Susan Cooper on her Wartime Childhood and How Writing Is "Fed by My Unconscious" | The Newbery at 100

The author of the 1974 Newbery Honor novel The Dark Is Rising and 1976 medalist The Grey King describes how her World War II memories shaped her writing and why "The Dark Is Rising" books are more of a symphony than a series.

Susan Cooper and her Newbery titles

Susan Cooper won a Newbery Honor in 1974 for her novel The Dark Is Rising and the Newbery Medal in 1976 for The Grey King (both S & S), the fourth book in “The Dark Is Rising” sequence. The Grey King also earned the inaugural Tir na n-Og Award, presented by the Books Council of Wales. For 20 years Cooper worked with Jack Langstaff in writing material for the nationally celebrated Revels in honor of the winter solstice.

Cooper’s 1976 Newbery Medal was awarded the same year the American Library Association celebrated its 100th anniversary. Here, the author reflects on the centenary of the award and its meaning to her personally. 

You’ve said that when you started writing “The Dark Is Rising” novels, you had an outline of what the next four books would entail and had already written the last page. Did you actually use that final page? Were there characters or events that surprised you as you wrote? Do you always know how your books will end?
I wrote the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, without any thought of a sequel. It was only a decade later, brooding over the idea that became The Dark Is Rising, that I re-read Over Sea and realized that these two books belonged together, in a sequence of five. On one sheet of paper I wrote the five titles, the names of the main characters, and the place and time of year of each book; on another, a sketch of the ending of the sequence, which I did indeed use when I got there, years later.

I say “sequence” because the “Dark Is Rising” books don’t constitute a series, as the word is normally used in publishing; together they have a shape, rather like that of a symphony. And although I knew roughly what each book would be about, each one constantly surprised me while I was writing. This has been true of everything I’ve ever written.

Some writers work out detailed plots in advance, but I can’t do that, alas; I know the beginning and end of each story, and then I set off on a voyage of discovery, often delighted or startled by the characters I meet and the events that they provoke. The voyage is fed by my unconscious, I guess; it’s nerve-wracking, but magical.

The Newbery Honor for The Dark Is Rising and the Newbery Medal for The Grey King came in rather quick succession. Did winning these awards affect your life? Your writing?
I think life changes for anyone who wins a major prize in the world of children’s books, especially if you’re young and not well-known. Suddenly you’re on the radar, invited to make speeches, visit schools, and give lectures and interviews. It all terrified me at first, but long term of course it’s a great gift, a reassurance that what you’re doing has meaning. I don’t think it affected my writing, because the imagination tends to ignore circumstance. Most of all I bless the Newbery for bringing me into the world of librarians, those invaluable child-nurturing folk who have warmed my life ever since and who include some of my closest friends.

You’ve written that fantasy involves images “bubbling up” from the writer’s unconscious mind. As you’ve thought about the “Dark Is Rising” novels and spoken about them, have you come to understand that unconscious bubbling in new ways?
I was a child of World War ll England, and if people are dropping bombs on you from the age of four to 10, you grow up with a powerful sense of threat, enmity, Them versus Us, the Dark and the Light. This is also, of course, the stuff of myth and legend, which I read thirstily when young. Ideas come from the imagination, but this unconscious mass is the soil in which it grows.

I believe you started writing for Jack Langstaff’s Christmas Revels in 1975, about the same time you were writing the Dark Is Rising novels. One can see connections between your books and the Revelsthe importance of music; the significance of the harp, especially inThe Grey King; the Stanton siblings caroling in the Dark Is Rising. Was there an influence of one on the otherthe writing of the books and the writing for the Revels?
On the day I met Jack Langstaff, the first words out of his mouth were: ”But I’ve read your books—you should be writing for the Revels!” And so I did, for more than 20 years: plays, poems, stories, program notes, you name it, ending with a book about Jack, The Magic Maker, after he died. I even wrote one experimental Revels script entitled The Dark and the Light, in collaboration with the sound/light architect Christopher Janney of PhenomenArts and the composer David Moss—but that was Jack’s idea, not mine.

If there’s any link between my book and theater writing it’s that they shared the same roots, as did the Langstaff/Cooper partnership: not war this time but music, myth, English folktale, even an Anglican upbringing mutated into agnosticism.

Can you say something more about your statement that “fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves?”
The delight of a good realistic novel, very often, is its reflection of events and people that you know so well from your own life; it’s a mirror of truth. Fantasy instead takes you to, and comes from, the dreamlike world of the unconscious, and its appeal can be just as powerful but is more mysterious. As Tolkien said, “Fantasy does not blur the sharp outlines of the real world, for it depends on them”—but it tells its truth through metaphor.

Rita Auerbach twice served on the Newbery Award Committee and has chaired ALA’s Caldecott and Legacy Award Committees. She is currently a member of the Ezra Jack Keats Award Committee.

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