RE: You wear so many hats: author, consultant, blogger, editor, ghostwriter. When people first get to know you, how do you describe yourself and your work?
Cunningham: Sometimes it depends on the context the question comes in. If they’re clearly looking for help with their work, or if they’re looking for a freelancer to come in and help with different kinds of content, then I may lead off with discussing that I’m a publishing consultant and, if it was appropriate, mention my own books in there. However, that’s really maybe 30 or 40 percent of the time. The rest of the time I’m a novelist. For two reasons. One because when I’m talking about my business it might seem like I might be sniffing around for work or a referral and that’s just not the kind of person I am. But really the primary reason is a novelist is who I am. It’s where everything in my life is focused and has been focused for the past 20 years. With all of the new opportunities my goal is to become a hybrid author. Right now I’m a self-published author. I have been represented by an agent and I am currently looking for another agent. So there’s always all this constant work that goes into it, but it’s not work. It’s who I am.
RE: When you get involved in the business of publishing, it’s very easy to get pushed in lots of directions. How do you as a writer keep that focus on being honest with yourself as to what it is you do and how you want to do it?
Cunningham: Great question, because I wasn’t always honest myself. When I first started writing Message Stick, I had actually started an entirely different book which is supposed to be a dark comedy about two serial killers who get into a turf war. So I started writing it and I realized I didn’t have the technical know-how to write dark comedy because there’s just so much that goes into it, and at the base of it you’ve got to know how to write a novel. I’d written just about everything but a novel to that point, so I put that project aside and I began looking for a concept that I felt like I could handle better and basically learn how to write a novel by writing one. So I wrote Message Stick, and in the process I discovered my literary voice. I had confirmation of that come about with the two national awards that the book won. However, that book was rejected by all nine of the big players in the publishing world – way back when there were actually nine big players in the publishing market. I had a very high-powered agent who had 50 years in the industry and he submitted to all nine of those publishers and pretty much, 50 percent were straight rejections. There were a few more that left it on the table for a year and a half before they decided that it wasn’t quite the right fit for their catalogs. And in that process, I had of course started writing a second book (He Drinks Poison). But somewhere along the line, when those rejections started coming back, I took a look at what I had written and at what the market was after and, while I wanted to keep the writing quality high, I also definitely wanted to get my foot in the door, to do whatever I had to do. So I wrote this second novel that was much more commercial. My third novel (Reparation) was also written with that same mindset.
RE: What did you think of that?
Cunningham: I don’t regret writing those novels. Those first three books helped me understand how to write a novel and get a process down to where I can now write very quickly with a much higher level of confidence than I had before. However, by the third book I was clearly writing to the market and although the concepts were what inspired me, the writing itself felt very flawed. I did write a fourth novel, something like 600 or 650 pages of this fourth novel and honest to God, it was a really terrible, boring thing to sit down and write that every day. I was not happy with it at all. And I finally put the book away and it took me six months to tell myself, yes in fact I have abandoned that novel. And I think it’s because I was writing to the market. I was writing and plotting elements that felt like they just weren’t me. So it turned out to be three or four very long exercises in how to write a novel.
RE: Did you consider quitting?
Cunningham: I didn’t write for at least a year after I quit working on that. I just was very frustrated and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. I had gotten a little disillusioned with the whole process and was not writing. Part of what happened during that time was I had had this voice but it wasn’t respecting it. I wasn’t allowing it to really come through. I was also working from an outline, which I don’t do anymore. I absolutely hate it. It was important to me to learn how to outline, but now I it’s like I’ve stepped beyond it. I don’t need it anymore. It was tool and then it became a crutch, and the crutch was slowing me down. And then one morning I woke up and I had a name in my head, this young woman’s name, and I started asking, who is this person? And a couple days later the very first line of the book came to me. I started writing and I wrote The Tipping Time in three months. Which I’ve never done before. It’s always taken me a year or more to get a first draft done. Because it was this new voice and I just allowed it to come. And everything changed. My whole attitude about what am I doing changed. Before, when people would ask me what I did I would say I run my own company. And, by the way, I write books. Now my answer is, ‘I write books.’ The consulting pays the bills and God will descend from his heavens one day and allow me to close that business down, but this is it (laughs). And that’s who I’ve been for, I don’t know, the past almost two years for sure. By the way, I’ve since also entirely rewritten this novel.
RE: It’s such a long path when you’re trying to do something creative. The pitfalls are many, the rewards are few. What keeps you going when things are not going well for you?
Cunningham: Actually it’s a couple things. One is I left the corporate world to do this. I was making what back then was a ton of money, and I just walked out one day. I had a total meltdown. I walked out and spent two weeks in some very weird dark place before I came out of it. And I was like, ‘that’s it, time to write.’ Time to do what I’m on this earth to do. So I remember the corporate world. I remember how soul-sucking and mind-sucking and numbing that entire process was for me. If I can possibly avoid it, I’ll never go back there again. That’s one big driver. The other one is that for freelancers or entrepreneurs who have their own businesses, there is the constant questions of ‘where’s the money coming from, do I have enough for this month, do I have enough in savings to cover if this month’s low?’ I don’t think about that quite as much anymore and in fact it’s almost totally a non-issue. These days I am squarely middle class according to the U.S. numbers, so that means I’m actually making more than a whole lot of people. And I’ve made less, and I’ve survived on far, far, far less. So my thought is now that if I make a little less this month I just have more time to work on my novels, and that just makes me so happy. So those are the two main things.
RE: On the consulting side, what do you find most of your clients need the most? Is it bottom line editing? Is it somebody to actually overhaul an entire project? Is it generally nonfiction or fiction? What’s your average client coming to you for and what does their work look like?
Cunningham: I would say its 60 or 65 percent fiction. And for the most part, they need one of two things. They often need some sort of developmental assistance, such as with enhancing a character or a plot point or addressing the pacing. Which is very interesting because that’s not the way it used to be. It seems with so many more people doing self-publishing they’ve come to recognize that there’s more to getting help than just proofreading or line editing. Primarily though, no matter what they originally need – whether it’s developmental work or editorial work – the really need help with the pitch. I would have to say 80 percent of my clients, and often nonfiction more so than fiction, need help with the pitch because their understanding of traditional publishing is either incorrect or out of date, or they have no way to know what the trends are so they’re missing their target. They have great concepts, they have high quality work, but none of that matters if they can’t write that query letter or the book proposal. And people who self-publish need help with marketing their books. I think so many are brainwashed by these small publishing companies or the self-publishing companies that sell them a marketing package that is really all traditional PR, which does not sell books. It doesn’t matter how many readings a writer does or TV shows they’re on or how many articles are printed about them or their work. These things just don’t sell books. With the digital revolution, it’s finding readers’ purchase points.
RE: We all know people who think their words are like newborn children and protect them at all costs. But your job, when you’re wearing your consultant hat, is to help them and help them help themselves. What’s your approach when you deal with people in terms of trying to help them get from A to B, once you’ve identified what they need?
Cunningham: Well, I’m a big believer in the truth, but I also believe that the truth does not have to be said in a harmful way. If I’m not going to help somebody by pointing out what the flaws are in their project, they might as well not pay me. But, and this is actually really important, I’ll tell them the strengths as well as the weaknesses. And that’s important for two reasons. One, they need to see the places where they are right, the places where their instincts and knowledge are on target, because that enhances their understanding of where they are in their career, and it enhances their confidence. Hand in hand, telling them also their weaknesses so that when they address the weaknesses, they don’t eliminate the strengths. Very early when I started to do this, I wouldn’t tell people their strengths and then they’d send me some revised something or other and they would have wiped out one or more of the strengths in trying to correct their flaws or weaknesses. So those go hand in hand. And then also the result is that they begin to see how changing or making modifications to the weaker areas resonates more fully with some of those strengths, and then they can begin to see there’s actually a coherence in the different areas. It’s not that you’re just strengthening a character, it’s that when you strengthen a character it also strengthens the plot. Or about filling in an information gap doesn’t just fill that in, it also resonates with three other primary points that are very important to you pitching your work or getting the topic across to a nonfiction audience.
RE: Most of your writing features strong spiritual themes, particularly around indigenous peoples. How did this come about for you?
Cunningham: Of all the things I could say—being raised in an oppressive Southern Baptist belief, my introduction to altered states of consciousness (in literature, no less) while in college, personal experiences with the paranormal—it actually boils down to the creative state. In all spiritual activities, participants access the liminal space. The boundary where we shift from being one thing to becoming another. The transitional realm where artists and authors do their best work. I’m constantly surprised by how meditative writing is for me, and how immersion in the flow state enhances the rest of my life even when I’m not writing. This state is found at transition points and is really the core of a fantasy series I’ve started. The series is set in Colonial America. The title of the first book, The Tipping Time, is a reference to dusk and dawn. At these times, the world of day gives way to the world of night, and vice versa. Two entirely different populations battle for supremacy during that time, just as the world of magic battles for its space against the Christian religion that wants all the space for itself. But the right to access the liminal space belongs to every human, and they have the right to access it in whatever way works best for them. For artists, it’s the creative effort. For meditators, sitting in full lotus. For Christians, it’s prayer. That flow opens our creativity and our hearts. It makes us better people. So working with different belief systems was a way to invite people to cross boundaries and find that space within.
RE: In Message Stick (video), you did something we often don’t see with writers that feature indigenous characters – you made one your main antagonist and a truly evil guy. How did that character develop for you and what was the response from your readers?
Cunningham: Dana, the Pitjantjatjara shaman who is the evil-doer in Message Stick, had to be Aboriginal. There was no better way to press Gabe, the protagonist, into facing the depth of his grief over losing his cultural heritage as a child. So that was one reason. More importantly, though, Dana is a fully formed indigenous character because he has deeply held beliefs that he supports…except he decides to support them through criminal acts. Too often readers are offered books that present only the mythological “goodness” of tribal societies. There’s a tendency to delineate good and bad by race…and that’s racist. It’s also naive. People have been good and bad (both at once) for as long as humans have walked the earth. Yes, invaders invade. Yes, Eurocentric ways and certain religions have killed and maimed and oppressed. But before the invaders, tribes warred with each other. Tribes warred with themselves. Our global culture isn’t served by striking stories that draw those kinds of naïve demarcations. Those aren’t realistic. What’s real is that humans have the ability to make enemies of everyone. We all have the capacity for great evil and great good. Our choices make us who we are. Readers respond to that by feeling a little sorry for Dana. He’s a bad guy, sure, but he has his reasons. Readers can sympathize with his suffering even as they condemn his actions.
RE: Along those lines, your characters are often at great odds with their own cultural histories and backgrounds. It’s not an uncommon theme, but many writers focus on only one culture. You’ve written characters with great depth who come from a wide variety of cultures. How do you get inside such diverse characters so you feel you can portray them honestly?
Cunningham: Well, there’s two parts to this. First is the research. For each of my first three novels, I spent two years in heavy cultural research. This involved everything from reading 80-year-old anthropological studies to visiting important cultural sites and participating in ceremonies. In a way, though, that’s just setting. Talking to people from those groups made a key difference. It opened up the way their beliefs impact their everyday lives in the modern world. Seeing the way people chose to honor their traditions in a world that doesn’t offer much time or space for ceremony was an important step into their thoughts. What’s interesting is that when I first shared chapters from Message Stick with a writer’s group, a man from that group approached me. He said that I couldn’t write this book because I was not a black man. But that is a writer’s job: to enter into the being of another human, to place ourselves in their lives in a way that we can portray real realistic characters. Around that same time, I heard a keynote by Richard Russo. He talked about being taken to task by readers who denounced him because a Hispanic character didn’t accurately represent the Hispanic-American experience. His response was, “Exactly. I’m not trying to represent the entire Hispanic-American experience. I’m only focused on this one character.” So my goal is always to know enough about the culture to ring real but to stay focused on one character as an individual who just happens to be from that culture.
RE: I have to say, “He Drinks Poison” was so intense it made me squirm a few times. What motivates you when writing such a dark storyline? How do you research and prepare to tell that story?
Cunningham: Oh, that novel involved some squirming on my part, too! I spent a year researching sexualized violence, serial killings, and sexualized serial killers (yes, there are subgroups). The true-crime books written by FBI profilers were intense, and there were several times I had to take a break from that research. For weeks or a month at a time. It was too intense, too repulsive. But one of the jobs of an artist is to step into the fray. We have to delve in shit sometimes if we want to portray reality. My motivation for that was to take a hard look at sexualized violence, which targets women far more often than it targets men. I’ve long believed that women would kill more often and be crueler if they were as physically powerful as men but I wondered why sexualized violence targets women so much more. Since violence and sex are such triggers in American media and our society, I wanted to explore the intersection. It’s a dark and dangerous place.
RE: What is your newest project and when can we expect to see it?
Cunningham: My WIP is The Butterfly Tree, an absurdist novel about a man in late-stage Parkinson’s. When he rents rooms in his cabin to a younger painter, his romantic dreams turn dark when he becomes convinced she will kill him and steal his money. The title resonates with the central image of a person covered in butterflies, burying that which is human beneath beauty. What surprised me most is the darkly funny moments when he gets himself into bizarre situations that he barely escapes. I realized as I began the second draft that I’ve come full circle back to that black humor I had intended for that first novel I set aside back in 2000.
The Tipping Time is finished but in need of an agent. I’m starting book two this summer.
At the end of March, I’ll be serializing my novel Reparation on Wattpad for free. This follows a Lakota Sioux man who must stop the leader of a Native-American style church before he enacts the largest mass murder on American soil.
You can visit her daily blog at Writers Resource Blog.