The Theater Cafe in Forest Hills was closed one weekday a few months ago, and Jeanine Cummins was at a loss for words, which is worth noting, since she is paid to produce them in abundance. The author and Glendale resident often seeks sanctuary in the warm confines of the coffee house, writing and researching for several hours. And it’s where she estimates she penned about one-third of her latest book, “The Outside Boy,” (Penguin Group) a novel released last month.
“I almost cried — I was like, ‘Where am I going to go?’” Cummins, 35, recalled with a healthy giggle. “But they’ve started reopening during the day now. I think it was just a temporary thing.”
It’s welcome news for Cummins, a mother of two girls who’s already at work on her third effort, a novel tentatively titled “Hunger,” based on the 19th-century potato famine in Ireland.
“The Outside Boy” is also based on the Emerald Isle. Christy Hurley is the protagonist, a Pavee gypsy wandering 1950s Ireland with his father and extended family, struggling to find his way.
“It’s a little scary writing about these Irish topics that are so important in Ireland, especially because I’m American,” noted Cummins, who is of Irish and Puerto Rican descent, lived in Belfast for three years and annually spends nearly two months in the country. “But what I love about fiction is reading a book where I can really enjoy the story and get into the characters and get an emotional attachment to them, but also when I finish the book I can close the last page and feel like I’ve learned something. That’s sort of what I aim to do.”
Cummins said it took about three and a half years for her to write “The Outside Boy,” during which she got married, bought a home and gave birth to Aoife, 3, and Clodagh, who arrived just two weeks ago.
But the creative process was quite different from that of her first work, the best-selling “A Rip in Heaven,” (NAL Trade) Cummins’ memoir of a family tragedy. In the spring of 1991, her older brother and two female cousins were walking along the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, Mo., when they were attacked by four men. Her cousins were raped and thrown off the bridge. Cummins’ brother was forced to jump. He was the lone survivor.
“That book was really personal, really difficult to write,” Cummins said. “It’s sort of a battle cry for victims’ rights, a love letter to my cousins and really an opportunity for my brother to tell the story of his survival and what happened to him.”
Cummins studied creative writing at Towson University in her native Maryland. After graduating, she tended bar and wrote in Belfast before moving to Astoria. After stops in Woodside, Sunnyside and Jackson Heights, Cummins has settled into her home on 73rd Place with her husband, Joe Kennedy, their two daughters and dog Seamus.
Among Cummins’ many favorite borough haunts are the German restaurant Zum Stammtisch on Myrtle Avenue, and Forest Park, where she and the growing family enjoy hiking.
“Now that I have babies, living in Glendale is perfect,” she said. “It’s a lot more suburban than the other areas of Queens I’ve lived in, but I still don’t feel like I live in suburbia. You just get a sense that it’s a little more family oriented. I think [each neighborhood] has different qualities depending on your stage in life — where you are and what you want out of a neighborhood.”
Though Cummins draws inspiration from many literary giants, including William Trevor, Mark Twain and Sherman Alexie, she said a wide spectrum of musical taste also fuels her drive to scribe. But when asked why she composes, Cummins offers a more existential theory: The process fulfills an urgent need.
“I write because I can’t not write,” she said. “When you’re compelled to do it, when it’s your calling, when it’s your passion, there’s no escaping it. I’m just lucky that I’m able to do it for a living.”