Swashbuckling sailors, secret treasure, long-lost relatives and time travel: Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper captures them all and our imagination in her latest book for young readers, Victory.
Best known for her award-winning series The Dark Is Rising, which she launched more than 40 years ago with the publication of Over Sea, Under Stone, Cooper spins an intriguing and delicately balanced web of adventure, personal discovery, loss and love in her new stand-alone fantasy. Victory chronicles the lives of Molly, a present-day English girl recently transplanted to the United States, and Sam, an early 19th-century English sailor living on the high seas. Told in alternating voices, the story unfolds as a very homesick Molly becomes strangely drawn to a book recounting the life of Lord Nelson, an English naval hero and the captain of Sam's ship. Upon opening the antiquated tome, Molly makes a serendipitous discovery that connects her to Sam and ultimately takes her back through time to help her understand her own past. In an interview from her home in Connecticut, Cooper tells BookPage she got the idea for the book after reading a true-life account of Lord Nelson's funeral. According to the report, the sailors in the funeral procession had torn apart the flag draped over the admiral's casket because they could not bear letting it be sealed into the crypt for eternity. Their affection for him was so powerful, says Cooper. It started me thinking, what if one of those sailors was a young boy? And what if his piece of the flag lived longer than he did and found its way to another child? Certain elements of the fictional tale mirror parts of Cooper's own life story homesickness, historic reverence, relocation from England to New England and stepfamilies but the author assures us that there is no intentional connection. Everything we write is based on what we have lived, encountered or dreamed, but you don't do that on purpose. Things come from the compost heap in your imagination, she explains.
Cooper got her start as a writer at a very early age. I was born a writer, she says. Growing up in rural England during World War II, Cooper found it easier to cope with books than with people and the world around her. During those years, writing was a very private thing to her. So much so, that when a well-meaning uncle complimented her on a book that she had written, illustrated and purposely kept hidden, Cooper burst into tears and destroyed the book. She was 10 years old at the time.
Years later, Cooper overcame her fear of exposure and went on to edit her school magazine and study English at Oxford University, where students had to read so much medieval literature that we ended up believing in dragons. Dragons, magic, time travel, ghosts Cooper has written about them all. To date, she has published nearly 25 books and has written for film, TV and Broadway.
Though she has diverse interests, Cooper tells BookPage she has no intention of relinquishing her grasp on the fantasy book world. I'm a novelist who also writes screenplays, she says. Book writing is a private piece of work. Screenwriting is a craft, a collaboration. Like her books, her screenplays have also been critically acclaimed, including the Emmy-nominated Foxfire and The Dollmaker, and the Humanitas Award-winning To Dance with the White Dog. She collaborated on all three screenplays with the late Hume Cronyn, her longtime writing partner whom she married in 1996.
Whatever the project, Cooper assures us she does not focus on winning awards. I don't write for you, whoever you are, I write for me, she says. In fact, when The Dark Is Rising was named as an honor book, or runner-up, for the 1974 Newberry Medal, she was not even familiar with the award. My publisher got very excited, Cooper recalls, but I thought, what is so amazing about being runner-up? These days, she's quite familiar with the Newbery, the most prestigious American award for a children's book having lived in the United States for more than 30 years, and having won it for her novel The Grey King in 1976.
To her thousands of fans throughout the world, Cooper plans to remain true to her fantasy writing. She sees it as a cross between being a journalist which she was for many years and a poet. Half of my head loves to write about real life, but nearly always, magic creeps in and my stories turn into metaphor. At the end of the day, admits the author, I am really a fantasy writer and in this world, I think one can believe in anything. Heidi Henneman writes from the magical world of Manhattan.