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Local boy grows up, leaves home, writes novel about Harpers Ferry

June 10, 2008|By ERICA SYVERSON / Pulse Correspondent

Coming from a writer, the description of what goes on inside a writer's head can get pretty complicated.

If you were to remove the skullcap of an author like Harpers Ferry, W.Va.-born John Cummings, you might see rolling out a mash of John Updike, 15 years worth of writing, and some Springsteen lyrics.

Cummings' first published novel, "The Night I Freed John Brown," (see review at left) was released at the end of May, but the Pulse team had the opportunity to grab a word with the author prior to the release date just to see what kinds of things he rolls around upstairs.

Cummings says a lot of his work is autobiographical. This is especially true of "The Night I Freed John Brown." He said he drew a lot of inspiration from "precious memories of growing up around Harper's Ferry," where the book takes place.

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Every writer faces obstacles like pacing a story and creating a strong plot, but imagine not even knowing you always wanted to be a writer. Cummings set out for a college art degree and wound up graduating without an interest in art at all. A long-lost love of words drove him to get a job as a reporter. But he struggled with a desire to put his own perceptions in his writing, thus breaking a cardinal rule of journalism.

Cummings has published some 75 short stories in the past 15 years. He calls them fiction, though he says they are true stories that have been with him his whole life. He calls them "invented truths," meaning he changed names and other aspects to protect the real people involved in these events.

Sometimes memories are tricky things to work with in writing. What is private? What should stay a memory, not put into writing? Cummings says he never had fear or self-consciousness about using his childhood as the foundation for his writing. There is an "innate trust in putting words on paper," he says, and he has no trouble expressing himself.

Maybe tackling the description of what goes on inside a writer's head isn't so difficult after all.

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