Friend Friday

It is a complete honor to host Karen Cushman today. Long before we became friends, she was my hero (well, she’s still my hero!). I recall feeling quite lost and uncertain about my writing career. Then I attended the SCBWI conference in LA, where Karen was a keynoter. It was as if she was speaking directly to me: “Find your passion and have the guts to follow it.” Those words have kept me going through many a dark time.

We readers and fans of Karen Cushman’s  historical fiction are going to find something new to love in her first fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song (Clarion), out in just a few days. And if you live in the Seattle area, you can come hear Karen speak about the book at Secret Garden Bookstore on Wednesday, June 8, 7 pm. I’ll be there, that’s for sure!


karen cushman

Karen Cushman

On June 7, my new novel, Grayling’s Song, will hit the streets. I’m a bit anxious because the book is a departure for me. After eight historical novels, I wanted to try something different, and I had an idea for a fantasy. How difficult, I thought, could it be? I would not be bothered by all that pesky history, the rules and boundaries and limitations that constrain an author writing about a real time and place.

That shows how much I knew about fantasies. A fantasy world has as much history, as many rules and boundaries and limitations, as historical fiction, but the author has to invent them. In the real world, pigs can’t fly, it doesn’t rain up, and money doesn’t grow on trees. In a fantasy, a pig might fly but that leads to a wealth of questions: how does the pig fly? does it flap its ears or legs? how does it land, gently or in a heap? what happens if bodily functions overtake a pig in flight? can other animals fly? can people? why? why not?

Both historical novelists and writers of fantasy create a world for readers. A historical novelist offers a setting once real but perhaps unknown to the reader and bound by historical fact. An author of fantasy creates a new world, creates the boundaries and rules and limitations, and has to make it seem real. For both authors the task is to make a world come alive within those boundaries.

I do a great deal of research for a historical novel, and I found for my fantasy, even more was required. The whole story takes place on the road, so I had to invent the geography, which I based on the realities of a medieval world, with a few magical differences. I Imagined walking down a medieval road. What would I see? What trees–realistic or magical? What animals? other people? villages? Even when I didn’t include them, I needed to know what was there. Google images helped me picture things I needed help picturing: soldiers’ camps, nurse logs, caged wagons.

       Grayling’s mother is a wise woman. What did that mean in terms of potions and remedies, spells, chants, and charms? I read British folklore, the history of witchcraft and the traditional British cunning man and wise woman, and wiccan sites on the internet.

Finally I gathered my research and three years ago began to write a story about a wise woman and her daughter. As I sat at the computer wondering where to start, I began to type the scene where Grayling comes upon her mother rooted to the ground after the cottage fire. The words flew from my fingers. Where did that image come from and what did it mean for my story? Faced with such a tragedy, what would Grayling do? What would she be? And how? Grayling reluctantly sets out on a journey to free her mother from a dreadful curse, and the story became Grayling’s as she discovers her strengths and skills and learns to sing her own songs.


Karen Cushman lives, works, and procrastinates on misty green Vashon Island near Seattle. She has published eight books since she started writing at age fifty, including the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice and her newest title, Grayling’s Song. Ms. Cushman loves the rain and when the weather turns warm and dry, she grumbles and blames the weatherman. She is crazy about anything soft and fuzzy and will someday likely be eaten by a grizzly bear she has tried to embrace. Her husband thinks she is a bit nuts but he has stayed married to her for 46 years so how bad can she be?