Susan Cooper: 'Stories are universal and we go on retelling them'
Published on: 14 Tachwedd 2013
We were delighted to have the chance to meet the legendary Susan Cooper - and to speak to her about history, ghosts, The Dark is Rising and Ghost Hawk.
Tell us about Ghost Hawk. What did you set out to achieve with this novel?
The English settlers who came to America in the Mayflower gave thanks for their first harvest at a dinner with the friendly Native Americans who had helped them, yet 60 years later they were fighting a bitter war. I tried to answer the question, 'However could this have happened?'
What inspired you to write the novel?
I built a house on an island in a saltmarsh once owned by one of those settlers – and couldn't stop thinking about the Native Americans who had hunted over that land for thousands of years before the English took it. Not least, of course, because I'm English too.
How did you go about researching Ghost Hawk – and how do you use research in your writing?
For any book with a historical background you have to go to libraries and read all the contemporary sources you can find. This one took three years of reading.
The story might have been told very differently had it been narrated from another perspective. Why did you choose to write it in the voice of Little Hawk?
All those contemporary reports were written by whites, because the Native Americans never wrote their language down. I wanted to try, through respectful imagining, to show the other side of the story.
What do you think that ghosts have to tell us about history?
If ghosts existed, I guess they could tell us what really happened. History always gives us the generally accepted story, which must often be incomplete.
There is a lot of moral ambiguity in Ghost Hawk. Do you consider there to be 'good' and 'evil' characters in the novel?
No. I hope all my books help kids to realize, even subliminally, that nobody is all good or all bad, but that life is a matter of constant choices between the two.
How do you think the historical events that form the background to Ghost Hawk live in the contemporary American imagination?
Thanksgiving is the great American family celebration, when more people travel home even than at Christmas. But nobody that day remembers the bloody battle that came 60 years after the first Thanksgiving, or reflects on the fact that the Native Americans who were the original inhabitants of the continent now make up a mere 1.7% of its population, with 2.2% of its land.
Ghost Hawk is a much more political book than some of your earlier work. Do you think that some people might find the interpretation of historical events that it puts forwards contentious?
The book has no political agenda; it just tries to say, 'Look, this is what happened. This is what people did to other people. And look, this was the result.'
Ghost Hawk is quite a harrowing read. Did you ever think about holding back some of the more shocking events in the story?
No, I didn't, because I think most of my readers have heard about equally shocking events during their history lessons. We've always been a highly imperfect race, alas.
The themes of landscape and myth come up frequently in your work. What role do you think myth has to play in the present day?
Myth will always be relevant, because its stories are universal and we go on retelling them. There really are no new stories, just variations on the timeless ones in what Tolkien called 'the Cauldron of Story.'
Your Dark is Rising sequence, published in the 1960s and 1970s, are today regarded as children's fantasy classics. How do you feel about these books when you look back on them now – and how do you feel you've evolved as a writer since then?
Goodness, I don't know. I'm fond of all my books, as a mother loves all her children, but I can't see an evolutionary pattern. My last three books have used past time more than the others, but the next one will be more like my earlier fantasies.
What are you working on next?
I'll tell you when I've finished it......