Imagine my excitement when I was asked if I wanted to host Karen Cushman on a blog tour to celebrate her latest book, Will Sparrow's Road. It took me minus two seconds to say yes! Now, I am blessed to count Karen as a friend, but when I was first starting out, she was a hero, and a mentor (though she didn't know it). A keynote she presented at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles inspired all listeners to follow their passion -- and when Karen tells you to do something, you do it! At least I do. Her words (and modeling) gave me the courage to try my own hand at writing historical fiction. I am grateful to her for that, and grateful that she so graciously answered all of my questions, as well as some from her biggest fans.
Tell us a bit about your educational background.
I have a BA in Greek and English from Stanford, an MA in Human Behavior, and another MA in Museum Studies. What else was I prepared to do but write?
I think you could have done a million things, but I know there are a million readers who are awfully pleased you decided to become a writer. I wonder, with such a strong research background, where there things about the research required to write a novel that surprised you?
I was surprised by how little information there is about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. You want to write about Edward III, you’ll drown in information, but no one wrote down what his laundress was doing or thinking. This was especially surprising when I was researching The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. I was in California and had access to the Bancroft Library, one of the premier archives on the history of California and the North American west. I found books and letters and newspapers about merchants, miners, politicians, robber barons, plain robbers, but very little by or about woman and nothing by or about children. The situation is better now. More scholars are looking at the everyday lives of ordinary people.
So you are drawn to write about the voiceless from the past. I'm curious --what comes first for you – the time period or the character?
I don’t mean to avoid the question but I think the two come together. Character is created by the times, responds to the times, is intimately involved with the times.
It sounds like you must get yourself very grounded in a time to create character. Can you share some of your favorite research tools and techniques to accomplish that?
Starting with the Elizabethan books, I have been making good use of the internet. I found recreations of alchemical laboratories, an interactive map of Elizabethan London, a gazetteer of English fairs since the eleventh century, and a Shakespeare insult generator. One has to be wary of facts and opinions on the web, but it is a rich source of historical documents, images, and compendia. I also use material from historical enthusiast organization like the Society for Creative Anachronism and Renaissance faire groups.
What’s your favorite time period to write about? Do you need to do a lot of research to make a time period feel authentic?
My favorite period is definitely the English Middle Ages. Even as I attempt a fantasy, it’s set in a realistically medieval world. Except for the dragon. And, yes, I do a lot of research about a time period—not only facts but also values and attitudes, how people thought and felt as well as what they did.
I have driven myself crazy trying to find out, say, what time of day a child might have listened to a certain radio program during the 1940s. What do you do if you absolutely cannot track down a bit of information that you think you need for your story?
Why, I make it up. I take my best guess, informed by the research I have done.
How do you sift through, or filter, your modern mind and emotional responses so that you can capture how someone would think or feel in an era so different from your own? How do you get inside the head of characters who live in such different times (especially with differences in language, values, gender roles, etc.) in order to provide us with such believable characters, characters we relate to even if they lived 100+ years before?
Good questions about an issue that is at the core of historical fiction. I cannot walk in someone else’s shoes. I have to stand here in my own world and my own shoes. But my research helps me know about the attitudes, values, and beliefs in that other time, and I use that knowledge to make my best guess about a character’s feelings and reactions. And I know how I feel, where I experience sadness in my body, what happens to my hands and my heart when I’m afraid, how I respond to grief and loss, and I can use that. Yes indeed, it is hard, but without it, my books would be fantasy and not historical fiction.
I was on a panel with two editors and an agent last year and none of them were interested in buying/representing writers of historical fiction. Why should you and I keep writing such stories?
Because these are the stories that take us over, the characters that wake us in the morning and get us downstairs to write, the questions and situations that make us curious and excited and alive. Because historical fiction is where our passion is, no matter what editors and agents are buying.
Do you think the term "historical fiction" does your books a disservice because, in the view of some readers, it smacks too much of school work? Or is that an insulting question? I've seen Laurie Halse Anderson refer to her books as historical thrillers. If you could (or wanted to), how would you want your books categorized?
That’s not an insulting question at all. As long as “history” is a boring, school-room word, historical fiction will suffer the taint. But a historical novel is just a story about what it was like to live in another place and time. Aren’t we curious about that?
What can you explore through historical fiction that you might not be able to in contemporary fiction?
When we write historical fiction, we know how things end, how people turn out, who or what solves a problem. It is in a way comforting, especially as we live in this confusing world.
How do you know when it’s time to transition from research to writing?
I tend to do both at the same time. I’ll be writing and realize there are things I need to find out about. Or I might be researching one topic and discover something important or unexpected that I have to go back to the story and include.
How do you organize your research? Computer program? Index cards? Notebooks?
I use to make intricate notebooks with indexes and dividers and tables of contents. . Now I scribble facts, ideas, and questions any handy piece of paper—yellow pads to the back of grocery receipts. So much of what I need to know. I know. That will change if I ever tackle a completely new and foreign place or time period.
When working on a draft do you ever find yourself behaving in the Now world as though you were still in the Then world?
No, but sometimes I break into Then-speech, forsooth.
You have written about some characters who can be, to put it delicately, pills! For example, Meggy Swann (Alchemy and Meggy Swann) is bitter and snarky, Will (Will Sparrow’s Road) is a liar and a thief. Why cast such characters in the starring roles of your stories?
I seem to like to write characters who change. What makes them the way they are at first? How or why do they change? What do they become? Adolescents of all ages, including me, are dealing with issues of identity, change and becoming, what it means to be human in this world. Besides, I enjoy writing snarky.
There is a menu item that crops up in your two most recent books so I have to ask: have you ever eaten eel pie?
I have drunk mead and perry and homemade beer, but when it comes to food, I am pretty much a twenty-first century girl. And I would never eat eel pie, chicken feet, or anything stuffed in a boar’s stomach.
Historical personage with whom you’d most like to do dine?
I think Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife to two kings and mother to two others. She was outrageous enough to be interesting although I’d probably never get a word in edgewise.
Can you give us a hint about the next Karen Cushman novel?
Well, there’s a mother and daughter, a dragon, a wizard, and a force that comes as smoke and shadow.
A force that comes as smoke and shadow. . .I can't wait! And if you haven't yet read Will Sparrow's Road (read a fabulous NYT review here), stop what you're doing now and pick it up.
Want more from Karen? Follow the tour, tomorrow, at Green Bean Teen Queen.