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Author speaks on writing process

Katie Staak | Thursday, September 20, 2007

Acclaimed short story author Ann Cummins read from her first novel, “Yellowcake,” and explained her character development process in an event Wednesday at Notre Dame sponsored by the Department of Economics.

“Yellowcake” is set during the 1990s and focuses on memories of a Navajo family living with the effects of working in a uranium mill. The story is written from five different points of view.

Professor Stuart Greene, associate dean of undergraduate studies in Arts and Letters, introduced Cummins to those in attendance in the Hospitality Room of South Dining Hall.

“Ann is a gentle and nurturing soul. She is a successful teacher at Northern Arizona University,” he said. “She is a striking writer and has a wonderful ability of drawing out her characters through her writing.”

Cummins teaches undergraduate and graduate creative writing at Northern Arizona and said her writing affects her teaching in a positive way.

“Being an active writer helps to feed my teaching,” she said. “This helps my students with their writing and comprehension.”

The novel is based on the making of yellowcake, the liquid produced by making ore in uranium mills, and much of the content was derived from Cummins’ personal experiences.

Cummins came from a Catholic family and grew up on a Navajo Indian reservation. Her father worked in a uranium mill.

“For [main character] Ryland Mahoney, I drew from many characteristics of my father. … He was a very right-to-work kind of man; he believed you are responsible for your own actions and their consequences. He was also a very staunch Catholic,” she said.

“A lot of the material in the novel is from conflict in my own family,” she continued. “I lived on the Navajo reservation in the 1960s, but there I did not understand true Navajo culture. It wasn’t until I moved off the reservation where I learned about the Navahos.”

She now lives with her husband, Steve, in Oakland, Calif., where he is a coffee bean roaster.

In a question-and-answer session after the reading, Cummins said writing a short story was a very different experience than writing a novel.

“I never thought I could write a novel. I am a perfectionist and it’s like a disease,” she said. “The process is very long because it is a slow process to develop characters for me. Writing the novel was very rewarding and I would definitely write another.”

Cummins said she creates characters that “help to answer the questions most people are afraid to answer themselves.”

“I have a wonderful editor who asks questions and doesn’t make changes,” she said. “She is a careful reader and respectful of fiction literature. My publishing company is interested in literary works and not big blockbusters.”

Notre Dame freshmen Stacy Brandt and Katie Halloran, who attended the reading, enjoyed Cummins’ performance and said it added to their appreciation of the novel.