Monday, June 26, 2023

Q&A with Tim Cummings




Tim Cummings is the author of Alice the Cat, a new novel for older kids. He teaches writing for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and he lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write Alice the Cat, and how did you create your character Tess?


A: I lost my mother to cancer when I was a teenager, and the family cat fell into an intense depression afterward. I came home from school one day to discover she’d been running into the street when cars go by, attempting to get run over.


I had terrible fights with my dad about this; I wanted him to do something to take care of the situation, but he was not able to. Eventually, the cat disappeared and I never knew what happened.


Years passed, decades, and the memory was buried deep within me, too painful to resurrect, until one day in grad school at Antioch, earning my MFA in Writing, a question exploded in the air above my head, “What happened to that cat?” It was not something I felt I wanted to unearth in any way, but I went home that night and wrote the first sentence of this book.


From there, it took on a life of its own. It felt to me like Tess, her friends, and the ghost girl were patiently waiting for someone to materialize as a vessel to tell their story. It’s a really wild tale, original and strange, emotional, and intensely goofy too.


I think Tess saw in me a writer who could bring her to life based on all the experience I have as a great admirer of so many other strong tween female protagonists, like Meg Murry, Fern Arable, Cassie Logan, Lyra Silvertongue, Chihiro Ogino (AKA Sen), Coraline, Malú (María Luisa O’Neill-Morales), and “Eleven.”  


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew it would lead Tess and her dad to a place of healing, and that she would form lifelong friendships with these lovely fellow misfits. I wanted a hopeful, responsible ending, advocating for the need for some kids to have somewhere to go and someone to talk to.


I did not expect a few things that happen along the way to happen, but I went with it. A lot of it came bubbling up from my subconscious. Including the whole thing about how to keep our pets with us longer than the time we are given with them. 


Q: The writer Kerry Madden said of the book, "Alice the Cat is a love story, brimming with hope, that reminds young readers they get to be and feel everything that happens to them for however long it takes after unspeakable losses." What do you think of that description?


A: It breaks my heart because it’s so true. And Kerry is deeply insightful, and a beautiful writer, so I’ll 100 percent take what she says!


Tess needed to be a powder keg in order to take on what she takes on in this book, so I did not skimp out on letting her feel her feelings, whether anger, frustration, deep questioning of those around her, as well as death, and religion, or her feelings about her own father, mother, and her own physicalness in the world.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Tess and Alice?


A: Tess calls Alice her sister. She’s an only child, and Alice came to the family as a kitten when Tess was a baby, so they grew up together. Alice changes every person in the book. Even the person who isn’t even living anymore. She’s a sage, a cat sage, and Tess is like the amplifier of that wisdom that every one of them needs. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have three books in the pipeline. Two of them are completed, YA books that also take place in Weirville, the fictional town where Alice the Cat takes place.


One of them is about these enthralling theatre kids and a prophetic event they experience that changes their lives. It’s a tale of 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 sort of gothic mystery, a cautionary tale about the ways artists sometimes go too deeply into their work, lose their souls in the vortex, and cannot come back to who they used to be. It’s a deep and resounding story I’ve needed to write for a long time.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have some upcoming events I’d love to see you at if you’re in LA, or up in Ventura County. June 27 in conversation with author Meg Howrey (They’re Going To Love YouThe Wanderers) at The Fountain in Hollywood; July 15 at Barnes and Noble at The Grove in Hollywood, opposite Caroline Thompson (Edward ScissorhandsThe Nightmare Before Christmas) and a special event at Bart’s Books in Ojai on Aug. 12. Check my website for updates:


I run several online writing workshops per year and also teach kid lit for UCLA’s Writers’ Program. Again, info on my site.


Thanks for reading the book and let me know if you want to have a conversation about it—that’s the whole point.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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