Walter Cummins Derek Alger One on One

portrait Walter Cummins

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 137 ~ October, 2008

Walter Cummins has published over 100 stories in magazines and journals such as the Kansas Quarterly, Other Voices, Quarterly Review, and Confrontation, to name a few. His new collection of stories, Local Music, was published by Egress Books in 2007.

Early in his career, Cummins completed two novels, A Stranger to the Deed and Into Temptation, which were published as paperback originals. His short story collection, Where We Live, was published by Lynx House Press in 1983. The book version of The Literary Explorer, written with Thomas E. Kennedy, was released in 2005, and Programming Our Lives: Television and American Identity, co-written with George Gordon, was published by Praeger in 2006.

Cummins is Editor Emeritus of The Literary Review, co-editor of Exploring Globalization, An Online Journal, an Editorial Board Member of Web del Sol, and is a Core Faculty member of the Fairleigh Dickinson University low residency MFA in Creative Writing program.

Derek Alger: It’s almost impossible to think of The Literary Review without thinking of you.

Walter Cummins: TLR has occupied a major part of my life for almost thirty years, more than twenty of which I’ve been editor-in-chief. But the magazine has been around for a half century, and the founders established a basic mission as an international literary journal that I just continued to implement. Of course, the many changes in approaches to writing have been responsible for the most apparent differences that emerged during my time.

DA: Tell us a bit about your childhood.

WC: In retrospect, I can say I grew up in the wrong place and didn’t get in touch with my own interests and inclinations until I got to college. After the comic book stage, I turned into what might be called a closet reader, still having some of the paperbacks of my bookshelves — 1984, many Aldous Huxley novels. And there was much ephemeral fiction, chosen because I didn’t have any real guidance, picked just by turning the wire racks in a corner store and liking a cover. Because my friends were into sports and later cars, I had no one to talk books with, and so I also read The Sporting News and Hot Rod while they were batting fungos and souping up engines. If I had been more aware at the time, I’d have realized I needed words in print to help shape even those experiences.

High School did give me reading assignments, but I found the required English classes boring, like raking leaves. Typical were the quizzes we had on A Tale of Two Cities — what color dress was Lucy Manette wearing when she did such and such. It made me hate Dickens, and I never read him again until grad school and was so overwhelmed that I signed up for a Dickens seminar.

DA: When did you first start thinking like a writer?

WC: At six, I wrote very short stories and tried to draw comics. Later on, I became interested in the school paper and started my undergraduate career at Rutgers as a journalism major. Then the juniors and seniors in my fraternity, who also had started there, harangued me to change for my own good. The choices were English or history. My inability to remember dates and my inclination for reading made English the obvious one.

All through college, I wrote for the school paper and even edited a humor magazine, for a while emulating a then-popular humor writer named Max Shulman. Junior year, with trepidation, I signed up for a creative writing course, which started my life of fiction despite the disasters of those early stories. A couple did get published in the college literary magazine, and I put humor behind me.

DA: You had a taste of what it might be like to be “the organization man” after college.

WC: Students today are much more aware of what the world of work is like. My experience through college had been bus boy and book store clerk. Like others with English majors and a desire to write something, I assumed a career in advertising was the answer. General Electric recruited me to be a trainee in Advertising and Sales Promotion, starting at their main location in Schenectady. Within a month there, I realized that grown-up work was as tedious as high school and that I needed an escape plan. Though I had never even contemplated grad school while in college, I saw that as my future. Evenings I wrote interminable stories in tiny print on a clipboard, showing no one the results.

DA: You were fortunate to have a good experience at the New School in Manhattan.

WC: After my six months Army National Guard service — it was that or two years for males of my generation — I found a job as a technical editor in Manhattan, biding my time before applying to grad school, but signing up for a Ph.D. German reading course at NYU and one in fiction writing at the New School with R.V. Cassill. Verlin and I became friends, going out for a beer and burger after one of the weekly classes. He tolerated the semi-fantasies I was churning out then and still encouraged me to apply to the Iowa Workshop, from which he had graduated and was about to return to as a faculty member again.

DA: You attended the Iowa Writers Workshop.

WC: I blundered into acceptance, which seems so strange decades later when the odds of getting into the program are about as tough as winning the Pulitzer Prize. Back then, as I remember, there were only two choices of graduate work in writing — the MFA at Iowa and the MA at San Francisco State. San Francisco State accepted me too with a handwritten note on the bottom of my application letter. That made me suspicious, along with concern that the inclination to explore a new city and region would divert my writing focus. What, I asked myself, would there be to do in Iowa City?

DA: You said you’re not a novelist. That was probably a valuable early insight.

WC: My first years at Iowa I wrote stories, even a few that people liked. Still, the assumption of the place was that novels were the way to fame and fortune, or at least a good teaching job. Over several years, I turned out six, two of which were published as paperback originals. I still have copies, though short of being water boarded I will go to my deathbed never having read either again. They and a couple others did get me an agent. Standards must have been lower in those days. Fortunately, I was still young when I admitted that my inclination was for stories, with one story idea after another flashing into my imagination at all hours of the day. But that was after Iowa.

DA: You found a home at Iowa for a while.

WC: Five years. As an Easterner, the first few months took some adjustment. I couldn’t understand why people on the street were so friendly. What’s their angle? I kept wondering. And the freshmen I taught didn’t understand irony. Soon, though, I was very much at home. Not only had I been wrong about what there was to do, the town was so compact that you wasted no time getting from one activity to another. Any day, I could teach, take a class, write, go to a reading or performance, and hang out with friends at a local tavern for a couple of hours.

While finishing my MFA in two years, I was also able to use the elective credits to complete an MA in Humanities, taking courses like Existentialism, 19th Century Philosophy, and 19th Century Intellectual History, along with lit. When offered a job as an instructor, I decided to stay for a Ph.D., teaching and cramming and even writing a bit for another three years.

DA: A major turning point in your life was Fairleigh Dickinson University.

WC: I finished the Ph.D. during a time of a job boom, with universities from the West soliciting me. But I wanted to come back East, and I wanted a school that would allow me to teach a variety of courses rather than be pigeonholed as a narrow specialist. FDU let me explore a wide range of interests. My courses included writing, the British novel, modern and contemporary fiction, communication, global issues, and interdisciplinary studies. And it gave me the opportunity to edit a major literary quarterly.

DA: Tell us a bit about the low-residency MFA program.

WC: From my own experience at a residential program and from what I hear from others who have been in one much more recently, I consider our low-residency approach much more student-centered because we work one-on-one with only four to six students at a time rather than teaching larger classes. Our residences are ten days twice a year, in August in New Jersey, and in January at our campus in Oxfordshire, England. People — students and faculty — get to know one another quite well because they spend so much time together, and many strong friendships and creative relationships have emerged. The range of ages, life experiences, and geographical regions make a valuable mix. A test of the method’s success is the list of publications our students have achieved while in the program and after graduating.

DA: You were one of the editors of the book The Other Sides of Reality: Myths, Visions and Fantasies. How did that come about?

WC: That was years ago, when the college generation was rebelling against war, racism, sexism, and the establishment in general, and they were interested in alternative realities, many via LSD and its clones. In imagining this collection, we followed the lead of our students, at least in ideas if not substances. The book did well for several years, my share of the royalties financing my first trip to the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

DA: You recently came out with Local Music, a collection of short stories, described as a “stunning panorama of “”moving stories” written in “luminous prose.”

WC: The “luminous prose” surprised me because I’ve always considered my strengths to be timing and structure rather than language. Wouldn’t it be nice if I’ve underestimated myself? In my mind, my stories fall into two categories — those written about the dislocations of Americans in European cities and countrysides, and those about habitats in the U.S. This collection gathers 17 of the latter, and the title story, for me, encompasses the thematic unity of the whole.

DA: You were fortunate to find a great collaborator and friend in Thomas E. Kennedy.

WC: Extremely fortunate. My first taste of Tom’s writing was a story “Years in Kaldar,” we published in The Literary Review and gave an Angoff Award for one of the best works of our volume that year. That is just one of Tom’s many awards already gathered with many more in the future. Most recently, he received an annual National Magazine Award for best essay. “Years in Kaldar” came out twenty years ago, and since then Tom has become a TLR advisory editor and guest editor of several issues, the first on Irish writing, the most recent in spring 2008 on Danish writing, for which he translated almost all of the poetry. He and I have collaborated on several projects, including co-editing a TLR issue called “The Secret Life of Writers.” Tom also joins me as a core faculty member of our MFA program. We exchange e-mails often, and he continuers to awe me with the range of his writing accomplishments and the speed with which he produces new work. He is the ideal role model, that is, once you realize that you can never keep up with him.

DA: How did the idea for The Literary Traveler come about?

WC: During the summer of 2001, my wife and I were going to vacation in Alsace, and Tom, still working for the Danish Medical Association, was in Malta at the same time. If we could spend a few days in Paris, he said he would stop there too and arrange a gathering of expatriate American and Canadian writers at a cafe on Place de la Contrescarpe. There must have been 12 to 15 of us occupying the outdoor table through the afternoon. Photos were taken, and Tom used them and his memories to write an essay that became the first of The Literary Traveler, (By the way, we had to change the title to The Literary Explorer because someone else had trademarked our original one.) When Tom asked me to be co-author, I never thought my travel experiences would match his. But the memories emerged and later on, I began to make plans for an essay before going on a trip.

DA: You and Kennedy also recently co-edited the anthology Writers on the Job.

WC: What would be a momentary pipe dream for most people usually becomes a reality for Tom. He came up with the concept of writers telling stories of how they made a living — to pay for food and shelter — while supporting their writing habit. He and I wrote the first two pieces, and we attracted 18 others to join us. The book version came out in August of 2008.

DA: Since television has become such an integral part of the contemporary landscape, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your book, with George Gordon, Programming Our Lives: Television and American Identity.

WC: That book emerged from one of the rare ideas that wasn’t Tom’s. In this case, it was George’s. We’ve been friends since college, and years ago wrote a book about management climate, his specialty as an industrial psychologist. In that case, I was more of a scribe because I know nothing about the field but could organize information. For the TV book, we functioned as equals spending hours shaping the organization and discussing our thoughts about the medium to come up with a joint perspective. The focus is not TV itself, but rather what effects it has had on our society. Somehow our chapters accumulated until we realized that we had a book-length study, and the first publisher we submitted to accepted it.

DA: In closing, let me just ask what plans or projects lie ahead?

WC: For the past two years, I’ve returned to editing The Literary Review on an interim basis. But this fall, I can go back to being Editor Emeritus and writing fiction and creative nonfiction. On my hard disk, lurks a number of pieces in desperate need of revision and notes for new ones. For editing, I’ll continue to be involved with Web Del Sol, including a role Tom Kennedy and I will share to find online chapbooks. I’ll continue to read prose submissions for Tiferet and co-edit an online journal for FDU called Exploring Globalization. Then there are all those unread books lying around the house. And we have four demanding cats.