Friend Friday

I had the genuine delight of meeting Alan Cumyn while I was the Writer in Residence for the Vermont Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program in January. The weather was chilly (3 degrees!) but Alan and his colleagues couldn’t have been warmer and more welcoming. When I heard about Alan’s latest YA novel, My Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Atheneum) I knew I had to host him here so we could learn more about man and book.

Alan Cumyn by Gwen Cumyn colour sml

Alan Cumyn

Publication Dates — by Alan Cumyn


This week I am celebrating the publication of my 13th novel, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, a straightforward tale about a sexy and charismatic pterodactyl who comes to high school and disrupts the well-ordered love life of Student Body Chair Shiels Krane. It is also the 23rd anniversary of the publication of my first novel, Waiting for Li Ming. As I’m writing this, I’m still waiting for a box of pterodactyl novels to arrive at my door, but I can vividly remember that first shipment of copies of my own book in 1993. The cover was painted by my mother, Suzanne Cumyn, and captures the power and mystique of my character Li Ming, a beautiful young translator who makes the mistake of falling for a visiting Canadian teacher in a time when cross-cultural romances were deeply discouraged in China. So that was the first thing that I saw in opening the box, my mother’s striking painting. Then, as I flipped through, marveling at the clean and attractive page design, I noticed that, well… a couple of the pages were out of order.

The publishers, Goose Lane Editions, a fine literary press known for meticulous attention to detail, were magnificent in quickly recalling books and reordering the pages. Some early buyers decided to keep their flawed first editions – maybe a collectors’ item! – and I still have a few on hand myself to remind me to check my manuscripts, and check again, and then have another look…

Waiting for Li Ming was actually the fourth full novel manuscript I had written. I still keep the bulging book of nine years’ worth of rejection letters from that time. One of those doomed manuscripts was a fantasy novel that I wrote while I was teaching English in China – while I was, in fact, accumulating the life experience that would inform Waiting for Li Ming. I was newly married to Suzanne Evans, who was fascinated with all things Chinese. We had started our romance in Toronto, and when she finally got her dream job we decided to marry rather than face a long separation. Why not go to China and teach together?

In the coal mining, railroad town of Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, we lived in a small apartment underneath the ping-pong room of the foreign languages department of a mid-sized teachers’ college. We were almost the only Westerners in town, and the year abroad threw us together and tested us in ways we would never have faced had we stayed home. But as writers have known practically forever, travel wakes up your senses, it forces you to think differently about yourself and where you are from, and to learn constantly. I took a camera everywhere, and we both wrote detailed journals. I didn’t actually get around to dreaming up and writing out the story of Rudy Seaborn’s doomed romance with Li Ming until we had been back in Canada for a couple of years. It took that long for the details of the year abroad to sift and settle, but when I did get seized with the idea of a story, my memories of that time came rushing back.

The year in China marked an extraordinary new phase of my life, and colored so many decisions afterwards about the kind of work I wanted to do and the sort of books I wanted to write. It also marked a time when my life experience caught up with my hunger to write and with the skills I was painstakingly developing. Since then, every novel of mine that has been published has reflected some significant personal experience.

Really? Every novel? Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend?

Well, yes, even the pterodactyl novel, which is set (more or less) in my old high school, and which has a protagonist whose A-type obsessions (more or less) echo the ferocious energy of my own deeply inward-looking high school years. Even the pterodactyl, in a way, comes from a strange and startling experience I had years ago when I was riding a train that rounded a bend and there, standing on a rock by the shores of a lake, was an ancient-looking great blue heron whose gaze pierced me. I began scribbling a delirious story about just such a bird who has the ability to transform himself into a human, and who wanders into the big city from time to time, almost as a vacation.

Over the years I worked on several versions of this story, and even completed two full – and utterly different – related manuscripts. (Another strange fact: that fantasy manuscript I had worked on in China featured a transformational dragon, somewhat like that heron who would later rock my gaze.) But something was always lacking in those stories. Then just a few years ago I attended a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I teach. Visiting author Libba Bray told a group of more than a hundred writers to not go following the trends. But she didn’t say it that way, she said, “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel!”

Fireflies in my head. The phrase hot pterodactyl boyfriend gave me a way back into that old, old story of mine. What if the heron was a pterodactyl? What if he came to high school? What if –?

In a way every one of my novels is a “what if” proposition. What if I wasn’t married when I went to China? What if the translator assigned to me was a beautiful young woman? What if we made all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons?

The result was Waiting for Li Ming, the book of mine that finally arrived in a box 23 years ago with my mother’s striking painting on the cover, and only a few pages out of order.

Waiting for Li Ming

Alan Cumyn has written seven novels for adults, including the Giller prize finalist Burridge Unbound, and six works for younger audiences, including his latest, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Atheneum). Alan is currently faculty chair in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife Suzanne Evans, who writes historical non-fiction.