Welcome to the blog. Today, it is my privilege to talk with the awesome Alan Cumyn, one of the faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an award-winning novelist. Alan has written eleven novels for a variety of ages. He’s won awards like the Ottawa Book Award and Mr. Christie’s Book Award for children’s literature, and has been short listed for awards like the Giller Prize, the Trillium Award, and many others. Cool, huh?
He’s here to talk about his latest novel, All Night. I’ll be giving away three copies of it. But before I get to that, let’s talk to Alan, shall we?
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Alan: (1) I have studied and practiced tai chi, a slow-motion Chinese martial art and moving meditation, for nearly 30 years. It starts my day, helps me keep my focus when a lot is going on. (2) I live four blocks from my old high school in Ottawa, Canada, but have also lived in many other places, including China and Indonesia. (3) When I was 24, I did a Master of Creative Writing under Alistair MacLeod, who would go on to win one of the world’s richest literary prizes for his novel No Great Mischief. (4) I am surrounded by writers, actors, and artists. My wife, Suzanne Evans, is a nonfiction writer particularly interested in women and war. My older brother, Richard, writes mainly short stories; my younger brother Steve is a professional actor, as is my daughter, Gwen; and both my mother, Suzanne, and my other daughter, Anna, are talented painters.
El Space: Your latest book, All Night, was written as a literacy project. How did that come about?
Alan: My eldest daughter, Gwen Cumyn, graduated from theater school a few years ago into an uncertain life as an actor. Her partner, Colin Munch, is an improv comedian. As a graduation gift I decided to write a one-act play about a similar couple struggling through a difficult night after a dear friend has suddenly died. The play is a romantic comedy showing the couple coming to grips with economic realities, the limitations of dreams, and the power of their own love. I got to spend a week in Toronto workshopping the play with Gwen and Colin in the lead roles, directed by Kat Sandler, a talented young director. We are still figuring out the best way to present this material to audiences. In the meantime, I was contacted by Laurel Boone, who edited my first novel in 1993, Waiting for Li Ming, which I wrote after spending a year teaching in China. Laurel was editing a series of novellas called Good Reads in which prominent authors were asked to write short, plain-language novels for adults who are learning to read. I decided to adapt the play, and that’s how the book was born.
El Space: You’ve written books for children, teens, and adults. What are the challenges in toggling between the age levels?
Alan: I started my career as very much an adult writer, and only turned to writing for younger audiences after having my own kids and being reintroduced to the wonders of children’s literature. Some of my novels for adults are dark and intense, and I literally needed a break—I needed to work on something light and funny. That’s how The Secret Life of Owen Skye came about—as a series of stories written for my own daughters as Christmas or birthday presents, and later adapted into linked stories for publication. I’m interested in a lot of different issues and material—there’s so much in life to write about! So I try not to repeat myself in books, and I really like the feeling of switching gears, of moving from one type of book to something quite different. So in choosing which project to work on next, I think of my own energy level and the next sort of challenge I want to take on.
El Space: I read this article on Guy Gavriel Kay, who talked about the theme of exile in his books. What theme, if any, can you see running through your novels?
Alan: In many ways my novels are all over the map. I have some about human rights (Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound), about war (The Sojourn, The Famished Lover), one on madness (Losing It), some coming-of-age novels (Tilt, Between Families and the Sky). But I am most interested in how people form bonds, in what love does to us and how we find it and try to keep it. So my Owen Skye trilogy (including also After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia) traces an epic love story between Owen and Sylvia Tull, the little girl who sits across the classroom from him. She is so beautiful he can hardly look at her, but she breaks his heart when she moves away. Often, when I read an Owen story in a classroom, I talk about how we all have to deal with love in our lives, no matter what age and stage. As Paul Simon sings [in “Oh, Marion“], “The only time that love is an easy game is when two other people are playing it.”
El Space: In two lectures at VCFA, you quoted some advice from one of your writing professors about remembering the “cheese sandwich” in regard to story—how a reader might walk away from a story if she’s not captivated. In both lectures you talked about connection. How can a writer aid a reader’s connection to his/her story?
Alan: My writing professor, Alistair MacLeod, an irrepressible storyteller, often used to round out his advice to writers by saying, “If you don’t do it right, if you don’t nail the reader to the page, then she will put down your book, wander into the kitchen and make herself a cheese sandwich . . . and never come back!” The idea is that readers are so easily distracted that even processed cheese food will be too much competition for writing that doesn’t quite work. I like fiction that works in all the major ways—that is about interesting people who find themselves in odd and trying situations, and are honestly seeking a way through. We do need to connect to those characters, to care about them, and readers do need to feel like they really are in partnership with the author—it is “their” book, too. And that often means not explaining everything, leaving lots of room for the reader’s imagination.
El Space: You’re off to be a writer-in-residence at Mount Royal University in Calgary and elsewhere. For me, writer-in-residence always conjures up the image of a writer sitting in an office with a window and everyone staring at him or her and murmuring, “He’s/She’s writing” in an awed voice. But what are the responsibilities of being a writer-in-residence?
Alan: The responsibilities of a writer-in-residence can vary greatly depending on the setup. At Mount Royal University in Calgary I will be spending a fair amount of time in classrooms speaking with creative writing students and in office time meeting students and other writers from the university one-on-one. I will only be there for a week, and I’m not expecting to get much of my own writing done! But I will be at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, for three months—from April through June 2014. As writer-in-residence my only official duties will be to give a public reading in Dawson, and another in Whitehorse. I expect I will have lots of other public interactions, both official and unofficial, but mainly the idea is that I have time, money, and a space to do my own writing away from my regular life. How heavenly!
El Space: What are you working on now?
Alan: I am working on a new young adult novel that I don’t talk about publicly yet, but hopefully soon.
Thanks, Alan! I can truly say you’re a gentleman and a scholar. 😀
Thanks to all who stopped by. You can find All Night at the following places:
Cheese sandwich image from simplerecipes.net. Book covers from Alan’s website and Goodreads. Photo of Alan is from his website.