writing part of his career includes jobs as a business reporter, college English teacher, publisher’s assistant, innkeeper, and tombstone engraver. He lives now in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, home to the Cummings family for six generations.

Q: What led you to enroll at Mason? Do you remember why you applied?
Well, I had terrible grades in high school. I couldn’t dare get in there (at Mason) now—I wouldn’t have a chance! But I did have my art portfolio. So I took the portfolio into the registrar’s office or someplace, and she said, “I don’t know, your transcripts are not good.” I was pleading, because I was really in love with this girl who was going to George Mason. She got in, and I was begging to get in also. The registrar looked at my portfolio and said something like “I guess George Mason could benefit from having an artist of this caliber.” So I was admitted under academic probation, meaning I had to pass three summer classes first. I did, and I got in.

Q: Did you have any favorite classes or professors?
I remember Mark Craver as being a savior for me. He was a poetry teacher, and I had just one class with him, in my final year. I was in the arts program, and I already had full-time work in Vienna as a graphic artist. I was planning to make that my career. But Mark told me “you’re going to be a writer.”

He was such a giving teacher. The students he had really loved him. We would go to his place to hang out and, unlike any other teacher, he would just talk to us like adults. I remember his first book, The Problem of Grace. He really inspired us. So I credit Mark Craver as the one who pulled me into writing at that time. [Craver died in 2004. In 2009, the English department established the Mark Craver Poetry Award, presented each year to a Mason student poet.]

Q: What was your experience at Mason like?
Mostly I was working and taking classes at the same time. Typically I would have morning classes, then go to work, work my full-time job, then come back for night classes. My sleeping time was midnight to six. I did this most semesters from 1983 until I graduated in 1989. And I would never have been hired at the Fairfax Times without the degree from Mason. So the biggest accomplishment for me was just getting through it. It was really hard fought, because of the schedule.

Q: How did you get started as an author?
After graduation, I talked my way into a job at the Fairfax Times. I wrote for the business section and real estate. But it didn’t take me long as a news reporter to realize that it wasn’t for me. With news reporting, I couldn’t add my own perceptions to the story. That’s what I wanted to do. So I started writing my own stories at night, based on my own life. . . . After a while I left Northern Virginia. I had a girlfriend from Mason who had transferred to a college in Rhode Island, so I followed her up there. We got married, and we moved to Newport, where I fished around for jobs. I ended up as an innkeeper—fielding phone calls, trying to sell rooms. Whenever I could, I would write.

The Night I Freed John Brown cover

Q: Your novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, is set in Harpers Ferry, where you were raised.
Like most writers, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get publishers interested. When I sent the novel to Penguin Books, I heard back from an editor there, Patti Gauch. She said “I like the last 25 pages; rewrite the rest.” So I did.

This novel was targeted at middle school to high school readers. After it was published, I arranged a book tour of West Virginia, and paid for it myself. It cost about $8,000—a lot for me, but I wanted students there to know about the book. I visited schools in just about every county in the state. Unfortunately Penguin decided not to release the book in paperback, which meant that the sales dropped off after that.

Q: And now you are back living in Harpers Ferry again?
I had moved to Florida, and was teaching some college courses there. But my parents were in their 80s, they were both ill, and my family needed help taking care of them. So I moved home. After they passed away, I inherited the house that I grew up in. That’s where I am now.

Q: What’s next for you? Working on any new projects?
Yes, I am working hard now on my fourth novel, and I’ve finished two other short story collections that I’m seeking to get published.

January 31, 2020 / Rob Riordan