Susan Cooper interviewed by Stephanie Nettell
We were talking of the nightmare set-pieces the children face throughout The Dark Is Rising sequence. ‘I think I know a lot about fear. I was very fearful as a child – perhaps something to do with the war, with the black-out and bombings. I was part of a warm and close family, yet there was always a Nazi paratrooper in the wardrobe at night. And I’m still a bit chicken about facing people!’
The war must also have contributed, she feels, to a strong sense of Us and Them, ‘the good side (one’s own, of course) against the bad. Although I wasn’t thinking about Hitler and his night-bombing Luftwaffe when I began characterising the forces of evil as the Dark, in the shadowy corners of my mind they probably weren’t far away.’
Susan Cooper has the ready smile and quiet, clipped speech that suggests an efficient intelligence fuelled by a strong current of nervous energy. She has known she was a writer from the age of eight. Perhaps the impulse is not unconnected to that core of fear?
‘I think there has never been a really black time in my life when I have not found myself, after the tears or the pain or the despair, sitting at last back at the desk, taking refuge in work.’ Yet to the outside world she is dashingly adventurous, constantly launching herself into the unknown: merely a chronic coward, she says, who manages once in a while to take some tremendous risk.
Susan was four when war broke out, living in Burnham, Bucks, a hundred yards from an often-targeted rail link to the west and with an anti-aircraft emplacement at the end of their street. Memories of running into the garden shelter, ‘bombs-falling-on-our-heads sort of thing’, returned in Dawn of Fear (1970), a straight autobiographical novel except that, curiously, she turned herself into a little boy.
It was certainly nothing to do with missing out as a girl. She was, and remained, close (‘too close, perhaps’) to a family that was both nurturing and proudly encouraging. Her brother Roderick (a thriller writer and editor of Kent Life magazine) was four years younger; new educational opportunities allowed them to fulfil the clearly rich potential of previous generations – a theatre-mad grandfather who led them to his favourite novelists, a musical, scholar- manqué father trapped in a railway clerk’s job he hated, a mother who was a gifted teacher, and whom Susan misses to this day. Their grandmother came from the Welsh fishing village of Aberdovey, where their parents were to move when Susan was 21: childhood holidays there and in Cornwall fed both her own fiction and her passion for Britain’s prehistory and folklore.
A state scholarship took her to Oxford – ’a calm stretch of such good fortune that I can hardly describe it’ – where she read English, fell in love, and, in the term before Finals, became the first girl to edit Cherwell . The resultant publicity and contacts (plus a lively piece on the National Rose Show) led to a reporter’s job on The Sunday Times . It was then a small, Kemsley-owned paper, bubbling with exciting chances; Susan and young John Pearson, now a biographer, were its first-ever reporters, and they worked half for features and news, half for Ian Fleming’s Atticus column and foreign affairs. In seven years there she evolved into a features writer on a thousand topics, with a fifteen-foot high portrait above Piccadilly Circus to advertise her own series.
And she began to write books. A tyro attempt was never published; her second, Mandrake , published in 1964, was an adult novel set in a futuristic 1980, and, almost by accident, her third was a children’s book.
As a result of occasional contributions to a children’s page, where she indulged her obsessions with our ancient history and myths, Jack Lambert, that legendary literary editor, had casually suggested she enter publishers Ernest Benn’s ‘E Nesbit Prize’ for a ‘family adventure story’. So each evening she scribbled a treasure-seeking tale, with three children on a train heading for a Cornish holiday (like her and Roderick), being met by tall, white-haired great-uncle Merry – who suddenly hijacked the book. Family adventure, deadline and prize were all forgotten as she launched into Over Sea, Under Stone .
When agents Curtis Brown returned it, saying it had been to every children’s publisher in London, her freelance Mandrake editor for Hodder suggested a friend at Cape. It was accepted instantly (which offers a whole range of possible inferences).
Around now The Sunday Times sent her to America on an exchange scheme run by the State Department, which entailed an attachment to the Toledo Blade in Ohio and travelling for a month to look at theatres and universities. Which is how she met an M I T professor, astonishingly romantic and persistent: she was 26, he was a widower of 46 with three children.
To the initial dismay of both his children and her parents, she accepted his proposal. and returned to live in Winchester, a suburb of Boston. She expanded the features resulting from her exchange trip into a splendid study of American society at that time, Behind the Golden Curtain (1965) – a Book Society Choice in Britain, while Time magazine wondered ‘who this chit was, telling them what’s wrong with their country’.
The marriage ended after 13 years, but brought two children of whom she is gloriously proud: Jonathan, an ocean engineer (thanked for his computer help in The Boggart ), and Kate, a student of Russian now in publishing. The Boggart is formally dedicated to Bill, ‘a sweetheart’ of a stepson to whom she was closest, who died of cancer leaving a wife and two small children.
For years she was deeply homesick, visiting Britain with the children once or twice a year. While at The Sunday Times she had become close to J B Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes – she later edited a collection of Priestley’s essays and wrote his biography – and he would cheer her with ‘wonderful letters, telling me “You will find you’ll write better about the place when you’re away from it”’.
He was right. Soon after settling in America, she was cross-country skiing in the woodlands round their home when twigs sticking out of some snowbanks suddenly reminded her of antlers. ‘One day I’ll write a book set in this sort of snow but back in England, about a boy who wakes up and finds he can work magic.’ Years later came ‘the spookiest day of my life’.
She had, for some reason, been re-reading Over Sea, Under Stone , and was daydreaming in her study when it struck her. ‘I took a piece of paper and wrote down four more titles set at magical times of the year, like the solstice or All Souls’ Day, who was in each book, and where it was set – say, Cornwall, or Wales. And on another piece of paper I wrote the last page of the last book, which was mostly a speech of Merryman’s. There it was, the ending of Silver on the Tree .
‘Then I started The Dark Is Rising . The next eight years were probably the most tranquil time of my life: I knew just what I was going to do even if I didn’t know inside each book.’
Bringing up her children was helping her accept her new roots. With the academic year allowing a six-week stay, their holiday home on a tiny island in the British Virgins was a shorts-and-bare-feet haven for them all, and there she wrote ‘chunks and chunks’. It was from here that a small boat took her to a phone call on a neighbouring island, telling her she was the sole Newbery runner-up for The Dark Is Rising .
She led two lives, because the imaginary world never went away – ‘it becomes a room in your house’. Her own dreams melded into the books: a recurring dream, of moving apparently invisibly through a library whose fourth side was a theatre auditorium, was exorcised by Silver on the Tree (and she did turn from books to the theatre afterwards). That lyrical fantasy of running, running, running from the golden roof to the great parkland below had also been her own dream.
With hindsight she feels Silver , which took the longest, is the least successful of the sequence – perhaps because it’s the last, and must tie up loose ends, perhaps because actually winning the Newbery for The Grey King while writing it made her self-conscious.
The next phase of her life increasingly involved her with the theatre, and coincidentally she became a friend of the great acting couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. With Hume she wrote Foxfire , a play based on the oral history of the Appalachians, which starred the Cronyns and was a worldwide success, including Broadway and television. In turn this led to their fulfilling Jane Fonda’s dream to adapt Arnow’s The Dollmaker , for a three-hour, award-winning television film. It may even lead at last to a film by Christopher Cronyn of The Dark Is Rising books, from Susan’s script.
It was her theatre work, together with writing Seaward , a dark fantasy about life and death and loss, that helped her through 1980, ‘the worst year of my life’, when, just after her marriage break-up, her parents died within six weeks of each other.
But the sun glinted through with a return to the comfortingly familiar territory of folktale, The Silver Cow and The Selkie Girl . It blazed out triumphantly in The Boggart , a charming tale of a comically disastrous transportation of a Highlands imp to Toronto. Re-reading Katharine Briggs she had become attached to the unsentimental mischief of the boggart, and began to itch for another fantasy. She didn’t realise how young and light it was until told, just as she had never seen Dawn of Fear as a children’s book until it was rescued from the rejections of British adult editors by her American publisher, and was taken aback when Mandrake was paperbacked as science fiction. She can’t, and doesn’t want to, see the audience in that library auditorium.
It’s been a hectic, word-packed life? ‘Actually, the busiest year of my life was probably when I turned 10: I was writing a play for a puppet theatre with the boy next door, editing a little magazine with the son of my music teacher, and writing and illustrating a very small book. I was so dismayed when an uncle later found it in a drawer that I tore it up and burst into tears!
‘And I still write for myself – a real writer would go on writing even on a desert island, given the paper.’
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Susan Cooper was interviewed during a trip to Britain earlier this year. Her books listed below are published in hardback by Bodley Head and in paperback by Puffin:
Over Sea, Under Stone , 0 370 30590 6, £8.99; 0 14 030362 6, £3.50 pbk
The Dark Is Rising , 0 370 30815 8, £8.99; 0 14 0307990, £3.50 pbk
Greenwitch , 0 370 30826 3, £8.99; 0 14 0309013, £3.50 pbk
The Grey King , 0 370 30828 X, £8.99; 0 14 030952 7, £2.99 pbk
Silver on the Tree , 0 370 30837 9, £8.99; 0 14 031118 1, £3.50 pbk
The Dark Is Rising Sequence (all five books in one volume), 0 14 031688 4, £8.99 pbk
Seaward , 0 14 031711 2, £3.99 pbk
Dawn of Fear , 0 14 030719 2, £2.99 pbk
The Boggart , 0 370 31829 3, £8.99