Karen Cushman - Author
Karen Cushman is an award-winning author with a passion for imagining what long-ago life was like for ordinary kids. Her books include Catherine, Called Birdy; The Ballad of Lucy Whipple;and The Midwife's Apprentice. Cushman's work is rooted in history, but kids today will have no problem relating to the characters and stories.
RIF: If you could live in any time period, which would it be?
Karen Cushman: I don’t think I would change. I have fantasies about living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s or Paris or in some beatnik area in the 1950s. But the more I read about medicine, superstitions, society, food and comfort levels, the more I realize that I’m very lucky to be where I am now. As romantic as it would sound to want to live in the Middle Ages, I think practically I would not change.
RIF: Why do you like writing about adolescents?
KC: I like reading about that age group. When my daughter was born, we read together. I would always read at her age level, read what she was reading. I stayed there and she moved on. There’d something about becoming and that search for identity and “Who am I?” and what it means to be human in this world and how we define ourselves. All those things seem to speak to me. All of us are trying to figure out who we are and what the world means. The world has branded those as adolescent issues, but I think we all go through them.
RIF: What kind of research do you do for your historical books?
KC: Research and writing go hand in hand. The idea for a book comes in tiny, incremental steps over a long period of time. I would read a book about this or that and think that was interesting. Over a long period of time those things will come together and form an idea.
First, I look at the books I already have and read up more. When I’m doing more modern books I can do research online. The medieval research can’t really be done online.
RIF: Do you travel at all as part of your research?
KC: Never. I went to England for the first time after Catherine, Called Birdy was out. It’s a good that I hadn’t gone beforehand. When I stepped off the plane, I said, “Show me Medieval England,” and it’s not there. I did a lot better with research and my imagination than if I’d gone there expecting to see and smell any of the Middle Ages.
RIF: When you were in school, did you think you'd do this much research for a living?
KC: No, I didn’t even think about research. I did a lot of writing as a kid. Research was this awful thing you had to do for school. Research came from this boring encyclopedia.
That changed when it came to researching something that I was interested in. As a teenager I would open an encyclopedia at random and read something about mummies or black holes. Most importantly, I didn’t have to parrot it back to anyone.
RIF: What advice do you have for kids who want to be writers?
KC: Read a lot and write a lot. Keep your eyes and ears open and listen. Reading helps you learn about the world and shows you how other writers handle stories. Exercise those writing muscles. A kid who wants to play basketball doesn’t start out playing for the Lakers. He starts shooting a million baskets in his driveway. Thank you notes, cards, snippets of dialogue – they all work those muscles.
Reader Question: At what age did you start writing, and what inspired you to write? Sent in by Carissa, age 10
KC: The first thing I can remember writing was a Mother’s Day poem about oatmeal. I don’t remember the details, which is probably lucky. I was 6.
I wrote a play when I was 10 called Jingle Bagels about Santa going chimney of Jewish home on Christmas.
Writing was a place where I could go and write about all these emotions that weren’t supposed to be let off at home – anger, hysteria, over-celebration. It was a place I could really ventilate my feelings. It was also a place where I could pretend, which wasn’t exactly encouraged.
Note: In the next year, Karen Cushman's new book, The Passion of Saint Francine, will be out.
Write to Karen!
c/o Houghton Mifflin Books, Clarion Books
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, MA 02116-3764