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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.

KB:  What kind of writer are you (e.g. What time of day do you typically write)?

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.

Thanks, Karen!

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!

I’m going to start an experiment tomorrow.

I’ll wake up at 5 a.m. to write.  I’m not a morning person. At all. I’m a night owl. I write in the afternoon while my daughter naps, and I write at night once everyone else is in bed. I like the quiet in the afternoon while the other house inhabitants are off at work and school. And I like writing at night because I can just write until I get tired, without the clock ticking down that my shift is almost up.

But, sometimes my kid doesn’t nap. Like today. She sat in bed singing at the top of her lungs just on the other side of the wall, and for some reason it made my revisions more difficult. Sometimes I go out at night, or get tired, or what have you and I don’t write for the day.

Then I get cranky.

So, I need a new system. I’ve tried writing in the morning before. I’ve tried to sneak downstairs and out the back door to my office/shed without waking anyone, but I have creaky stairs.  One or both of the kids will wake up, and in the house I will stay.

Now summer is right around the corner, and those guys will be home all day. I love summer. I like to garden, hike, kayak, and laze around in the park. We go for ferry rides and camp on the beach. Summer is my season. If I can trick my brain into some early bird creativity then I can have that feeling of accomplishment to carry through the day, which is so much yummier than that mild frustration of not having done the work. Right? So, I’m going to try and reprogram myself now.

I’m not the only one.  Jolie and Ben came up with the idea, and I’m just tagging along. They’re going to try it, too. Some of my other favorite creative folk like Martha and Jaime already get up early. So, I’ll be in pleasant, groggy company. I may need to pick up a coffeemaker for the shed.

Wish me luck.

When do you write? Why?

This doesn’t have anything to do with publishing or kid lit, but I’m going to blog about it anyway because people have been asking me about it this week. I apologize for the length, and I’m guessing it will be the most personal thing I ever post, but you know. Feel free to skip it.

My youngest kid was adopted from Guatemala about two and a half years ago. When we decided on adoption we knew that we wanted to adopt internationally, and from a Latin country. I have a Hispanic background that I identify strongly with, and I wanted to have that connection. Unfortunately, Mexico (where my mother’s family came from) is not open to international adoption. So, we chose Guatemala. We researched agencies to find one with good ethics and communication, and we started the process.

It took a couple of years. We were matched with a lovely baby girl, but lost the placement when it was revealed through DNA testing that the woman claiming to be her mother was not. I was grief stricken. We hadn’t met her, but something happens when you’re a parent waiting for your child, biological or not. I’ve done it both ways. I know.

We were matched again with our daughter, and we started all over again. We visited while the media was shining a bright light on a few sensational cases of trafficking under the guise of adoption. When we went down for our pick up trip, they advised us to stay in the hotel because of the rising tension (we didn’t). Anderson Cooper was there “reporting,” and I’ve taken anything he’s said with a rock of salt since. The state department warned that adoptions would stop suddenly, without warning. The Guatemalan government granted permission for us to leave after everything had been checked and rechecked, with our daughter. I’ve never been so relieved in my whole life. Guatemala closed their adoption program just a couple of months later, and many friends we’d been going through the process with were thrown into limbo.

It wasn’t an easy transition, but parenthood never really is. She was world weary, wondering why these strange people had taken her from her loving foster family. She wasn’t crazy about me for a long time. Her big brother, warned for years that the day would eventually be coming when he would have a little sister, was gobsmacked. She warmed to her dad and brother first, and then eventually me. When you adopt, any agency worth it’s weight in feathers warns and educates  you that it probably won’t be sunshine and rainbows at first. It’s a tough transition. But still, something clicks before you ever even see them and you’re family.

So, last week some idiot woman in Tennessee decided she was unhappy with the child she adopted from Russia and sent him back. Alone. With a note.

Russia is pissed, and rightfully so. So today, they’ve suspended all adoptions. Anyone in the middle of their adoption process is thrown into the unknown. Just thinking about it makes my pulse speed up. It was my worst fear.

Now there will be a slew of articles and experts gabbing about whether parental bonds are as strong for adopted kids as biological kids. It’s sensational. It’s Sneetch-ish. It’s going to be “news” for a bit. I’ve got one of each, so I’m going to go ahead and say I’m a reliable source on this subject.

The bonds are the same. I love each of my kids with ferocity, and I think I can speak on their dad’s behalf, too. That woman who sent her child across the world alone is an asshat. She should be prosecuted for child abuse and abandonment. She’s not a parent. Every headline and news snip that refers to her as an adoptive mother makes me bare my teeth a little bit. My son is the same age, and that poor guy can’t even walk home from the bus stop alone. She is an asshat with poor judgement, not a victim of the adoptive system.

I know people wonder about how much people love their adopted kids. People ask, and they ask around it, and they don’t ask in that way that tells you that they’re trying very hard not to ask. People from each side of the fence wonder at the mysteries of familial bonds. Strangers in the store ask. Friends ask. Families with only adopted children ask, wondering if they’re perhaps missing out on some essential ingredient that gets thrown in when you have a baby the old fashioned way. There’s still such a stigma around adoption. We watched a movie a couple of weeks ago where the younger brother was insulted and traumatized when his older sister claimed he was adopted. Oh, the horror!

I’ve been rambling on, so I’ll keep the answer simple and concise. The process is different, but the results are the same in millions and millions of cases. Like ours.

Family. A big, crazy, loving family.

And sometimes, zombies.

A friend asked me for a music recommendation recently, and I suggested a band I find myself listening to a lot. While I drive, while I cook, but mostly while I write. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.

There was this guy in Raleigh who got mono, got dumped, and broke up with his band. He went to his dad’s cabin in the backwoods of Wisconsin alone for the winter to recuperate. He took some instruments and recording equipment with him when he moved, but just wanted to lay low and have some r & r. But, there’s only so much you can do trapped in a cabin in the winter so he started fiddling around, writing songs, and recording them for a possible demo.

The result was For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s a great, melodic album that I find myself listening to frequently (especially when I’m writing), and I like the whole phoenix aspect of his creative process. Inspiring, I tell you!

You can hear it here:

Do you ever listen to music while you work? What do you find yourself listening to?

Sorry for taking such a long blogging break. I needed it. By way of an apology, please enjoy this new Muppet video (via Neatorama), to go with our musical theme.

I write stories for kids while volunteering as the Assistant Regional Advisor and Conference Coordinator for the western Washington chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

I live in Seattle with my family and a small zoo of animals. I drink copious amounts of coffee and assign complicated life stories to passing strangers. I'm currently working on a middle grade novel.

There's a wee bit more on my website. You can also follow me on twitter.


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