Karen Cushman Cover Reveal (are you ready for a fantasy novel?)
You read that right, folks. Karen Cushman has a new book coming out (hooray!) and it’s not like her books in the past. Cushman has embraced her fantastical side in her latest title, Grayling’s Song. Here’s the plot description:
“When Grayling’s mother, wise woman Hannah Strong, starts turning into a tree, Hannah sends Grayling to call “the others” for help. Shy and accustomed to following her mother in everything, Grayling takes to the road. She manages to summon several “others”—second-string magic makers who have avoided the tree spell—and sets off on a perilous trip to recover Hannah’s grimoire, or recipe book of charms and potions. By default the leader of the group, which includes a weather witch, an enchantress, an aspiring witch, a wizard whose specialty is divination with cheese, and a talking and shape shifting mouse called Pook, Grayling wants nothing more than to go home.
Kidnapping, imprisonment, near drowning, and ordinary obstacles like hunger, fatigue, and foul weather plague the travelers, but they persist and achieve their goal. Returning, Grayling finds herself reluctant to part with her companions—especially Pook. At home she’s no longer content to live with her bossy mother, who can look after herself just fine, and soon sets out on another journey to unfamiliar places . . . possibly to see the young paper maker who warmed her heart.”
To get a sense of the book, I had the honor of asking Ms. Cushman a couple questions about his new direction.
Betsy Bird: It’s always a cause for celebration when a new Karen Cushman book is on the horizon. This book does feel, to some extent, like a bit of a departure for you. While it has a historical feel, there’s magic in its bones. Have you always wanted to write a fantasy? Or is this a newfound desire?
Karen Cushman: It is definitely a departure. After eight historical novels about gutsy girls (and Will), I wanted to try something different. I had an idea for a fantasy. How difficult could it be? I would not be bothered by all that pesky history, the rules and boundaries that constrain an author writing about a real time and place.
That shows how much I know about fantasies. A fantasy world has as much history, as many rules and boundaries and limitations, as historical fiction, but the author has to invent them. For both fantasy and historical fiction authors, our task is to make a world come alive within boundaries. .
Grayling’s Song takes Grayling reluctantly on a journey to free her mother from a curse. I set myself a difficult task: to write a fantasy in which magic exists but is sometimes harmful and never the answer. Grayling has to get herself and others out of danger without magic–by being thoughtful, observant, cooperative, persistent, and determined. In other words, human. My husband calls it an anti-fantasy. And that’s the point: magic is not the answer.
BB: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the book itself?
KC: The book began with the image of Grayling’s mother rooted to the ground. I’m not a big fantasy reader and had never before thought about writing a fantasy, but that image appeared in my head and I wanted to find out more, so I had to make it up and write it down.
BB: What are some of the children’s fantasy novels that you yourself have enjoyed reading (either when you were a child or now as an adult)? Have they influenced this book in any way?
KC: I don’t remember fantasy being popular when I was young. Science fiction, yes, but I wasn’t interested. The first fantasy I recall reading is Peter Beagle’s wondrous The Last Unicorn, and I was all grown up and married before that. Since then I have found several fantasies to love: Lloyd Alexander’s five Chronicles of Prydain books, which I read over and over with my daughter, The Hobbit, The Once and Future King, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Bride, Plain Kate, Seraphina, The Goblin Emperor.
I think their influence is mostly in their wide spectrum. There is no one right way to write fantasy, they told me, no correct kind of character, no approved method of magic. And several of them gave me permission to be funny, ironic, and downright silly at times.
BB: So many authors have difficulty writing standalone books. Which is to say, books that don’t require sequels. Looking at your titles, I don’t know that you’ve ever done a sequel. Is there a particular reason for this? Do you think you might try one in the future? I’m sure your fans have asked you to
KC: Stories seem to come to me all of a piece–a beginning, middle, and end, all in one book. I had thought about writing a sequel to Catherine Called Birdy for my second book but my editor didn’t like sequels and urged me to try something else. So I did. That something else was The Midwife’s Apprentice, which won the Newbery Medal in 1996. Good call, Dinah.
I still think about that Birdy sequel. I have a plot and characters, but I’m not sure I could recapture that voice. Birdy’s voice is so distinctive and pretty well known. But maybe, maybe…
BB: Speaking of which, recently you were a bit in the news when Lena Dunham announced that she was adapting Catherine Called Birdy, one of her favorite books, to the silver screen. I assume that you’ve had interest from Hollywood in the past, but this felt a bit more serious. Did it catch you off-guard?
KC: Off-guard is an understatement. Several people had sent me the comment Lena made stating that Catherine Called Birdy and Lolita were the two best books for girls. That’s pretty rare company but I thought no more about it until a contract for an option appeared from Lena’s company.
I’ve met with Lena, who is bright and lovely and sweet, much smarter and nicer than Hannah from Girls. Lena is excited about the project and determined to make it happen so I have my fingers crossed.
BB: Well finally, what are you working on next?
KC: Too many ideas are swimming around in my head. I’m working on a short story set in Elizabethan Bath, which may also be a novel. And there is Millie McGonigal waiting for me in San Diego in 1941. And a book about a pilgrimage to Rome, and, oh yes, something about thieving orphans in medieval Oxford. Probably my next book will be one of those. Probably.
BB: A million thanks to you, Karen, for agreeing to speak with me! Just as a side note, Lena Dunham also has a tattoo of Richard Peck’s Fair Weather. Probably the only one in known existence, so her motives are certainly pure.
And now folks . . . the very first Karen Cushman fantasy novel!
Karen Cushman’s acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife’s Apprentice, which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Her website is http://www.karencushman.com.
Many many thanks to Ms. Cushman and the good folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for offering me this interview!
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