18 November 2007

Susan Cooper in Cambridge

On Thursday I had the pleasure of hearing Susan Cooper speak on “Unriddling the World” at the Cambridge Forum. As I did during the Horn Book Awards ceremony, I noted down some particularly aphoristic remarks from Cooper's speech or the question session that followed.

"Nearly every time I sit down to write a piece of fiction, it turns into a fantasy by the end of page 3."

"Though myth, like its great-grandchild fantasy, may not be real, it is true."

"You have to be irrational, indirect, in order to help young readers solve this determinedly puzzling universe."

"I don't write for ten-year-olds. An audience of ten-year-olds fills me with terror. But I write from the heart of my ten-year-old self."

In regard to her experience growing up during the Battle of Britain: "Under normal circumstances, a child doesn't experience enough bad things to get a sense of evil."

"Fantasists can't deal with extremes, just as extremists can't deal with fantasy."

Growing up on an English landscape, as opposed to (I believe) America, "gives you a sense that everything that ever happened is still happening."

"Life is not a happy little story, but it has a lot of wonderful things in it."

That event was recorded for the Cambridge Forum program on public radio, and an audio download will soon be available through the WGBH Forum Network, at which time we can check how good my note-taking was.

In her talk, Cooper listed five great mysteries of human existence that fantasy can help young readers explore: life, death, time, good, evil. That got me thinking about what mysteries aren't on Cooper's list.

Love, not in the sense of "Love your neighbor" goodness, but in the sense of "Why can't I stop thinking about that girl across the room? Why do I want to spend the rest of my life with this man?" Cooper chooses not to write about adolescents, who are often rapt (and wrapped) in that mystery. She noted how her Dark Is Rising hero Will Stanton is eleven years old while the recent cinematic offshoot is in his teens and, naturally, in the throes of a crush.

Family. This human bond is a big part of Cooper's work, but not as a mystery she probes. For Will and for the Drew children in the Dark Is Rising series, family is a given, a guarantee, a haven and a happy responsibility. In King of Shadows, Nat has lost his family, and seeks a new one in the theater. But not all families are alike, or happy. Families and family ties are not benign forces in the work of Diana Wynne Jones, to take one example. And the screenwriter of The Seeker was clearly interested in difficult sibling relationships, grafting that mystery onto Cooper's story.

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