An Interview with Tim Cummings

How did the idea of writing Alice the Cat come to you?

The inciting incident of the book—a cat darting into the street when cars go by trying to get herself run over—actually happened to me in the wake of my mom’s death when I was a teenager. I buried the trauma in the back corners of my mind for a very long time until it unearthed itself during my MFA in creative writing program.

I started there, that event, that memory, and the rest of it came through as if these characters had been waiting for someone in whom they could place their trust to tell their story.

This is your first novel; what was the writing process like for you? How did writing it differ from writing your short stories?

The writing process felt wild. Fecund. I let myself go. I was in grad school at the time, and I allowed the cushioning and sense of safety to guide me. Lost in a vast labyrinth of craft books and technique and a bevy of voices and styles surrounding me, I shut it all out, broke free, greatly bent the rules in order to write the story I needed to write, for myself and for these awesome kids that came through. I never had any designs on it being the thing that put me on the map in any way. That happened later.

I love short stories. Writing them is a good way for me to emotionally release the pressure cooker of ideas that boils in my brains incessantly. I can experiment, be deeply loquacious, or insouciant. Writing short stories is a kind of deranged playground for me filled with sparkly lights and adventure and roller coasters. 

Alice the Cat is middle grade; how did you find writing for that age range?

I mean, I feel that it’s a tad edgier, darker, more mature, and more unpredictable than most of the material in the vast Middle Grade canon.

But Middle Grade and Young Adult are the two genres that fall under the most scrutiny, you know? It’s very difficult to write an entire book devoid of something that will offend someone. Especially in today’s day and age with the wild kingdom of social media. There is a sea of scrutiny out there. But also, an ocean of love! 

At first, I wrote it more in the style of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an adult narrator telling the story of her past when she was a child. I did not want to be mired by the endless boundaries inflicted upon writers when it comes to these genres: Lower-MG, MG, Upper-MG, Lower-YA, YA, Upper-YA . . . it’s maddening.

Then I altered the style and narration as Tess’s voice became clearer to me, and in so doing, it kind of naturally became an upper-middle-grade novel and stayed on its playing field.

One of the novel’s thematic touchstones is grief and how families process it. We see Tess’s anger as she attempts to process both her mom dying and then the subsequent betrayal of her dad turning into “The Zombie”. What are you hoping readers will take away from Alice the Cat?

Well, she’s resilient. She takes matters into her own hands. She’s strong, even in her grief, even in her angry outbursts. Her dad is all she has left now, she can’t lose him too. Something I love is that she keeps saying—as she tumbles further down the rabbit hole—that she has no idea what she’s doing. But later, Eddie says to her, “You knew what you were doing the whole time,” and she kind of looks down and kicks an acorn and quietly nods. Whether she did or did not, whether she knew, I love that he says that to her; it gives Tess validation from Eddie, an important milestone for her.

Alice the Cat is set in Weirville; a town that feels remarkably real. Did you pull from any real-life influences? How did you create that realism for yourself and then put it to the page?

At first I thought to set it in my hometown, Port Jefferson New York. Later I contemplated the Silver Lake/Echo Park area of Los Angeles, where I live now. The hills and trees and secret stairways and vast plethora of houses and flora and fauna are so intriguing. But a real place felt too real for this book, which contains subtle elements of magical realism.

So I created a new ‘subtropolis’, a kind of quaint and quirky city/suburb that the story felt right at home in. Stephen King created Castle Rock, and Stranger Things has Hawkins, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has Sunnydale, all fictional towns. I wanted to play with imagined space and a sense of imaginative place. Something familiar, yet weird.

It was also very important for me to explore the notion that incredible magic and/or paranormal activity etc. could take place in a playroom, on a neighborhood street, in an animal hospital, a police station, a front lawn . . . you know? No castles, no outer space, no portals to other worlds, no time machines, no tropes. I wanted everyday magic in almost mundane places. Weirville allows that.

I loved the friendships that developed between Tess, Eddie and Cotter. The lightness of those moments balanced the heaviness of what Tess is working through; did Eddie and Cotter spring fully-formed on the page? Who came first?

I love them so much. They’re both such interesting characters. Eddie came first. He’s a foggy homage to the character of Eric from the movie The Boy Who Could Fly. And a conglomerate of some of my fave ‘older brother’ archetypal figures. He’s a good guy with a big heart and a bad rap, very misunderstood, and has to bear the brunt of the disappointment the town feels for him. What happens with Alice and Tess helps him change and grow. That was what he needed all along.

Cotter is joy and innocence and confidence and creativity and imagination and goofiness and refreshing unpredictability personified. He swooped in unexpectedly, and I just . . . went with it, ha ha. He reminds me of Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird as well as an amalgamation of the kids from The Goonies and Stand By Me. Data, Chunk, Mouth, Mikey, Vern. He’s got some Buckwheat in him too. I love The Little Rascals.

What was the publishing process like for you as a debut novelist?

Joyous and strange. It took a long time, and we did many passes, and I had to let go of a lot of material, and learn, and change, and grow. I had to wrestle with my ego as well. I made a promise to myself that I would show up for all of it and be as present as possible for the entirety. Even when things got confusing, upsetting, and I had to push back. It’s all inevitable, you know, when you are putting a work of creativity into the world in such a big way that you’re going to come up against elements that you feel you’re not suited to handle. But that is how you mature for the next go-around.

What advice would you give anyone seeking publication?

Even with a good publisher, a good editor, a big agent, a big PR firm, a lawyer, I feel like the writer bears the burden of the awesome responsibility of getting the work into the world, and the incessant promotion, standing behind it, defending it, nurturing it, talking about it, believing in it.

So I would say: be well aware that self-reliance, fortitude, perseverance, solitude, and major independence are paramount factors in all of this. No matter how many people you have around you in the process, it’s pretty much you and your book, baby. I don’t know if it’s like that for Michelle Obama when she publishes a book, ha ha, but for me, and many people I know who I’ve watched go through this, ultimately you’re on your own, kid. 

You’ve published several short stories; you’re interviewing for your first book; are you working on anything new?

Hell yeah. I have three books in the pipeline. Two of them are YA books that also take place in Weirville. One of them is about these fascinating theatre kids and a prophetic event they experience that changes their lives. It’s about family, friendship, art, and epilepsy. The other book is about a kid who has a spider living inside him . . . I won’t say more. No spoilers.

Then, an adult novel; a cautionary tale about the ways artists sometimes go too deeply into their work and lose their souls in the vortex and cannot come back to who they used to be. It’s a story I’ve needed to write for a long time . . .

Tim Cummings, Interviewed by Emily Brill-Holland

Tim Cummings was born and raised in New York and currently lives in Los Angeles. He earned his BFA from NYU/Tisch and his MFA from Antioch University. He teaches at UCLA Extension Writer's Program. Alice the Cat is his first book. for more.

Emily is a real-life bard, having trained in both acting and publishing. She is a Senior Editor for international literary journal F(r)iction and Editorial Coordinator and Internship Supervisor for Brink Literacy Project, as well as a professional ttrpg games master. In her spare time, she has a podcast, “Please Fix This By Friday”, and can often be found scrolling through SledDog Twitter. A Sir Julius Vogel finalist, she has been published in Dually Noted and Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 3 and was honoured to guest-edit Year’s Best Volume 4 this year. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.