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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Karen Cushman

*Three of your books--Catherine Called Birdy, The Midwife’s Apprentice, and Matilda Bone--are set in medieval England. Why your affinity for this time and place?

My desire to set a book in medieval England began with an idea: what would life be like for young people--especially girls--at a time when they had no power and little value? I chose the time period partly because I love the Middle Ages, with all their excitement and color and brutality, although I am very glad I did not have to live there. But also I saw western civilization, with its growing emphasis on private vs. communal, on self vs. other, on bedrooms and solars and books of manners, paralleling a child’s growth to adolescence, with the same sorts of preoccupations. The idea of a young person living at that time, trying to make sense of her world, appealed to me.

My own fascination has been around for years and years. I started with Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff many years ago and progressed through medieval music, medieval fairs, and collecting things like the 15th century illuminated manuscript page that hangs on my wall. My father’s family is Polish, my mother’s family is German and Irish, so the English were certainly never heroes to either side of the family. But somehow England, especially the England of long ago, spoke to me.

And I think the medieval period is close enough to our own times that I could effectively set a story there. In part it was the fact that I could read most sources without having to learn another language. I couldn’t read early medieval sources in the original, but some, like Bartholomew Anglicus (a 13th century Franciscan monk who created a 19-volume encyclopedia that first made available medical and scientific information from Greek, Jewish and Arab scholars), I could translate from the middle English to modern English, which I never would have been able to do in any other language. It was also because I could imagine myself in medieval England, whereas to think about Medieval Poland or Aztec Mexico was such a stretch. I thought I could come understand these people in Medieval England enough to write about them. I felt a familiarity I wouldn’t have felt lots of other places.

After three medieval and three American books, I returned to England for my new book due out spring 2010. But this time it’s Elizabethan. My interest in the Middle Ages has not waned but I wanted to tell the story of a lame child at a time when ideas about disability and difference were changing and were not, so to speak, so medieval. Hence London, 1574, and Alchemy and Meggy Swann.

* Working from the west coast of the United States, how do you go about finding information sources for life in medieval and Elizabethan England?

When I began, I thought it would be a lot harder than it was. I forgot how long a period the Middle Ages were--hundreds and hundreds of years. And it has been a long time since then. There are innumerable sources. I started out at the University of California, Berkeley, but their sources were scholarly and boring and talked about things I didn’t want to know, like economic and political systems and wars. I wanted to know what people ate and what they sang and where they went to the bathroom. I moved from there to the public library. Once I found a couple of books with bibliographies, I was off and running. With a good bibliography, you’re set.

I found a lot of things reprinted in paperback on the bookstore shelves, such as Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century and A History of Manners. I hounded used bookstores where I discovered books like Daily Living in the Twelfth Century, John Stow’s 16th century Survey of London, and books of slang and saints and insults.

Now, more than ten years since I started researching Catherine Called Birdy, research has changed a lot. For Alchemy and Meggy Swann I used the internet as much as books. The internet is a wonder of resources and information. I found recreations of alchemical laboratories, reproductions of Elizabethan broadsides, and glossaries of Elizabethan words and phrases. And the web has made interlibrary loan a gold mine--I requested and received a 19th century book about Bartlemas Fair, a reprint about English fairs from a 1934 geographic journal, and Disability in Medieval Europe.

* What about young fictional heroines appeals to you as a writer?

Place, personhood, who I am and where do I belong: these are important questions to young women, and to me, which is partly why I write for a young female age group. Their issues and questions are still mine. A consistent theme in my books is finding a sense of place, somewhere to belong, the search for identity, change and becoming, what it means to be human in this world.

All my books are about ordinary girls in extraordinary circumstances, girls like me: the medieval Catherine who had no power and little value in a brutal world; Alyce, The Midwife’s Apprentice, who longed for a name, a full belly, and a place in the world; Lucy Whipple, dragged unhappily across the country from her home in Massachusetts to California because of her mother’s dreams; the lonely, proud, and superior Matilda Bone, raised by a priest to know a lot about Heaven and Hell but not much about this world; Rodzina, a Polish girl from Chicago, who goes west on the orphan train, looking for someone to belong to, and Meggy Swann, different and angry and alone. I know these girls and their concerns and dreams and fears. And so I write about them. And for them.

* Why do you choose to write historical fiction rather than contemporary, possibly more relevant books for your young readers?

The question I am asked most often--aside from “What does Corpus Bones mean?”--is why historical fiction? I think historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, by illustrating the continuity of life, giving them a sense of history and their place in it.

Historical fiction, like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals, and that the future will be made up of

our decisions and actions. British historical novelist Leon Garfield has written: If the young discover that in the past w have been governed, led, abused, and slaughtered by fools and knave, then perhaps they will look about them and see that matters have not greatly changed, and possibly they will do so before they vote. In itself I find that a great reason for writing what I do.

But mostly I write historical fiction because those are the stories that take me over. Rosemary Sutcliff, writer of gorgeous historical novels for young people, said: Historians and teachers, you and your kind can produce the bare bones; I and my kind breathe life into them.....That’s what I’m interested in--the life in those bones.

I’m sure it would be interesting to write a book about somebody in 2009 living in a suburb with a dog and with divorced parents, but the subject doesn’t have the same appeal to me as the idea of someone assisting a medieval bloodletter and getting involved in real blood and guts. I write what’s interesting to me.

*Your medieval books have been published in England. Do you ever feel nervous that you’re an American writing about historical England and releasing your books at the source of the story?

Sure, I do, especially before I went to Britain. Catherine Called Birdy was written before I’d ever been there. I stepped off the plane and said, "Show me Medieval England!" Of course it’s not there. It’s hardly there any more than it is in Ohio. Sometimes I worry the British are going to say, "You’re an American. Why are you writing about England? Or, this is all wrong. We who live here know this." But on the other hand I realize that with all my research and study I know a lot about everyday domestic life of women and children in Medieval England. Any mistake I make is not going to be enormous. People who read my books aren’t looking for mistakes. It’s not like a Ph.D. committee trying to catch you up. The once or twice people have found a mistake, they’ve written very nice letters that were not critical but just pointed out errors. I’m grateful for it. I haven’t had a bad experience, so I don’t expect another one. But, I could hear from a leech.

Thank you Kamran! And feel free to visit Karen Cushman online for more information about her wonderful books!