Career Achievers: Alan Cumyn on Thriving as a Long-Time Actively Publishing Author for All Ages

Learn more about Alan Cumyn.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I first submitted a book manuscript to a publisher when I was a teenager, and have saved the editor’s quietly encouraging rejection letter, along with many other scraps of evidence of a career’s worth of bumps, obstacles, roadblocks, entire canyons of disappointment, to go along with some successes that were essential in keeping up my spirits.

In high school, I wrote reams of poetry and short stories, and had completed an MA in English and creative writing by age 24. Then it took me nine years to finally get a novel published with a small literary press. It was the fourth full novel manuscript I had written after more or less abandoning short stories because getting them published was proving impossible. I figured that by writing longer fiction I could go for an entire year or more without facing any rejection at all.

What had I been doing for those nine years? Trying to let my life experience catch up with my writing ambitions. Also, working, working, working at the craft so that my writing skills, too, could catch up with those ambitions. I managed a group home in Toronto for two years. I then got married and moved to China for a year of cross-cultural revelations as my wife, Suzanne Evans, and I taught English and studied martial arts.

Back home in Canada, I began working in freelance writing and editing. We started a family, and I became a stay-at-home dad, then landed a good job in international education.

We bought a house. I lost the job when the organization went into receivership. We struggled to pay the mortgage… and I wrote, wrote, wrote through it all. Those were the really hard years when it would have been the simplest and most natural thing to let my writing slide in the face of the challenges of moving into full adulthood.

The spring of 1989 stands out. Our first child, Gwen, was born in May. We were living in Ottawa, but memories of our year in China were still fresh, and now that country was exploding with a democratic revolution that turned tragic in June with the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square. I was struck with the realization that I needed to write about China, to make a novel from my experiences and from what was happening now.

Until then, why had I been reluctant to make fiction from that year in China? Why had I avoided writing from such a core experience? It must have been fear of some sort. But when I sat down to write, memories, impressions, details of the China year flooded onto the page, and I could feel there was an extra strength to the material.

A few years later, Waiting for Li Ming (Goose Lane Editions, 1993) had been rejected by a growing number of publishers, just like all my other manuscripts. I had weathered my stint of unemployment by then and had landed a fine government job researching and writing about human rights conditions in different countries. Life was more than full. Why continue trying to break into a publishing world that clearly didn’t want or need me?

One Sunday afternoon I lay down with young Gwen on my chest. We both nodded off, and when I woke up she was still asleep. What was that feeling that enveloped me? Something about family, the depth of family ties… something as vague, yet profound, as that.

My next thought was: I need to write to that feeling, whatever it is. And: it doesn’t matter if the work never gets published. I’m a better person for writing. My day goes better when I get a chance to work on my fiction at least for a while.

I suppose in a sense I made a radical decision then to write for myself first. I didn’t give up on publishing dreams, I just stopped paying such primary attention to them. Write from within, write for yourself. Let the chips fall where they may.

By the time Waiting for Li Ming had found its proper home with the literary press Goose Lane Editions, I was well started on what would become my second novel for them, Between Families and the Sky (1995).

I began writing for children, like many others, in response to the revolution of having my own kids. In my mind, I was a serious adult fiction writer. By 1996, I had spent five years researching and writing about the worst that humans do to one another all around the world. My reports were used as background information in refugee hearings. Excruciating effort went into achieving factual correctness. The papers had to stand up to judicial scrutiny if challenged. Emotional or personal materials were strictly edited out.

Yet my novelist side was screaming to do something that would give readers a better chance of understanding the trauma of human rights abuses. So I began writing Man of Bone (Goose Lane Editions, 1998) by fictionally putting myself, or a character much like me, in a dire situation: shackled, hooded, in a closet, freaking out after having been kidnapped by a shadowy political group in a steamy island country in the South Pacific. I had received a modest grant from the Canada Council to write the first draft and was on leave from my government work.

That draft poured out of me in about three months, and then it was close to Christmas. I was out of money, I hadn’t bought any presents for Gwen or her younger sister Anna, and I desperately needed to work on something lighter, more in touch with my own relatively safe and happy life.

So I wrote the first couple of Owen Skye stories (Groundwood Books) for my girls as Christmas presents, and that became the tradition for the next few years: for special events, Gwen and Anna expected more tales of Owen and his madcap adventures and his overwhelming love for Sylvia.

These were personal creations. In my own mind, I was an adult fiction writer. Man of Bone made some waves, then its sequel, Burridge Unbound (Emblem Editions, 2002), was shortlisted for Canada’s premier fiction award, the Giller Prize.

By then, I assumed it would be straightforward to find a publisher for my accumulating Owen Skye stories. What I didn’t understand is that the Owen Skye stories, set in the vague “olden days” (probably the early 1960s of my own youth), were written in an older style; the voice was quite different from what younger readers were seeing in new books.

The manuscript was rejected widely, to the point that I stuck it away in a drawer and didn’t pull it out again until some Christmases later when, once more I was short of money and looking for something to sell. By that point, I had left my perfectly good government writing job. Suzanne was in graduate school, the kids were still very young, and I was writing like an express train, trying to support a family on royalties and grants, which I came to realize could be akin to relying on casino winnings.

And yet, it worked out. In retrospect, I made the leap to writing fiction as a profession at exactly the time I needed to. My writing was finally strong enough to show the world. I was still young enough, and had enough energy, to take on bold projects, and the financial pressures raced my pulse but didn’t crush me artistically.

This was my period of publishing eight novels in ten years, including the three Owen Skye novels that were eventually picked up by Groundwood Books, the best publisher of literary fiction for young readers in Canada.

I also started writing theatrical and screen adaptations, a process that would result in just one production – a theater version of After Sylvia – but was important for my growth as a writer and storyteller. I got the chance to work with seasoned professionals from different fields, including two-time Academy Award winner Lee Grant, who directed my efforts for two years on a screen adaptation of my adult novel Losing It (St. Martin’s, 2003).

If I have an ear for dialogue, and a strong sense of pacing, story structure, and character development, those skills have come as much from these intense experiments in adaptations as they have from years and years of original fiction writing.

Perhaps the essential skill I cultivated was the ability to manage expectations, to draw whatever was needed from (perhaps) inevitable artistic failure and keep going, keep relying on and delving into the art to move forward.

Somewhere along the line I realized that almost any hit book is successful at least in part for reasons beyond the artistic input – because it fits the Zeitgeist of the times; because it is seen by and resonates with influential people; because it gets an extraordinary marketing push…

I can’t pin all of my career hopes on one particular title. So I have to try to be as artistically strong as I can be every time out, and that effort in itself is actually most of the reward.

I really enjoy writing. I decided a long time ago I would keep doing it even if no publishers would find the time of day for me. I feel I’m a better person for engaging creatively with the page. My day goes better when I get at least a bit of time to write. Those basic feelings have not left me, and they continue to help no matter what’s happening with my current projects.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I suppose, when my writing was really starting to show, I would have worked harder to find an agent who could help me steer and craft a career. Some of my strongest work for adults, pairs of books that stand together as novel and sequel, were actually taken up by different publishers who weren’t necessarily interested in promoting the companion book.

But hindsight is 20/20, especially for business decisions, and while I was writing those initial novels, I had no plan to do sequels. The thought only occurred later when I realized my main characters still had plenty of struggle and growth potential in them.

I have now worked with a fine agent for 15 years, and yet it’s still difficult for anyone to “steer and craft” my career since I very much rely on inspiration, gut feelings and pure whimsy when landing on any new project.

Also, I usually work for at least a year on something before showing anyone, agent included. At this point I’m fairly impervious to outside help early on, when it might make a big difference, precisely because gut feelings and pure whimsy can be chased off so easily.

Even a really good agent might have steered me away from Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Atheneum, 2016) or my Owen Skye stories or my latest, North to Benjamin (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, 2018), when these were in the early pages. A pterodactyl comes to high school? A young boy falls profoundly in love beyond his ability to cope? Another boy starts barking like a dog in a northern town? It’s so easy to be put off by others’ reasonable doubts.

I wouldn’t even wish away my early, failed manuscripts because so much learning happened in the course of my thrashing around on the page. And, as much as the money would have helped, I’m not sure I would wish for bonanza early success, either, because I know it would have gone to my head and I wouldn’t have been forced to keep developing my skills. Or, at the least, I would have headed for a terrible fall when subsequent works didn’t measure up.

It has been a weird blessing having to prove myself with every single manuscript, to challenge myself artistically every time out. But that’s only as it should be.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

There has always been pressure placed on books for young readers to do what society so often fails at – to uplift our young, to educate, encourage, protect, fortify them to face the world, to promote understanding of others, all while entertaining and challenging in deeply satisfying ways.

The times are particularly fraught now, and society is being pulled in contradictory directions: towards and away from inclusion and tolerance in general, and towards and away from respect for diversity especially.

When some political leaders are openly stoking hatred of difference, even more hopes and pressures are placed on writers for the young to show a better way forward. Our kids want and deserve so much more than what many adults around them are offering.

My response, I suppose, is to continue to try harder to make my own writing as true as possible to the characters and situations I’m exploring, so that we come to a closer understanding of human nature, a sense of the universal through the particular.

Edgar, for example, the protagonist in North to Benjamin, is a misfit in so many ways. But he’s also deeply intelligent and empathetic to those around him, even his terribly flawed mother. When he gets dragged north to Dawson, in the Yukon, he has to navigate amongst those looking to punish him for his vulnerabilities, and those drawn to him precisely because he is gentle and quirky and doesn’t naturally fit in.

If I do my job well, I’m giving readers a strong chance to walk in someone else’s skin for a time, and that’s always an opportunity to promote understanding.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

This is a hard one, because I’m not sure I would want this path for myself again. Not because it hasn’t been rewarding – it has been, deeply! – but because there are so many other worthwhile things to do with one’s life, so many other arts to try and other ways to connect with and learn about and help other people. Writing well is fantastically difficult and requires spending a great deal of time alone sorting through one’s thoughts.

If today my younger self really was set on this path, I’d talk frankly about the difficulties, including financial and physical – all that sitting for years and years and years! All that waiting to get paid, even when (if!) you’ve had a breakthrough! I’d say follow other pursuits too that still allow you time and space to write.

Then I’d shut up, because when I was young I didn’t listen to a lot of advice from my elders even if it was well-meant and wise. I did what I knew I needed to do, and I suppose that is a dual curse and blessing of the writing life.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

For writers, a continuing way to reach an audience and get paid for it, reasonably. That’s always a struggle no matter what era.

The book business seems in perpetual crisis, yet humans always require stories – more and more and more of them, good ones especially, from thoughtful people in all walks of life.

And for readers, I hope they get access to work that speaks to them personally, that feeds their sense of what life is and what it can be for them and those around them, no matter who they are or what their backgrounds might be.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

More intriguing projects! I’m always on the lookout. I’m in Ho Chi Minh City at the moment doing just that – learning about this place and these people, and seeing what sinks in.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

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