by Terri Roberts
Fountain audiences know Tim Cummings as an impassioned actor who brings gritty depth and honesty to every role he undertakes. From his searing work as political activist Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart (2013), to his heart-wrenching portrayal of Mitchell, devoted and loving partner to the suddenly-stricken Daniel in Daniel’s Husband (2019), Cummings never fails to impress.
Now he has taken on a new role – that of published author. His debut young adult novel, Alice the Cat, is being celebrated at the Fountain Theatre (indoor stage) with a book signing and conversation moderated by acclaimed author Meg Howrey (They’re Going to Love You) at 7pm on Tuesday, June 27.
What was the inspiration for Alice the Cat? What was so appealing about a suicidal cat, her pre-pubescent owner and a haunted house?
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, attempting to get run over. I had terrible fights with my dad about this; I wanted him to do something, but he wasn’t able to. Eventually, the cat disappeared. I never knew what happened. One day in grad school, earning my MFA in Writing, a question detonated above my head, “What happened to the cat?” I went home and wrote the first sentence of this book.
From there, it took on a life of its own. It felt like Tess, her friends, and the ghost girl, Francine, were 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 my great admiration 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.’
Tell us a bit about your writing process.
In grad school, I felt safe and sequestered away from life. I’d spent over 35 years as an actor. I wanted to evolve as a storyteller. Writing has always felt private and intimate and open and free to me. I felt it was time to bring it into the light.
In school I just needed to write a book that I needed to read, that I needed to feel, that allowed me to insert all my wackiness, goofiness, darkness, mysticism, and spirituality into a kind of old-fashioned coming-of-age adventure with some really interesting kids who kept surprising me as I wrote them.
I never felt that Alice the Cat would put me on the map. I did it for me. I broke a lot of rules and took a lot risks, but I’m someone who doesn’t play it safe. And a mentor of mine (the astonishing Gayle Brandeis) in my final semester fell hard for the book and assisted me in purring it into the world. And here we are.
What attracts you to writing for the YA crowd?
Those formative years maintain their power over our lives forever. Adults love reading YA and middle-grade, so the readership is vast. There’s a kind of wild freedom when writing into the emotional and psychological states of tweens and teens. I think back to that age and I remember the feelings. It’s a seminal time, rife with hormonal snakings and expressive utterances. It’s great for writing!
The characters in Alice the Cat are delightfully unique, vivid and offbeat. Are any of them based on any real people in your life, or were they completely created from your imagination?
It’s a bit of both, honestly. I grew up outside Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with mixed-race kids and vivid personalities. I always loved the girls who were tough and strong, but quiet, fighters when they needed to be. Tess is like that. She’s also based on cool female characters from other middle-grade and YA books I love.
I was goth as a teen (still am in many ways) and I love the misfit feeling of being goth. The mystery, creativity, theatricality of it. The love of the music. Lunar Velvet and Dami Tross were always meant to end up in this story. They’re a very real extension of my own innerness. And I adore Eddie and Cotter. They were a little unwieldy to write because they are so singular, so real, so messy, so expressive, but both care about Tess and Alice so much.
You deal with some very real, very difficult situations faced by many young people: loss of a parent/loved one, depression, suicidal ideation, difficulty fitting in, etc. Did you face any of these issues growing up? How did you deal with them?
In my childhood, I was pretty mercilessly bullied for being different. I had to learn to fight back, to find my voice. Theatre and writing did that for me. And at 16, when I lost my mom…I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about that for a long time. In that respect, Alice the Cat is a gateway.
I didn’t want to play it safe with this book. Most middle-grade books play it safe. You need only see what middle-schoolers are actually facing these days to feel inspired to go a little deeper. This is a story about grief, but it also offers levity in its goofiness. And it has a hopeful, responsible ending.
Which character(s) do you personally identify with most in the book?
All of them, for different reasons, but mostly Francine. The ghost. She’s been lingering in purgatory for eons and finally finds a way out, an absolution, through Tess and Alice. She reaches across dimensions to shudder the borders of these worlds and acquire what she needs to move on. And also allows Tess and Alice to remain together in this weird kind of way. I love her. I love that she and Tess share this penchant for anger and how it manifests.
How does your work as an actor inform your writing?
I always go deep into the characters I play. This book is written in first-person—meaning, I inhabited her the way I would inhabit any character I play. I wanted it visceral, embodied, and expressive. Being an actor helps with voice, the ever-elusive magical element to writing that no one seems to be able to put their finger on. Voice in writing is so mercurial. Thankfully, so is my protagonist.
How has reader response been to Alice the Cat?
Wacky, loving, enthusiastic, powerful. Also critical, whiny, and cruel. In other words: 100% normal. It’s what happens when you brave the deep waters of life by putting something into the world. But if you’re an artist, you’re gonna ‘art’ no matter what people have to say about it. It brings me such joy. And the truth is, true joy is impenetrable. At least for me.
Outside of your signing event at the Fountain on Tuesday, June 27, where can folks purchase Alice the Cat?
My website has all the ways you can buy it! www.timcummings.ink
What’s up next for you? Another book? Another show?
Yes, a few more books are already written, and I’m settling in to get that going. Book # 2 is about theatre kids—and epilepsy. It’s deep, magical, funny, heartbreaking, mysterious, and it features a dog. (And it has some Alice characters in it.) Not sure about the acting. Scattered tiny things here and there, but nothing major. The actor is sleeping. The actor will wake up when the actor feels rested and refreshed; we’ll see if it wants to stay in bed or for me to hand it a cup of coffee, its robe and slippers, see if it rouses and moves about.