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Mortality bites, Wonderboy is born

from The Bulletin - 11 June 1996

Stephen Cummings can pinpoint the time when he decided, after a couple of decades in nearly every area of the music industry, that he'd have a shot at a novel. "A few years ago I was travelling in Vietnam. We went from the top to the bottom of the country," he says. "I was at Hanoi airport when I got a message that my mother had had a stroke. It made me think of my own mortality. I said to myself something as silly as, 'I don't want to die without writing a novel'."

Cummings' mother recovered, but he began writing Wonderboy, just published by Minerva. It is mainly about Charles going with his 10-year-old son Max to Vietnam to look for Charles' father, who has been in business there, but is dying. Cummings has a son, aged 11, but the book is in no sense autobiographical.

Stephen Cummings was at art school in Melbourne in the late 1970s when he got together with what he calls "some like-minded souls" to launch a rock group, The Sports. "We began playing at small hotels in the inner city, notably the Kingston at Richmond," he says. The Sports took off and the band toured Europe and the United States, as well as Australia. Their song Who Listens To The Radio was a Top 40 hit in the US in 1979.

The group split up after some years, and Cummings began making solo recordings. He is best known as a singer and, although he plays the acoustic guitar, says his skill is limited and that he has had no musical training. There wasn't much music at home, except that his mother had a collection of popular musicals and liked to play them on Sundays.

Cummings is known to a wider audience as a composer and singer, backing such television ads as Medibank Private's "I Feel Better Now" and recently "It's My Team" for the Australian Football League.

Apart from a job as an usher at Hoyts cinemas in the days before The Sports, Cummings has lived by his music, although he took a couple of years off in the mid-'80s to go to university. He also wrote the script for a film called Kill Me Lots, which hasn't been produced and perhaps, with that title, is unlikely to be.

"I feel I've been around the block a few times in the music industry," he says. "I don't think I've ever been a model performer. I sometimes feel I've been sort of lazy and scared, in a muddled state. Anyway, I decided I was sick of music. A few years ago my companion, Kathleen O'Brien, went to a romantic writers' convention. She wrote and sold about five Dolly fiction novels. That spurred me on to settle down and try a novel myself.

Wonderboy took about 14 months. Sometimes I would think it was quite good, then the next time I looked at it I'd think 'Oh, my God, is that the best I can do?'" Wonderboy is into its second printing and Cummings is well into his second novel, Stay Away From Lightning Girl. "It's set in Chadstone, which had the first big shopping centre in Melbourne," he says. "The time is the 1940s. The idea I have is the sort of confusion between the sexes that you got in a movie like It Happened One Night or in something with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn."

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