The author of the Newbery Award-winning The Midwife’s Apprentice and seven other acclaimed novels of historical fiction, Karen Cushman has proven adept at bringing other eras to life. She spoke with PW about the significance of historical fiction; the extensive research that goes into her work; and her new novel, Will Sparrow’s Road, in which a boy escapes his grim life in Elizabethan England and finds a home with a caravan of “oddities and prodigies” in a Renaissance fair.
Your books have been set in medieval times, during the Gold Rush, the McCarthy era, and other time periods. As someone whose career has been built on historical fiction for children, why do you think the genre is important, both for you as a writer and for readers?
I think for readers historical fiction is important because it helps them to see beyond the boundaries of their own experience. It helps them to stretch and to see what life is like for others. This helps illustrate both how we are the same and how we are different, and can give readers more empathy.
As a writer the story always comes first. Then it seems to fit into one time period and a place. I also like to stretch beyond my own boundaries and to see our commonalities. One thing historical fiction does for writers is that it helps us to look at a time when we know how things turn out, which is very unlike our own.
Like Will Sparrow’s Road, your 2010 novel, Alchemy and Meggy Swan, was also set in Elizabethan England. What draws you to this particular era?
Several of my books are set in medieval England and now two are in Elizabethan England. I have always loved historical fiction; when I was a girl I loved to read Rosemary Sutcliffe. And in my 20s and 30s, I loved to go to Renaissance fairs. I loved the pomp and circumstance of them – the roasted turkey legs, the archery, the knights and ladies, and the flowery language. While I was writing Alchemy and Meggy Swan I found these broadsides, which are one-page newspapers, and I found an old one that dealt with all kinds of oddities – from monstrous births, conjoined twins, two-headed pigs – and I thought it would be interesting to have an ordinary child interact with the extraordinary at a Renaissance fair.
What drove you to create a male protagonist for this novel?
I thought that although Elizabethan England was safer than medieval England, a girl would have been in grave danger on the road. And I didn’t believe that with the lack of privacy she could disguise as a boy. So I knew that it would have to be a boy.
Were there challenges for you, after writing so many novels featuring strong girls?
It was a bit difficult to get inside the skin of a boy. After the first draft, my editor wrote back: What makes him different than your girls except for his pants? And so I had to go back to the drawing board. I did a lot of research and observation, spoke to parents of boys and spent time with boys. I wanted Will to be believable but not to be stereotypical.
How did you determine that Will would land on the fair circuit?
I thought that the fairs would be a way that he could make a family for himself with other people on the edge of society. He has no family. His mother abandoned him and his drunken father sold him to an innkeeper for ale. Will is both clever enough to survive and naïve enough to be taken advantage as he travels on the road.
Will is simultaneously a thief, a liar, and a hero. How did you balance his more mischievous qualities with the nobler parts of his character?
I thought of his mischievous qualities as survival tactics. There were no institutions to take care of homeless children, so he was entirely on his own. Towards the end of the story as survival depends less on thievery, his heroic qualities come from his being able to relate to and embrace other people. This was hard won. He had to practice in his relationship with the pig. And then he was able to trust and care for another human being.
What sort of research went into this novel, in terms of elements like the circuit of fairs, and Master Tidball’s caravan of “oddities and prodigies,” for instance?
The first thing I started with were these “oddities and prodigies.” I read a number of books, including The Marvelous Hairy Girls by Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, about sisters with a genetic defect that made them extremely hairy. There is lots of information about Elizabethan times – I researched the inns, the fairs. I found a gazetteer online that listed every market fair from the 10th to the 18th century. They listed how big they were, how long they lasted. I tried to research traveling caravans like Tidball’s but I didn’t find much and had to rely on my imagination. I read several other books, such as Life in Elizabethan Days and Elizabethan London. I really wanted to know about the common people rather than the life of the royalty and aristocracy.
How do you structure your writing day? Do you work with a writer’s group?
My process is not very regular. I should write every day but I don’t. I was just on vacation and I edited the first four days and then the last five not at all. Some days I write all day, some days only for a period. I find that the morning is my best time because I’m so much fresher. My most fertile periods are when I’m just waking up or just falling asleep. I need to get a great idea down immediately or I forget it.
I’m not in a writer’s group. I started writing when I was 50, or 49 1/2. I felt like I was starting so late that I needed more intense, independent work. I worked with a writing teacher who also ran a writer’s group. She read [my first novel], Catherine, Called Birdy, and gave me structured individual sessions. Now I realize how good that might be for me, to work with other writers and to see how they tackle problems. But my process doesn’t include others. My husband, Philip, is my first reader, and then my editor, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, is the second. I have a fabulous editorial relationship with both.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to watch Inspector Morse videos; Netflix has all these old ones. I used to like to go to the movies, but now I’d rather wait for the movies to come out on Netflix and stay home. I love to garden, but now as I get older I do more taking leaves off and directing other people to plant than gardening myself.
You lived in Chicago and Los Angeles as a child. Where are you these days?
I live on Vashon Island, which is 15-20 minutes by ferry to Seattle. We moved here 10 years ago. The ferry is the only way on and off the island. It has a lovely small town feel. Our property is about 2 ½ acres, and we have hemlock, fir and cedar trees and long rock walls. My life is centered around the island, our home, and my life of the imagination.
What are you working on now?
It’s so new that my editor hasn’t even seen it, yet. I wanted to try something different, so I am working on a fantasy, which turns out to be historical fiction with a bit of magic. But the magic doesn’t solve the problem: a good heart and smart thinking save the day. It’s very medieval. My husband calls it an anti-fantasy.
Will Sparrow’s Road by Karen Cushman. Clarion, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-547-73962-5