Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with Karen Cushman: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 7)

We StorySleuths are delighted that Karen Cushman, in addition to being a gifted and prolific writer, is an articulate speaker about her own writing process. Having heard her present at the SCBWI Western Washington SCBWI May meeting, we—along with many others—hope that at some point she will write a book about writing for children. In the meantime, we asked her to respond to some questions about writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann, and she graciously agreed.

1. In your May presentation, you described your writing process as “getting the character from here to there.” You mentioned that on occasion you go back and add action to liven the story up, and we are wondering if you can think of an example where you added action to the story of Meggy to “liven it up.”

The scene in the print shop where the fine gentleman talks to Meggy about the baron and her ballad was at first a short, straightforward give-and-take, but there was no tension or drama in it. Adding more confrontational dialogue and a few actions and gestures heightened the sense of danger and Meggy's anxiety and made the scene much more lively.

2. In the webcast about your writing that was recorded at TOPS school in Seattle in May [NOTE to StorySleuths readers—unfortunately the interview is no longer available online], you mentioned that you find the names of your characters in many sources, including your imagination. One source you mentioned is a book about a queen’s expenses and the names of the trades people recorded there. As a “Meg myself, I’m wondering if Meggy had any special connotations for you? I also wonder if her surname intentionally echoes the image of the ugly ducking who becomes a beautiful swan?

Here's the first answer I wrote to this question: "I wish had thought of the duckling to swan metaphor. I might have made more of it. But I didn't. I played around with ideas for the main characters name to see what sounded and fit her best. She was Bessie Blount at first and progressed through many alterations until I hit upon Meggy Swann. I

liked the sound of it, and Meggy was born." But then I found this comment in an interview I gave about a year ago: "She was Bessie Blunt and then Meggy Blunt and then as I wrote about her, the idea of an ugly duckling growing to be a swan led me to Swann." So there you are. You cannot trust a fiction writer. We make up stories even when we're trying to tell the truth. So which is truth and which the story? Ah, that's another question.

3. You have done a fantastic job of creating characters that are memorable and distinct. Did you have a clear picture of Meggy before you started writing, or did she evolve as the story unfolded?

Meggy definitely grew and changed as the story unfolded. Somewhere about a year into it, I titled a draft "Feisty Meggy," and it was there that I began to make her less meek and pliable and more like the Meggy we know.

And her wabbling came about because she had to have a big, serious, important reason to want to be transformed. I began to research types of disabilities. I had to know exactly what was wrong with Meggy, even though she didn't. I decided she had bilateral hip dysplasia, looked into the effects of that, and practiced walking the way she might have in order to describe it as accurately as I could.

4. What changes and revisions in the text did your editor suggest? Were there changes that your editor suggested that you both decided, after considering them, not to make in the final text?

Dinah thought there should be more focus on romantic feelings between Meggy and Roger. "After all," she said, "Juliet was only 13." Ah, said I, but Juliet is fiction. And I quoted extensively from academic sources that estimated the average age of marriage in the Elizabethan era at 26 for men and 23 for women. Men, after all, had to be able to support a wife and family. And celibacy was the only truly effective means of birth control. So Dinah, with a sigh, gave in.

But she prevailed in her suggestion that I cut some of the description. I wanted to use rollicking, roiling words to describe every house, person, business, piece of flotsam or jetsam in the crazy, chaotic city. She convinced me that enough was enough.

And see also the answer to question 7.

5. There are such rich details in Alchemy and Meggy Swann that set the character very firmly in Elizabethan London. We are curious about the kind of research you did to accomplish this. Did the story change in any way as a direct result of the research you did?

In one of the books I was reading about Elizabethan England, I found references to the vagabond laws. I did more research on them and discovered that even players might be considered vagabonds or outlaws if they did not have some noble patron. And so Grimm and Merryman's troubles were born.

And in another book I found the term "dancing house." More research. I decided to add such a place to the narrative and that led eventually to Meggy's desire to dance and, at the very end, Meggy dancing.

6. Was there is a particular element of writing craft that you struggled with, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Plot. Always plot. I read about writing graphs and narrative arcs and such tools for enlivening a plot. They never seem to fit the story I am trying to tell. I seem to wallow in character and setting and struggle with a plot, with telling versus withholding, with hero versus adversary. I don't think I ever really overcome it. I take my characters and put them into a setting, lay out the trajectory of the story, and go.

7. As writers ourselves we often find ourselves going down a path in the story only to find out that it is not a place that enriches the story as we had hoped and so we cut it. Were there any scenes you wrote that you really loved, but they just didn't fit into the story?

I cut, not without a few tears, the first two chapters, which dealt with Meggy at her village home, the ride into London with her kindly Uncle Ott, and her first impressions of the town. Like this, when they begin to cross the bridge into London: [quote]

What woke her was the stink, a sour stew of fish, sewage, horses, and sweat. Short of Hell, she wondered, what kind of place would smell like this?

Or was it the cursing coming from her uncle on the wagon seat beside her...The wheels as they turned churned the mud and cow droppings on the bridge into a great mucky sludge.

No, it was the muck that woke her, she thought. Certes it was the muck, a wad of which flew up and hit her cheek. Yes, definitely the muck. She wiped her face with her skirt and looked around at the people, animals, and wagons crowded about me. “Is this London then, Uncle?” she asked.

“Ah, no, Meggy, my heart’s love, my lily-faced poppet,” said my uncle. “’Tis but the bridge, the gateway to the wonders that are London.”

“Somewhat unwholesome wonders belike, Uncle,” she said as the turning wheels splashed more muck onto her.[end quote]
Dinah convinced me this all was backstory and the story really started with Meggy in the little house in London bemoaning her fate,

8. Could you share one Writing Tip that you learned in the process of writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann?

Bring action to description. Don't just paint a picture of a scene but put someone doing something into it. Early on, for example, I had many paragraphs describing peddlers on the crowded streets of London. It was great description but lifeless. When I lessened the number of peddlers and had them move and shout and interact with Meggy, they came to life.

Thank you, Karen. For more information about Karen and her books, visit her website.

StorySleuths Tip # 91: With thanks to Karen Cushman: “Bring action to description. Don’t just paint a picture of a scene but put someone doing something into it.”