Cummins was born in Rota, Spain, where her father was stationed in the Navy, and grew up in Gaithersburg, Md. She studied English and communications at Towson University, then spent two years in Belfast, Ireland, where she worked as a bartender and wrote “terrible poetry.” After moving back to the United States, she found work in the paperback sales department at Penguin.
While she was working there, she published her first book, “A Rip in Heaven,” about a tragedy that struck her family in 1991, when her brother and two female cousins were attacked on a bridge in St. Louis by a group of men. The men raped her cousins and forced them off the bridge, killing them. Her brother, Tom, was also forced to jump off but survived. Years later, he asked Cummins to write a book with him. He backed out of the project, leaving Cummins, who was 16 when her cousins were killed, as the sole author.
Researching and writing about the crimes was daunting, Cummins said — “There were a lot of details I didn’t want to know” — but it brought some relief and helped her learn how to write about trauma in a way that didn’t feel gratuitous or sensational. Those themes, and a desire to “take stories away from the perpetrators and give them to the survivors,” shaped her next two books, the novels “The Outside Boy” and “The Crooked Branch.”
She began researching a novel about immigration seven years ago, envisioning it with a diverse cast of characters: border patrol agents, American citizens living near the southern border, families that had been separated by deportation and undocumented migrants. But the narrative never cohered, and Cummins couldn’t escape the feeling that she was avoiding the crux of the story.
Then, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, she experienced another family tragedy when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. She spent months in mourning, unable to write. One day, she pulled out her laptop and wrote the opening of “American Dirt,” a scene where Luca and Lydia narrowly survive the gunfire that kills Luca’s father, a journalist who wrote about drug cartels, and 15 other relatives. She finished a draft in less than a year, and sold the novel in the spring of 2018.
In the time Cummins spent researching and writing, the humanitarian crisis on the southern border only grew more dire, and the political debate became even more charged. As she prepares to promote “American Dirt” on a cross-country book tour, with appearances in 40 cities in 26 states, Cummins is trying to avoid talking about the story in ways that might seem partisan, and to steer clear of terms like “illegal” and “undocumented.”
“All fiction, all good fiction, can potentially dismantle some of the problematic language that serves often as barriers to meaningful conversation,” she said. “We don’t have to choose a label for Lydia and Luca. They’re people.”
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