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Interview: Author Quinn Cummings of Notes From The Underwire

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Quinn Cummings was, to me, the woman of the obscure words. I began following her on Twitter because she would playfully contextualize words that make my run-of-the-mill dictionary furrow its brow. In 140 character bursts, she is funny and self-deprecating and often insightful. From Twitter I found her blog, The QC Report, which expands those characteristics with tales of her life with Consort and Daughter, psychotic kittens, and other observations of everyday life.

But Quinn Cummings turned out to be many other surprising things, including inventor (of the HipHugger baby sling) and Oscar-nominated former child star (of The Goodbye Girl). That alone might make her seem intimidatingly accomplished — if it weren't for the fact that she writes about herself as a hapless, well-meaning outsider, raising a child while juggling work and her own self-doubts. She struggles to make a difference, to be the person she wants to be, only to walk into walls again and again. And I don't just mean that metaphorically.

Her recent book, Notes From The Underwire: Adventures From My Awkward And Lovely Life, manages to capture hilarious and often poignant anecdotes of a life like no other. Yet she does so in a way that is sure to make many readers feel a kinship with her emotions, if not her exact experiences.

It's a very funny book but there's some poignancy too, such as your mother's lymphoma, volunteering for the HIV hotline, even the closeness with which you describe family. Did you think a lot about tone and/or an underlying theme to the entire book, or did you approach each story as a separate anecdote? Was it a similar or different approach to blogging for you?

There's no subject so unequivocally joyous that I can't find some minor note of wistfulness in it. I'm not so gifted of a writer that I can think ahead of time about the tone I want to take, but I will say that even the happiest topic is eventually going to take on an elegiac air.

Here's an example; I had just given birth. Consort had whisked off with the newborn babe to watch her get the infant indignities attended to; I was in the recovery room, waiting around to get the feeling back in my toes. I was blindingly happy in that way you're happy when you've finally met the person you've waited your entire adult life to meet and she's even better than you hoped. And then, without warning, I thought, "Note this moment, because you'll never have a three minute-old baby again." See how I was perfectly happy and then noted how time was irrevocably slipping away? The blog, the book, every single anecdote I tell ultimately has a whiff of "WE'RE ALL MORTAL AND ARE GOING TO DIE." Now, don't you want to invite me over to dinner?

Did Consort and Daughter get veto power over the stories you told? How do you balance your own desire for privacy with the desire to spill for the sake of a great story?
There was one part of one story which Daughter knew I was using and didn't want me to use. I winced, because it was ever so good, but it's her life and I had to respect that. Mercifully, a year later when I was doing the final, final, "Speak now or forever hold your peace" edits, she no longer cared about that part of the story and I was allowed to use it. No, I won't say what it was, because it's still her story and she may decide later on that the embarrassing part was that she had ever wanted it taken out.

As far as the veto power, I've been assured by Consort (who is my first editor) that I've left a lot more off the page than he ever would have, with regards to both of them. Fine by me; I'd rather my daughter thinks I was an obsessive maniac years from now than someone who blithely threw away her privacy for a book deal. The cat, however, gets her bladder infections written about in the blog and can just live with it.

You talk a lot about being the outsider, and the person who means well but can't make your intentions come out quite right. Has it surprised you that so many readers say "me too"? Is it possible we're ALL outsiders who mean well but can't make our intentions come out quite right? Then who are all those beautiful people we thought were insiders?
Recently I heard from a friend who is one of those effortlessly glossy people, all good upbringing and proper stationery. She had read the book and said some very nice things about it and then said, "I had no idea how much we had in common." Really? Because you, glossy friend, are kind of who I hope to be when I grow up, which doesn't appear to ever plan to happen. Weekly, I get letters on the blog from people screaming in relief that someone else has a cat in their bathroom or accidentally walks into a house of God carrying a cup of caffeine or somehow keeps insulting a little person.

Actually, that last one it seems I did all by myself, but many people wrote in to say that yes, they could easily see themselves doing that and they weren't ruling it out for the future.
I suspect – I hope – we’re coming into a more modest, more realistic age, where the goal of life won't be to get the Bentley you drive to the Hamptons. Aspiring to that much fabulousness is exhausting. Sometimes I can practically hear the exhalations of relief when someone writes in to admit that they, too, are just trying to get through a day without falling up a flight of stairs.
I didn't say "me too" to being a child star who was nominated for an Oscar by age 10, of course. You write about your conflicted feelings about being known as the former child star. What's the best thing to come out of that time in your life? The worst?
The best thing was that I loved the bit between "Action" and "Cut." The worst part was that I was a public figure even when I was with a group of friends at, say, Magic Mountain and any attempt to smile and just move back into anonymity caused people to hiss the word "Bitch" at me.

I think I "met" you on Twitter through Jeff Greenstein. I know I first followed you because you would playfully define obscure words. So: what's your favourite obscure word?
There are two kinds of obscure words, those which describe something which happens all the time and you never knew had a word, and those which describe something you had no idea needed a word. I'll give you one of both. Pandiculation is the act of stretching and extending the arms, in tiredness or waking. And peristeronic means suggestive of pigeons. Feel free to use both in conversation.

Anything you'd like to add?
If your readers are thinking about buying my book, I want to take this moment to thank them from the bottom of my heart and then to beg them to buy it from a local independent bookseller. We're going to miss them like crazy when they're gone.

Thanks to Quinn Cummings for making this a stop on her Blog Book Tour. Now, after your morning pandiculation and perhaps a lunch of peristeronic mystery meat, run to your local bookstore and pick up Notes From The Underwire.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.
  • I’ve just added “pandiculation” and “peristeronic” to my vocabulary and will make a point of using them in my conversation when appropriate (or maybe in the vicinity of fitting – make ’em squirm a little). Good interview, both Q&A – thanks!

  • Fantastic interview! I really enjoyed the thoughtful questions and insightful answers. I’m a huge fan of Quinn’s writing. Can’t wait to read her book (which is sitting at home in Maryland awaiting my return from travels).