A few weeks ago, I went on an excursion into Washington D.C. I love going into D.C., and this particular morning I was on a mission. I was going to see one of my favorite childhood authors, Susan Cooper, at the bookstore Politics and Prose. I was so excited when I found out that she was coming to D.C. to promote her newest book, Ghost Hawk. Susan Cooper is most well known for the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor-winning The Dark is Rising series. Cooper based her books on Arthurian legend, as well as Celtic and Norse mythology. The story focuses on several children who are swept up into the struggle between the forces of good and evil, called the Light and the Dark.
If you have not had the pleasure of getting lost in Susan Cooper’s prose or her worlds, it is an experience that I highly recommend. In elementary school I stayed up late devouring her books, and even roped some of my friends into reading them and acting out the scenes with me at recess. I reread several of her books in anticipation of meeting her, and they are even better now that I am older and can appreciate more of her references to legends and mythology.
At Politics and Prose, I learned some of the fascinating things about Susan Cooper:
- Cooper grew up right outside of London during the Blitz in World War II. She would leave for school each morning with a backpack on one shoulder and a gas mask on the other. She would sit in an air raid shelter at night, and her mother would read by candlelight. She recalled that every time a bomb fell, the candle’s flame would shake. “When you are a kid,” she said, “everything around you is normal.” She said that the only time she was truly scared was when her father pushed her into their air raid shelter because a plane was flying low and firing its machine gun in their vicinity. She told us that she was scared because she saw the fear in her father’s eyes. Her novel Dawn of Fear is based on her childhood experiences.
- Cooper attended Oxford University, and had C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien as professors. After college, she worked for the London Sunday Times and her editor was Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. She was surrounded by so many famous authors!
- When asked about the inspiration for the Dark is Rising series, Cooper hearkened back to her childhood. She told us, “When you group up with people trying to kill you, you feel strongly about the good guys.” She wrote the first book in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone for a children’s book contest, but ended up not submitting it when the story became darker and more complex. Ten years passed before she decided to write four more novels in the series. She sat down, planned out all of the books, and wrote the last paragraph in the series.
- On becoming a writer: “I never decided to be a writer, I was born that way, like some are born left handed.”
- On reading: “You feed your imagination by reading. Reading and imagination are important because they define who you will be when you grow up.”
- On her writing process: She has a hardback notebook that she writes in every morning. She writes on the right hand side and makes notes to herself on the left hand side. She then types everything up in the afternoons. She likes writing longhand first because she believes that you never really have your full first draft on a computer—it is too easy to revise. She writes around six drafts per book, and doesn’t often reread her own work because she always sees things that she thinks she could have done better.
- She also told us that there is a story “that has been asking for me to write it for forty years, but I can’t work it out. Someday.”
Until that someday, I will continue to read and enjoy Susan Cooper’s work.