At the 2013 National Book Festival
Susan Cooper has been writing for over 30 years. In this time she has written numerous newspaper articles, books for children and adults, screenplays for TV and the cinema and a Broadway play. She is best known for her five-book series, "The Dark Is Rising," which includes the Newbery Award-winning "The Grey King." Cooper is also one of the writers of "The Exquisite Corpse Adventure," an original story written for the Library of Congress' Read.gov website and now a book from Candlewick.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book series –The Dark is Rising?
This question is like the one everybody asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” to which there is no true answer except “I don’t know.” I can tell you that I was cross country skiing in a wood one winter day, looking at branches sticking up out of the snow and thinking they looked like the antlers of buried deer…. and suddenly I knew for no reason at all that I wanted to write a book set in snow like this, but in my native England, about a boy who woke up on his eleventh birthday and found he could work magic.
But that led to the second book of this five-book sequence, and I’d already written the first book ten years earlier, and didn’t yet know they were connected…
The important thing is not just to have an idea – everybody has ideas – but to catch it before it can fly away, and to ask it questions.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The challenge every day is sitting down at the desk and facing that blank page. It’s terrifying. I read what I wrote the day before, I stare out of the window, I walk round the room, I sort out the paperclips in the bowl in my desk, and when I can’t think of any more excuses, I make myself climb back inside the story and start writing.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Read, read, read, anything and everything. This is your basic training, and you will never have so much time for it again. If you read good stories badly written, they will teach you how to shape a plot. If you read really good writing, the music of the words will sink into your subconscious and, with luck, come out later in your own work. Reading is the writer’s only real education - and it’s painless!
And don’t be hesitant about starting to write – just do it. Babies don’t hope to start walking; they simply try, because they want to. And they fall down a lot, and howl, and get up again, until one day they find they can run.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
The magic words are “What if -?”
Suppose you’re sitting in class. What if the girl in front of you suddenly floats up to the ceiling and hovers there? What happens next? How did she do it? Or what if that pencil on your desk starts to wriggle, and grow fangs? What if all the windows suddenly burst open and twelve small blue pigs fly in, singing “Good King Wenceslas”? What if…….?
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
Here are five I loved when I was young, and still do:
- The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
- The Children of Green Knowe, by L.M.Boston
- Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome
- The Sword in the Stone, by T.H.White
- The Box of Delights, by John Masefield
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don’t. Some tiny picture or idea fidgets inside my head for years and refuses to go away, until finally I reluctantly look at it and see that it could be a book.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
That’s the trouble – if the fidgeting idea involves a story in the past, you have to know enough about the past to bring it alive, and the research takes forever. I once had an idea about a modern boy finding himself acting with Shakespeare, and it was only because one of my best friends kept nagging me to turn it into a story that I finally spent two years visiting the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, and reading every book written about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage. Once the background work was done, though, I had a great time writing “King of Shadows”
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read to them every night; go on reading to and with them even after they can do it themselves, and most important of all, make sure they see you reading on your own. Preferably a real book printed on paper, between covers – but an ebook will do.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I’ve just finished a book called The Magic Maker, a portrait of the singer/director John Langstaff who created The Christmas Revels, and I’m re-writing a novel that might be called Hawk. It’s taken me a long time because (sigh) it needed a lot of research.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing? I’d be miserable - like a Border collie with no sheep to herd, or a wild bird in a cage.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
www.thelostland.com/ is a website created years ago by my English friend Mark Scott, a computer whizz and writer whom I’ve known since he sent me a fan letter when he was nine. We’re now updating it with a designer. Come visit!