John Michael Cummings Author Of Ugly To Start With: aWriter’sWords

I’ve had people tell me they are between books, looking for something new to read; a new author, a new genre. There are more writers than ever before: More good writers, more not so good writers. The choices of things to read are enormous. The purpose of interviewing a writer is to give you, the reader, a chance to hear from the writer directly, to hear the writer’s own voice.

Here’s John Michael Cummings. His short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. He is also the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel; The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY.


What is your philosophy of writing?

Make it real.  I believe in real people, real life situations, and have little tolerance for unrealistic characters or behavior. Fiction should take on fundamental truths of existence through drama.

What’s the name and genre of you book and who is the audience?   Ugly To Start With is a contemporary literary fiction. It’s for all readers ages 10 and up.

Describe your protagonist, physically and emotionally, and describe the challenges the protagonist needs to overcome and the motivation for overcoming them.

Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.  Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town. Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.

Describe your antagonist, physically and emotionally, and talk about motivation.

He’s a controlling, fearful, imposing father who rules his children with an iron-fist.

Read a passage from your book that you love. “Whatever it was, if it was it was ugly to start with, or turned ugly, we were ashamed of it and wanted it to go away” — “Ugly to Start With”.

Elaborate on the meaning of the passage.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Twilight of the Idols” (1888) wrote “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”  Jason Stevens, the central character in my collection of 13 short stories, might beg to disagree with Nietzche.  He is fearful of his own survival.

How has your upbringing influenced you writing?

I grew up in the hauntingly beautiful town of Harpers Ferry, site of John Brown’s abolitionist raid in 1859.  It’s both a national park and tourist town and holds astounding beauty, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Do you prefer fermented or distilled?


If you have a career outside of writing how does it fit into your life as a writer?

I’m also a graduate student at University of Central Florida, in the MFA Creative Writing program.

That’s the interview. Thanks for listening and Have a Happy…


Ugly To Start With   ISBN: ISBN-10: 1-935978-08-X (Paper); 1-935978-09-8 (Electronic)


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