At 49, Karen Cushman started writing about “gutsy girls figuring out who they are,” and she says she has no plans to stop until she’s at least 100. A winner of the Newbery Award for 1995’s The Midwife’s Apprentice, Cushman says that writing for this audience lets her entertain “the child in me who likes to imagine other people and other lives…I can sit in my chair with the cat on my lap and make things up.” Here the author talks about her seventh novel, Alchemy and Meggy Swann.
Finding a sense of place, of belonging, is a consistent theme in your novels. Can you comment on why this is such a fruitful theme to explore in your books?
I think young readers (and many of us older folks) are intrigued by the idea of who we are as individuals separate from our families and our homes. What would we do if left to our own devices? How would we survive? Would we be whiny losers, or resourceful and courageous? Would we be the same people we are now, or would we grow to be different? What kind of family might we create for ourselves?
For Alchemy, you set your story in Elizabethan London. What compelled you to go back to that era, and how did you conduct your research?
I chose Elizabethan London for this particular story because alchemy and many other scientific endeavors were flourishing then. And I did not want to write of the medieval response to Meggy and her lameness. I wanted some, though not all, people to understand disease and deformity as medical issues and not God’s curses.
I have a library of books about medieval and Elizabethan England…but I also found an amazing amount of information on the Internet. There are sites about Elizabethan history and culture, alchemy and alchemists, language and slang and synonyms. There are a “Shakespeare Insult Generator” and instructions on how to speak Elizabethan for Renaissance Faire participants. I learned from the Internet about raising geese and the monopolies on book publishing in the 16th century. I found collections of actual broadsides and Elizabethan ballads with both words and music. When I wanted a description of an Elizabethan city estate, I found that, too. It’s an amazing resource.
You also explore earthy and unusual subjects, touching on everything from chamber pots to antiquated curses (Meggy uses lots of colorful language!). How do kids react to them?
I was lucky enough to discover a number of books loaded with fascinating information about the era. Shakespeare’s Insults [compiled by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Öttchen (1991)] gave me examples of how to curse, swear and insult someone in Elizabethan. The History of Manners [by Norbert Elias, 1982] compiled lists of what books of manners told people of the time what not to do. I am fascinated by the odd and colorful word or detail, and kids are, too. Whenever I read from [it] at a school or bookstore presentation—“It is impolite to blow your nose in the tablecloth”—the young listeners come gather round me and want to hear more. And I tell them this is history also—not just dates and battles, but what people ate and wore, where they lived and went to the bathroom and where they blew their noses.
You’ve created many memorably feisty, strong-willed female characters. Do you derive special pleasure from creating these “gutsy girls” for young female readers?
Absolutely. I was not a “gutsy girl” growing up and never found models of such girls in the books available to me. So now I write them. I want girls to see their options and opportunities…to think critically and be moved to action.
What do you hope all young readers will take from this book?
I can say I’d like them to embrace compassion, perseverance and the importance of community, but I’ve learned that what young readers take from a book really depends on them. I had a young girl tell me The Midwife’s Apprentice was a book about a cat, and a high school class in a poor neighborhood in L.A. found it a story about homelessness. And a young woman hospitalized after a suicide attempt found in Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) a model for finding ways to be yourself when you feel hopeless and devoid of options. I never could have anticipated those responses.
Cushman’s picks for holiday gifts:
“I greatly enjoyed Ricki Thompson’s City of Cannibals, which I just nominated for the Cybils.”
“This year I am giving my young friend Louisa a copy of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.”
“Giacomo will get Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes. I love that book.”
“Mateo gets Beautiful Oops!, all about making mistakes that are not Mistakes.”
“And I wish I had someone to give Lips Touch, a beautifully written fantasy from last year by Laini Taylor.”
For a complete list of the historical novels for kids featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
Alchemy and Meggy Swann
Clarion / April / 9780547231846 / $16.00