Winfrey and Cummins talk "American Dirt" and lessons learned

Oprah Winfrey and “American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins spoke to The Associated Press after completing a highly anticipated televised show about Winfrey's book club

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Everything about her latest book club pick, “American Dirt,” was a surprise for Oprah Winfrey. Praised early on as a modern version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Jeanine Cummins' novel about a Mexican mother and child fleeing to the U.S, border was strongly criticized by those who accused her of perpetuating stereotypes about Mexicans. The controversy also highlighted the lack of diversity in publishing.

For a taped forum on the novel, Winfrey and Cummins were joined by three critics of the book, and the discussion ran so long that the finished broadcast on Apple TV Plus will be roughly 2 hours, double the usual time for one of her book club programs.

The Associated Press was allowed to attend last month's taping at a studio in Tucson, Arizona, where Cummins wrote and researched part of the novel. The AP later spoke with Winfrey and Cummins in an upstairs conference room.

Here are highlights from the AP interview:

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On how Winfrey and Cummins felt about the show, which also featured interviews with immigrants from Central America:

Winfrey: I felt that it was as balanced as you can be in 2 hours and 40 minutes. In the middle of taping, I was, like, having anxiety, because I knew how many other stories I had to get in and realized I'm not going to be able to tell all those stories. And it's so important not to cut people in a way that makes them feel that they were not heard. And, so, the producer comes up and tells me that Apple's agreed to allow this to be two hours. So, then, I actually relaxed.

Cummins: I'm so grateful to Oprah for being the one to facilitate this conversation, because it was terrifying to walk in there knowing that I was going to, potentially, be called upon to defend my book, which is not a thing any writer wants to do ever, under any circumstances. And, in fact, I felt like that conversation was productive. It was civil. I really understood where they were coming from, the women who were there in opposition to the book. I hope that they also understood where I was coming from.

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On how the recent controversy will change how Winfrey chooses books for her club:

Winfrey: I'm very interested in these conversations continuing. I will be a part of helping them continue if I think that I can contribute something of value and of meaning. ... And now that we've had this moment in the culture, I will now open myself up to more Latinx books.

We do the same thing, I think, you know, other book clubs are doing — you're seeing what's coming up, what's new, when are the new releases. And I just said to Leigh (O Magazine books editor Leigh Haber) the other day, "We should start looking at other books that didn't do so well."

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How the recent controversy will make Winfrey look more closely at the publishing industry and at the writers she picks:

Winfrey: It has not been a concern of mine, or of interest to me, who is publishing the book. .... "Oh, I chose three Random House books in a row," or "I chose the Harper's (HarperCollins) book and then I chose another Harper's book." That has never been the (focus). I just really go on "Do I like the book?" and "What is the book?" And, now, I will pay more attention to that. I will also pay more attention to who is writing it. This has actually caused me to pause about who's writing it: Am I going to have to spend the next two months defending the writer, defending the writer's right to write the book, or can we actually talk about the story?

I'm not going to play it safer, but I'm not going to wade into water if I don't have to. I don't have to wade into water and drown if I don't have to, because, you know, this has taken up a lot of my energy, a lot of her (Cummins') energy, and it's taken the attention away from the real reason I want people to read books.

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On whether it had occurred to Cummins that having her book compared to “The Grapes of Wrath” might lead to a backlash:

Cummins: No. I didn't (realize). I mean, it was all so exciting to me. You know? I was so overwhelmed. I was a writer who came from the lower-mid list and was having the moment of my life.

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On how the criticism of Cummins reminded Winfrey of an experience in her own life:

Winfrey: As a young reporter I remember moving to Baltimore and them doing this whole big campaign on “What is an Oprah?” that ended up flopping, because I couldn't live up to what the promos and publicity were. So, by the time I actually ended up ... on the air, they were like, “Oh, it's just a black girl with a lot of hair.” And there were people mispronouncing my name and all that stuff. So, I couldn't live up to it. So, I learned from that, as you (Cummins) are now going to learn from this. I learned from that. When I moved to Chicago, I said, “I don't want a billboard, not a word, not a bus stop, not a bumper sticker — I want nothing. I want to go on the air. I want to do whatever I'm going to do. And, by word of mouth, people will hear about it and they will know. I don't want anybody talking about it or talking me up or saying anything." And I've operated from that since, you know?

Cummins: That takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence, as well.

Winfrey: Well, it also take being burned.

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On how the response to “American Dirt” might affect whatever Cummins writes next:

Cummins: Right now, the thing that I'm most worried about or most invested in as a writer is making sure that I don't lose my own voice. You know? And making sure that the experience of this moment doesn't make me second guess or subvert the stories that move in my heart. So, I'm not sure what those stories will be yet. ... But, to be sure, what's happened over the last three weeks has had an impact on my heart and, potentially, on what story may grow in there next.