Zibby interviewed Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, as part of Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center’s ‘Women on the Move’ series. Their recorded conversation, released here as a podcast, covers the controversy surrounding the novel. Jeanine also speaks with Zibby about the universality of a mother’s love, and shares how writing has helped her process past family traumas.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning, everyone. Hello. I am Marjorie Shuster. I am the coordinator of literary events here at Temple Emanu-El. Welcome to the second session of this year’s Women on the Move author series. In this series, we talk to female writers. They tell us all about their careers, their lives, their choices, and their latest books. It’s always so exciting to meet with them. First of all, I’d like to thank our sponsors, the Samuel I Newhouse Foundation, for their support. Today, I am thrilled to welcome and also to meet Jeanine Cummins, author of one of the most popular books in the last year, and one of the most controversial. American Dirt tells the timely story of immigrants. There is much to discuss on this topic. As always, Zibby Owens, creator of the podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and published author as of just last week, is our moderator. Please type your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. I will read them to Jeanine in the last fifteen minutes. Welcome, Jeanine. Welcome, Zibby.

Jeanine Cummins: Thank you. Hi. So happy to be here.

Zibby Owens: Thanks for having us. Thanks for letting me moderate. Nice to see you. Hi, Jeanine.

Jeanine: Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: How are you?

Jeanine: I’m good. It’s so great to see you. I wish we could do this in person, but this is the next-best thing.

Zibby: Me too. It would be nice to do anything in person.

Jeanine: I know. We’re getting there.

Zibby: Soon. Maybe next year. Who knows?

Jeanine: I’m so distracted by the beautiful bookshelf behind you and the way that it’s color coordinated.

Zibby: I did that on Saturday morning, I have to say.

Jeanine: I need to change my bookshelves.

Zibby: I know I told you this, but I’m just getting over COVID. I was in bed for nine straight days. On the tenth morning, I woke up and I was like, oh, my gosh, I have energy again. I came in here and I took every book off of every shelf and was like, I’m making a new bookshelf. That was my burst of energy.

Jeanine: expenditure of your time.

Zibby: Yes. Anyway, I love books. I particularly have loved your book, American Dirt, which I’m sure everybody on this Zoom has heard of and hopefully, by this point, has read. If they haven’t already, now is the time to read this book. Yes, there has been a lot of controversy around it. However, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I say this to anybody who ever asks. Congratulations on writing what has become one of the greatest masterpieces of this time. I don’t say this is butter you up. I actually really mean it. It’s amazing. Congratulations.

Jeanine: Thank you. Thank you for being so kind. It was a labor of love five years in the making. It’s really gratifying to know that despite all the controversy, readers like you have responded so positively to the book. It really makes a big difference. It feels like the antidote in a lot of ways to the difficulty of the last year. I’m grateful.

Zibby: Let’s talk about the book itself for a little bit. The book itself is fantastic, as I said, but also weaves in so many different themes. We have the theme of motherhood because Lydia — I’m assuming most people have read it. Lydia and Luca have to try to get out of Mexico after a horrific opening scene, which is one for the ages. A lot of it has to do with the fierce love that a mother has for her son and what she’ll do to protect her son. Then of course, there are layers and layers of themes on top of that. Let’s start with the motherhood piece and your writing that relationship. Tell me a little bit about how you structured their relationship and what tools you used to really show this love and what a mother wouldn’t do.

Jeanine: I love that that’s the first thing that we talk about because that is the engine of the book for me. In fact, I think it’s probably the engine of most of my writing. Certainly, I think all my novels are about the bonds between parents and their children. One thing about this novel, it’s funny given everything that happened, but I never thought of this as a Mexican story. I wrote two failed drafts of this novel, neither of which was set in Mexico before I wrote this one. It’s true that most of the characters in this book are Mexican and Central American, but the whole point of the novel for me is that, in fact, they could be anyone. They could be from Syria or Afghanistan or Houston, Texas, at this point. What would you do if you’re a mother and you live in a place that begins to collapse around you? To what lengths will you go to save your child? I would argue that the answer to that question crosses every cultural boundary there is. The answer is anything. You would do anything. This is one of the few absolutely universal truths of humanity. We do whatever it takes to save our children.

When I was writing this book, I was grieving for my father. I think that a lot of that grief and the trauma of losing him in the way that I did is evident in the book. It’s evident to me reading it. Very often when I have a trauma in my life, it makes its way into the pages. That is one way that I have of — it’s like therapy. It’s like free therapy, writing a novel. What I tell my children is that if you can take your deepest pain, your deepest wound in the world, and embrace it and live in it, sink into it, and get to know it and do whatever you can do with it until you find a way to make it into something beautiful, I think that is the greatest endeavor that we can hope for as human beings. As a writer, that’s always what I want to do, is to take that kind of pain or trauma and find a way to use it in the story in a way that makes the story more meaningful.

Zibby: You started with a memoir. That was one of your first works, is when you recounted the horrific events that befell — is that a word? — that happened to your family, your cousins who were — I can barely even say it — raped and murdered. Your brother narrowly escapes. How did you cope with that whole situation? I know you made it into a memoir. When you start writing from a place like that, you can’t just move on to romance. Your stuff is deep. Tell me a little bit about starting there and how that led you to the kind of writing you’re doing now in fiction.

Jeanine: The incident that happened with my family, it happened when I was sixteen years old. You did the thumbnail version of it there. That’s everything people need to know. We were on a vacation visiting family. My brother and cousins went out one night. They were attacked by four strangers. The two girls never made it home. When you’re sixteen and that happens to your family, it was the single most formative experience of my life. It’s impossible for me to know how I would be different as a writer or as a person if that hadn’t happened. To be sure, I can draw bright lines from that experience to American Dirt. I’ve always been someone who’s interested in writing stories from the less-represented point of view. If you look at true crime, for example, most of those stories are focused on the murderers, on the perpetrators of violence. It’s for good reason. That’s where the story is. The victims, having been murdered, are no longer around to tell their story. The action is hunting down finding the murderer and figuring out what makes that person tick and all of that stuff.

It’s always been less interesting to me I think because of that experience in my early life. I have always felt a sort of silent outrage. Why are we focusing on the violent perpetrators? Why aren’t we telling these stories from the points of view of the people who have suffered and endured? That was absolutely my driving force behind writing A Rip in Heaven, which was the memoir. I think it has trickled into every book I’ve written since. To be sure, it’s a very strong theme in American Dirt. If you turn on Netflix, you’re going to find two dozen different iterations of stories about violent men in Mexico. It’s always a man with a gun at the center of that story. Whether he is law enforcement or a narcotraficante, it almost doesn’t matter because he’s a guy with a gun who shoots people. There are very few stories about the women and children on the flipside of that violence. I feel like this has always been my calling card as a writer, is to follow that less-well-represented story.

Zibby: Do you ever feel like maybe Soledad and Rebeca in this book are your cousins sort of reimagined in a way, that this is them trying to escape the situation that they’re weren’t able to in real life?

Jeanine: It’s not something I was cognizant of in my own psychology when I was writing it, but several people have asked me that question since. It seems inescapably true at this point. I think so. I think that the birth of those two characters in my mind probably came from that latent place of grieving for those beautiful girls.

Zibby: Do you mind if I read just two paragraphs about them? This will be short, just three paragraphs. This is when they’re on la bestia when they’re trying to escape and they have met this whole band of characters along the way. I’ll just read it.

“What happened?” Soledad asks. There’s still a lot of yelling coming from the car two ahead of theirs, and a couple of voices begin to emerge from the fray louder than the others. One man is wailing, “Hermano, hermano, hermano!” And then he stands up on the train, and his companions grab him and pull him back down, and then a moment later the scene repeats itself. He seems determined to jump off, and now the story is traveling back along the train until it gets to the cluster of men seated in front of the sisters. One young man turns to share it. “His brother fell off.” Soledad gasps and crosses herself. “Dios mío, how?” she asks. The man points back at the tunnel they just passed through. “Didn’t see the tunnel. Was sitting up too tall on his knees, and bang. He hit his head on the top of the tunnel and got knocked right off.” Soledad’s face is a twist of horrified compassion. She leans past the young man because she can see now beyond him that the wailing brother is back on his feet a third time. The words fly out her mouth by instinct. Her hand darts towards him. “Stop him!” she screams. “Grab him!” But it’s too late. The man has jumped. He’s a distorted silhouette of arched arms and legs against the bleary yellow of the late-morning sky. His shadow makes the shape of grief as he hurtles toward the earth. “Too far, it’s too far.” Soledad’s voice is still working independently of her body. “Oh, my god, oh, my god.” Their train car is already passing where the jumper has landed. His body rolls down the steep embankment and away. Luca counts his arms and legs. One, two, three, four. He counts them again to make sure. He still has all four, but they don’t seem to be working. His body comes to a stop in a thicket of weeds, and the train storms on without him, without his brother. Soledad is almost catatonic after watching the man jump as if the incident loosened the fragile scab of her own suffering. She lies down again, and Rebeca pulls her sister’s head into her lap. She strokes Soledad’s long, black hair back away from her forehead and quietly sings a song in a language Lydia has never heard before. Soledad stays there unblinking, but soon her expression softens. Her dark eyebrows turn slack and her lids flutter closed. She drifts into some state akin to sleep.

You’re so good. First of all, the immediacy of that scene, I challenge anyone to feel like they were not just sitting up there. That fear, oh, my gosh, just all the emotion. When you’re writing a scene like this, tell me about it. Do you sit there and imagine it visually? How do you recreate a scene like this? What are your tricks?

Jeanine: That’s a great question. Just saying it’s magic and I can’t describe it is probably not helpful, but there is something that happens when I’m writing where the story is moving a bit beyond me. I’m not always self-aware in the moment of how it’s happening or how I’m writing. For me, a very, very significant part of the process is research. This is true even when I’m writing a book that’s set in this room. I need to immerse my imagination in that place. I need to go there. I spent a lot of time doing research in Mexico. I visited migrant shelters and orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador. I spent a lot of time with migrants and listened to their stories. Also, I think there’s something about being in the place that you’re writing about that is almost impossible to recreate because you have to engage all five senses. You can research. You can watch YouTube videos and whatever, but you won’t know what a place smells like unless you go there. For me, that is essential. Even when I’ve been to a place, when I’m then writing the scene, which might be weeks later, I always will go back to the camera roll and open those photographs that I took when I was there to try to trigger the sensory memory of being in that space. I think that kind of immerse experience is essential for me as a writer. I know everyone’s process is different. For me, that’s what it looks like.

Zibby: You should take some of those pictures and post them up somewhere. This is what I was trying to channel. We could let you know how you did.

Jeanine: That’s a good idea. I have one.

Zibby: Oh, show us.

Jeanine: I have one tacked up here on my wall. This was when I was in Tijuana. There’s a sign or a hand-painted thing on the fence on the border wall in Tijuana that says, “Tambien de este lado hay sueños.” On this side too, there are dreams. To me, it was such a shocking and a startling reminder of how proprietary we have become in this country about everything. This story, it really felt essential for me to remember that every single day that I was writing.

Zibby: Wow. Of course, the migrant experience is something that, A, has gotten a lot of attention, but B, is something that is close to your heart because, as you recounted in the amazing article that just came out in your interview that you granted to the London Times on the occasion of your UK version coming out, your own husband is an immigrant from Ireland. While it doesn’t matter where you come from, your point is when you live with someone who’s the centerpiece of your life who at any moment could be ripped away from you and deported, it’s a fragile foundation on which to rest your life and love. Tell me a little bit about that feeling and then how you put that in American Dirt.

Jeanine: It’s an objectively terrifying way to live no matter what. I wrote an essay many months ago for one of the Irish newspapers — it was maybe The Irish Times or The Examiner — about the kind of moments when I realized that we were never the undocumented family they were looking for. The privilege of being a native English speaker, of having an Irish face and an Irish accent, his journey was that he flew into JFK and then waited at baggage carousel three for his luggage. He didn’t have to endure any kind of hardship on his journey. When he got to this country, he was on a visitor visa, which is the same way that I think between sixty and seventy percent of undocumented Americans come here. They come on a visitor visa. They’re not making the journey on la bestia from Central America. They’re flying in from wherever their country of origin is. They’re coming here to visit. Then they overstay their visa. That is the way the majority of undocumented people in this country get here, contrary to popular belief. That was the story of his journey. Once he got here and he overstayed the visa, he got a summer job which then he turned out to be really good at. Then he overstayed. The whole time, they were trying to sponsor him. They were doing the thing where they were attempting to adjust his paperwork to get him the proper visas. It didn’t work. They tried for years.

Then maybe two years into that process, he met me. I sunk my hooks into him. We fell in love. He waited a long time to propose, partly because he was determined to ratify his status before he — he didn’t want this idea looming over us, that he had married me for the green card, which was never a fear for either of us. He just wanted it done before. It turned out to be impossible. He did everything that he could. In the ten or more years that we were living in that way and with all of the extra fear of every morning when he leaves the house — is he going to come home again? I have a brother who’s a firefighter. That is a fear that is not unfamiliar to me, that idea that anything could happen to anyone at any time. It’s extra heightened when you’re living with someone who’s undocumented. Eventually when we got married, it took an additional two and a half years to get his green card after we were married. The whole time you’re in that holding pattern, you can’t travel. You will call the system to try to get an update on the status. The automated system mocks you. It’s like, “Thank you for calling. Your status is under review. Please call back in ninety days.” It just does that for three years until one day you walk to the mailbox and there’s an envelope in there that you’re lucky you didn’t toss out with the junk mail, and it’s the green card.

It’s crazy how opaque and broken our immigration system is. We lived with that for many years. He actually even fell out of status briefly just a few years ago when he went to get his citizenship. We applied for the citizenship. It took so long that his green card expired while we were waiting to hear back about the citizenship. It was another two and a half or three years that we were waiting. The lawyers advised us during that time not to renew the green card because then the green card would have superseded the citizenship application, so he just became undocumented again. This is ten years into our marriage, two kids, a house, and a dog later. All it takes is one overzealous police officer to pull him over, and he’s gone. It’s crazy how many families are having to navigate that. Then with the additional layer for so many people of institutionalized racism in this country, the hurdles of not being able to speak the language, and all of the other problems of potentially not having a safe place to return to if they do get deported, there’s just layer upon layer upon layer of problems in this system that, frankly, would be relatively easy to address and fix if we could find the political will in this country to do that.

Zibby: I feel like American Dirt put a face by having Lydia and Luca go through this experience. It was as if a close friend had told me what the journey was like by reading your book. That’s the power of great narrative, great literature. You actually feel like you’ve experienced some of these things. Then I can read subsequent books, but I feel like your book changed the way I think about the whole immigration experience. I read recently, I don’t know if you’ve read yet, Patricia Engel’s new book called Infinite Country. It’s in similar themes, but they’re coming from Colombia. You find yourself at times reading, like, maybe you should just go back. It’s not so great here. I feel like you have started this dialogue in a very, very important way. Obviously, it was there. With your 1.5 million copies or whatever is out there, you have opened this dialogue which now can be addressed and cannot be ignored for so many.

Jeanine: I think it’s probably every writer’s great hope. For me, I grew up reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry which blew my mind as a sixth grader. Those were always the kind of books that I wanted to write, books that would absolutely do what you just described, which is make people think differently about something that perhaps their mind wasn’t open to before. That’s always my greatest hope, so it makes me happy to know that it worked.

Zibby: Good. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was assigned summer reading for my school, our mandatory book. I literally remember sitting on a beach reading that a hundred years ago when I was in sixth grade or whatever. Not a hundred, but you know.

Jeanine: It’s a great book, absolutely astonishing book.

Zibby: Let’s talk just for two seconds about the fact that this became such a big scandal. In the London Times piece, you talk about the fact that you stayed at home in your bathrobe and ate nachos for a month after and a friend had to move in and make sure you were okay because of all the PTSD. Tell me a little about this unexpected backlash when the book had been won at auction by — who was it? How do I not remember? Flatiron, right?

Jeanine: Yeah.

Zibby: It was chosen by Oprah and was going to be this whole thing. How could you not have been just riding high on the imminent success? Then right before you were at the finish line, had this complete reversal. Then to have the tour canceled and the rumors of death threats and all this stuff, take us back to that nacho-eating moment for minute.

Jeanine: I try to stay away from that moment. It was bad. It was really, really painful. I am not a victim. I don’t ever want to cast myself as a victim in any way. This moment in our culture where when we disagree with each other instead of saying “Please help me understand,” what we say is, “You’re a piece of shit and you deserve to die,” and then all of Twitter starts saying that same thing, it’s ugly. It can be incredibly painful to the person who is on the receiving end of it. It’s a different person every third day now at this point. It is something we have to figure out how to contend with in this moment in our culture. I don’t know what the answer is. It was really, really bad. My husband says it was like launching a cruise ship from the top of a cliff because it was so high. Like you are saying, the pre-publication praise for this book was like nothing I’d seen. I was in publishing for ten years. It was insane. It was really exciting, I have to say, across an extremely diverse landscape of readership including lots of Mexican and Latino writers who were saying rhapsodic things about this novel until it all turned on a dime. The weekend of publication, it all turned. It was funny because I did expect some pushback way before. Then when it didn’t happen, when we sent out ten thousand copies of this galley and got nothing but glowing reviews for it for many months, I thought we were in the clear. Then when it all happened just the weekend before publication, it was intense. It was painful. I think every writer is prepared to some degree to have bad reviews and to have people who hate the book. Fine. I’m cool with that.

There was something new in this moment where it wasn’t so much about the book as it was about me. It was about my integrity. It was about my ethnicity, which is bananas. I happen to be Puerto Rican and Irish, but it’s not relevant. I don’t understand what that has to do with the novel that I wrote. Although, I will say that I probably opened the door to that conversation a little bit by writing the author’s note that I wrote. I think that was problematic. No fiction writer anticipates the kind of hated that I received, nobody. It’s not what I signed up for. It’s not what I expected. Yes, the tour was canceled because of that hatred. It was canceled because there were threats of violence against me. What happened was that the event started to be canceled piecemeal. We were hearing from bookstores and venues three and four days out that they didn’t feel they could guarantee my safety. We were canceling events one at a time. Then eventually, the publisher said, “I think we need to just call it.” I was really resistant at first because I felt like I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to give in. I wanted to say what I wanted to say. I felt like I could engage. I felt like I could address all of the complaints in a way that — because I’m open. I’m willing to talk and listen and learn. There was no dialogue happening. Ultimately, I think they understood that it was going to be a non-victorious thing and that it wasn’t worth the physical danger to the bookstores, the employees of the bookstores and the venues, and to myself.

Zibby: I wonder what would’ve happened if the timing had been pushed just a little and this had been during COVID. You wouldn’t have any threats. It wouldn’t have mattered with everything virtual. I just wonder what that would’ve done if the conversations could’ve happened. I think part of the book tour being canceled, then it was another silencing of sorts, unless you were going to call an old-school press conference like from the movies. Gather around. Then you didn’t have as much of a venue. I wonder, though, at this point looking back a year later, would you have done anything differently? You referenced the author’s note. Would you have changed things in the book? Are you going to change things in any subsequent editions? Where’s your head at these days?

Jeanine: I don’t think that the book is the problem, frankly. I do regret the author’s note. I think it was clumsy. It was my endeavor to try to justify the book that I had written. To be frank, I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I’m a novelist. I made up a story. I stand by the book that I wrote. I spent five years writing it. I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation in particular is an important one, but I think we need to learn how to differentiate between what is cultural appropriation, what is just the stealing and hijacking of stories versus what is someone who is fully engaged in social justice and attempting to wade into a conversation that she feels is really important and she wants to be a part of. Then there were parts of the controversy that I think are completely legitimate. There are tremendous inequities in the publishing industry. Latino writers have been underrepresented and underpaid for a long time, and specifically Mexican writers. That is a thing that the publishing industry, thanks in part to what happened with American Dirt, is finally contending with that reality that they need to do better with representation. I feel glad that those conversations are finally happening. It was painful to be the catalyst for them, especially as someone who — I consider myself Latina. I am part Puerto Rican. I’ve always been really proud of my heritage. It was weird. It felt really strange to be somehow held up as the poster child for inequity in the publishing industry when I am who I am. Without trying to pigeonhole myself in half a sentence, I did not recognize myself in the outrage online. I am not who I think people wanted to believe that I was.

Zibby: I think there is this crazy assumption that just because someone is a relatively public figure or writes a book or stars in a movie or whatever that their life is sort of up for grabs for everybody else to paw into and dissect and then judge. I think people, in their haste to make judgements or jump on a bandwagon or whatever, they forget that someone’s on the other side of those tweets. What kind of kindness is that? You can make your point without threatening the life of somebody who is, at their core, an artist. You’re creating a work of art here by creating literature and starting a discourse. At the time, I wrote this piece, “In defense of Jeanine Cummins.” I was so upset because I had this special place in my heart for your book. I kept telling everybody before it came out, “Oh, my god, this is going to be amazing.” I couldn’t believe what happened. I was trying to defend a novelist’s right to paint a picture. Obviously, there are many other layers to it, but still, can we not try to write about a culture whether or not we inhabit it? It doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t write it. I don’t know. For people tweeting and tagging people on tweets and all this stuff, this goes back to just, why be so mean? Sometimes I don’t understand the culture of hatred and cancellation and all of the stuff, but maybe that’s off topic.

Jeanine: Look, it’s so easy to go into that rabbit hole. We could talk about it for days. I should just say, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about it this year. Just even the phrase “cancel culture” bothers me. I don’t use because it feels like a copout on both ends. People who don’t want to be engaged with social justice or racial justice, it allows those people the opportunity to be dismissive and say it’s just cancel culture, it’s whatever. At the same time, it also allows people who are really just engaged in hateful vitriol, and often, many of these people, in a self-serving way, it allows them the opportunity to sort of wrap themselves in the banner of moral outrage when really, we should just call a spade a spade. There are plenty of folks out there who are just engaged in hatred for hatred’s sake. It has nothing to do with racial justice or social justice. I think it’s a little reductive, this whole conversation. It would be great if we could dig into it and figure it out with a bit more nuance.

Zibby: Okay, well, not today. What are you working on now?

Jeanine: I have finally started my new book really recently, last Saturday. I have thought of and discarded a dozen ideas over the last year about all the themes that have been running through my head all year. I couldn’t find a good framework on which to hang them. Then I think I finally hit on it. I’ve been talking to my agent and my editor. It’s sort of top secret for now. It feels so good to be writing again. I worried that I would be a little cowed. I wanted to wait until I felt like I could be sure that I would write without censoring myself, that I wouldn’t be writing into my fear. I’m finally at that place. It’s been a year. I think I have some good perspective about what happened with this book. At the end of the day, I’m stronger because of it and maybe slightly more liberated, actually. I think a lot of writers in this sort of cultural landscape are, maybe, fearful — I would be, I think — of trying to be free to write whatever they want because they may be weighing the potential cost if Twitter decides that what they’ve written is wrong for some reason. They may be weighing that relatively heavily into their decisions about how they write and what they write. With me, I sort of feel like maybe I am just completely liberated because I already went through it. I survived. Maybe now that means I’m free to write whatever book I want.

Zibby: It ties back to where this all started. When you start your life with the worst thing ever happening, you have to build things from there. The worst has happened. The worst happened to your family, something unthinkable and terrible. Yet you recovered. You realized you could go on. Now the same type of thing, this trauma, essentially, has happened with your book. Now maybe it’s all just destined. This next book, maybe this is going to be the — I don’t even know. All these things have conspired.

Jeanine: Anytime you have a hardship in your life, as a writer, if you can take that and fold it into yourself and find a way to not be defeated by it, but to fold it into your work somehow, it can inform your work. It gives you greater perspective. It can make you a better writer. That is my hope. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.

Zibby: Is this where you write, where you are right now?

Jeanine: Yeah, this is my office. It’s away from the house, thank god. We have a detached garage. My office is above the garage. I have to climb a ladder to get up here, but it’s cozy. I cannot hear the homeschooling that’s happening thirty feet away, so it’s good.

Zibby: That’s why all the FaceTimes, I guess. Our daughters both FaceTime us quite often, age thirteen. I don’t know what I used to do to my mom, but I guess this is the equivalent of that kind of bothering of the mother.

Jeanine: I hit decline, decline, decline. She can come climb the ladder and knock on the latch if she needs me.

Zibby: Wow. I need more of an obstacle to get into my office. I have just a tiny hallway in Manhattan. Well, not so tiny, but it’s right there. Perhaps a ladder, maybe one of those things you put on the ground like from a gym class. You know the yellow thing? Anyway, whatever. Do you have any inspiring-type advice for the many people out there trying to write this great American novel?

Jeanine: Yes. They should read this book. It’s Moms Don’t Have Time To by Zibby Owens. It’s a great book. That’s my advice. Actually, this is my advice. Read, read, read. I think that is the most important thing you can do as a writer. It makes you better. It absolutely makes you better. Read as a writer. Try to figure out the books you love. Why do you love them? What did the writer do in those books? Pay attention to the craft. I have found at this point that when I am reading a book that I absolutely love, that is the only time I’m not paying attention to the craft, if it’s almost flawless. Then you have to go back and read it again and figure out, why was it so good? What did they do? What were their tricks? I think the craft is really visible in books that are the three and four-star books that you really enjoy but you’re not rapturous about them. You can see why. I think all of that kind of reading, it’s crucial to being a good writer.

Zibby: Thank you. I see Marjorie, so this means it must be question time.

Marjorie: It is question time from everybody who is watching. First of all, Zibby and I had a wonderful conversation last week about loving to meet writers and authors because, as a reader, an author is a rockstar to me, always has been. I’m very thrilled to meet you virtually, Jeanine, and to have corresponded with you. I hope we’ll do this in person when the world is normal again. Your book was spectacular. Before we start, there’s lots and lots of comments. Everybody’s happy that Zibby is feeling better.

Zibby: Thank you.

Marjorie: Lots of people. Now we’ll get to the real questions. Let me just start here. Laura had a wonderful comment. Laura said, “I loved the book. Most importantly, this was a topic I knew very little about. The struggle for people to give up their lives and their possessions, to risk their lives and those of their children to come to this country was powerfully presented. Your book changed my perspective on how we as a country and people have failed to help those escaping oppression. I’d like to know how somebody could help.” What resources do you suggest? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jeanine: There are so many great organizations who are doing work in the borderlands to support migrants. One of them is the International Rescue Committee. I have a list of organizations that I worked with when I was doing the research for this book. I’ve continued to support them since then, since I first met with some of them which was back in 2013 or ’14. There’s that list of resources on my webpage. If people are looking for smaller organizations where they can really get a lot of bang for their buck, this is the best thing that we can do, actually. There are so many people on the ground in the borderlands who have the reach and the expertise to help the migrants who sorely need help. All they need is funds. For some reason, I heard this over and over again from the organizations that are larger, more multinational organizations. The same kind of programs, when they’re running them in different parts of the world, are very well-funded. For some reason, the Mexico programs are really under-resourced. I don’t know why we’re so quick to support migrants on the other side of the world, but we have this kind of block when it comes to helping our neighbors and people who need help right here in this country. Give money. That’s the best .

Marjorie: Linda said, “Did you know how American Dirt would end when you started writing it, or did the plot unfold?”

Jeanine: I wrote two failed drafts of this novel which had nothing to do with the book that you ultimately read. They were completely different stories. They were round-robin point of view. They were both set in the borderlands. It was my endeavor to do some exploration about why the immigration system in this country is so broken without writing a book set in Mexico. It just wasn’t working. The short answer is no. I had no idea how this book was going to end. I didn’t even really know how it would begin until three and a half years into the writing. The moment that changed everything for me was when my — it was the week before the 2016 presidential election. My mom and dad went out to dinner with friends one night. My dad died at the dinner table in the restaurant. I was almost finished with my second failed draft of this novel when that happened. I was so frustrated with it. I knew it wasn’t working, but I had invested three and a half years. I didn’t know what to do. After my dad died, I was so broken. I was so traumatized by his very sudden passing that I put the book away. I just hit the couch for a while.

Then it was about three months later that I just dragged my laptop into bed with me one day. I wrote the opening scene for American Dirt. I had no idea where it was going. I didn’t even know that I was starting over. I think I knew as soon as those seven pages were down on the page in front of me that this was the book that I had been resisting for three and a half years and that it was the book my dad would be proud of. From there, I was off to the races. I wrote the whole book very quickly. A few weeks later, I went to the desert in Arizona. I rented a casita out in the borderlands. I wrote almost half the book in ten days. It was during that ten days that I could finally see the ending. I knew where it was going. I had to write a lot of terrible stuff before I hit on the story and really before I hit on the moment of feeling — when you’re grieving, it can be like a springboard sometimes. In that kind of moment, you have a new perspective on what matters to you and what doesn’t matter. What mattered to me was telling this story.

Marjorie: How did you choose the bookstore aspect of it?

Jeanine: It’s funny. Whenever anybody asks me about choices that I made in the book, it always feels a little bit like I am taking credit for something that — I know I wrote the book, but it just happens. I don’t make these decisions from a place in my brain where I’m conscious of them. I wanted Lydia to have a comfortable life. I wanted her to have a really happy, comfortable life that she did not want to leave. I wanted her reasons for having to leave to be unassailable. I wanted her to be a migrant of whom readers could not ask, why don’t you just go back where you came from? I wanted it to be really clear that she would like nothing more than to go back where she came from, but it’s impossible for her. When I think of a really comfortable, happy life, I think of books. It was a really organic decision that therefore, she would have a life in books somehow.

Marjorie: That was actually a very, very nice part of the book. Gwen has a question. “Has this book been optioned for a film?” Any talk of that? It’s a perfect film.

Jeanine: Thank you. It was optioned for film well before the book ever came out, several months before the book came out. They recently renewed their option. Apparently, it’s still in the works. Writers have very little to do with — I keep saying to my husband, I’ll believe that when I’m sitting in the theater eating popcorn. Because it sold the option doesn’t mean they’re going to really make the film. That remains to be seen.

Marjorie: It would be a very exciting film or binge-worthy Netflix show, wouldn’t it?

Jeanine: Yeah. Thank you for saying that. It’s such a weird relationship between writers and the films that are made out of their books. Sometimes it feels like such a distant prospect. For me, the end goal, the end product is the book. A movie almost feels like its own animal. At that point, you’re handing over creative control to someone else to make their baby. Your baby is just the seed for it. I don’t feel that invested in it, but it is very exciting. It would be thrilling to see what happens with it. I think the guy who bought it has a great, earnest hope of making a good film. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops.

Marjorie: I have a question from Bonnie who wants to know a little bit about the title. Did you give it the title?

Jeanine: Yes, I did. I had the unusual experience that this title existed early in the process of writing the book, which is different from my previous books. Usually, naming the book is an awful thing that happens after I’ve turned it in. Then I have to fill up four notebook pages of terrible titles before I finally hit on one that my editor and I can agree on. I came up with American Dirt really early in writing this book. I really liked how ambiguous it was. I liked that the reader would be able to project lots of their own baggage, I guess, onto that title. As a person who grew up in a family that’s part Puerto Rican, I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that elsewhere in the Americas there is plenty of exasperation about the way that word American has been sort of reduced to meaning only people in the United States when in fact there are two whole continents of peoples who are part of the Americas. In my mind, the whole book takes place on American dirt. I wanted to evoke the idea that this line in the sand is incredibly arbitrary. If anyone has the hardcover edition of the book, the end papers inside are a borderless map. Zibby’s holding it up. Thank you, Zibby. You can really see that this is one land mass. It’s all the Americas. I also like the fact that the title has different meanings. It can evoke the dirty little secret of our terrible immigration policy, the way that we treat migrants in this country like dirt. It’s also, for so many people, the destination of hope.

Marjorie: Marion says, “Congratulations on such an engaging novel. I truly enjoyed it. Did you know were a writer as a young elementary school child?”

Jeanine: No. I knew that I loved to write. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer or an artist of any kind. Everyone in my life was an artist, but they didn’t make their living that way. My dad was in the navy. My mom was a nurse. My brother’s a firefighter. We were a working-class family. My sister ran a soup kitchen for many years. She’s on disability now. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know it was possible to make up stories and get paid for it. That came as a lovely surprise to me when I was grown-up, that I could actually write books that people would read. I got into the publishing industry because I figured it was the closest I could get to working with books and to immersing myself in books all day. I did that for ten years. That was really my greatest education, was working at Penguin and seeing the quantity of books that they were publishing and then reading some of them and going, I could do this. I can do this. I always loved to write. I wrote my first book when I was six about a little girl who skateboards across America who was a real tour de force, if you ask my mom. I didn’t know that I could do it like this. I’m feeling pretty lucky about now.

Marjorie: I had an interesting comment here. Ann said, “The power of the book will never leave me. I feel it should be required reading for high school students and adults. The question is, has the controversy extended beyond the US, or has the value and the story of American Dirt become the true focus again?”

Jeanine: It did ripple a bit, but nowhere was it like here. In fact, very often when I had interviews in the foreign press, there was a lot of head scratching going on, a lot of, please explain this to me. It was on me, actually, to try to help people outside of this country understand that the controversy wasn’t entirely without merit. This just doesn’t exist in other cultures yet the way it does here. In that way, the book wasn’t scrutinized as deeply as it was here. In fact, it won some international awards, which was really nice to see.

Marjorie: I’m glad to hear about that. I think we’ll end with one or two questions. People would like to know, who are your heroes in the writing world? What are you reading now? That sort of thing.

Jeanine: I’m reading right now, which is a debut novel. I’m enjoying it very much. My heroes, I have so many. It’s impossible to — it’s such a good question. Sandra Cisneros is incredible, not only her talent, but her courage as a writer. Ann Patchett is amazing. Mary Beth Keane, amazing. Look, I know I’m super late to this party, but Colson Whitehead, Nickel Boys, it’s an astonishing book. Everyone should read that book. Talk about required reading. Also, there’s a debut novel that I read last week which has stayed with me, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. What a great novel. I can’t believe it’s a debut. She is an enormous talent and I think really one to watch as she moves into her full force as a writer.

Zibby: I loved that book, just to chime in. That was amazing.

Jeanine: Really great book, and subversive and just brilliant. I want to read it again, actually.

Marjorie: Zibby, I know you read all the time. Is there anything you’re reading right now that you’re enjoying?

Zibby: I’m actually reading Kristin van Ogtrop’s book. It’s coming out in April. It’s called Did I Say That Out Loud? It’s all about midlife indignities. It’s hilarious. It’s a collection of essays about all these hilarious things that she’s going through in her life. She was the former editor of Real Simple. Pre-order. It’s so funny. I laughed out.

Jeanine: Indignities of midlife sounds terrifying. One more book I have to mention before we move off this, Zibby, I don’t know if you’ve read The Book of Rosy. It’s coauthored. As far as I know, it’s the only book or the first book that — it’s a memoir written by a mother who was separated from her children in ICE custody. The migrant woman, Rosayra Pablo Cruz, who is coauthor of this book — it’s astonishingly beautiful, this book. You expect a book like this to be heavy. It is heavy, but her prose is gorgeous and filled with light and sweetness and love. It just really illustrates what a mother will do to save her children in this situation. I highly recommend it. For anybody who read American Dirt and is looking for a true story next, The Book of Rosy.

Zibby: I’m going to order it right after this.

Marjorie: That’s very good. If anyone was asking me right now, I’m reading Nicole Krauss who will be with us next week and Joyce Carol Oates who will be with us the week after. I believe that’s March 9th. Nicole Krauss is March 3rd, I believe. I’d have to double-check the dates. I want to thank you, Jeanine. This was a wonderful, wonderful hour, your insights, to talk to you. The comments along the line, hopefully you can read them. It was really thrilling to hear your take on the controversy and your take on this fabulous, fabulous book that you wrote. Zibby, as always, what can I say? I’m glad you’re feeling better. You do a wonderful job. These conversations are very wonderful for all of us.

Jeanine: Thank you so much. It was really enjoyable. Zibby, good to see you. Marjorie, thank you. Thank you so much.

Marjorie: Bye all.

Zibby: Thanks, everybody.

Jeanine: Bye.


American Dirt: A Novel by Jeanine Cummins

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