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Karen
Cushman

Interview by ACHUKA's US Correspondent,
Cheryl Bowlan.


The Lipski children, Christmas,1947.
Future author Karen Cushman, at age 6, holds her first typewriter,
a gift from Santa Claus.


Karen Cushman was born in Chicago to the Lipskis on Oct. 4, 1941. Her brother (seen here beside her, in a photo from the family album) came along three years later. The family moved to Los Angeles when Cushman was 10. "I was not thrilled with California," said Cushman. "It was too hot. I missed my grandparents, my dog and my public library. Some of those feelings came out forty-some years later in THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE."
An avid reader and enthusiastic writer, the young Karen produced her first major work in homage to the "King," an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis. She went to Stanford University on a scholarship. For the first time, she said, she realized she "didnít have to get married, do laundry and spend my life making bologna sandwiches for my kidsí lunches."
Cushman graduated with degrees in Greek and English. She later earned masterís degrees in human behavior and museum studies, at the time not realizing all her schooling would prove especially useful to an award-winning novelist. For 11 years she taught in the museum studies department of a San Francisco Bay Area university, where she sharpened her skills researching the stuff of everyday life in historical eras.
Cushman lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband Phil, a psychologist and author, plus a cat and a dog going deaf who do nothing. Her daughter Leah works in the childrenís section of the largest bookstore in the U.S. and shares her motherís love for fine juvenile literature.
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY, Cushmanís first book, was published in 1994 and won a Newbery Honor. Her second book, THE MIDWIFEíS APPRENTICE, won the 1996 Newbery Medal. The BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE followed in 1996. Cushmanís latest book, MATILDA BONE, is set for September release in the U.S and will be published by Clarion. Macmillan will publish the U.K. edition.
"Raised by a priest to know all about heaven and hell but nothing in this world," said Cushman, "Matilda is sent to live with a bonesetter in the medical quarter of a medieval town." Itís a story thick with the scent of "wood smoke, sausages, goose grease and lemon balm." Sanctimonious Matilda, more learned in the mysteries of Latin than the freshness of a fishmongerís eel, is deposited on the doorstep of Red Peg ("hair orange as a carrot peeping from beneath a greasy kerchief, a big smile that showed more spaces than teeth, and a face beslobbered with freckles.") Matilda longs for her old life as an orphan ward of Father Leufredus, who kept her attention strictly on the spiritual, so unlike this new "unholy" muck of cracked bones and blood-sucking leeches.


AWARDS

CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY (Clarion)
1995 Newbery Honor Book
1994 Carl Sandburg Award for Childrenís Literature
1994 Golden Kite Award for Fiction
1994 Bay Area Book Reviewersí Association Award for Childrenís Literature
1994 Commenwealth Club Medal for Juvenile Fiction
School Library Journalís Best Books of 1994
Parenting Magazine Ten Best Books of 1994
Parentís Choice Foundation 1994 Story Book Award
Boston Globe Ten Best Books of 1994
Publisherís Weekly 1994 Cuffie Awards: Favorite Novel (tie) and Most Promising New Author (honorable mention)
CBS "This Morning" Ten Best Childrenís Books for Holiday Giving
1995 International Board of Books for Youth Honor List
1995 "Mind-Boggling Books," C.W. Smith, London
1995 YALSA Recommended Books for Reluctant young Readers
1995 YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
1995 Booksellersí Association "Pick of the Lists"
ALA Notable Childrenís Book
ALA Quick Picks for Young Adults
YASD Best Books for Young Adults Booklist Editorís Choice

THE MIDWIFEíS APPRENTICE (Clarion)
1996 Newbery Award
ALA Notable Childrenís Book
ALA Quick Picks for Young Adults
Parentsí Choice Award for Fiction
Notable Trade Book in the Language Arts, NCTE
Parenting Magazine Best Books of 1995
School Library Journal Best Books of 1995


Bay Area Book Reviewerís Association Nominee Best Childrenís Book of 1995
YASD Best Books for Young Adults

THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE (Clarion)
California Library Associationís Hohn and Patricia Beatty Award
American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
Booklist Editorís Choice
Book Links "Lasting Connections of 1996"
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Bay Area Book Reviewerís Association Nominee for Childrenís Literature
Notable Childrenís Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies


You returned to Medieval England for the setting of your new book, Matilda Bone. Why your affinity for this time period and part of the world?

My interest has been around a long time. At 23 I was already reading English historical fiction and collecting things like that 15th century illuminated manuscript page you see on my wall. It was just an interest. I donít have any relatives from England. My fatherís family is Polish, my motherís family is German and Irish. So the English were never particularly heroes to either side of the family.

But when it came time to write CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY, I think partly it was the familiarity with the area. Partly it was the fact that I could read a lot of sources without having to learn another language. And partly it was because I could imagine myself there, whereas to think about Medieval Poland or even Colonial America was such a stretch to me. I could understand these people in Medieval England enough to write about them. I felt a familiarity I wouldnít have felt lots of other places. Certainly with the language. I couldnít read early Medieval sources in the original, but some, like Bartholomew Anglicus (a 13th century Franciscan monk who created a 19-volume encyclopedia that first made available medical and scientific information from Greek, Jewish and Arab scholars), I could translate from the middle English to modern English, which I never would have been able to do in any other language. I felt there was a lot more in this time period and place I could use.


What compelled you to go back to that era with MATILDA BONE?


After I wrote THE MIDWIFEíS APPRENTICE, I fully intended to write another medieval book. THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE was the side shoot. The next book I was going to write was about the orphan trains (a period of American history from 1854 to 1929 when an estimated 150,000 to 400,000 homeless children from East Coast cities were shipped to the Midwest to start new lives with farming families), the book Iím working on now. Itís working title is RODZINA.

Yet, I got this idea about a girl who wanted to be a martyr, with broad humor about how hard she was trying, all her favorite martyrs and how nobody understood. The medical milieu I studied for the first two books and somewhat for the third book was really interesting to me and gross enough for your average sixth graders, so I got very involved with the subject.

MATILDA BONE, the way itís coming out now, is not at all the rollicking comedy the first draft was. I donít know if Iím unable to write that kind of humor because it changed over all of these drafts or if Dinah (Stevenson, editorial director at Clarion) is unable to edit that kind of thing. But MATILDA has come out like my other books -- a little comedy and a little sad, touching stuff.

Every time I get an idea for a story, thatís what draws me. Itís not that I think, oh, itís time for another American book, or itís time for an English book. Itís the story and the character I seem to want to get involved with. The next two books, RODZINA and one I want to do after that about a girl in Catholic school, are both American.


Youíre known as an author who presents exceptionally well researched material in your books. Working from the West Coast of the United States, how do you go about finding information sources for life in Medieval England?


I thought it would be a lot harder than it was. I forget how long a period the Middle Ages were. Hundreds and hundreds of years. And it has been a long time since then. There are a lot of sources. I started out figuring Iíd have to go to the University of California, Berkeley (near her home in Oakland, Calif.) and use a lot of scholarly kinds of resources. But they were mostly boring and talked about things I didnít want to know about, like economic and political systems and wars. I moved from there to the Oakland Public Library. I find that old libraries have much more of what Iím interested in than newer libraries because theyíve got books left over from the 1920s and 1930s, when these subjects were written about more than they are now. The Oakland library had a lot of information on English domestic and cultural history. Once I found a couple of books with bibliographies, I was off and running. With a good bibliography, youíre set.

I also tried ordering books through interlibrary loans. I got a few, but I found a lot of things reprinted in paperback on the bookstore shelves, such as HOUSEKEEPING IN THE 14th CENTURY. And I hounded used bookstores where I discovered books like DAILY LIVING IN THE 12th CENTURY. Just all kinds of things you wouldnít expect to see out there. -- books of slang, books about growing up in the 13th century.


I imagine your research was much easier for LUCY WHIPPLE, since you live in northern California, about a hundred miles from the old gold fields.


I thought it would be much easier when I did California history, but it was very difficult. First of all, the gold rush only lasted six or seven years. All the information I found was about men -- miners, doctors, businessmen, mine owners, but not about women and children. With MATILDA BONE, I was happy to go back to a place where I had a lot more rich resources.


Do you use the Internet to research?


I donít research on the Internet but I buy books from England. I just bought a couple of copies of Rosemary Sutcliffeís BROTHER DUSTY-FEET about a young boy who joins Shakespeareís theater in Elizabethan England. The world seems smaller, so I can get these resources.


MATILDA BONE will be published in England. Do you ever feel nervous that youíre an American writing about historical England then releasing your books at the source of the story?


I do, especially before I went to Britain. BIRDY was written before Iíd ever been there. I stepped off the plane and said, "Show me Medieval England!" Itís not there. Itís hardly there any more than it is in Ohio. The past is a foreign country. Though on the one hand I worry the British are going to say, "Youíre an American. Why are you writing about England? Or, this is all wrong. We who live here know this." But on the other hand I realize that with all my research and study I know a lot about everyday domestic life of women and children in Medieval England. Any mistake I make is not going to be enormous. People who read my books arenít looking for mistakes. Itís not like a Ph.D. committee trying to catch you up. The once or twice people have found a mistake, theyíve written very nice letters that were not critical but just pointed out errors. Iím grateful for it. I havenít had a bad experience, so I donít expect another one. But, I could hear from a leech.


Matilda Bone is smitten with a long list of favorite martyrs. You had researched the panoply of Medieval saints for your previous books, but werenít you also raised Catholic?


CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY came from my whole Catholic background and how familiar I am with saints -- who they are, their attributes and how they died. I wasnít starting from scratch. I knew a lot of that and I knew where to look for what I didnít know.


To those of us now in the 21st century, thereís something humorous about all those saintly young maidens and holy men, their gory deaths in homage to God and the cults that grew up around them.


Yes, thereís something ironic here. I grew up in Catholic schools and learned to cherish and admire saints, like St. Rose of Lima. Every year they would say, "How many of you want to be nuns?" All the girls would raise their hands. But I never did because I never wanted to be a nun. Saint or martyr seemed more appealing to me. Then when you grow up, you realize a lot of those saints and martyrs were really neurotic to psychotic people. Raking your body with metal combs is not really healthy behavior.

Thatís a big thing behind the book I want to write about the Catholic schoolgirl, THE PASSION OF SAINT FRANCINE. In the 1950s, Maria Goretti, a 12-year-old Italian girl, was canonized and we were all supposed to be just like her. She was a peasant child who was raped and murdered. What is it here we were supposed to emulate? Why do I insist on writing for children about things considered odd or unacceptable to some people like childbirth or medicine, martyrdom or saints? Theyíre not your normal childrenís topics.


Tell me more about writing for kids on subjects considered raw or unusual. What is your purpose and what do you think kids get from these topics? Why do they like your books?


Well, Iím not sure I write because I think theyíre going to get anything from my books, but because I just do. Phil (Cushmanís husband) thinks my whole problem is that I never went to junior high. I went to Catholic school through 12th grade, so I missed that whole junior high phase. My favorite curse word is "booger." Heíll say, "There you go again. Itís that 11-year-old boy in you."

Itís fascinating to me, too. I think it would be very interesting to do a book about somebody with divorced parents, but the subject doesnít have the same appeal to me as the idea of someone assisting a leech (Medieval bloodletter) and getting involved in this real kind of blood and guts thing. Which, I suppose, is me trying to balance my Catholic school upbringing with the real world. I can see the irony and the humor. I write whatís interesting to me.


Why do you think kids like your books so much, with all the down-and-dirty blood, guts and baby birthing?


I suppose I appeal to kids who are at the same developmental phase Iím stuck in. I try and make the characters real and relate-able so readers can always picture themselves in these strange, exotic places without ever having to go there.


Kids seem to love strange and alluring facts about the world, especially the kind collected in almanacs or in Ripleyís Believe It or Not comic strips. They canít resist those 47-inch fingernails or bizarre cures from olden times and other cultures.

Itís vicarious. You can find out about it without having to live it. But itís interesting to think about people who would do these strange things or who live like that. How would you live with 47-inch fingernails? Could be one of my next books.


A consistent theme in your novels is finding a sense of place. Mixed with that are characters whoíve lost one or both parents. Now youíre working on a book about a girl on an orphan train. As a child did you find orphan books, such as THE SECRET GARDEN, especially intriguing?


The first time this idea of orphaned characters occurred to me -- I think LUCY WHIPPLE was out -- a boy in a school class asked me, "Did you hate your parents?" I said, no, theyíre still alive. I love them. Why? "Well," he said, "because in your books the parents are always mean or dead."
I thought about it and thatís really true. When I was growing up, I never felt like an orphan but I felt like I was kidnapped from somebody else. Except I looked just like my father. At that time, weíd joke about being kidnapped by gypsies, a culturally insensitive stereotype. I told Phil right after we were married that I felt like I was kidnapped from gypsies by suburbanites and taken to live in suburban Los Angeles.

I always felt the lack of being at home in a place and, at the same time, a search for identity. I suppose those issues are clearer and easier if youíre dealing with a character who has no home and family. If youíre dealing with someone who has both of her parents in an intact family, living in a place she loves, a lot of the tension is gone along with the reason to delve into th e importance of place, personhood, who I am and where do I belong. These seem to be very important questions to me, which is partly why I write for that age group (10-14), because their issues and questions are still mine.


Your last book, THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE, came out in summer of 1996. That makes four years between its release and MATILDA BONE. How does it feel to be back in the saddle again?


On the whole it feels great. This part of writing is much more fun than being alone in your room wrestling with the 58th draft. I get a lot more positive reinforcement from my editor and agent and people calling to say their German publisher loves your book, they just made an offer but somebody else is upping it. Interviews and making plans are more fun.


I felt like Iíd never get here again. I was sure for a long time I was a three-book wonder. Publishers could produce package sets very easily because there were only three books. I donít feel like that anymore. For years I heard people like Patricia MacLachlan (SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL) and others talk about the difficulty of getting back to work after winning the Newbery, the changes it made in their lives, how they thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to them and how they would recommend new young writers not win a Newbery.

I could see the difficulties. Luckily I was a lot older and better able to handle all that. I was more myself. I have my priorities pretty much straightened out. So it was very exciting, but I donít think I had the highs and lows I might have had if I was 27. Still, between winning a Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor and some health problems, it took four years to finish MATILDA BONE.

I could tell as I was writing that people were going to look at MATILDA as the first book I started after the Newbery. LUCY WHIPPLE was already finished. I felt like people were going to judge me or look at me in a different way, expecting other things. Itís still hard.


But is it thrilling that MATILDA BONE is finally coming, that readers are waiting, ready to grab it off bookstore shelves? You must have a big dose of trepidation, too.


Itís all of those things mixed in together, but itís much better than the empty feeling when writing isnít going very well or the doom-filled feeling that Iíd never write another book.

 

 

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