(Please note that the following profile was compiled by IPL staff who corresponded with this author in 1999. It has not been updated since. Those wishing to write to this author should not write to the IPL, as we do not have a way to contact her via e-mail. They should write her in care of her publisher at the following address: HarperCollins Children’s Books; 1350 Avenue of the Americas; New York, NY 10019)
Please click here to read the answers to the questions IPL Kids asked Karen Cushman.
When she was younger, Karen Cushman wanted to be a librarian, a movie star, or a tap dancer. Instead, she became a writer–but only after she raised a daughter named Leah and became a teacher. Now, she spends much of her time writing stories about characters who lived long ago. Author of three novels including one which earned a Newbery Award and another a Newbery Honor Award, Cushman hopes to continue writing for the rest of her life.
Cushman was born in Chicago, but moved to Oakland, California when she was ten years old. Her feelings about moving became an important inspiration for her latest work, THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE . This book describes the life of a young girl who moves west during the gold rush era, a girl reluctant to part with the world she knows. Cushman’s other books–CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY and MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE–both explore what it might have been like to be a young girl growing up in medieval times. Before she writes her books, Cushman spends much time learning about the historical period in which she sets her stories. Her books show not only how different life was in earlier times, but also how similar many of the experiences are to our own.
Karen Cushman remembers reading anything she could get her hands on when she was growing up: comic books, Russian novels, books about World War II, Mad Magazine, and cereal boxes. After high school, Cushman attended Stanford University, where she majored in Greek and Latin. Later in life, she got two master’s degrees and spent ten years teaching Museum Studies. Today, she makes her home in Oakland with her husband Philip, a cat and a dog, and lots of books, flowers and tomato plants. She also continues to read, especially the medieval mysteries of Peter Ellis and books by Patricia MacLachlan.
- Where do you get the names of the characters for your books?
Most of the characters in my medieval books are named after real people in the Middle Ages. I found books of letters, legal documents, expenses, and so forth that included actual names so I used the ones that sounded right for my characters. I like the name Katherine for the lead character in CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY.It was a popular name. Then I discovered that the name would more likely be the French version, Catherine, so that is what I called her. The name Lucy Whipple, however, just popped into my head and was so perfect, I had to use it.
- What do you like best about writing?
I like writing because it’s something I can do at home barefoot; because I can lie on my bed and read and call it work; because I am always making up stories in my head anyway and I might as well make a living from them; because I am 57 years old and I just figured out that I am not immortal. I have ideas, opinions, things to say, and I want to say them before I go.
- How in the world did you come up with all the great ideas that make up CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY?
The ideas for BIRDY came from the story. I knew I wanted a story of an ordinary girl’s everyday life so I studied everything I could about the times and customs, the holidays and celebrations and traditions, the clothing and food and dress.
- What do you like about the medieval times and why did you set two books in this period?
I had been interested in the Middle Ages for a long time. I like the music, the costumes, the pageantry, and the color. It seems an interesting time, when western civilization was growing towards the Renaissance just like a child growing into adolescence. I first thought about writing books set at that time after reading about the lives of children in times past. I thought about what life might have been like for them when they had no power and little value. Especially girl children. I wondered how they coped with their lack of value and still kept a sense of their own worth; how they made choices when there were few options; how they survived when they had little power. Because the lack of value, options and power would have been even more true in the Middle Ages, I decided to set both CATHERINE, CALLLED BIRDY and THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE in that time period. In the Middle Ages, these are ordinary stories. Many children endured arranged marriages. There were a lot of homeless children at that time and very few people or places to care for them. In modern times, Birdy and Alyce would be unusual, no longer be ordinary, and that ordinariness is what I wanted.
- What is your favorite book that you have written?
I think that THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE was the most fun of all my books for me to write. I struggled with it the least–it seemed to come from somewhere inside and flow out. Most of the research had already been done for CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY, so i was able to finish it in less than a year. My least favorite is always whatever book I am working on at the moment.
- What is your favorite sport?
I do not do much in the way of sports. I like to watch gymnastics and track on the Olympics but I don’t do either myself. I walk a lot and like to swim. When I was younger, I wanted to swim across the English Channel, although I didn’t know what or where it was.
- What is your favorite comic book series?
I read comic books when I was much younger. I liked the funny ones like Donald Duck and Archie and Little Lulu better than exciting, adventured-filled comics, although I must admit an admiration for Plastic Man.
- Where do you get all the information for your books?
The information for my books comes from research–lots and lots of research. I try to find out everything I can about a period, especially the ordinary things: what did people eat? where did they go to the bathroom? I research for data–history, dates, place, language, sounds, smells. For CATHERINE and THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE, I learned all about bee-keeping, shearing sheep, ointments and remedies, superstitions and fears, clothing, food, language, table manners, bathing habits, and privies. But just as important, if not more, I researched ideas, attitudes, assumtpions, values, expectations. These have changed since ages past. I tried very hard to make the books realistic and truthful about the Middle Ages. Medieval people were different from us. They wore different clothes, ate different food, thought different things were important and true. And they used words we might see as cursing. You should see the ones I didn’t put into the book!
- Do you write any other books besides novels?
I have not yet written any other books besides my three novels. My ideas for the future all involve more novels so I guess I’m stuck with fiction.
- When you were younger, did you love to read historical fiction?
When I was younger, I read everything. I did like historical fiction: COTTON IN MY SACK, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, KATHERINE by Anya Seton.
- What influenced you to start writing novels?
I didn’t really think about writing a novel when I got the idea for Birdy. When I was younger I wrote a lot but never thought about being a writer. I wanted to be a librarian, a movie star, or a tap dancer. But I thought about this girl in the Middle Ages, at odds with her family and her world, and I wanted to know more about her and what happeneed to her. And to know that I had to make it up and write it down. So I did and after a few years work, there was a novel.
- How does it feel to have so many peole read all of your books?
I love it that people read and like my books. But sometimes I feel strange, like all this is happening to someone else.
- How often do you write and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I try to write some everyday but too often I have speeches and conferences and interviews and never do get to the computer to write. I tell aspiring writers to read a lot and write a lot. There is no better way to exercise those writing muscles. And I wish them good luck. What happened to me could happen to you.