Karen Cushman

I will never forget first hearing Karen Cushman speak years ago at the SCBWI LA conference. She was so inspiring, and yet down-to-earth. The words that stuck in my brain were: find your passion.

Thanks to her well-crafted and compelling historical fiction, I became first an avid reader of the genre and, now, an avid writer of same. I reviewed Karen’s newest book, Alchemy and Meggy Swann — which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal! –, in an earlier post. Today I have the honor of posing a few questions to Karen, on this auspicious day which is exactly ONE WEEK before the official release of the book. If you can’t wait until April 26, you can pre-order the book from Indiebound.

Now to ferret some secrets from Ms. Cushman:

Where did the character, Meggy, come from? Specifically, why did you give her such a dramatic physical challenge to overcome in addition to the challenge of being basically unwanted by her father?

Alchemy and Meggy Swann started, as all my books do, with a “what if?” What if there was a man who was a poisoner in Queen Elizabeth’s court? Why did he do it? How did he feel about what he did? The idea of making the man an alchemist came later. What great cover, I thought, for a poisoner. So I immersed myself in the arcana of alchemy and the alchemist’s search for transformation. Then, as in all my books, the focus changed to a girl, his daughter, how she felt and what she did. Transformation? Did Meggy seek to be transformed? How and why, I wondered? Had to be something important enough for her to overcome her disdain for her father and disgust at the dirt of London. And so her wabbling was born.

My husband once pointed out that The Ballad of Lucy Whipple told my own story of moving to California when I was ten, and forty years later it came out in a book. The Loud Silence of Francine Green, and in a way, Matilda Bone, raised by a priest, and Rodzina, like me a Polish girl from Chicago, are all my own stories. I wondered recently, is Meggy’s story my own? As I wondered, I took two more ibuprofen for my painful right knee. And there it was–after dealing over the past five years with my own pain and limited mobility, I gave it to poor Meggy. It seems I cannot write a book that does not in some way reflect me and my feelings and my life.

What prompted you to give her a goose for a best buddy?

I thought Meggy needed a friend and confidante who wasn’t a person. I considered different animals, but when I ran across a reference to a condition of geese called angel wing that rendered geese clumsy and unable to fly, I knew that was it. And where did Louise’s personality come from? People who have met our cat, Otis, might recognize him in Louise: cuddly, curious, demanding, stubborn, and apt to bite without warning.

What was your favorite resource for immersing yourself in pre-Elizabethan England customs, language and ways?

Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard, Shakespeare’s Insults by Wayne Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen, and John Stow’s Survey of London, first published in 1598.

Tell us a couple of the great facts you learned in your research that you couldn’t use in the book.

It was surprising to learn that birth defects or, to use the language of the time, monstrous births, were popular subjects for street ballads. Woodcuts on several of the ballads show conjoined twins, deformed babies, and fetal abnormalities.

People believed the liver, not the heart, the source of the emotions, although the heart was the source of love, so there are references to ailing and grizzled livers. And men often wore a codpiece, a sheath or pouch that attached to the front of the crotch of men’s breeches that emphasized, and often exaggerated, the size of the penis. Somehow I couldn’t fit that into Alchemy and Meggy Swann.

And, finally, have you ever called anyone a “writhled beetle-brained knave”? If not, ever wanted to?

Sure, I’ve wanted to. I can think of a number of political figures offhand who deserve the appellation, but I have not yet used the term outside my own imagination.

Thank you, Karen. Most gracious of you to indulge my questions.

But wait — there’s more! Thanks to the magic of the internet, Karen is being interviewed on this very same day by several fellow bloggers, clever lasses all. Hop over to find out what Kimberly Baker, Emilie Bishop, Jaime Temairik, and Laurie Thompson learned from the Queen of historical fiction!

But wait — there’s even more!

Thanks to the generosity of Karen’s publisher — who in no way resemble “writhled, beetle-brained knaves” –, one lucky reader of this blog can win a copy of Alchemy and Meggy Swann. In honor of the book’s terrific language and rollicking insults, I have determined that the person who sends me the best insult wins!

No Responses to “Karen Cushman”

  1. Faith Pray

    Thanks for sharing this interview! I love getting a peek inside Karen’s witty mind. Alas, I have no brilliant insults to throw into the pot. “leech-faced, curdled heart with sop for brains” is all I can muster.

  2. Grier Jewell

    Thank you for this interview. Ahhh…the Cushman wit. Such a treat.

    I’ll take a stab at a few insults. They’re not Elizabethan, though, just a few thoughts off the top of my head:

    Reading your book brings to mind a root canal in which the drill pierces my lower mandible, descends into my abdominal cavity and eviscerates internal organs without the benefit of anesthesia. Like a drunken dentist with a dull needle, your skill with words has left me speechless.


    Bless your pointed little head, you have about as much sense as a horse’s afterpiece, don’t you dear?


    You slope-headed, knuckle dragging Neanderthal with a brain the size of a gnat’s thyroid…

    That’s all I have for now. How long are you running this contest?

  3. Kirby Larson

    Ah, good point Grier!!! A little late, but let’s let the contest run until this coming Monday, April 26. One week.

  4. Grier Jewell

    Fie! May a pox descend on the house of the winner and the spawn of Satan curse them until the end of days… Akshually, I wish it weren’t a contest. There’s nothing more fun than jazzing with language just for the joy of it.

  5. Nicole Marie Schreiber

    Here is my attempt at a knight’s insult to his fair maiden:

    Ah, my dear lady, your breath is as sweet as pig droppings, your hair as curly as calf brains, and your skin as supple as goose liver pie.

    -Nicole Marie Schreiber