I met Karen Cushman briefly last summer at the Golden Kite Luncheon at the SCBWI Summer Conference in L.A. I knew everyone at our table apart from Karen and her nephew. She introduced herself, just as congenial as can be, and I think I said something smooth and charming and not all all flustered.
Something like, “Oh! Wow!”
I recovered, and we went on to have a lovely luncheon. Karen was awesome, and I’m honored to offer a little glimpse into her newest book, Alchemy and Meggy Swann, as well as her writing process. Thank you, Karen!
KB: Tell us about Alchemy and Meggy Swann.
KC: Feisty Meggy, sent from her mother’s village to live in London with the father she has never known, struggles with his evident disappointment when they meet. Not only is she is not the son he had expected, she walks with a halting gait–wabbling she calls it, aided by two sticks. Meggy finds the city a horrible place and is angry and frightened. Slowly she explores her new world, makes friends, and begins to help her father, an alchemist. Along the way she learns much about friendship, loyalty, and transformation.
KB: How did writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann differ from your other books?
KC: Differ? I don’t think it did. There were the usual panics and the usual hair-tearing-out when editorial letters came. The most different thing about the book is that Meggy struggles with a physical disability.
KC: I write better in the morning, but first I have to read the newspaper, check emails and writers’ blogs, eat breakfast, shower, do a load of laundry, think about dinner. Then I answer emails, play computer solitaire, and talk baby talk to my cat. Finally I am impatient enough with myself to sit down and work. By that time it is usually not morning anymore so in reality I write in the afternoon.
KB: Do you give yourself a daily word count? Are you an outliner?
KC: I don’t outline or make 3×5 cards or storyboards, but I do have a story pretty well developed in my head before I start to write it. I hate facing the blank page and find writing the first draft by far the hardest part of the job, pulling words out of me like, Katherine Paterson says, a spider spinning a web out of her own guts. I don’t have a word or page count but work as long as I feel productive.
KB: Do you revise as you go, or just get the first draft down?
As I write my first draft, I go back and polish those pages and chapters that came before. Over and over. This is how I start working each day–reading over and polishing what I have already written. It gives me a running start on the day’s work. It’s those early chapters that establish mood and voice and I like to know these as I write on. Is the voice humorous and ironic, like Birdy? Naive but wise like Alyce? Sad and angry like Rodzina? Complaining and confrontational as are Lucy and Matilda?
KB: Do you believe in writer’s block?
KC: I believe there are some times when a writer doesn’t want to write, doesn’t know what comes next, doubts she can do it, thinks she has nothing more to say. But as a diagnosis? Nope. I don’t believe in writers’ block. Or most attempts to turn a process into a thing, for that matter.
KB: How do you stay in touch with the writing community?
KC: I read blogs, email friends, huddle with other writers at conferences, read what’s newly published.
KB: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
KC: Sleep. Read. Putter in the garden. See friends. Watch Inspector Morse.
KB: Any writing and/or revision tips you’d like to share?
Revision is much easier for me than writing a first draft. So with my work in progress, Will Sparrow’s Road, I tried something different. I set up a vague outline of chapters, typed notes and ideas in each chapter, added a few sentences, a character description, an action, some dialogue, whatever occurred to me, until the book was laid out on the computer. Then when I went back, writing that first draft was more like editing and revising, not writing. Much easier.
KB: What have you enjoyed reading recently?
KC: Besides many, many, MANY books as research for one book or another, I enjoyed The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim; Ice by Sarah Beth Durst; A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick; The Wet-Nurse’s Tale, Erica Eisdorfer.
Don’t forget that Karen will be speaking at our last SCBWI Western Washington meeting of the season on May 11th.
If you would like a chance to win a signed copy of Alchemy and Meggy Swann, just share a writing or revision tip in the comments. I’ll pick a winner on Thursday!