Alchemy and Karen Cushman!

Oh, this is so much fun! Not only is there a brand-new book out from one of my all-time favorite authors, but I got to read an ear­ly copy (squeee!) and inter­view the author for my blog (huz­zah)!

First, let me gush a lit­tle about how much I enjoyed read­ing Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann. There’s an awful lot for read­ers of any age to love in this lit­tle book: from the open­ing scene where we start right in with action and a bit of a mys­tery, to the feisty but kind-heart­ed hero­ine, to the his­tor­i­cal rich­ness, to the won­der­ful array of cre­ative insults. It’s tru­ly got some­thing for every­one. If you’re not already a fan of Karen Cush­man, this book will sure­ly trans­form you into one. And now, let’s meet the alchemist herself—welcome, Karen!

LT: First, I love the par­al­lels between the father’s search for alchem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and Meggy’s per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. What made you start think­ing about alche­my as a book sub­ject, and was the par­al­lel planned from the outset?
KC: I found alche­my an intrigu­ing idea but did­n’t real­ly have an idea about how I’d use it in a book until I thought more about trans­for­ma­tion, about that very par­al­lel between alchem­i­cal and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion.  I love how the ides of change works for both and how trans­for­ma­tion may not hap­pen exact­ly as they want­ed or expected.


LT: I think you real­ly gave us an accu­rate por­tray­al at what it’s like to feel dif­fer­ent and/or unwant­ed and the mis­guid­ed but all-too-com­mon defense mech­a­nism of push­ing peo­ple away before they can reject us, and it is these under­stand­able flaws that make Meg­gy such an inter­est­ing and uni­ver­sal­ly appeal­ing char­ac­ter. Did you know you were shoot­ing for that at the start, or did those aspects of char­ac­ter evolve nat­u­ral­ly as you wrote the story?
KC: Meg­gy start­ed out much sweet­er and more com­pli­ant but as I under­stood more about her and her strug­gles, I real­ized she prob­a­bly would not have respond­ed or act­ed in such under­stand­ing ways.  So, yes, those aspects of char­ac­ter evolved as I wrote the story.


LT: I find it fair­ly dif­fi­cult (but extreme­ly enter­tain­ing) to pic­ture you hurl­ing insults at any­one, but Meg­gy seems to have no trou­ble what­so­ev­er. How exact­ly did you come up with Meggy’s many inven­tive invectives?
KC: I found an invalu­able lit­tle book called Shake­speare’s Insults and bor­rowed some of those.  And there is a web­site called the Shake­speare­an Insult Kit ( that allowed me to come up with intrigu­ing com­bi­na­tions.  It was great fun.


LT: I can tell you did a ton of research for this book. Do you think you’ll reuse any of it in future sto­ries? Will we see Meg­gy again? (I need to see her reunit­ed with her goose!)
KC: I had­n’t planned on a Meg­gy sequel but young read­ers have said they like the idea.  First I’d have to fin­ish a new book, Will Spar­row’s Road, where I will use a lot of what I learned about Eliz­a­bethan England.


LT: How about non­fic­tion? I’m a pri­mar­i­ly non­fic­tion writer who dab­bles in research-based fic­tion when some­thing I’m research­ing gets my imag­i­na­tion going. Have you ever or do you think you will ever dab­ble in non­fic­tion? You’ve cer­tain­ly got the research part down!
KC: So far it’s the “what if?” of sto­ries that has my atten­tion.  I love sit­ting in my chair and mak­ing things up.  But I dab­ble in non­fic­tion when I write my author’s notes.  The notes for Meg­gy Swann were espe­cial­ly fun to do.


LT: I love that you “like to write about gut­sy girls fig­ur­ing out who they are,” and I love gut­sy girls, even if some of us don’t get gut­sy or fig­ure out who we are until we’re actu­al­ly mid­dle-aged women (who, me?). Which real-life gut­sy girls (and women) have inspired you most?
KC: Some of my female heroes are Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, the anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and genius illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman—all gut­sy girls.


LT: I’ve always said that I’ll feel like a suc­cess­ful writer when I receive one let­ter from a read­er say­ing that my book helped them in some way, and you’ve said that con­nect­ing with read­ers is what makes you feel proud­est of your work. What’s the best let­ter you’ve ever received from a reader?
KC: I got a won­der­ful let­ter that said, “I nev­er read one of your books but now that you’ve come to my school, I am con­sid­er­ing try­ing to read one.”  But I trea­sure the ones that say “I nev­er thought about that before but…” or “Since I read your book, I know there are oth­er peo­ple who feel like I do.”


LT: Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann, even more so than your oth­er books, I think, is a short­er book with more dif­fi­cult lan­guage. Was there ever any ques­tion, from you or your pub­lish­er, about audi­ence, age, and/or read­ing ability?
KC: No, I think Dinah, my edi­tor, thinks as I do that we should give young peo­ple more cred­it for their under­stand­ing. And I tried to use words that could be under­stood through con­text or ono­matopoeia.  It was great fun search­ing the­saurus­es and the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary.


LT: I love that answer and com­plete­ly share the belief that we should chal­lenge and believe in chil­dren rather than sell them short. Since you men­tioned Dinah, can you tell us what it’s like to work with the leg­endary Dinah Steven­son?
KC: Leg­endary?  Is Dinah old enough to be leg­endary?  I was assigned to work with Dinah when Clar­i­on bought my first book–an amaz­ing stroke of luck.  Dinah is a great edi­tor, intel­li­gent, insight­ful, and not at all pushy, and she makes my work much bet­ter and rich­er than it would be with­out her.  That does­n’t mean I don’t snarl and throw things when I get one of her famous 17-page edi­to­r­i­al let­ters, and I don’t fol­low every sug­ges­tion she makes but I do think about them care­ful­ly.  And she always reminds me it’s my book and I should write it my way.


LT: Age has noth­ing to do with it—only the esteem she’s earned with­in the indus­try! You’ve been very loy­al to Dinah and to Clar­i­on over the years (and I must admit that Clar­i­on is one of my dream pub­lish­ers!). They’re inter­est­ing because they’re a rather small imprint with a small list, but owned by a huge con­glom­er­ate. How do think this has helped or hurt you?
KC: I think Clar­i­on’s small size has meant there’s a small­er list and few­er oth­er authors.  I can have a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with every­one on the staff and feel they know me.  I like that.  And I’m sure the sup­port Clar­i­on gets from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court ben­e­fits me in ways I don’t even know.  So far I have felt no drawbacks.


LT: Final­ly, any advice for up-and-com­ing wanna-be’s?
KC: I tell most women who come to me for advice that they prob­a­bly are just too young yetI was fifty, after all, before I start­ed writ­ing.  Beyond that I rec­om­mend what most writ­ers dolots of read­ing, much writ­ing, cri­tique groups, and sup­port groups of like-mind­ed folks like the SCBWI.


LT: Phew, that’s good to knowI’ve got a few more years yet. What a relief! Thanks so much, Karen. As always, it was won­der­ful to talk with you, made even more so by hav­ing such a delight­ful book to discuss. 



** Dis­claimer: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

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