Monday, August 3, 2009

Cuppa Chat with Karen Cushman

As part of SCBWI Team Blog, I have had the extreme pleasure of having a virtual chat with the amazing Karen Cushman. Karen will be keynoting at the upcoming SCBWI conference in Los Angeles.

Karen is a gutsy and inspiring writer and I love that she says the following about herself:

"It took me forty-nine years of preparation—of reading and writing and making up stories in my head—to be ready to write. Now I do not intend to stop."

First, Karen, thank you so much for joining me here for a Cuppa Chat!

Let's dig right in, shall we? I'd love to start with the upcoming conference and your intriguing keynote title: IN DREAMS BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about it or the inspiration for it?

That's the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz, an American writer probably known best for that lovely title. When I was planning for the SCBWI talk, I thought about all those attendees with big dreams, how my writing dreams have (mostly) come true, and how I want to give everyone the secret to making their dreams come true if I could only figure out what it is. Now that's responsibility! Hence the title. The best I can do is share a bit of my journey, what I learned, what I ignored, and what I recommend.

I love that, Karen. I must say, I heard you speak at our regional SCBWI conference maybe four years back, and what I remember most was how very encouraging you were. I'm certain we are all in for a treat. (Karen's keynote takes place on Saturday morning, August 8 from 10:00-11:00 am.)

I know you waited until age 49 to begin writing, (You’ve published all those books in just a few years, right?) but I sense you’ve been a writer for a lifetime. Was there something, at the age of 49, that made you gutsy enough (like the girls you write about) to move toward publication?

I was a writer for a long time without putting words on paper. It was all in my imagination. But when I was 49:
1--my daughter was away in college, and I had space in my mind and heart for my imaginary girls.
2--I was teaching in a university, working with students writing their master's' theses--no better way to get one thinking about writing and how NOT to write.
3--I had an idea for story that I really wanted to tell.

4--my husband said........come hear my talk in LA and learn the

And the rest is history...including Newbery history, gold and silver! How has being awarded the medal (THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE) and an honor (CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY) impacted you personally and professionally?

The Newbery Awards changed my life. Professionally the awards mean my books will stay in print, I get letters from enthusiastic readers who ask enthusiastic questions, and I travel to bookstores and schools and conference and meet a lot of fabulous people and eat a lot of rubber chicken.

Personally winning the awards meant I have more confidence in my writing. I take myself seriously--no longer "can I do this?" but "hey, look, I am doing this." It means I have the best job in the world for me, that I can make things up and earn a living by it, that I don't have to put on shoes or drive to work in the rain. It also means a lot more people--booksellers, librarians, reviewers, readers--in my writing space, looking over my shoulder, watching and commenting and criticizing. Okay, I know they're all me but sometimes it feels very crowded in here.

Your new website is lovely! On it you mention, “The best reason to write is just to find out what happens.” Have you ever been surprised (pleasantly or not) by what’s happened to a character (or you) during the writing process?

I have been surprised while writing--not by my characters actions. I never feel like they are acting without me, but at times I have been surprised by something I've written: "Now how/where did I come up with that?" It's a terrific feeling, like riding a wave into shore.
But I always feel like it's me doing the writing and not my characters taking off on their own. I wish it did happen that way--it would be a lot less work for me.

How about one last question, just because we have to know...

Your newest book ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN will be coming from Clarion in Spring 2010. Can you give us three keywords or phrases to give us a taste of what we can expect?

Alchemy and Meggy Swann? Only three words? Crooked Lane, wabbling, transformation, Master Peevish, poison....take your pick.

I love that you break rules! So I will, too, with one final, final question. If we had the pleasure of sitting down at a coffee shop together, what would you order?

If it's cold and rainy, I'd have tea with lots of milk. Or, if it's hot, an iced cappuccino.

Nice talking to you. See you in the real world soon.

It was a treat, Karen. I look forward to chatting with you IN PERSON in a few short days.

For all of you who still haven't gotten enough of Karen I advise two things: register for the conference; and check out the fantastic and fun interview Karen did with the lovely Kirby Larson.

And the countdown continues...four more days...


Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

This was great! Now I can't wait to hear her talk!

Barbara Bietz said...

Lovely interview! I was counting the days until the conference - now I am counting the minutes!

Can't wait for Karen's presentation.

BJW said...

Wow Jolie,

You bring out the big guns. Cool interview. Thank you for sharing. What a talented writer.

Enjoy LA all you lucky, lucky dogs.

Anonymous said...

Terrific! Inspiring! Can't wait!

holly cupala said...

I'll never forget hearing Ms. Cushman at the 2004 conference in LA - she said her first drafts were around 60 pages. Then Nikki Grimes said she wrote the 10-12 most important scenes in her first drafts, and Donna Jo Napoli mentioned she wrote her first drafts in 5-6 wks. All of those tips combined suddenly made writing a novel so much more attainable. Thanks for the lovely interview, Jolie!

BJW said...

I meant to say it as eloquently as Holly did.

And I wish I had as cool of a parting shot as Lee's Namaste.

BJW said...

oh and my secret password code is:


????!!????? WTH?

That's the hardest one ever. Can I buy a vowel please.

And I don't know russian. yet.

(Sure enough I fouled it up and got a new word, ambumel)

Kirby Larson said...

I can never get enough of Karen; thanks, Jolie. Both for this chat and for the plug for my interview with her.

Michelle Sussman said...

Great interview - she's one of my favorite authors and her words are inspiring!

Reesha said...

I remember reading Catherine Called Birdy when I was younger. I envy those going to the conference.

Kelly H-Y said...

Fabulous interview! And, have a wonderful time at the conference!

Cuppa Jolie said...

Thanks, everyone!

Barbara - I'll look forward to meeting you at the conference!

Reesha - I'm sorry you can't be at the conference, but hopefully Team Blog will help you feel like you're getting to play a little with us!

Winter Hansen said...

Every time I feel like I'm running out of time, I think of how Karen had the guts to starting putting words down much later in life than when I started. It was so encouraging to hear her a few years ago at the Seattle conference, though I wish I were in LA now.