Ann Cummins - Red Ant House
Recorded Monday, July 14, 2003; Aired on KUSP 88.9 FM Santa Cruz August 15, 2003
By Kathryn Petrucelli
Ann Cummins has been published in the New Yorker, McSweeney's and The Best American Short Stories 2002 . Red Ant House is made up of stories that portray slices of life from poor families from which parents are often missing. Many center around the inner thoughts of young people who seem to be mulling over what they've divined about how the world works and trying to apply it to real life circumstances that often turn odd or scary.
Dave Eggers says of reading Ann Cummins' writing, among other things, "I'd been savoring … every screamingly original description, every taut and unsentimental but velvet-smooth swatch of life."
KP: Your new short story collection, Red Ant House , has many common themes; there's a cohesion to the book. I see the characters in your book on the cusp of decisions that they may or may not be ready to handle, or the consequences of which they may or may not be ready to handle. Does that make sense?
AC: I think I'm old-fashioned in my sense of the story, of the short story. I really like to find the center of my stories at the edge character's conflict, inner conflict. And most of them revolve around the moment of change or the point at which a character may have the opportunity to change and choose not to. So, you know, I like O'Henry stories—the surprise in the O'Henry stories, that keeps the reader turning the page; the “what's gonna happen next,” that kind of thing. But I'm very much of a character-based writer. My models are writers like Flannery O'Connor, for example, who just gets right into the heart of the character's soul right from the very beginning. I like to develop my tension and plot together really springing from the psyche of the character.
KP: Certainly we are in that inner landscape with your characters from the very beginning, as you say. I think that's definitely the case, and you've achieved that for sure. Would you say it's a fair characterization to they're coming of age stories?
AC: Many of them are. I had several stories that were left out of this collection. My editor and I were going through and looking for the ones that we felt we could thread together to sort of …You know, I like the idea of the isolated short story but a short story that will build, the themes that will build, or the tensions that will build throughout an entire collection can be a qualitative experience for the reader. So, we rejected a lot of the stories that didn't fall into the coming of age category. It's funny because after I put the collection together with my editor's help – and she really was very much in there with me selecting the stories —I got very worried that readers would read this and say “Oh my gosh, poor girl” (laughs) “She has had such a tumultuous, sad childhood.” (laughs) But in fact it's just that we really tailored the stories to moments of characters' pivotal decisions.
Now not all of the characters are children and not all of them are adolescents, but even the adult point-of-view characters are frequently coming from a place of innocence, and, um, where they're discovering something about themselves and approaching almost a point of danger in themselves. In that way it is a coming of age for characters of all ages, maybe.
KP: How many would you say were left out?
AC: Probably, five. And, you know, some of them were favorite stories of mine but stories that were just a little wacky…
KP: It's hard to leave out what you love.
AC: But it's all right. I like the idea of really having a cohesive book. And my editor—I really respect her so much, Susan Canavan– I think that she and I were— our minds were married on that, on the stories that fit together.
KP: I think of the “Headhunter” where it is an adult character, but there are still parent issues there. And of the stories where it is a young person, many have ill and/or missing parents. Would you say that these characters are in a state of grieving?
AC: It's funny you should bring up “Headhunter.” That's actually my favorite story in the collection for two reasons. One is that I was still teaching myself about how to weave plot into the story and I really learned a lot. There's a point at which my point-of-view character …she's playing a kind of cat and mouse game with this man as they're driving down a mountain. He's chasing her. And at one point she actually pushes him over the cliff. And, metaphorically, it was very important for me because I pushed myself over the cliff of making things happen rather than staying receded in the story; do you know what I mean? I want to be able to incorporate the action, kind of in the way Hitchcock might have designed his movies, and yet still not to lose sight of the character driving the story. It was important to me just in terms of learning craft in the story.
But as a matter of fact my father was ill for a long time; he had a degenerative lung disease, and my mother nursed him for nine years. It took me about two years to write “Headhunter," and he was still alive while I was writing. I believe that I was going through a process of grieving for him as I was writing it because it was clear he was going to die, and we lived with that the whole time; the whole family lived with that. The funeral was a sad occasion for me, but there were pivotal moments in that story that were sadder for me.
KP: Yeah, it took me a while to come to that idea. That “Oh, yeah, there's grief.” And there's dealing with grief and not dealing with grief. And certainly, I know as a young person I lost a parent and it becomes apparent, but to me it came late when it started to sink in.
Just to stay on that story since we're talking about “Headhunter,” I was struck by something the LA Times said about it. In something—and I don't know if you want to reveal this or not—but in something that the character does, the Times says "you never see [it] coming and…you can't quite recover from [it]." I had to jump on that and agree. I was really impressed with the story's power in that way.
AC: I appreciate the Times saying that. I had a student read that story. I teach creative writing at Northern Arizona University, and I had a student read that story while it was in progress. And he got back to me and he said, “Professor Cummins, you are so weird!” (laughs) Because she, she does something that really takes the story into a moment of horror—and I won't reveal it either—but, I thought I was risking a lot at that moment because it either is too much, or it is actually the kind of thing that is memorable and will stay with the reader, and I was hoping that would happen.
KP: A well-taken risk. Is it fair to say that many of these characters crave attention?
AC: I think my characters tend to be lonely souls. And I do think they are looking for moments of connection with the different people who fascinate them. They also are attracted to fascinating people. They're pulled into dramas by people who would not normally be good friends to them. Frequently I'll find my plot in those kinds of tensions: characters who are very different and the attractions are centered on the differences.
KP: While you were writing were you sort of hyper-aware in your own world of things that were happening around you? Or were you sort of eavesdropping, so to speak, on lives around you to try to pull from?
AC: I think unconsciously. I don't think that I was aware. My writing process has been very, very messy. And frequently I don't know what a story is about until I've finished it, and finishing it means going through lots and lots of drafts for me. So there's a lot of trial and error. And I don't necessarily start out knowing that my characters are antagonists or anything like that. They shape and they grow as I go through different drafts with the story.
KP: I know that tension of drama or emotion certainly jumped out to me in the language that you use in the story “Bluefly.” Interestingly, this is a story set in early 1900s, and I think it's the only story that has that kind of time frame put on it – any time frame put on it. We have a brother and sister living with an older brother and a very discontented northern wife. Parents are gone. And the language you use in that story, you kind of show "blendable" emotions, where things we would see as opposites really don't have to be. For example, you mention someone is listening to someone who is "laughing or sobbing" and trying to decide if someone is "sleeping or sobbing." And someone might "laugh—or cry." These are all together in one description.
AC: In that story, it really draws very much on my family's homesteading experience up in southern Colorado. My great uncle, bless his heart, wrote a 50-page “this is my life” story and just amazing memories about what it was like to be living in a mud hut up in southern Colorado. And I tried to evoke that emotional strangeness of characters who really have to work very hard because life in that circumstance is very hard. But also, they're very poor and they fight each other as much as love each other, I believe.
KP: I'm going to ask you to read a passage if you would from “Trapeze” which is the second story in the collection. And just to set it up briefly… there's a wispy, shy girl, a white girl, attending school on the Navajo reservation and she's dealing with a bully.
AC (reading from Red Any House, “Trapeze”):
They called her Purple because of the purple sweater she always wore. I'd made her acquaintance three years earlier, our first year on the reservation. I was walking home from school, taking the short cut behind the band building. Then, the sweater swam around her hips. It still did because she tugged it down, but now there were holes where the yarn had pulled loose at the shoulders and collar. That day behind the band building she taught me something: Indian girls will hit you. This amazed me. She said, “What would you do if I socked you in the stomach?” And then did.
Right away I thought, Tell Mom . Mama was gathering evidence that first year to justify marching us off the reservation. She wanted us back in civilization, which meant Catholic schools. There were Catholic boarding schools for Indian kids, but none for us. “You're a smart man,” she told my dad every night. “You can get other jobs.”
Then again, telling Mom things didn't always work out so well. That was also the year Ronnie had decided to get holy. Until then he'd always been a go-along Catholic. He'd go with us to mass if he didn't get a better offer. But this one day, out of the blue, he announced that his new mission in life was to light a fire under the Catholic Youth Organization. My mom's eyes went all soft when he said this, like he had read her mind and said the one thing she'd been praying hardest for. Ronnie was in ninth grade then. He spent hours in front of the mirror, smearing his hair with VO-5 and then parting it this way and that. He told me that Catholic girls are sex-starved and the reason so many joined CYO is because they got to do the hug of peace in Jesus' name. He told me he planned to be there for all those sex-starved nymphos, to let them rub up against him just as long as they wanted, and that I'd better plan to take over all the chores because he had a lot of CYO business to take care of. Sure enough, he started skipping out right after dinner—I don't think he did a dish all year, and he was never around for Saturday chores. I tried to tell Mom exactly why he was so interested in CYO.—Sex. He told me so!”—and she looked sour. “If, indeed your brother told you this, I'm sure he didn't intend you to tell me. You don't want to grow up to be a snitch, do you, Karen?” You never knew how something would hit her. So I didn't tell her about Purple. That night, I played it over and over in my head. Purple'd been standing in the shade with her cousin, Lily. I said, "Hi." She said the thing about socking me in the stomach. I kept walking, but I watched her face. First there was the idea, then, an instant later, the decision. I'm gasping and she's squinting at me, her fists clenched. Then she crossed her arms like some kind of prizefighter, and there was this gleam in her eye, and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking, Yes, I do dare punch a hole through this scared little white girl in her corduroy overalls saddles shoes and pin-curled hair. Yes, I'd be pleased to roll this little puff of kitten fur in the dirt.
I believe she was the first Navajo to really notice me, and I guess the only one to go really deep—from the rim of my belly button to the mole on my spine. I waited to see what would happen next, but then Purple went away. I heard they sent her to boarding school in Kansas. But that was three years ago.KP: I'm charmed by that character. There's so much that happens in that story. I know in a couple pages she's talking about why she's doing some of the things she's doing and what was on her "to do" list for that year—among them, to say hi in the hallways and to speak once a day in class. She thinks she's succeeded pretty well in the last part. (laughs) Asking the teacher to repeat the homework.
AC: Yeah, she set low goals for herself. (laughs)
KP: It's quite amazing that you give voice to these characters because they are these sort of self-proclaimed misfits. In one part of that story Karen, the protagonist, is wishing herself invisible repeating to herself “Karen is invisible. Karen is invisible.”
AC: Thank you. Yeah. I really liked that character and finding the thing that would be the defining personality for that character.
KP: With short fiction, how do you go about building that relationship with that character? Is there an imbalance between the amount of energy you must have to put in to make these people real and then the ultimate number of pages the story becomes. And how do you build that and how do you survive that emotionally as a writer?
AC: That's a really good question. I don't know…If writers are blessed with a few good things, like the ability to hear character. It really is an aural thing, where you hear the way a character speaks, the idioms a character might use. But not just the manner of speech, but also you hear the way a character would think, for people who write character-driven stories. So, finding character was never the difficult thing for me. The difficult thing was learning how to harness it and shape the story. A short story does only one or two things, it doesn't do a whole lot.
It took me a lot of reading of short story masters and also reading what great short story writers have to say about the short story. Chekov had a great influence on me as a short story writer—how to craft the short story. Chekov says the short story writer does two things or a short story has two things: he and she. Meaning, not necessarily a man and a woman, but two opposites. And that's it. And he says it takes on a short period of time. I really let those sorts of guiding words be voices in my ear as I'm writing stories, although I do like short story writers who will break off from the classic models of the short story and surprise. And I think a writer like Alice Munro, very much does that, where she will go trickling off and you think, “Well, this story is never going to
end!” and then it ends so beautifully.
KP: And so what for the next project? Do you feel that you have this down or you have it in a place where you like it? Or would you like to stretch yourself in terms of how you approach a short story or what genres you approach? What can we expect from you?
AC: Well, I'm in the middle of a novel. Actually I signed a two-book contact at the time that I sent Red Ant House off. So hopefully the next thing will be the novel. And it's very much a realist-based novel. But, I am interested in exploring the boundaries of genre. And I think that genre tends to be arbitrary and we may have categorized them…in a way that it's inhibited imaginations for American writers. I like the idea of horror leaking into literary fiction, and even a little bit of well, Latin magical realism and science fiction leaking in.