Interview with Jeanine Cummins, author of The Crooked Branch

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)

Publish Date: March 5, 2013

Order Links:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: From the national bestselling and highly acclaimed author of The Outside Boy comes the deeply moving story of two mothers—witty, self-deprecating Majella, who is shocked by her entry into motherhood in modern-day New York, and her ancestor, tough and terrified Ginny Doyle, whose battles are more fundamental: she must keep her young family alive during Ireland’s Great Famine.

After the birth of her daughter Emma, the usually resilient Majella finds herself feeling isolated and exhausted. Then, at her childhood home in Queens, Majella discovers the diary of her maternal ancestor Ginny—and is shocked to read a story of murder in her family history.

With the famine upon her, Ginny Doyle fled from Ireland to America, but not all of her family made it. What happened during those harrowing years, and why does Ginny call herself a killer? Is Majella genetically fated to be a bad mother, despite the fierce tenderness she feels for her baby? Determined to uncover the truth of her heritage and her own identity, Majella sets out to explore Ginny’s past—and discovers surprising truths about her family and ultimately, herself.

Author Interview: Q. Please tell us about your current release.

It’s always tough to distill four hundred pages of writing into a synopsis that still sounds interesting!  So I’m grateful to Booklist for doing it for me.  Here’s what they said: “The Crooked Branch is the story of two mothers, worlds and generations apart, and their struggles to parent in difficult times. Wonderfully written, with strong, compelling characters, it is a deeply satisfying combination of sweeping historical saga and modern family drama, a gentle reminder of the ever-reaching influence of family, both near and far.”  It is half set in contemporary Queens, in New York City, and half set in Ireland during the famine years of the 1840s.  The chapters alternate between the two stories.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for your book?

I always start with an injustice, with some wrong I see in the world that I wish to address.  But then I have to find a way in to the story because, in a novel, entertainment is just as important as enlightenment.  If you preach at your readers, they close the book.  So I wanted to write about the Irish potato famine, about how unnecessary it was for so many people to die.  But on its own, that was a pretty daunting task.  So I started with my own life, with some familiar experiences about being a young mother in America right now, and how overwhelming motherhood can be even when life is good.  And then I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a parent in catastrophic times.  I think the two narratives balance each other well.

Q. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to write your book?

Well this is my third book, so the journey is more direct for me than it once was.  I started writing it shortly after my second child was born, so my childbirth and postpartum experiences were still very fresh in my mind.  That certainly shows up in the text.  This was also the fastest book I’ve ever written, possibly just because I’m learning a rhythm and what works for me as a writer, but also because the material is so raw.  The pages came quickly and without much struggle, which was a nice change!

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about the book?

If you ask me this question again in a few months, I might have a different answer, but right now: no!  Each of my books has been a labor of love, so even when they are flawed or imperfect, I treasure them.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part of this one was the research.  Writing about a real historical event is always tricky, because you want to get it absolutely right, but maintain your own poetic license.  In this case, I was also worried about doing justice to the incomprehensible suffering of those people.  It’s impossible to fully imagine the horrors of famine.   I read a lot of historical texts while I was researching, but the oral histories and folk memories of the people who survived the famine were particularly emotionally grueling.  Some of those stories were so visceral and terrifying that I had nightmares about them for weeks after reading them.

Q. Do you have a musical playlist you listen to when writing? If so, what kind of music?

My writing is hugely influenced by music.  I don’t tend to listen to music while writing because it distracts me.  But I do listen while I’m researching, and whenever I have plot points percolating in my brain while I’m doing other stuff.  I create a homemade soundtrack/MixCD for every book I write.  I’ll be happy to share The Crooked Branch soundtrack, if you’re interested.  It’s a super eclectic mix (they always are) that speaks largely to the themes of the book.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Just going back to the music in the previous question… perhaps it’s interesting that, although I am an avid reader, I think I draw the greater influence of my language from music.  I love the sound of beautiful words as much as I love stories.  I often read my work aloud when I’m revising, because I think your ear can identify what is and isn’t working in a way that your inner voice sometimes can’t simulate.

Q. Please tell us your latest news.

Oh, this book publication is my only interesting news right now.  So I’ll tell you this awesome story instead:

I recently moved to this beautiful artsy little river town, and some friends came to visit for my birthday.  We were walking around the town before dinner, and we happened upon an art show at one of the local galleries.  So we went in.

The artist was there in the gallery, enjoying a glass of wine and chatting to everyone.  He asked my friend, novelist Carolyn Turgeon, if she lived in the area.

She replied, “No, I’m just visiting my friend.  It’s her birthday.”

So he turned to me and inquired what I thought of his paintings.  When I remarked that they were beautiful and joyful, he smiled, and made a sweeping gesture along the wall.

“Choose one!” he said.  “For your birthday.”

Isn’t that incredible?  I’m never leaving this town.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?



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