Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Outside Boy

To be truly free, you have to know who you are.

I don’t review or chat about every book I read. The ones I chose to discuss here mean something to me, have changed me in someway, and have allowed me to become a better writer.

Such a novel is The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins.  I savored every word and cradled them in my heart. I sat in awe of Cummins’ ability to weave words so delicately, so gracefully and yet the strength in them holds you fast, like an anchor at sea.

I met the lovely lass at a book reading a while back. Her debut novel tells the tale of an Irish gypsy boy's childhood in the 1950's and his struggle to find himself in a changing world.  

Ireland, 1959: Young Christy Hurley is a Pavee gypsy, traveling with his father and extended family from town to town, carrying all their worldly possessions in their wagons. Christy carries with him a burden of guilt as well, haunted by the story of his mother's death in childbirth. The peripatetic life is the only one Christy has ever known, but when his grandfather dies, everything changes. His father decides to settle down temporarily in a town where Christy and his cousin can attend mass and receive proper schooling. But they are still treated as outsiders.

As Christy's exposure to a different life causes him to question who he is and where he belongs, the answer may lie with an old newspaper photograph and a long-buried family secret that could change his life forever...

Malachy McCourt’s lovely review of The Outside Boy made my heart smile:

"In Hibernian society, there’s hardly a creature lower than the Irish tinker, a nomadic group ‘tis said was driven into the barren country by the fundamentalist Cromwell to starve. Regardless, the modern diminutive hero Christy, in Jeanine Cummins’s gloriously poetic novel, will burrow his way into your heart. It’s not often I hug a book, but with moist eyes and beginnings of a song in my heart, I followed Christy’s journey from a death to hopeful life. Read this lovely book and you will hug yourself."- Malachy McCourt, New York Times bestselling author of A Monk Swimming.

Here is a short excerpt from chapter one. Here, Christy’s Grandmother stirs them all from sleep, wailing in the night. His father and uncle stand outside his grandparents wagon, waiting to face the inevitable…

My dad hesitated, put his hand on his brother's shoulder for a long moment, like he was gathering strength for what he knew he'd find. Then he nodded and turned toward Granny's wagon door. It was hanging open, too, and she howled again as he went. I shivered under our blanket, to hear the sound of that wordless pain, unleashed and raw, galloping around the camp. Granny was like a toothless wolf. We watched without blinking while my dad disappeared into the wagon. Martin squirmed in even closer beside me, and I could feel his elbow stuck between two of my shivering ribs, like we was twins for a minute, instead of cousins. We was joined at the eyes and ears, joined at the dread. Everything was silent and stretched—only the tidal rhythm of our shared breath pushed the seconds forward. I wished for my mother.

Dad came out again, shaking his head.

"He's gone," he said.

His face was pale in the moonlight. Gone. I knew what he meant. He meant my grandda.

This tragedy spurs events that will change Christy’s life forever. Like Malachy McCourt said, I hugged this book on the very last page. Christy's tale is forever embedded in my heart and soul.

Below is an interview that Jeanine was so nice to do for our little blog and she let me gush over her like a little school girl…

The reading for The Outside Boy was my first reading ever. You were so gracious and lovely to chat with. As you read the excerpt, your emotion, slight brogue, and love for your story burst through. I sat, captivated, wanting you to read more. When it was over, it was all I could do to be polite and not rush home and continue reading. Do you often get audience members drooling? Or was it just me?

I often get audience members drooling, but usually only when I read to my daughter's preschool class. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Writing can be a lonely job, and there's nothing more gratifying than those times when I do get to share my work, and I find a strong connection with readers. That makes it all worthwhile!

Before you even read, and had me utterly mesmerized, I read the front and back cover along with the inside acknowledgements on the display table. I knew then I needed to read Christy’s story. But, behind The Outside Boy was your first book, a memoir entitled, A Rip In Heaven, A Memoir Of Murder And Its Aftermath. You mentioned that the emotional drain writing it is what created this need to write fiction. Was it difficult to switch gears going from something so profoundly personal to a fictional narrative?

For me, that wasn't difficult. I always wanted to write fiction, but I sort of had to write that memoir first. I had to get that out of me before anything else would come. I always knew I would make the switch. What was surprising to me was how similar the process was, between writing fiction and non-fiction. In the end, both stories come from the same place in my emotional landscape.

Your background is so diverse and worldly. Can you share with us where you’ve been and where you are now?

My background isn't as worldly as it might seem. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a lot when we were kids. I was born in Spain, and lived all over the states. But I grew up mostly in Maryland. After college, I spent a couple of years in Ireland, and then I moved to New York, where I've been ever since. Okay, maybe it is worldly. I'm very sophisticated. AHEM. I'm also half Irish and half Puerto Rican. And in case you're curious, it's definitely the BACK half that's Puerto Rican.

You have quite a few impressive endorsements for The Outside Boy, but Malachy McCourt’s took my breath away. How did it feel to have an Iconic Irishman give you such poetic praise?

Imagine it’s a cold day outside, and your house is pretty chilly. You lay down on your couch, but you don’t have a blanket handy, so you’re cold. Then all of a sudden two hundred kittens – two hundred ZOMG SQUEEEEE kittens – come climb on top of you. Then they all curl up into those impossibly compact little kitten balls, and some of them are laid out on top of others, and it’s just a mass of fuzziness and cuteness and whiskers that go on forever. And then they all start singing. Not your run-of-the mill-kittenpurr singing. Actual angelic furball singing from the heavens. It felt like that. I wept.

The Outside Boy is about a group of Travellers/Pavees in 1959 Ireland. Where did the idea from this story come from? What inspired you to write it? Is there a little boy named Christy roaming the Irish countryside?

After my memoir, I knew I had to get out of the true story business. Writing about personal trauma was too painful. But I also knew that I always wanted to write about injustice. So I went looking for a story about injustice that was as far away from my personal realm of experience as possible. I landed on the Irish travellers. They were foreign enough to me that I felt I might have some emotional distance in the story (HA!), and I felt that they had been treated unfairly, that Christy's was a story that needed telling, from the inside out. I fell in love with them.
 A cable show has recently gained some notoriety exploiting travelers/gypsies from Europe, especially England and Ireland. Is this a real depiction of true travelers in Ireland, the ones who you grew close to while researching your story?

My Big, Fat, Gypsy Wedding portrays the travellers about as accurately as some other cable show we know and love portrays housewives in New York City. As a housewife in New York City, I can tell you with certainty: It's not that accurate. Which isn't to say there's no element of truth therein. But there's a lot more depth to these people than we can see in thirty minutes of trashy television. (Note: Real Housewife Kelly Bensimon is exempt from the above statement. I'm convinced she is entirely devoid of depth).

What do you want the general public, especially readers, to understand about the Pavee culture?

Well just that, really - that it's a culture. These people are not disposable, and they're not homeless. Their way of life is ancient and valid, and they deserve our respect. Their culture is worth preserving.

You mentioned in the reading how you were lucky to get a glimpse of Pavee life, that a few gave you a peek inside their world. Can you share with us one of those experiences?

My favorite experience was going to visit Winnie and her family in Dunsink, outside of Dublin. I was astonished by the interiors of the caravans- I'm claustrophobic, and I couldn't imagine living inside such a small space. It still hadn't dawned on me then, that the travellers don't really live inside the caravans. They live outside them. The caravan is just a retreat from the weather, for sleep, for comfort. But their real lives go on outside, in the camps.
 The banter between the family members is so true to life. The scene which had me laughing out loud was the one where Christy sat up in his tree, razzing his Uncle Finty. I felt like I sat in the tree with him, causing mischief, laughing till my belly hurt. Then the chats between Martin and Christy, the fights, and the play; they reminded me and me and my wee sister. (See, you have me typing in brogue! LOL.) Where any of the scenes inspired by real life family moments?

Hmmm, let me think. There were a couple of moments in the book that were inspired by true stories. The one where Beano yells "fair fucks!" to his sister in the middle of the classroom was stolen from an ex-boyfriend of mine – a kid in his school back in Ireland actually did that. Poor bastard. But beyond that, I'd say just the general psychology (and the resulting banter) of the characters comes largely from people I know, and I know a lot of Irish people. They tend to be rather witty. Or at least they think they are.

The nicknames Christy gives to the people he comes across is so true to children of that age. (Ah-hem, I even give nicknames to people as an adult). Did you know any Sister Hedgehogs, Beanos, or Finnaula Whippets growing up?

I did not. Many of the nicknames in the book came from people that my Irish husband talks about from his childhood. He had a teacher called The Blob, and knew a kid called Beano. We're big on nicknames. I'm called Tink, and have been since the day I was born. My dog's name is Seamus, but we call him Comanchero. Yeah, I donno.
 This heartwarming story is, as the book cover states, about finding out who you really are. Did this theme come first or evolve as you created Christy’s story?

I always wanted the book to be about this kid's struggle to find out where he fits into this shifting landscape. His world is beginning to crumble around him, and he doesn't know who he is or where he belongs. That kid was me - maybe because of my diverse background, I always had certain questions about identity. I never felt like I fully belonged anywhere, so I wanted to explore what it would be like for a kid like Christy, trying to figure that stuff out.
 Did you cry while writing, as much as I did reading? (FYI, I was a blubbering idiot!)

Why, how much did you cry? If the novel made you cry, perhaps you should not read my memoir, which is a TEAR-JERKER, for reals. But yes, I cried when I wrote about Jack. I'd have to be a heartless bitch not to cry for poor Jack.

Fun stuff: If you could have a superpower what would it be and what would you call yourself?

I would be fluent in every language existent (which power comes with an appropriate level of cultural knowledge and empathy) and have my own zero-carbon-footprint jet which runs on water, so I could go visiting at my leisure. I would call myself Dan.

If you could be any fictional character from a novel, television show, or movie who would it be and why?

Oooh, all of my heroes die tragically, and I don't want to do that. I want to die old, eating doughnuts, and surrounded by my progeny. So I'll go with Bilbo. He got to have the same sort of adventures as Frodo, but without quite as much responsibility. And in the end, he lived out his days in comfort and joy.

What was the first book you ever read that made you say, “I want to do this; I want to be a writer”?

I was so moved by so many books as a child; I think most of them made me think: I could never do this. I remember reading Yeats for the first time, and feeling entirely defeated by the beauty of his language. He disemboweled me. To be honest, I still don't think I can do this. I worry that people will discover I'm a fraud. DON'T TELL ANYONE.

What can readers expect next from Jeanine Cummins? Will Christy ever be heard from again? Will we find ourselves reading about Spain or NYC, your other homes?

My mom wants me to write a sequel called Jack is Back! But right now I'm working on another novel, half-set in contemporary New York City, and half-set in Ireland during the famine times. And I'm also writing my first children's novel, which is FUN. It's about an Irish girl-pirate, set in the 16th century, and based on the legends of real-life awesome chick, Grace O'Malley. But I'm already looking ahead to the next project after that... I want to write about immigration issues in America, and the fallout for Irish and Latino subcultures here. There's so much that interests me. I don't think I'll ever run out of material.

Thanks Jeanine for taking the time to answer all my questions and most of all, bringing Christy into my life.

I hope you all run and buy this book! Below is a lovely interview from Jeanine's Website.


  1. This entire post was gorgeous--book, review, interview, all. I cannot wait to read this story. The Irish in me demands it, and the allure of a tear-jearker is too strong to resist.

    Thanks for sharing this, Charli! And best wishes, Jeanine!

  2. What a superb interview and I loved the video. I believe videos offer a view of the author like no other. I've always found "travelers" intriguing and will love reading Jeanine's book.
    Thank you, Charli.

  3. Fabulous interview! Glad you emailed it. Hope to read the book, although I already have a stack to whittle down.


  4. Thanks for sharing this interview, Charli. I met Jeanine at a reading too (in Philly -- perhaps it was the same one you were at?) and she was lovely and very funny! I bought the book and very much look forward to reading it.

  5. What a most excellent interview. You've sold me on this story. I'm going to be reading it.

  6. What a great review and interview A.J. and Charli! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Yes! Good job! I'll check it out... :) You always do pick good one's that touch the heart. Thanks for sharing. ~ Julie

  8. What a excellent interview, i am impressed thanks for sharing.
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