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Friday, October 3, 2008

Newsvine, a community website, interviews John Michael Cummings, author of The Night I Freed John Brown

This is the first part of a two-part interview

Interview by Scott (Scoop) Butki

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 reenactors, who I find fascinating and have written nearly 100 articles about for the Hagerstown newspaper.

Also within an hour's drive is Harper's Ferry, WV, 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? Or was he a psycho who just happened to be fighting for the right cause, namely freeing the slaves? When he was hanged near 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 novel 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: I fired off an email begging for an interview with the author.

I have been to Harpers 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.

Now, without further ado, here is the first part of our interview. The second part will focus more on the book itself.

Scott: Why did you decide to write a book - your first novel - about John Brown?

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 more or less 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!

What kind of research did you do? What was the most surprising thing you found?

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, in part, 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.

Was the plan always for this to be a young adult novel?

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!

You've written many short stories, right? So what did you like better - writing short stories or a novel?

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

Did you read Russell Bank's Cloudsplitter?

I started some time back, but regrettably became sidetracked. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

If you could talk to John Brown and ask him three questions, what would those questions be?

This is a wonderful question! I’ll take the liberty of making him a reincarnated John Brown.

First, 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?

Second, 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?

Third, 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?

Do you consider Brown a cold-blooded killer for his actions in Kansas and/or W. Va or was it somehow justified?

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.

full interview can be found at:

http://sbutki.newsvine.com/_news/2008/09/12/1858335-scotts-interview-with-john-michael-cummings-author-of-the-night-i-freed-john-brown-

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