April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Staying Power: The Magic of Susan Cooper


I’m on my way to visit Susan Cooper on an unseasonably warm day in mid-February. As my car cruises along, about 45 minutes south of Boston, low tide reveals miles of untouched marshland. I drive across a short causeway, creep down an unpaved lane, and suddenly I’m staring at the exquisite home that Cooper built a couple of years ago. My first thought is that I’ve stumbled upon the Grey House, the setting of Cooper’s first children’s book, Over Sea, Under Stone. With its soaring cathedral ceilings and wraparound windows that frame the wetlands, the space is filled with warmth and light even on a winter’s day. It seems like the perfect place for the 77-year-old writer to conjure up some more of her magic.

In June, Cooper will receive the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards Award, an annual lifetime achievement honor sponsored by SLJ and administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association. It’s about time. Cooper’s books have beguiled young readers for more than 40 years, and the award committee singled out for praise her most popular work, “The Dark Is Rising,” an epic, five-volume fantasy series comprised of Over Sea, Under Stone (1966); The Dark Is Rising (1973); Greenwitch (1974); The Grey King (1975); and Silver on the Tree (1977, all S & S/Margaret K. McElderry Bks.). The settings are contemporary England and Wales, and Cooper draws on Celtic and Arthurian legends to portray 11-year-old Will Stanton and his friends as they struggle against the terrifying powers of darkness. The series features two of Cooper’s trademarks—beautiful writing and superb storytelling—and if you haven’t read it, be forewarned: once you start, it’s nearly impossible to put down.

Cooper was born and raised in Buckinghamshire, in southeast England. While working as a reporter and feature writer in London for The Sunday Times, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, she spent her spare time writing Over Sea, Under Stone, which quickly caught the attention of legendary American editor Margaret K. McElderry. The two became lifelong friends and worked together on the “Dark Is Rising” series and many other books. Cooper began to write screenplays in the early 1980s with actor Hume Cronyn, and the two married in 1996.

I talked to Cooper about her remarkable journey as a writer, and later, with her daughter Kate, we looked at some of McElderry’s photographs and papers. As executor of her late editor’s will, Cooper was getting ready to ship the collection to its new home at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library.

What did you like to read as a child?

Assorted folktales and myths, I think—and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights was the enchanted room that I could go into and shut the door. I read E. Nesbit and Arthur Ransome, but this was wartime, so I was driven to what was on my parents’ shelves, and that included a 20-volume set of Dickens in very small print. Bad for my eyes, but very good for my sense of story.

What did you study in college?

I went to Oxford, Somerville College, and did a degree in English language and literature. We had lectures by C. S. Lewis on Renaissance literature, and Tolkien on Beowulf—he’d always start his series with a great shout of “Hwaet!” in guttural Anglo-Saxon. The two of them managed to halt the Oxford English syllabus at 1832, so there was a huge emphasis on early works by Spenser, Chaucer, Sir Gawain, the mystery plays, Malory and all his sources, above all Shakespeare. I soaked it all up like a sponge; I didn’t miss the Victorians a bit.

Were you working on your own stories?

I was already writing short stories. I edited the university newspaper, and decided a writer could only earn a living in journalism, so I went knocking on doors on Fleet Street and was lucky enough to get a job as a reporter on The Sunday Times—initially for Ian Fleming, who had a column called “Atticus.” Ian had just started writing the James Bond books; he was tall and handsome, with sexy hooded eyes, and a long cigarette holder in which he smoked far too many cigarettes. I was scared stiff of him because he was so sophisticated, but he was lovely. So was my life as a reporter, interviewing anyone from dockers to prime ministers and stars like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Great training for a writer, all that variety.

I lived alone and wrote in the evenings. I wrote a heavily autobiographical novel and an agent told me I should think of it as “apprentice writing”; and although I wanted to kill him, he was absolutely right. So I wrote a futuristic adult novel called Mandrake, and after that I found that Ernest Benn, who had published the E. Nesbit books, was offering a prize of £1,000 for “a family adventure story.” I hadn’t intended to write children’s books, but since I was earning about £800 a year at the time, this sounded great.

Tell us a little about the story.

I invented three children, Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew, and put them on a train to Cornwall, where they were met by a tall uncle with gray hair, their Great-Uncle Merriman. But by chapter three the book had become a fantasy, with Merriman as a Merlin figure, so it became useless for the competition. I didn’t care, I was having such a good time with it. Everything I was soaked in starting pouring into the book—the early literature, the Arthurian legends. I called it Over Sea, Under Stone. It was published by Jonathan Cape, but by that time I was living in America.

Why did you move here?

My newspaper sent me here for four months in 1962. I met a professor of metallurgy at MIT called Nicholas Grant, 20 years older than me, and he started turning up in London. We were married in 1963, to my editor’s horror, and off I went at 28 to be the stepmother of three teenagers in Massachusetts.

Did you keep writing?

I went on writing, but mostly nonfiction—first a book about the USA, Behind the Golden Curtain, which led to the only time I shall ever have my picture in Time magazine. They hated the book. Then a biography of the English writer J. B. Priestley, who was an old friend.

How did you meet Margaret McElderry?

Margaret had bought the American rights for Over Sea, Under Stone from Cape, so we’d corresponded. I wrote a novel called The Camp, based on my wartime childhood, but my agent couldn’t sell it. I sent it to Margaret and asked what was wrong with it, and she wrote back, “Nothing, but it’s a children’s book, and I want to publish it.” So we met for lunch in a Greenwich Village restaurant with a tree growing up out of its basement area, which I shall never forget, and she published the book as Dawn of Fear.

You wrote The Dark Is Rising, the second title in the series, eight years after the first book. That’s a long hiatus. What made you pick up the story again?

Nick and I were cross-country skiing one day in the woods, branches sticking up out of the snow looking like buried antlers, and I suddenly wanted to write a book set in snow like that, but in England, about an 11-year-old boy who wakes up one day and finds he can work magic. Sitting up in my study in Winchester, Massachusetts, for some reason I reread Over Sea, Under Stone, and I thought, Hey, this new story is linked to Over Sea—and Merriman is in it—and there are five books… And I wrote down the next four titles, four very rough outlines, and the last half page of the very last book, which I actually used when I got to Silver on the Tree. The next six years were wonderful, professionally. I knew where I was going.

I was very homesick, and every inch of The Dark Is Rising is where I grew up. Sometimes I sat in the sunny British Virgin Islands, where we had a little holiday house, writing about snowy Buckinghamshire. It doesn’t matter where you are geographically, of course, because you’re living in the landscape of your mind.

Did you send Margaret ideas for books or finished projects?

I don’t send things till I think they’re finished, but I never know whether a manuscript is any good. With The Dark Is Rising I sent her a nervous letter saying, “This is a very weird book, I’m afraid, it’s called The Gift of Gramarye and it’s rather long.” She wrote back saying that she loved it, but that we should change the title in case children thought it was about grammar. My editor at Chatto and Windus in England told me that The Dark Is Rising was the longest book they had ever published. It was only 216 pages—imagine.

Of course, fantasy novels weren’t the flavor du jour back then.

Margaret was a wonderful, supportive editor. We trusted each other. We did have huge battles about punctuation, and I drive copy editors mad to this day. I punctuate as if the prose were music, for the rhythm and sound of it. So when proofs came from Margaret with commas and semicolons altered, I put them all back again. Margaret would sigh and say, “Have it your way.”

Before long we became close personal friends. I miss her. She would sometimes turn something down, but if she knew there was a book I wanted to write, she would wait until I had finished it. She had an almost mystical respect for the imagination, and that gave her writers tremendous artistic freedom. “Whatever time you need,” she would say.

You’ve also written adult books, essays, short stories, and screenplays. You’ve never allowed yourself to become pigeonholed.

I was, and am, happiest writing the books published for children, but, well, I was just a writer. We were in the British Virgin Islands after The Dark Is Rising came out, and I was told I had a phone call. So I got in my little boat and went over to the island that had a phone, and Barbara Rollock at ALA told me that The Dark Is Rising was the only Honor book for the Newbery Medal. I’d never even heard of the Newbery Medal. I went back and said to Nick, “Nothing important—my book just missed winning some prize.” Then Margaret called, so I went back in my boat and she told me the facts of life.

The Dark Is Rising was the only Newbery Honor winner in 1974, and two years later, The Grey King won the Newbery. Suddenly, loads of people wanted to talk to you, but you rather adroitly avoided them.

I’m a shy person—if I’d been born more outgoing I’d have rejoiced in the talking. After Nicholas and I split in 1980, I was on my own with joint custody of our two children, Jonathan and Kate, and I needed to earn more money than children’s books will give you. But I didn’t have to go on the road because I became a screenwriter, by accident. I’d met the actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and after I finished Silver on the Tree Hume and I collaborated on a play for the two of them, called Foxfire, set in Appalachia. Hume was making a film with Jane Fonda and she read the play. One day when I was visiting the set she said, “Have you ever read a book by Harriette Arnow called The Dollmaker?”

I said, “How funny, my editor’s been trying to get me to read that for years.”

So Margaret didn’t disapprove when Jane hired Hume and me to write a screenplay from that wonderful big Appalachian novel. I enjoyed it; respectful adaptation of a novel is carpentry, reshaping an existing story for the new medium. I did rewrite the ending, which made me deeply nervous until Jane got a letter from Ms. Arnow saying, “The ending seems to me entirely natural.” The Dollmaker became a three-hour TV film; Jane got an Emmy, Hume and I won the Humanitas Prize and an Emmy nomination. So everyone thought I was a screenwriter, and for the next 10 years I wrote screenplays and children’s books alternately, and was solvent.

You also did some writing for baritone and early music pioneer John Langstaff and his Christmas Revels, which are now performed worldwide.

Yes. Margaret was also Jack’s editor, and one Christmas when she was staying with us we went to the magical, myth-haunted Revels and she took us backstage. Jack shook my hand and said, “But I’ve read your books! You should be writing for the Revels!” So I did, for the next 20 years—songs, plays, poems, you name it. Jack was a marvel—I miss him, too. Candlewick just published a book I wrote about him called The Magic Maker.

But the books were my real love, all this time—my two Boggart books, which were great fun, a string of picture books, one of them with my dear friend Ashley Bryan, and most recently two time-shift fantasies, King of Shadows and Victory. Margaret had retired, so I worked on Victory with Emma Dryden, equally happily.

What compels you to write?

Telling a story—that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? Every chapter should make you want to know what happens in the next. A novel is a necklace of linked beads. Just the way it was for the earliest storytellers, trying to keep the audience listening around the fire and not wandering off.

What does winning prizes like the Edwards mean to you?

I have mixed feelings about prizes, because the choice is inevitably subjective and there are always a dozen other books or people equally deserving. But I’m deeply grateful. It changes your life, that wonderful reassurance that you’re doing the right thing and that you know how to do it. An award is a life belt; in any rough seas, you have it thereafter, keeping you afloat.

So can we hope to see another book soon?

It’s called Ghost Hawk, I just finished it. I haven’t a clue whether it’s any good.

Author Information
Children’s book author and expert Anita Silvey is the creator of the Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac. Her last feature for SLJ, “Make Way for Stories” (November 2011), examined the reasons why many adults are passing up today’s picture books.