Interview with Susan Cooper


Interview with Susan Cooper

from: The Camelot Project  1999

2 JULY 1989

   Because she had to fly to California, I missed Susan Cooper on my first trip to the Boston area to interview authors. I had better luck the following year, fortunately, although the weather was predictably hot and humid since it was early July. After the drive up from New York City, her house in Cambridge was a cool and restful oasis. Even so, it seemed a world away from the rocky Cornish coast, the wintry Buckinghamshire village, and the wild Welsh mountains in which is set her series The Dark Is Rising.
   Composed of Over Sea, Under Stone (London: Cape, 1965), The Dark Is Rising (New York: Atheneum, 1973), Greenwitch (New York: Atheneum, 1974), The Grey King (New York: Atheneum, 1975), and Silver on the Tree (New York: Atheneum, 1977), it introduces the Grail and several Arthurian characters, the most important of which is Merlin. Though but one element in the broader context of the series, Arthurian tradition provides a dimension that resonates throughout, and it was fascinating to learn how that arose out of the home-sickness she felt for the land of her birth. She told me that her second novel was set in her childhood home of Dorney in Buckinghamshire. I later had a chance to visit the village and to go through Dorney Court and the church in which so many of the events take place. That too was a hot and humid day, but one could still recapture in the mind's eye the wintry scene of Will's struggle against the Dark, so powerfully evoked in her book.

RT: What attracted you to the Arthurian legend as an ingredient in your series The Dark Is Rising?

SC: I haven't the least idea. It never occurred to me that I was writing about the Arthurian legend as such. I was just writing a series of fantasies which draw on everything I'd ever read, lived through, and absorbed through general cultural osmosis. The Matter of Britain was part of a great mass of stuff in my subconscious, which consisted of fairytale, folktale, myth--that whole range of material that had always appealed to me enormously since childhood. I suppose I had read almost as much as was then in print, apart from very scholarly studies, about Arthurian legend, partly because I went to Oxford University and the English School at Oxford is very strong on earlier literature.

RT: So for you Arthurian legend was just one part of a wider tradition?

SC: Yes. One result of coming to live in America in 1963 was that I became extremely homesick and turned to reading about not just England, but Britain. Perhaps if I had stayed in England I would have been less focused on things British. I have a strong sense of the mythic history of the land. I grew up in Buckinghamshire, in what was then a countryish area twenty-two miles outside London. I had an awareness of the past that I never had to think about. There was an Iron Age fort a couple of fields away. There was a Roman pavement that somebody had found in his field. Windsor Castle I could see from my bedroom window. Things like that give a sense of layers and layers of time, and of the stories that stick to those layers and develop through them, even though you may not realize that you've got it. It's a great legacy for a writer. I was lucky.

RT: Did your appreciation of this legacy grow keener when you came to America?

SC: I think so. The English author J. B. Priestley was a friend of mine, and he used to write to me when I was going through this dreadful homesick period. In one of his letters he said, do not worry about being away from your roots; you will find you write better about a place when you are away from it. That certainly turned out to be true with The Dark Is Rising books. They were immensely British, yet all except the first were written either here in Massachusetts, or on a very small island in the Caribbean where we have a house.

RT: As a child, did you read Arthurian stories for younger readers?

SC: I suppose I must have done because I knew the legends, but I couldn't tell you which ones specifically.

RT: The experience at Oxford must have greatly increased your familiarity with Arthurian legend, then?

SC: Yes. We had to do a lot of background reading in the French sources, such as Chretien de Troyes. I also read The Mabinogion, the chronicles, and many other works that I don't recall now. I didn't, however, refer back to the studies I did at Oxford when I wrote the books. No way. Whatever went into that room at the back of my head while I was at university, there it is in that room. I never consciously looked at it afterwards.

RT: You didn't reread Arthurian sources as a preparation for writing the book?

SC: No. The only thing I ever reread on purpose is The Mabinogion, and that not very often. Malory I dip into just because I love the prose.

RT: Did you read studies of the Arthurian era by archaeologists and historians?

SC: Yes. I read E. K. Chambers, R. S. Loomis, Leslie Alcock; and I think John Morris' Age of Arthur is fascinating because of the different threads. They were part of my general reading, however, rather than preparation for the series. I'm the kind of person who would go into a second-hand bookshop and look around for anything in that area that I hadn't read.

RT: Had you read any of the more modern versions of the Arthurian legend, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King and The Once and Future King by T. H. White?

SC: Oh sure. At university I probably read everything Tennyson ever wrote. White I loved, but I hadn't read many modern novels about Arthur before I wrote the series. It was only when I started The Dark Is Rising, the second book in the series, that I realized I had four more books to write. Once I found I was writing fantasy which was being published for young adults, I thought, it's very dangerous to read anybody who is writing in this area. So I didn't. As a result, when I finished the last book I had this lovely orgy reading Alan Garner, C. S. Lewis, and a whole bunch of other writers. I enjoyed them enormously, especially Alan Garner. He's wonderful. We met each other, he and I, at a conference years later. It was like meeting your brother!

RT: Were you conscious of the fact that you were writing in the fantasy form in The Dark Is Rising series, particularly the later books, since the fantasy element is less obvious in Over Sea, Under Stone?

SC: Evolution, that was really. I wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when I was a very young journalist, before I left England. A publishing company called Jonathan Cape, which had published E. Nesbit, had a competition for a family adventure story, and I thought I would go in for this. So the book started off as an adventure story. It doesn't really draw much on Arthurian legend. It makes use of a grail, but not in the same way as the Grail legend. Very early on, however, this character called Merriman turned up, and the book turned itself into a fantasy. Once I was writing fantasy, I don't think I really thought about it. I just felt I'd come home. You don't say to yourself, I am writing fantasy. You don't even say to yourself, I am writing for kids. You just tell the story. Or you're really living in it and reporting on what you find. Of course what you find comes out of your own subconscious.

RT: Did you have in mind a particular age group when you were writing the series?

SC: No, I've never aimed at an age group. You write something and the publishers decide that. To some extent you're aware of your audience because you don't use enormously long Latinate words, for instance. Even then if somebody were to say, you can't use that word because it's too complicated, you can reply, let the kid look it up. This is the way children learn languages, by coming across words they haven't met before. I don't know whom I'm writing for. I write for me, I suppose.

RT: The conflict between good and evil, that is central to the series, is to some extent inherent in the Arthurian legend itself. Were you influenced by that when you were writing?

SC: No. I take more from the chronicles and The Mabinogion than from the medieval romances where that conflict is more marked, though that is something I only recognize in retrospect. I'm more interested in Arthur as dux bellorum, as the Dark Age war leader, than in the romantic image of the Round Table.
   The struggle between the Light and the Dark in my books has more to do with the fact that when I was four World War II broke out. England was very nearly invaded by Germany, and that threat, reinforced by the experience of having people drop bombs on your head, led to a very strong sense of Us and Them. Of course Us is always the good, and Them is always the bad.
   This sense must have stayed with me, and it put me into contact with all the other times that England has been threatened with invasion. We are such mongrels: we have been invaded over and over and over again from Scandinavia, from Ireland, from the Continent. This same fear and resistance--usually unsuccessful-- has been repeated throughout British history. All that goes into the collective subconscious, and, especially if you come from a generation which went through this experience in childhood, it becomes very much a part of your own imagination. So there is this sympathetic link between my growing up and what it must have been like when the real Arthur--what we know about him--was alive. You find this reflected in the books, especially the last.

RT: What is the relationship between Arthur and Herne the Hunter in your series?

SC: One of the things I tend to believe, largely as a result of reading Robert Graves whom, I'm sure, many scholars find outrageous, is that there is a blurring of identity between an awful lot of figures. The mythic territory of the totally mythical Herne and the possibly-once-real Arthur can cross and overlap, and this happens with the figures in my story. So it is never possible to say, this character is precisely this, and that one is precisely that, because nothing is precise in myth. When you're using myth you can be precise for the purposes of your book, but you do it at your own peril. The mythic elements are all intended to be slightly out of focus, like an impressionist painting, and if you try to sharpen the focus you will lose something. You will lose the magic. The writer must tread gently.

RT: During the last battle in the final book, Arthur seems to disappear. Why was that?

SC: I don't know. That's just the way it happened. This is the story of the Dark and the Light, not a story about Arthur. It draws on myth only to the extent that the myth serves the story. The major Arthurian figure in my series is one that doesn't exist in Arthurian legend: Bran, the son of Arthur. He is my invention. It's with great temerity that an author departs from tradition like this, but you just do it. I think perhaps that he originates in the very strong image of betrayal that you find in the story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

RT: Why did you decide to make Bran the son of Arthur, rather than just an ordinary figure?

SC: I don't know. It was not a rational decision. I start a book knowing it's a road. You know the beginning, you know who's going with you on the road, you know roughly where they're going, but you don't know anything at all (at least I don't) about what's going to happen on the way. You find out as you go along. When I write a novel, I have two things. I have the manuscript as it comes out very slowly, from the typewriter or on the page or wherever; and at the same time I keep a notebook. It's full of random scraps from all over the place, and they often turn up in the books: quotations, images, historical allusions, etc. But in it I also talk to myself. I'm sure if I looked back at the notebook for The Grey King, I would find at some point a realization that Bran is going to be the son of Arthur, just as there was a point at which Merriman turned out to be Merlin. Your head does things before it tells you it's doing them.

RT: At what point did you recognize that Merriman was Merlin?

SC: At the end of Over Sea, Under Stone one of the characters, a small boy named Barney, says, "Merry Lyon . . . Merlion . . . Merlin" (218). It was only when I reached that point in the writing that I realized who he was. I recognized it at the same time as Barney did. There must be some Jungian reason why the Merlin figure has a particular attraction for me, but I've never delved into it.

RT: Once you discovered Merriman Lyon was Merlin, did that place restraints upon how you were able to use him as a character because of the way he appears in tradition?

SC: No, he's my character, not the Merlin of tradition. Merriman is an Old One in my books, a figure of the Light that opposes the Dark, which is my rather obvious classification of good and evil. He doesn't have the ambiguous dark qualities of Merlin in Arthurian legend. The sinister side of Merriman Lyon, and indeed all the Old Ones, is that absolute good, like absolute evil, is fanatical. As one of my characters points out, there is no room for human ambiguity. Absolute good is like a blinding light, which can be very cruel, and to that extent Merriman is not a sympathetic character. He represents something, but what he represents is to do with those books and not to do with Arthurian legend.

RT: Were you aware that Taliesin had Arthurian associations when you included him in Silver on the Tree, the concluding novel in the series?

SC: No, I probably wasn't. I think he may have come from Robert Graves' White Goddess, which I read while writing the series.

RT: Do you have specific locations in mind for your settings, or are they an amalgamation?

SC: Oh, very specific. Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch are both set in Trewissick, which is based on a village in southern Cornwall called Mevagissey. We used to go there when I was a child. The Dark Is Rising is set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up. Every stick is real. It doesn't look that way now, a lot of it, but some of it does. The little church is still exactly the same. Huntercombe is based upon the village of Dorney and the Great Hall is Dorney Court, which I see is being used as Miss Haversham's house in a new television version of Dickens' Great Expectations. The Welsh setting in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree is around Aberdyfi, the village where my grandmother was born and where my parents lived. I took some liberties with the description at one point, combining two valleys into one, but otherwise it's exact. My aunt, who still lives there, occasionally has people knocking on the door and saying, is this the certain point from that book?

RT: Did you need to check details of the topography after you had started writing, or was your recollection clear enough?

SC: I had two ordnance survey maps pinned up in my study inside a cupboard door, so that if I wanted to check them I went to the cupboard. Also I used to go home every year. I can remember going out of the door from my parents' house when I was visiting Aberdyfi from America, to remind myself what it was like to go across the dunes and down to the sea in the very early morning. The images that I encountered on the way went into Silver on the Tree, where a character called Jane does just that. So I did things like that.
   An awful lot of detail comes out of your memory, however. You don't know it's there until you start writing about it. In that same book Will and Bran are on a mountaintop on one side of the River Dyfi, and there appears a magical arching bridge which takes them down into a timeless place called the Lost Land. When I was writing that passage I had them on the mountaintop, and I didn't know what happened next. Then I remembered the last time I was home being being up on that particular mountain, looking out across the estuary of the River Dyfi. Ever since I was a child I had known the legend about the drowned country, and I could almost see it. As I recalled that moment I thought, that's what they do! That's what happens! They go down there, over a bridge! It's lovely when that happens. That's what I meant by saying it's not a rational decision. You can't control it. You say, oh, I see! You even find yourself using images from dreams sometimes.

RT: Were you aware of legends about Arthur attached to any of these places?

SC: Yes. In the valley behind Aberdyfi, for example, is a stone where King Arthur's horse is supposed to have left a hoofprint. I'm interested in the creation of layers of myth. You can really see how the Arthurian legend has developed, and why it is so impossible to go backwards and say, this bit is true and this isn't. It's all true. How much of it is real is another matter and really irrelevant. This is like Camelot. Where was Camelot? Who cares really? It doesn't matter.

RT: The books comprise a series. Did you find that what you had written in the earlier books committed you to directions that you subsequently regretted, or wished you had more freedom to change?

SC: No. It was wonderful. It was like writing a symphony, in which each movement is different and yet they all link together. I wish my imagination would give me another shape like that because there are all kinds of satisfactions inside it. Things link together, an early book leads to something in a later book. When I wrote the first book, of course, I didn't envision a series, but later, when I first had the idea of writing, not just the second book, but the whole sequence, I drew up a plan on a piece of paper. I had little notes written down: I had the four times of the year--focused upon the solstices, Beltane, and such festivals--I had places, and, very roughly, the characters who were in each book. I remember that under The Grey King there was a boy called Bran, but I didn't know who he was. So that was the only thing that limited me.
   There were things I had to remember from early books that had to be either resolved or referred to in later books. Once in a great while some particularly bright child will write me a letter saying, you never said what happened to . . . . But I didn't find it restricting. No.

RT: Are there any particular details you would like to change, looking back in retrospect?

SC: I would like to have developed the three Drew children more fully in the first book. They develop as the series progresses, but they're very corny kids' book characters in Over Sea, Under Stone, it seems to me. I hadn't gotten to know them.

RT: As the series progresses, Jane in particular grows more interesting, doesn't she?

SC: Yes. Jane is someone I always wanted to write about again. Silver on the Tree suffered from being the last book where I was tying up all the ends. It has too much in it. My head was going off in all directions. Its structure is not terrific. There was even more in it, but I took some out. Of course when you're dealing with the substance of myth, which is the fight between good and evil, I suppose, you have to provide the ultimate, terrific, enormous climax. It's almost impossible.

RT: Did the elements you had drawn from Arthurian legend contribute significantly to that feeling of congestion?

SC: I had to move away from it because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves. Silver on the Tree contains a reference to a poem that I remember my mother reciting to me. It's about Drake being in his hammock, which recalls the local legend in Devon that Sir Francis Drake will come back to rescue England if we're ever invaded again. Similarly, Arthur will come back, and Christ--they are saviors. I didn't want to use that idea. The Arthur that I was using goes to Avalon, and saving the world is up to the people in it.

RT: So in a sense you had to keep Arthur from taking too strong a role within the story, didn't you?

SC: Yes. It wasn't a case of Arthur coming into the story, however, rather a case of the story moving into the time of Arthurian legend, because that is what happens. These books go in and out of time, travelling like a train or a boat, linking one part to another to form a continuity.

RT: I recognize that Arthurian legend is but one among many elements in your story, but what part of that legend did you feel was most important for you to include for your purposes?

SC: I didn't go to the legend. The legend is there at the back of my imagination, in that room where the imagination goes sometimes to draw on something. The part of you that's writing the story at a certain point reaches out and says, I want that bit. You don't sit down at the desk saying, today I'm going to use that bit. It's as if you're going into a garden to pick something that you're going to cook for dinner. You don't say, today I want carrots and onions and green peppers. You go in and say to yourself, the broccoli looks good; I'll have some of that; there is one pepper on that bush; I'll take that. It's not organized. It's also as if something comes to help. Elements seem to say, I am here and I belong in this part of the story.
   Of course picking, itself, is not the best image either, because the act of picking something is deliberate. It is very much a case of your consciousness being invaded at a certain point by something which belongs there.

RT: What you get then is Merriman, who's a guide for young people?

SC: Or Jung's wise old man.

RT: And Arthur who sides with the Light in the struggle against the Dark?

SC: Yes. He represents the Light, I suppose.

RT: They appear in the series because they emerge from your creative subconscious?

SC: We are all writing about the same things in the end. Nobody ever invents a totally original character or story. You're lucky if you can be part of the fabric.

RT: Have you any final comments?

SC: I should just repeat that I've never sat down and thought about the way I've "used" the Arthurian legend, or the Matter of Britain as I like to call it, why certain parts of it come into the story and not other parts. The imagination makes its own choices.

RT: Thank you.