Monday, July 27, 2009

Karen Cushman

I felt a connection to today's interviewee, Karen Cushman, the first time I heard her speak at an SCBWI conference in LA. It wasn't simply due to her inspiring words about letting your passions guide what you write. She also mentioned that one of the Larson family favorite ever books was one of her favorites, too!
Written by Russell Hoban, ill. by Quentin Blake

Her work has been an inspiration to me -- even before I discovered my own passion for historical fiction -- and I find myself turning to her books again and again to see how she handled some element of storytelling. Little did I know all those years ago, that I would one day count Karen as a good friend. I enjoyed getting to know her better through the interview below and hope you do, too!

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
Karen with her first typewriter

Definitely an undercover reader. Unfortunately my mother as a child had done the same so she knew how to catch me out. I was also a put-on-a-play-in-the-barn kind of kid. I was the playwright, the director, the star, and the ticket seller. I also made the refreshments and reviewed the play for the neighborhood newspaper, of which I was, of course, the editor. My cousin Patty was the reporter. While she was out looking for stories, I sat home and read comic books and ate bologna sandwiches, which is pretty much what I picture editors doing today.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?

Over many years I had story ideas. I'd tell my husband and that would be the end of it. But finally when I said once again, "Listen to this. I have this great idea for a story," he said "You’ve been saying that for twenty five years now and I’ve never seen a word. This time I won’t listen - but I’ll read it if you’ll write it down." That irritated me-a lot-- but I did. I wanted to know what happened to that girl and the only way I could find out was to make it up and write it down. And that story idea turned into Catherine Called Birdy.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

Novelists Ellis Peters and Rosemary Sutcliff. Writing gurus like Anne Lamott , Jane Yolen, and Carolyn See. Newbery winners and honor books.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they? I have a studio full of photos, doll houses, stuffed animals, awards, and other colorful, fabulous things. But I don't seem to want to write there. Usually I curl up in a chair in the living room.
Karen's studio, where she doesn't write
The office in Karen's house, where she also doesn't write
The chair where Karen writes, with help from Otis

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?

I often write while I'm walking, but I have to be alone. It doesn't work if I walk with other people. I read--fiction, books about medieval and Elizabethan England, books about writing. And I keep in touch with people via the internet. I've long waited to write the daily friendly notes she recommends but I haven't succeeded at that. Yet.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?

When I first started Catherine Called Birdy, people told me to be prepared for failure, that first novels don't sell, history is not popular with young people, that the Middle Ages are dead, and no one wants to read about girls.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?

Type chapter one, page one on a blank piece of paper. Horrible.

What are you proudest of in your work?

I'd say the connection with readers. I'm so proud and so moved when readers write me to tell me what a book meant to them or how it helped them or what it reminded them of in their own life.

How do you know when you have a story just right?

It doesn't happen often. Sometimes I can feel the rightness of various bits and pieces, snippets of dialogue or characters, and I have this warm feeling of well being. But I find it hard to see and judge the whole. That's where a great editor comes in.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?

I worked for four years on Catherine Called Birdy before sending it anywhere. And then things happened fast. I sent it to my husband's agent. He lived in the same apartment building in New York as Dorothy Briley of Clarion Books and handed her the manuscript in the elevator. She called him two days later and said they'd take it.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

How much I hate to sit down and write and how I can't think of anything I'd rather do--it's a real love/hate relationship.

A series of questions about work habits:
  • Computer or long-hand? Mostly computer but if I'm stuck, I'll pull out pen and paper. That intimate connection between my hand and the words often helps me get past difficulties or deeper into a scene.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea with a lot of milk.
  • Quiet office or music going? Music.
  • Desk: messy or tidy? Messy.
  • Essential writing snack food: Nuts, so I try not to have them around.
About your new book, Alchemy and Meggy Swann: On your website, (which is terrific, by the way!) you tell a delightful story about long walks with your Polish grandfather and picking up treasures along the way. You compared that collecting to what you do now as a writer. What collected “treasures” led you to write this book?

Let's see: Shakespeare in Love; years of going to Renaissance fairs; ballad singers and broadsides; alchemy, which set me thinking about change and transformation; and my father's death and wondering about fathers and what parenting is.

What do you do to get to know your main character?

I write about her. I don't do character sketches or "what do they fear most in the world" kinds of exercises, but just put a character in a story and try to follow a trajectory. I imagine her in various situations, picture her actions and reactions.

Your character’s names are always spot-on perfect. Where did Meggy’s come from?

She started out Bessie Blunt, but there was an actual person by a similar name at Henry VIII's court. So I changed it to Meggy Blunt. And then as I wrote about her, the idea of an ugly duckling to growing to be a swan led me to Swann.

What was your biggest challenge in telling Meggy’s story? The biggest reward?

My biggest challenge was trying to understand enough about alchemy to use it in the story. Alchemy is arcane, esoteric, mysterious, deliberately cryptic, and complicated. The biggest reward was finally finding a way for Meggy to succeed and be satisfied without the transformation she wanted.

A perfectly selfish question: how do you organize all of your research materials?

With my early books I kept well-organized notebooks divided by subject: setting, characters, language, clothing, and such. Then I moved to stacks of yellow sheets with notes scribbled on. Now so much of it is in my head that I just write with books stacked around me for quick reference and things like synonyms and etymology bookmarked on my computer.

Karen, thanks for spending this time with us, over a cup of tea with lots of milk. To wrap up: Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?

I wish you'd asked how I was researching my new book, and I'd tell you I was hanging out with pigs at an animal sanctuary.

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?

Crossword puzzles. In ink. And I remember the lyrics to almost every song from the 1950s.

Karen, thanks so much for spending this time with us. And next time I'm stuck for the words to Johnny B. Goode, I know who to call!


  1. Love this interview. Felt like I was sipping tea (with lots of milk) with the two of you.

  2. What a fantastic interview! And so inspiring, too. I loved hearing about Ms. Cushman's journey to publication (more info is on her website) and the inner-confidence she had for her first book.

  3. Makes me want to get Alchemy ASAP! :-)

  4. Thanks once again, Kirby! Love you, love Karen, love this. :)

  5. Thanks for all the love, guys. Karen IS amazing and I'm so honored she spent this time with all of us.

  6. Thanks for this insightful interview. I was fascinated to learn that Karen sometimes writes while walking along. So do I. The rhythm of my steps seems to evoke snatches of narrative and dialogue.

    Marilyn Donahue