Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

October 19, 2014
by Andi

My 1st Trip to Our Local Library – The Sunday Salon

Almost everywhere I’ve lived, the public library has been a hub – a place for people to get information, to meet, to get warm on a rainy day, to use the bathroom.  But probably nowhere has this been more true that in rural communities. There, the library is the place where you get the latest news about the high school girl who was kidnapped, where you pick up the local author’s newest book, where you can still find print versions of your tax forms. Our local library in Madison, VA

So this week, my friend Sarah and I took some time on her visit to stop at the local Madison County Library. It sits in a historic house with white pillars and a beautiful old staircase.  The front parlor holds the magazines, and upstairs, they have their book sale and a small room with local history items in it.  Then, on the back, they’ve added a large space with quite an impressive selection of print books, audio books, and movies. (The movies are particularly great because there is no where to rent movies here besides the gift of Redboxes, and on our country internet – via satellite – we don’t have enough data to stream anything.)

It took me about 5 seconds to get my library card.  No ID, no mail with our current address necessary.  Just a brief form with the name and number of someone who doesn’t live in my household (thanks, Dad!), and I was all set.  I got a cardboard card with a barcode stickered onto it, and within 5 minutes, I had my first book – an audio version of Deborah Harkness’s The Book of Life

Then, Sarah and I spent some time in the book sale room, and she picked up some fun titles as well as one book she’d been looking for a while.  When she went to pay, the librarian reminded her she could get a whole bag of books for $5.00 and then discounted her purchase to $2 when Sarah said she didn’t need the bag.  Love that.

My mom was a huge supporter of the local library – both with her patronage and her inability to return books on time and willingness to pay the fines.  We joke that she funded the new library building.  And I am the same.  I never fret over getting a book back on time because I believe wholeheartedly in the work of local libraries and gladly give a few dollars to that work when something is late.  (I do always rush books back when they’ve been requested by another patron, though.)

And I’m eager to patronize the Madison County Library all the more.  This week, I’m dedicating my afternoons to local research, and one afternoon, I’ll sit among the local stacks and make notes about the people and places that make my new home just who it is.

I expect the kind gentleman who got me my card and went into the back to get me literature about the library’s needs will help me and share his own stories of this place in the process.  I can’t wait.

What’s your local library like?  Post a link or picture if you would.


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October 18, 2014
by Andi

The Possibility of Perfection: A Writers Write Interview with Ellen Cooney

I met Ellen Cooney through this wonderful thing called the Internet, and as often happens, I found that she and I shared two key things – a love for animals and a homesteading experience of sorts.  Take a few minute to read about her book, her ideal writing space, and her best advice for writers. 

1. Tell me about your latest project.  Mountaintop School for Dogs by Ellen Cooney

It’s my ninth novel, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances, with a pub date of August 5, 2014. The publisher is Houghton MIfflin Harcourt. It’s about a young woman coming out of a rehab program, feeling as if she just hatched herself from a big, gooey egg. She needed to find something to do and, impulsively, she signs up for a dog-training program at a very unusual animal sanctuary on the top of mountain. She actually knows nothing about animals. The dogs who become her students are all rescues from abusive situations—the dogs are major characters here.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

They all played the single biggest, most important role. I was precocious with words as a little kid. I never became a writer; I just was one always. I taught myself to read as naturally as anything and read my first novel when I was tiny. It was Black Beauty. I was so awestruck, I was terrified of writing stories, for I felt I could never do anything that wonderful. I wrote my first poem when I was seven, and through my childhood and adolescence, I published lots of poems in little local places and had lots of my plays put on in my schools. I never read children’s books after Black Beauty and The Wizard of Oz books. I was lucky to have a natural ability with reading comprehension at a pretty high level early on. I read and read and read. The small, working-class town I grew up in had a great library with what I called “the wall of literature.” All the greats were there and so was I.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

Everything starts for me with an instinct about a new thing to write, usually because something’s been bubbling below my surface and begins to come up. I get a sort of vague feeling that’s part idea and part feeling, then my practice is to start randomly writing sentences about any old thing that pops into my head, like I’m a pianist just playing around. I write every day. I don’t make outlines or even plan ahead except for wondering, “where am I going with this?” To answer I have to be sitting at the keyboard of my desktop. I delete tons of stuff until something starts taking hold. My routine is to work in the morning after I’m good and awake and I’ve walked my dogs. I tend to rewrite the morning work in the late afternoon. When I feel I’m more than halfway through the first draft of a novel, I just go with it. I am 62 and I’m probably too old to pull all-nighters. But sometimes I do.

4. Who are you reading now?

I always have a few anthologies going on, and since I’m preoccupied with promoting my new novel, short things are best for me. I’m reading, slowly, slowly, savoring every line, Collected Poems Of Muriel Rukeyser. Also, a collections of pieces from New Directions called Terrestrial Intelligence, W.S. Merwin’s recent book of poems The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, and the exquisitely crafted, unforgettable stories by Amy Hempel in her Collected Stories. My most recent novel was Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo, which I love and highly, highly recommend.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

In no particular order, and I’m excluding Black Beauty regretfully: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, because I’d never read anything like it before and I feel it branded itself in my mind; Flush, the first thing by Virginia Woolf I ever read, at fifteen, which started me on a lifetime of examining and loving her work, including a master’s thesis and a collection of just about everything she wrote, and finally, James Joyce’s Dubliners, which I picked up in a used bookshop in my early twenties and was even more stricken with awe than I was with that first experience I had with reading fiction. I was on the verge then of realizing I am a fiction writer, not a poet or playwright, which is something I seem not to have had a choice about. The stories in Dubliners, especially “The Dead,” are giants to me. They are proof that there is a possibility of perfection in this world.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

I don’t. Basically, I don’t have any balance with anything. I don’t really understand what a platform even is, but I suppose I have one, as I blog on Tumblr and have a website, and I’m on Facebook. I tried Twitter at the suggestion of a publicist and hated it. I don’t actually do any building. What I’m comfortable with is in place. My method of writing posts and things is, if I think of them as something it’s time again to do, I’ll do some. I also maintain pages on Goodreads and Amazon. I had thought I wouldn’t like the whole web thing, but I actually have a pretty good time having some internet presence.

7. What is a typical day like for you?

I live in rural-coastal Maine, having moved here nearly twenty years ago from a crowded, busy life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I no longer teach, which I’d done a great deal of. There is no typical day for me! Basically, I write, I read, I do the chores I have to do—and when you live in the country, there are tons of chores—I run the errands I have to run, I hang out with and walk my dogs, and everything really depends on what stage I’m in with whatever I’m working on.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

Honestly, incredibly, I have it. I am in right now. My wife and I built our own home, as homesteaders. Well, she did the building and I moaned and groaned and cooked and kept going to the lumber yard and Lowe’s. She’s not “a builder” professionally; she’s in research science. It’s her hobby. We have a house that’s one of a kind because she designed it. My writing room is on the second floor of the part of our home that was once the original cabin, expanded now to be part of a larger structure. Most of our home is open-space, but my room has walls and a door and two windows that look out on trees, trees, trees. Sometimes I cannot believe this. On the other hand, we worked incredibly hard, and during the building process I was miserable enough to last forever.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

It wasn’t a “critique.” I’ve never receiving one I found hard, as I feel that my work is going to get all sorts of comments. Everything I’ve written has received a wide range of responses, literally from, for the same piece, “this is awful,” to “this really, really works.” I’m used to being given love and hate for, say, the same chapter. But the one thing that made me crazy was a newspaper critic who claimed, without proof, that in one of my earlier novels I had copied something from another writer—a writer I’d never read. When I looked up that writer and found the thing I was accused of stealing, I was shocked to see there was no similarity whatsoever. How did I respond? I didn’t. Oh, I composed some dozen letters of push-back over a period of about a week. but then I deleted them all. I’m very glad I did.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?  Novelist Ellen Cooney

Be who you are. Never write anything to please someone else. Never make changes to a manuscript to satisfy someone else; make changes to a manuscript only if you know in your mind and your guts that the revisions suggested by another person truly make your work better, and make you a better writer.

You can read more of Ellen Cooney’s work on her website – or her Tumblr page –

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October 17, 2014
by Andi

My Top Ten Favorite Novelists

Yesterday, I shared that – to my glee – I have some extra room on my fiction bookshelf, and so I’m looking for guidance on what to fill it with.  The ever-wise Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy made an astute comment: “Would love to know more about what you’ve already read, loved, and hated.”  I LOVE Sherman Alexie

So I decided I should do a Top Ten List of my Favorite Novelists, so here, in no particular order, are 10 fiction writers I love enough to keep their work on my shelves and read everything they’ve written.

1. A. S. Byatt – Possession and Elementals are my favorites.

2. Toni Morrison – Paradise is on my Top 10 Books of All Time.

3. John Irving – Owen Meany of course.

4. Marilynne Robinson – Gilead, Home, and now, I hope, Lila changed my life.

5. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children blew me away!

6. Chaim Potok – Everything, absolutely everything, but especially, My Name Is Asher Lev.

7. Sherman Alexie – Loved Indian Killer and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

8. C.S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia will also be my favorite books ever.

9. Zadie Smith – Sigh.  On Beauty.

10. Virginia Woolf – She’s Virginia Woolf. Need I say more.

So with those authors in mind, who else should I read?  Anyone you think I’d absolutely die to get my hands on?  Anyone on this list that you love? Loathe? 

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October 16, 2014
by Andi

I Have Bookshelf Space and Need Your Help

What fiction should I get? This is my fiction bookshelf in the new reading room.  As you can see, I have some room (including an entirely empty bottom shelf), so I’m looking for suggestions.  What novels, short story collections, and novellas should I pick up?

First on my list? Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, LilaAnyone read it yet?

But then, I’m open to suggestions.  Tell me what you’d recommend. Tell me about your books. Tell me what not to read.

How should I fill these shelves? 


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October 15, 2014
by Andi

In Praise of Reading in the Bathroom

It’s a family habit, one passed down through Reader’s Digests and mystery novels that sat ready and waiting on the porcelain tank.  My particular unit of Cumbos – we are bathroom readers and proud of it.

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair from Flickr via Wylio

Maybe don’t stay this long with your reading. © 1900 Powerhouse Museum, Flickr | PD | via Wylio

I read with every spare minute I have, and because I have female anatomy, I always have some spare minutes while I’m using the facilities.  So I take advantage.  It’s a small luxury, but it’s mine and mine alone . . . for obvious reasons. :)

When I was in college and living in Hess dorm, I found it really hard to read in my room.  Of course, I did manage it sometimes because it was necessary, but with a slew of 18 year old friends coming in and out of the room to ask questions or swoon over Johnny Depp or sing Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Son” at all hours, concentrated time to focus was rare. Plus, my roommates – kind women for sure – were elementary education majors.  Their worthy, important studies required a certain amount of socialness and bulletin board construction that was a bit antithetical to the study habits required of my English and history double major.  Somehow, my beautiful friend’s need to practice the recorder just didn’t mesh with a close reading of the allegory in The Lord of the Rings. 

So I went to the bathroom.  Sometimes, I just perched myself on a throne behind a metal door and read Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water, and sometimes, I tucked myself onto the changing room bench in a shower stall with Sir Gawain and his green knight balanced on my knees.  I remember those places with more joy than is usually linked to a college bathroom.

Bathrooms – of necessity – are places of quiet and solitude and thus are ideal for reading.

Yeah, I know, there are hygiene issues to consider, and I also know that some people find this habit abhorrent, but still, I’m a big advocate, especially in our culture today where we are tied to our phones for most waking minutes. . .  even in the bathroom.  In fact, I’d be a supporter of using cell blockers in bathrooms so that people can either read a few pages or at least grab a few minutes of disconnection.

So invest in a comfortable seat, leave an easy read on the tank, and relish those few minutes away from email and maybe even the voices of your toddlers.  And for the record, Murder on the Orient Express makes for very good bathroom reading. ;)

Are you a bathroom reader?

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