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Writing – Health – Life
States of not knowing 
In which I meet a hero...
By the time this newsletter comes out I will be hot-footing it to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, UK, to teach on another Arvon retreat. I love working with Arvon, so I am really happy to have been also asked by them to join their "1-1" tutorial scheme. This offers detailed feedback and help with your writing via the ecologically-less-troublesome-than-going-somewhere powers of the internet. There are more details of this excellent idea here
Arvon 1-1 tutorials online. A simply great idea.

Otherwise, I am going to waste no time at all but get straight into the first interview in the new format I am unveiling today, with (drum roll)...
Five questions with...
Susan at home in Massachusetts, photo © Tsar Fedorsky 2013



Photo © Tsar Fedorsky 2013
Susan Cooper needs no introduction, but just in case you missed the best fantasy series to be published either side of the Atlantic Ocean in the last 60 years, you have a treat in store when you finally read The Dark Is Rising sequence. But Susan has written many other wonderful books, something I wanted to ask her about here.

1 - Susan, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be 'Undiagnosed'. As I’ve told you before, I was and remain a huge fan of your books, reading The Dark Is Rising sequence more or less as each title was published. They’ve been a big influence on me and on my writing, and I know that’s true for many, many people. So I’m going straight in with a potentially tough question! You’ve written many books. You’ve written films and plays. You’ve written non-fiction. So, can you tell us in brief what it’s been like to be best known for one thing, or one series of things? Do you ever feel the weight of those five books, creatively? Or do they still spur you on to do more? 
SC: Thank you, my friend. We both have the same kind of imagination, don't we, even though I'm older than your Mum. So, for the potentially tough question, I Googled myself, and sure enough, seven of the first ten entries mentioned the Dark Is Rising sequence. It's inevitable, in this age of labels, don't you think? - especially in the arts, we're all identified by the most successful song we've sung, part we've played, book we've written. But I think of those five books as a gift rather than a weight; a reminder of the magical long-ago day when my imagination suddenly told me I was about to write not just the second book but three more as well.  None of the books I've written since then has been a sequel, because I try to avoid doing the same thing twice, but that sequence did tell me, loud and clear, that I can only fly when I'm writing fantasy.
2 - I remember you saying that you wrote The Dark Is Rising books out of a feeling of homesickness, having moved to the US as a young woman. Each book is very much rooted in a place in Britain that’s important to you personally, with strong family connections. The wonder-ful sense of place is something that drew me to your writing as a child, without knowing it of course, and still does. Your very first book was a brilliantly strange adult novel; Mandrake, in which you make the connection between person and landscape absolutely explicit. It’s become trendy to throw the word ‘psycho-geography’ around now, but that’s very much what you were exploring in Mandrake. How aware were you of working with place when you wrote it? Has that awareness changed over time? I’m thinking also of your Ghost Hawk, in which landscape is again so prominent a feature.
SC: "Wonder-ful", that's right; it's a good description of the sense of place, which I've always had in spades.  From childhood I've had the same psychic connection to "my" pieces of North Wales and Buckinghamshire that Alan Garner has to his part of Cheshire - even though Alan's still right there and I'm two thousand miles away. Yes, this was very much in my mind when I wrote Mandrake; I remember having the idea for the book sitting in a train on my way back from a home weekend in Aberdyfi to my newspaper job in London.  And I was only able to write a novel set in the US after I built a house on a saltmarsh island in Massachusetts in 2007, and found I couldn't stop thinking about the Native Americans who hunted across that marsh for thousands of years until the whites drove them out in the 17th century. Then, rashly, I wrote Ghost Hawk from the point of view of a Native American - and though I didn't share his ethnicity I certainly knew all about his connection with place.
The cover of Behind the Golden Curtain showing the statue of liberty.
3 - The same year that Over Sea, Under Stone came out you also published a book of non-fiction: Behind the Golden Curtain: A View of the USA. You’d gone to the US to be a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times, and this book looks at America from an incoming, British point of view. It’s a beautifully written book, and reading it now, over fifty years later, I’m struck by how much has changed in the British relationship with the States, but equally, how much remains the same in our very Hollywood/TV/Social Media-driven view of what America is. Since place is so clearly important to you as a writer, is it true that it’s also central to you as a person? Who are you now: British or American? Or something in between?
SC: Now there's an interesting question. I've lived in the US for two-thirds of my life, and have been a citizen since 2001, yet I still sound English and can be heard saying: "I'm going home next week" before I fly to Britain each year.  And my imagination is clearly permanently rooted in Britain. But in the end, people are more important than place, so my true home is where my children and grandchildren live, and that's America. I think my books and I belong to both countries in different ways, because I pulled up the roots of my life and never quite put them down again. When I die, my ashes are going into the Atlantic. That's me - flotsam. 
4 - I’ve been thinking about the connection between health and literature of late. At first sight they seem like rather random bedfellows, but I’m becoming aware of certain connections between the two. If it is true you wrote TDIR out of homesickness, then what do you think writing and reading can do for our health, in the broadest sense of the word? Can reading and writing help us, or is that just wishful thinking? On the other hand, does writing always come out of place of ‘hurt' of some kind, or is that just a miserable way of looking at what ought to be more joyous?! 

SC: There are two things here. Yes yes yes, reading is hugely good for our health; it's almost as good a stress-reliever as sleep, particularly if it involves a quiet private place and a real book with covers and pages, rather than an eye-straining little screen.  For a writer, so is writing; we're only fully alive when we have a book to write, and I swear our immune systems suffer when we're miserably yearning for an idea.  But the imagination, where those ideas come from, has its own way of seeking after health, singing its song as clearly through despair as through joy.  It doesn't actually require misery, but it has a remarkable ability to survive it.  As mine survived desperate homesickness, in giving me The Dark Is Rising.
5 - A two-parter to finish: What are you reading at the moment? And what are you writing?

SC: If you don't know Robert Macfarlane's remarkable books, read Landmarks or The Old Ways.  I'm reading his new one, Underland, which is so gripping that when I've finished it I shall instantly start all over again. That is, unless the mail brings a book that I'm looking forward to: a book by a friend of mine, called Snowflake, AZ......
As for me; I'm doing last-minute tweaks on two picture books due out in October. One is a cheery story called The Word Pirates, on which I've been collaborating with the artist Steven Kellogg, and the other is my solstice poem, The Shortest Day, with pictures by Carson Ellis. I wrote the poem for the theatre, and for 40 years in nine US cities it's been part of an annual production called The Christmas Revels - so now it can cross the Atlantic too. 

And I'm writing a non-fiction book called (I think) Celebrate, but that's all I can tell you about it!
So there we are - possibly the first news of new writing from the legendary Susan Cooper. And I for one am already excited :-)

Susan can be found on Facebook here, and also here, on her website.

Huge thanks to her again for agreeing to be interviewed.

Next month, another interview! Who will it be? I’m working on it...
Copyright © 2019 Marcus Sedgwick, All rights reserved.

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