Susan Cooper: Writing Fantasy Is A “Journey Fueled By My Unconscious” | The Newbey at 100


The author of the 1974 novel Newbery Honor The night is coming and medalist 1976 The Gray King describes how his memories of World War II shaped his writing and why “The Dark Is Rising” books are more of a symphony than a series.

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

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

You said that when you started writing “The Dark Is Rising” novels, you had a glimpse of what the next four books would entail and you had already written the last page. Did you actually use this last page? Are there any characters or events that surprised you while you were writing? Do you always know how your books will end?
I wrote the first book, Above the sea, under the stone, without thinking of a sequel. It was only a decade later, ruminating on the idea that became The night is coming, which I read Above the sea and realized that these two books belonged together, in a sequence of five. On a sheet of paper, I wrote down the five titles, the names of the main characters, and the location and time of year for each book; on another, a sketch of the end of the sequence, which I actually used when I got there, years later.

I say “sequence” because the “Dark Is Rising” books do not constitute a series, as the word is normally used in publishing; together they have a form, a bit like that of a symphony. And even though I pretty much knew what each book would be about, each one constantly surprised me as I wrote. This has been true of everything I have ever written.

Some writers work out detailed plots in advance, but I can’t, alas; I know the beginning and the end of each story, then I set out to explore, often delighted or surprised by the characters I meet and the events they provoke. The trip is fueled by my subconscious, I guess; it’s scary, but magical.

Newbery’s honor for The night is coming and the Newbery Medal for The Gray King followed each other fairly quickly. Has winning these awards affected your life? Your writing?
I think it’s life changing for anyone who wins a major award in the world of children’s books, especially if you’re young and little known. Suddenly you’re on the radar, invited to give speeches, visit schools, give talks and interviews. All of this terrified me at first, but in the long run, of course, it’s a beautiful gift, an assurance that what you’re doing has meaning. I don’t think it affected my writing, because imagination tends to ignore circumstances. Above all, I bless the Newberys for bringing me into the world of librarians, those invaluable child care givers who have since warmed my life and include some of my closest friends.

You wrote that fantasy involves “bubbling” images from the writer’s unconscious mind. Thinking about and talking about the “Dark Is Rising” novels, have you come to understand this unconscious bubbling in new ways?
I was a child in WWII England, and if people drop bombs on you between the ages of four and ten, you grow up with a powerful sense of threat, enmity, them against us, darkness and the light. It is also, of course, the stuff of myth and legend, which I read with thirst when I was 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 Eve in 1975, around the same time you were writing the The darkness rises novels. We can see links between your books and the Revelsthe importance of music; the importance of the harp, especially inThe Gray King; the Stanton siblings singing in the The darkness rises. Was there an influence of one on the otherwriting the books and writing for the Revels?
The day I met Jack Langstaff, the first words that came out of his mouth were, “But I’ve read your books, you should write for the Revels!” And that’s what I did, for over 20 years: plays, poems, stories, program notes, etc., ending with a book about Jack, the magic maker, after his death. I even wrote an experimental Revels script called the darkness and light, in collaboration with sound/light architect Christopher Janney of PhenomenArts and composer David Moss, but it was Jack’s idea, not mine.

If there is a link between my book and theatrical writing, it is that they share the same roots, just like the Langstaff/Cooper partnership: not war this time but music, myth, English tale , even an Anglican education mutated into agnosticism.

Can you say something more about your assertion that “fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves? »
The delight of a good realistic novel, very often, is its reflection on events and people you know so well from your own life; it is a mirror of truth. Instead, fantasy takes you to and from the dream world of the unconscious, and its appeal can be just as powerful but more mysterious. As Tolkien said, “fantasy does not blur the sharp edges of the real world, for it depends on it” – but it speaks its truth through metaphor.

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


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