Exclusive: Interview with Jeanine Cummins
Rockland County Resident and Critically Acclaimed Author
Jeanine Cummins’ fourth book, American Dirt emerged at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for weeks. It has since sold half a million copies to date and been translated into 36 languages. It was Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club pick and Don Winslow hailed it, “A ‘Grapes of Wrath’ of our times.” This powerful story begins in Acapulco, Mexico, where Lydia Quixano Pérez’s husband and entire family – with the exception of her eight-year-old young son, Luca – are murdered by a drug cartel. Through their grief, Lydia and Luca embark on a harrowing quest to seek refuge, as undocumented immigrants, in the United States. Both suspenseful and poignant, it’s a tale of oppression and injustice, but also fortitude and faith. Here, the truly gifted Cummins shares some insight behind this transformative novel and her remarkable experience to bring it to life.
Jeannine D: Thank you so much for your time and willingness to sit down with Rivertown. Can you share with us a little about the conception of American Dirt? I have read that you felt “compelled” to write this story. What ignited this desire in you?
Jeanine C: It was something I felt passionately about. It was a subject I felt was misrepresented and underrepresented in mainstream fiction. I saw the way we were talking about migration in this country and our national dialogue is incredibly superficial and riddled with stereotypes on both sides. I felt like there was a whole lot of gap in the middle where humanity should be. That’s why I wanted to write this book.
JD: Part of what makes your storytelling of Lydia’s journey so powerful is the exquisite attention to detail. To write with such a command of the language, geography and authentic nuances of the characters makes me imagine that your research must have been exhaustive. What exactly did that research entail?
JC: I read a lot. I read everything I could find about the Central American triangle countries and the push factors in contemporary Mexico that are leading people to make this journey. I read a lot by Central American and Mexican writers. I watched all the documentaries. Also, while I was doing all that academic research, I was beginning to sketch characters and plot ideas, but it was bad. Then, after about a year and a half in, I went to Mexico. I traveled through the borderlands and observed and witnessed as much as I could with my own eyes. I visited migrant shelters and orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador (migrant soup kitchen). I met with a lot of people who were doing humanitarian aid work and pro bono legal work. I just met so many people and heard so many stories. One of the deportados (deportee) I met did not even speak Spanish. Before deportation, he had been in the United States since he was five years old. He was more American than me. Another I met had actually served in active combat for the United States in Iraq. Of course, I knew all of this. I had read the stories and done the research. But, when you go there and see it with your own eyes, it’s just mind boggling. The human reality and the faces of the people I met…and their courage and openness. My heart had been cracked open.
JD: What an extraordinary experience. I can imagine how the faces and voices of those you met helped mold the characters. How did you decide from which character/s perspective you would write?
JC: Well, I had been worried about writing from the migrant point of view. I was worried about my own limitations as a writer. Then, a week before the 2016 Presidential election, my dad died unexpectedly. It really incapacitated me. I couldn’t write. I could barely function. Then, one day, when I started to emerge from that funk, I just pulled out my laptop and wrote the opening scene of American Dirt. I knew immediately that day that this was the story I had been resisting. This is what I had been afraid to write. There’s something about that grief that gives you this painful new perspective on what matters. I was so devastated that I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” His passing really liberated me to write the book. So, a few weeks later, I rented a casita in Arizona in the middle of the desert. I stayed there for eight days, by myself, and wrote half the book. It was all in me, you know? It had been backed up in me for those three and a half years of research. I knew the characters. I knew the story. And when I lost my dad, all the resistance fell away. There is so much grief in this book that is my grief in real time. It made it onto every page. I didn’t even realize it until after, but every one of these characters is grieving for their father. I don’t think I would have had the guts to go into that point of view if my dad was still here. And that’s how the book developed the way it did.
JD: John Grisham’s review of the book personally resonated with me: “Its message is important and timely, but not political.” Yet, there was some intense criticism about you telling this story. Was this something you anticipated?
JC: I did expect some pushback because I’m aware of the #OwnVoices movement and also really aware of the vast inequities in the publishing world. But, prior to publication, we sent out about 10,000 copies and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone from Stephen King to Sandra Cisneros received it with universally with high praise, across a very diverse landscape of readership, including Oprah Winfrey. I even got quotes from those whom we hadn’t sent the book – my literary heroes, like Ann Patchett and John Grisham. I got so much support from the Latinx community. And then a month before publication the first negative comments appeared online. It was rather startling how personal it was. But, when balanced against this library of praise, it felt like an outlier. But the weekend before publication, it blew up. So even though at the beginning I had been anticipating some murmurings, in the wake of the dreamlike praises I had been receiving, to have it turn so suddenly, was very surprising.
JD: How have you been navigating that?
JC: All the outpouring of private support has been really, really helpful. Writers whom I’ve never met before even reached out. Knowing that it felt like a silent majority of people were sympathetic to my situation was really helpful. My family and friends and the people who really know me know how long I worked on this book and how important it was for me to take care to get things right and know the reasons I wrote it. Ultimately, that is the thing that no one can take from me. Oprah said to me, over and over again, “Just keep returning to your intention.” Intention is the universal law. If your intention is pure, you will succeed. So, I just kept going back to that, over and over. I knew why I wrote this book. It sometimes feels hard to hold onto those truths in the eye of the hurricane, but when I take a step back and I remember who I am, I feel comforted by that.
JD: Through your whole experience of the writing, publication and reception of the book, what is the most important thing you’d like to share?
JC: I remember saying to my husband before the book was published, if there is a possibility that this book opens even one reader’s mind… that they might think more intimately or compassionately about migrants after they read it, well then it feels worth the risk to me. I hope it’s a net positive.
Please shop local and utilize curbside pick-up to purchase your copy of American Dirt at Pickwick Book Shop in Nyack, NY (845)358-9126 or Books and Greetings in Northvale, NJ (201)784-2665 .
Learn more about Jeanine
Jeannine Deramo is a certified Literacy Specialist and freelance writer. She is a staff writer for Rivertown Magazine and author of the Rivertown Retail monthly fashion & shopping column. She is the founder of lifestyle blog Peace & Plenty.