Susan Cooper was doing children’s fantasy novels long before they took over seemingly all of fiction, and her famed five-book sequence The Dark is Rising has remained in print for more than four decades, with two of the book in the sequence receiving a Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor, the highest awards for children’s literature.
Cooper’s long and varied career includes not only a bevy of children’s fantasy novels, but also numerous works of journalism and several collaborations with the late actor Hume Cronyn (to whom she was married from 1996 until his death in 2003), including the oft-produced Appalachian stage play Foxfire and the Emmy-winning TV-movie versions of Foxfire and the novels To Dance with the White Dog and The Dollmaker with Jane Fonda.
On the phone from her home in in Marshfield, Mass., Cooper wryly calls herself “a writer with several strings to the bow.”
“I mean, I started as a newspaper reporter and feature writer, and I’ve written — obviously! — fantasy books for young children, and nonfiction books, and for the theater and television,” Cooper says. “But those are all different parts of my imagination doing all those different things. There must be something that links all those parts together, I suppose. But I’m first of all a novelist, and one whose novels almost always seem to involve fantasy.”
Why fantasy? “That’s like asking, ‘why are you left-handed?’ It’s the way the imagination was born, I think.”
Cooper began writing fantasy novels with Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), an entry for a children’s story contest that expanded into a tale of siblings on vacation tracking down the Holy Grail to protect it from evil beings. Seven years later, she revisited these ideas with The Dark is Rising (1972), about a young boy who discovers he has magical abilities and must be trained to save the world from the forces of darkness.
If that sounds familiar…. well, Cooper is more than generous about the debt J.K. Rowling and company owe to her work.
“The dark and the light have always been with us and always will be,” she says, simply.
She also hardly considers herself a pioneer in children’s fantasy: “I think you will find an awful lot of us have never thought, ‘I am writing a children’s book’ — we’re just writing the books. Maurice Sendak used to be very vehement about this. We write the books we want to write for ourselves, and often we’re writing them for the child we used to be that is still alive inside our heads.”
Cooper credits her childhood experiences for the extensive use of history in her work, which draws from everything from Arthurian legend to figures from Celtic and Irish mythology such as The Mabinogion.
“It’s partly England, I think — when you grow up in an area with 10,000 years of history around you,” Cooper says. “When I was a kid, I’d walk to school every day past a grassy mound that was an Iron Age fort, and I had a view of a castle that was 900 years old from my bedroom window, and a farmer dug up a Roman path and pavement in a field. Things like that, you take them for granted. So you have a sense of time as well as place, I think. And if you’re born to be a writer, it affects the type of imagination you have, I’m guessing.”
The turbulent world in which she was raised also influenced the darkness in her works, which often seen children beset upon by monstrous beings of pure evil: “If you grew up in England when I did, then you grew up in a really terrifying environment, the way children in the Middle East do today, because WWII was going on and people were trying to bomb you. So that sense of terror is imbued in you like the sense of history that’s in the land.
And a few encounters with living legends didn’t hurt: “I studied at the University of Oxford, and the English syllabus stopped at 1832, because there were two gentlemen named Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who had resisted taking it any further — they were both teaching there and we went to their lectures. So we encountered, thanks to those two, things like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and above all, Shakespeare. A friend of mine once said, ‘They taught us to believe in dragons.’”
Her newest book, Ghost Hawk, explores more of American history, with minimal fantasy elements (“There’s one basic element in this book that could not happen, but otherwise it deals with human behavior”), and explores the relationship between a young Native American and an English settler.
“It’s kind of the flip side of the happy Thanksgiving story,” Cooper says.
Susan Cooper will read from Ghost Hawk at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7 p.m. This is a signing line ticket event, with tickets available with the purchase of Ghost Hawk. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com.