Interview
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What was your childhood like?
Susan Cooper
My novel Dawn of Fear is an account of my wartime childhood. Margery Gill’s cover on this 1970 edition shows the typical backyard bomb shelter.
I was born into the peaceful green countryside of Buckinghamshire, in England, four years before World War II broke out, and by the time I started going to school, life had become very noisy. There was an anti-aircraft post at the end of our road firing at the German planes that were dropping bombs overhead, and we spent a lot of nights in the family air-raid shelter. These shelters were like a little cave in the back lawn that everyone’s Dad had dug out and lined with Government-issue corrugated iron, replanting the piece of lawn on its roof. I’d lie on the top bunk in our shelter, listening to my mother reading to my little brother and me by candlelight. The candle was stuck to a saucer, on a box in the middle of the earth floor, and its flame shook every time a bomb fell.

There were two things about that childhood that helped to turn me into a writer of fantasy. Since we weren’t allowed out after dark (every house in England was blacked out at night, to be invisible to the bombers) and there was no television, I read everything I could find, from fairy stories to Dickens. And since every air-raid was a reminder that an enemy was trying to kill us, I developed a very strong sense of us and them, good and evil, the Light and the Dark.

What are your ties to Wales?
Susan Cooper
Me at age 15 with brother, father, uncle, and cousins on the beach in Aberdyfi, 1951, in the boys’ sand fort! I’m in the back row, center. It was my Welsh Uncle Llew (back row, right), who first told me about the Brenin Llwyd, the “Grey King,” and from whom I heard the story that I put into The Silver Cow.
I have deep roots there. My Welsh grandmother—my mother’s mother—had been sent up to London at age 14 to “go into service” after her sailor father drowned, and in London she had married an Englishman. This fact did two things for me: it gave me enough Welsh blood to fall in love with Wales, and it gave me my Grandad—imposing, bookloving and stagestruck—who took his seven children to the very first production of “Peter Pan” and recited terrifying Victorian monologues to us grandchildren at family parties. My parents were Londoners who had moved out into the country. My mother was a teacher, and my father was the third generation of his family to work for the Great Western Railway, whose trains ran from London to the West Country and to Wales. We used to take one of those trains to Wales for summer holidays sometimes, to the village of Aberdovey (Aberdyfi, in Welsh) where my grandmother had been born—and which much later became home, since my parents moved there for the last 20 years of their lives.
When did you first start writing?
Start Writing
Drama on the high seas, or at least an upended garden bench: This is me and my brother Rod, heroically captaining the "Silver Streak."
There were no writers in the family, but my brother Rod and I grew up with words, and we both became writers. My mother knew large chunks of Tennyson, Browning and the Romantic poets by heart, and even my father, who had no literary bent whatsoever (though he had the most beautiful handwriting I have ever seen, and could play almost anything by ear on the piano) would launch sometimes into a spirited rendering of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

I read endlessly, wrote plays for a puppet theatre operated by the boy next door, and decided at 14 that since adults clearly didn’t understand the young, I should write my autobiography, which would be called Fourteen. It went very slowly, however, and by the time the title had changed to Sixteen I gave up the idea. Instead I edited the school magazine and then went to Oxford to do a degree in English.

What led you to Oxford?
newspaper clipping
This accomplishment was due almost entirely to my wonderful high school headmistress, who was determined that I should go either to Oxford or Cambridge. I had a State Scholarship to go to any university that wanted me, but the entrance examinations included my worst subject, Latin—which I failed. This didn’t deter the headmistress, who pointed out to my nervous parents that since I was only 17, I could spend an extra year at school, with some extra tutorials in Latin, and try again.

So I did, with tutorials from the wife of our local vicar—whose house I used a decade later, lock, stock and barrel, as the house of Will Stanton’s family in The Dark Is Rising. The vicar’s wife improved my Latin, and off I went to Oxford, where I spent three of the happiest years of my life.

Is it true that Tolkien was one of your professors?
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both teaching when I was at Oxford and without a doubt influenced the lives of all of their students. As dons, they had set the rule that the Oxford English syllabus stop at 1832 and that it be heavy on Middle English and writers like Malory and Spenser, so, as a friend of mine says, they taught us to believe in dragons. They were both often to be seen drinking beer in a pub called the Eagle and Child, known as the Bird and Baby. I never personally met Tolkien or Lewis, and I’d never heard of Narnia, but we were all waiting eagerly for the third volume of The Lord of the Rings to come out, and I loved going to Lewis’s booming lectures on Renaissance literature. Tolkien lectured on Beowulf and was rather mumbly, except when declaiming the first lines of the poem in Anglo-Saxon, beginning with a great shout of “Hwaet!”
Did you start writing books right away?
Cherwell newspaper crew
On the job with my Cherwell co-editor Patrick Nobes at Oxford.
I was always writing, but I decided that the only way to earn a living by writing was to become a journalist. After editing the Oxford university newspaper Cherwell, which no woman had done before, I was lucky enough to get a job on the London Sunday Times. At first I worked partly for a column put together by Ian Fleming, who was just starting to write the James Bond books, and after that as a reporter and feature-writer interviewing everybody from crooks to Presidents to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I had a wonderful time, working and playing in the London of the early Sixties. (One of my boyfriends was a jazz trombonist from Liverpool, scornful of a new group just emerging from his hometown; they were called The Beatles!) But I was always writing on the side.
How did you manage being a journalist
and a fantasist at the same time?
Mandrake
The observational skills and the discipline required of a journalist turned out to be just as valuable for a novelist. When I began writing novels in my spare time, the first one was realistic and very bad; the second was a fantasy, Mandrake, which was better. Since it was a story about the end of civilization, set in an England of the future (1980!), it was published as science fiction.

Meantime, between doing interviews with film stars and politicians for the paper, I’d been contributing pieces to a weekly feature called Mainly For Children, and one day the Literary Editor dropped a piece of paper on my desk and said, “You ought to try that.” It was a notice from a children’s book publisher offering a prize of £1,000 for a “family adventure story.” This was more than I earned in a year, so of course I began to write—but by the end of Chapter Two the book turned itself into a fantasy. It became a quest story, full of Arthurian echoes, dealing—though not yet by name—with the Light and the Dark, and it was called Over Sea, Under Stone. I never did submit it for the writing prize. It was published by Jonathan Cape instead, in 1965, after I’d moved to America. I had a feeling that the story would lead somewhere further, but the sequels didn’t happen until much later.

Next I wrote a book about the war, Dawn of Fear, which is totally autobiographical except that I turned myself into a boy, and for nine years I wrote a weekly column called “Susan Cooper In America” for a Welsh newspaper. I also wrote a biography of the English author J.B. Priestley. For me, combining journalism and fiction in my writing life worked quite well.

Why would someone so British move to the United States?
Moving to America
Nick and I on our wedding day, contributing to international harmony from the front steps of my parents’ home in Aberdyfi.
I suppose it was my own family adventure! Before Over Sea Under Stone was published, my newspaper had sent me to the USA for four months. I had a great time, but came back convinced that neither the British nor the Americans understood each other, so I wrote a series of articles called “Behind the Golden Curtain.” Four separate publishers suggested that I turn the articles into a book, and by the time I signed a contract with one of them, I was living in the USA.

To the horror of my family, my friends and my editor, I had married a widowed American professor from MIT, whom I’d met while doing interviews for the articles; he was 19 years older than me and had three teenage children, and lived in Massachusetts. I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back.

How did you come to write the Dark is Rising sequence?

The homesickness influenced my writing, certainly. Life improved after my son Jonathan was born in 1966, and my daughter Kate 18 months later. I learned to drive, to ski, to cook enormous meals for teenagers and graduate students, and tried (rather less successfully) to understand American football. I returned regularly to England for visits. But my homesickness never went away.

Dark is Rising plan
  My plan for the Dark is Rising sequence.

It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.  Before I began the book I had realized that it was not only connected—by the Merlin-figure Merriman Lyon—to my earlier book Over Sea, Under Stone, but that they were both part of a sequence of five. So I took a piece of paper and wrote down the names of all five books, their characters, the places where they would be set, and the times of the year. The Dark Is Rising would be at the winter solstice and Christmas, the next book Greenwitch would be in the spring, at the old Celtic festival of Beltane...

On another piece of paper I wrote the very last half-page of the entire story, and then I spent the next six years writing the rest of the sequence—and pulled out that half-page when I reached the end of Silver on the Tree.

Did your source of inspiration change
after you wrote The Dark is Rising?

After the five Dark Is Rising books, when everyone expected something similar, I wrote a very different fantasy called Seaward. It was written during an awful year when my marriage broke up and both my parents died, but it has hope in it all the same—and one character who still haunts me, a strange little creature named Peth. My book ideas since have all been very different from each other, and gradually I turned my storytelling towards theatre and film as well.

Did you always write for the theatre as well?
Susan in the Theatre
Here I am at age 18 in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” my first (and last) appearance on stage. My best work is done offstage!
Probably due to my grandfather’s influence, I always had a love for drama, whether it was poetry, a stage production, a radio play, or the Christmas pantomime. I had written some plays for radio in the UK, but I didn’t write professionally for the theatre until I was about 40. I discovered that because writing a novel is a long lonely business, collaboration on something else can make a nice change—and what could be more collaborative than theatre?

It started with a phenomenon called Revels. In 1973, my publisher brought me to see a performance and introduced me to its creator, the singer-director Jack Langstaff, who cried, “But I’ve read your books! You should be writing for the Revels!”  So for the next two decades I wrote lyrics, poems, short plays and stories for those astonishing, joyous celebrations of the solstice. My chapter book The Magician’s Boy is adapted from one of my Revels plays, and I recently published a biography of Jack. But my longer collaborations were all with my second husband, the actor Hume Cronyn.

What did you write with Hume Cronyn?
Hume Cronyn Susan Cooper
With my script in hand, on the film set of “To Dance With the White Dog” with Hume and the director Glenn Jordan.
In 1974 I met Hume and his wife Jessica Tandy on vacation, and we became friends. They had been married and performing together for four decades, and when they were devising a joint program of readings, I sent Hume my favorite bits from the Foxfire books.  He didn’t include them but he too fell in love with the material, and together we used some of it to write a play—called, of course, Foxfire. A few years later I turned it into a television script for Hallmark, and Jess won an Emmy.

By that time I had accidentally become a screenwriter, because Jane Fonda had liked our dialog in Foxfire and asked Hume and me to write her a TV script from Harriette Arnow’s Appalachian book The Dollmaker (for which Jane, too, won an Emmy.) Then I wrote several other TV films, independently. I never managed an Emmy myself, just a couple of nominations, but I was very happy when the ladies got them.

Have you worked on other collaborations?
Every book is a collaboration between author, editor and illustrator. My editor, the late legendary Margaret K. McElderry, paired me with wonderful artists—notably Ashley Bryan and Warwick Hutton for some of my picturebooks, and Michael Heslop and Trina Schart Hyman for jacket art. Also I’ve worked on musical collaborations with composers, which has been great fun, and on multi-author anthologies. The latest project with the NCBLA, “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure,” was actually a collaborative game, which I encourage young writers to try for themselves.
How did your other fantasy novels come about?
At the same time that I was working on screenplays, I wrote picture books—retellings of folktales from the British Isles full of myth and magic: The Silver Cow, The Selkie Girl, and Tam Lin. For a long time I wanted to write a story about the invisible mischief-making spirit known in Britain as a boggart, and suddenly when I was on vacation in Scotland with a friend we saw a castle where I instantly knew my boggart lived! So out of that came two cheerful fantasy novels in the 1990s: The Boggart and The Boggart and the Monster.

Eventually the theatre and the writing sides of my life came together in my head, and I found I wanted to write a story about a modern American boy actor who finds himself onstage with William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, in London.  At first I pushed this idea away, since I knew it would mean lengthy research into 17th century English life, not to mention Shakespeare, but I had made the mistake of mentioning it to Jack Langstaff, who proceeded to remind me of it enthusiastically at monthly intervals for a year. So I finally wrote King of Shadows, and sent the very first copy to Jack.

Moving to America
Meeting an iguana on an uninhabited cay in the Exumas—a tropical dragon!

The next book was a fantasy called Green Boy, which came out of twenty years of visits to the Exuma Cays, in the Bahamas. When one beautiful, untouched little cay came under threat from development, I put both the threat and the island into this fantasy novel. James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, which suggests that the whole earth is a living organism, also haunts the book—as it did my very first novel, Mandrake. (You can find the hypothesis in Lovelock’s fascinating books, starting with Gaia.)

Having written a timeslip book that gave me the chance to meet my greatest hero, Shakespeare, I thought again about a tiny long-ago incident that had been floating about my head for years. Another hero, if you’re English, is Admiral Lord Nelson, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar while helping to save his country from being conquered by France and Spain, and somewhere I had read that the crew of his flagship H.M.S. Victory carried its tattered flag in his funeral procession through the streets of London. As his coffin was lowered into the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the sailors were supposed to fold the flag to go down too— but they couldn’t bear it, because the flag was all they had left of him. So they ripped it apart, and each one of them kept a piece.

I thought: suppose one of those sailors was a ship’s boy, and suppose he kept his piece of flag all his life—and suppose it comes down to the present, to another boy—no, to a girl—and suppose— So I wrote Victory, about 18th century Sam and 21st century Molly, and it gave me the chance to meet Nelson.

As for what’s next.... Readers often ask writers where their ideas come from, incredulously, as if they already know it must be from an elusive and mysterious source. You can read my essays in Dreams & Wishes for my thoughts on imagination, and creating story.

Where do you currently live and work?
Hume Cronyn Susan Cooper
With Hume in my study in Connecticut in 2000.
Where Susan currently lives
The ever-changing view of the tidal marsh, from my study window in Massachusetts.
I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a long time, then moved to Connecticut for the seven years that I was married to Hume Cronyn—but when he died in 2003, I moved back to Massachusetts to be close to my kids and the four grandchildren (not to mention the six “step” grandkids and their children!).

I live on an almost-island in a saltmarsh in Marshfield, accessible to the mainland only when the tide is out. Here I sit and work, looking out at the Atlantic.

On the window sill there’s a magic talisman, a round green glass float once attached to a fisherman’s net, that I rescued from the beach. Not a beach here in America, but beyond the horizon—in Wales.