May 1996 - Juice magazine
STEPHEN CUMMINGS writes his first novel
The first thing you notice about Stephen Cummings, apart from the fact that he is having a superb hair life, is his eyes. When he smiles, either nervously or quizzically, his many crow's feet crinkle into warm laugh lines and his remarkably golden, light-flecked, hazel eyes twinkle. The effect is enchanting, to say the least.
Sitting in the pleasant early afternoon sunshine of his impeccably neat backyard in Caulfield, Cummings sips a tiny cup of the blackest coffee sludge and smokes countless Drum hand-rolled cigarettes, which have stained his index and middle finger yellow. I've never really interviewed anyone about their book, I admit a little nervously. "That's okay," he replies, smiling comfortingly. "I've never done this either."
After almost 20 years as a musician/songwriter, Wonderboy (Minerva paperback) is Cummings' debut as a novelist. Wonderboy is about a precocious but endearing nine-year-old, Max. His divorced father, Charles Mann, who smokes at roughly the same rate as his creator and works at a "music publishing house" is described as a "lost soul", with resentful grudges and bitter childhood memories that haunt him. The intervention of an angel (actually Charles' dead maternal grandmother) and a liberal dose of magic sets Charles on a slightly surreal dreamquest of laying to rest the ghosts of the past and confronting his long absent, dying father, Fletcher. The floundering Fletcher has established a successful ice cream business in Vietnam, only to be diagnosed with cancer. The love interest, Caitlin, provides enough spark and defiance to challenge Charles' emotional stupor, and with the sweet naivete of Max as a guiding light, everything ends up happily ever after.
"I just started doing it for a kind of...something to do," Cummings vaguely explains in his soft-spoken manner. If you were expecting the effete waffling of an I'm-so-complex musician/songwriter/novelist, you were wrong. In fact, he is almost at pains to demystify the entire creative process.
"It kind of came about really because my girlfriend, she comes from Sydney and she came down here and she didn't have any money, and I saw a thing at the university they were having about romance writing, so I suggested she should go to that. I figured she'd be good at doing it," he pauses, adding a laughing upwards intonation to his voice, "because she's a good letter writer. And so she came back and within two weeks she'd sold one. Yeah she was quite good at it, teenage romances. And I thought, 'Oh well, she's doing that, I might as well do one too.' I thought it might be good, give me more discipline, because I'd actually finish something. I thought I'd just do it like that, as an exercise to finish something, and just, you know, learn about it like that."
It took Cummings about 14 months to write the finished version, and he's already started writing a follow up, Stay Away from Lightning's Girl, the story of a love tryst between twin girls, one of whom attracts lightning (she's been hit six times) and the guy in the middle of them. Writing books hasn't taken over from Cummings first passion, music. Another Cummings album produced by the Church's Steve Kilbey, the pair's follow up to 1994's Falling Swinger collaboration, has been completed, but this new venture appears to have reinspired him.
I'd like to do both things because Australia's a really small country anyway, and you kind of have to do a whole lot of different things in order to make a buck," explains the self-effacing Cummings. "Plus, just to be interested. I've made a lot of records and in some ways writing's more exciting because it's a newer thing and I kind of feel like I might try and do it properly from the start this time. With music I can be more haphazard and slack."
Wonderboy is initially set in the fictional suburb of Lovetown which is also the name of Cummings' acclaimed 1989 album. Is there much crossover between songwriting and novel writing?
"I've included some sort of themes that are kind of like what I do with my songs and stuff, but it's quite different really. The records and everything are more, you know... Some of those have little stories and stuff, but they're a bit darker. The book's quite happy, a good feeling."
The major part of the novel is set in Vietnam. Cummings holidayed there four years ago and just used his own travelogue as a base. The autobiographical nature of Wonderboy is something Cummings doesn't bother to try and hide. "I was going to see a psychoanalyst for a while, for a few years, but then I couldn't afford to do it anymore, because it was too expensive," he says candidly. "So, I thought of Wonderboy as a free way of thinking about myself. For me that was the way: 'I'll get it all out now, all the things about growing up and myself and everything, and that'll be it and I won't have to think about it again'."
So, you don't mind saying that it's autobiographical? "I think everything you do is kind of like that. People are always thinking about themselves, anyway," he laughs roundly, "just think everyone is very self-centred. I'm very self-centred, but I think everyone is really, but they wouldn't admit it. Everyone sees everything with them in the star position, so it's always kind of confusing. If people say, 'I like this character or that character' I feel embarrassed about that, because I think of everyone in it as me."
"Kind of, yeah," he laughs "Not really everyone, but I kind of just think it's me me me! My mother came around the other day and she's a really big reader and she said, 'Oh, you'll have to give me a copy' and I said, 'Oh, no I haven't got one here. Wait a bit and I'll give you one!' I felt embarrassed about her reading it."
"I don't know!" he laughs.
But she must have heard your records and seen you play live before?
"No, not really. She's only seen me play maybe once or twice, and I'm sure she hasn't heard the records."
"I don't know!" Cummings muses. "If she wanted one she'd ask for one."