Friday, 25 October 2013

Meeting Your Heroes: Part Deux - Tamsyn Murray

So. Last night, I went to Waterstones Piccadilly to hear Susan Cooper in conversation with the most excellent Marcus Sedgwick. It was an event I mentioned this time last month, when I burbled on about wanting to marry the hero of The Dark Is Rising, Will Stanton. And I might also have blethered on about what a privilege it was to be meeting an author I admired so much. The event itself turned out to be everything I expected and more.

Marcus and Susan in conversation

Marcus began by asking Susan about her favourite childhood authors - she mentioned E Nesbit and Arthur Ransome. They moved on to discuss Susan's academic life at Oxford University and she immediately blew most of the audience away by revealing her lecturers had included one J R R Tolkien and a certain C S Lewis. Tolkien, she said, opened his lectures by quoting Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon and then went on the mumble a lot for every lecture after. Lewis, on the other hand, was amazing. As if this wasn't awe-inspiring enough, Susan then mentioned she'd later compared notes on these envy-inducing lecturers with Alan Garner (at which point I began gibbering into my Pinot Grigio), who was studying Classics at Oxford at the same time. She went on to say that she married an American and moved to the United States in 1963, where she's lived ever since.

Marcus wondered what her observations were when she arrived in America as a young British woman. Susan replied that the first thing she noticed on getting off the plane was that the police carried guns. She found the US quite liberating compared to UK, but very right wing. These days Susan still considers herself British, although she holds dual nationality and might possibly be 'rootless'.

When asked about the strong sense of place that permeates all her books, Susan told us that most of it arose from homesickness for Britain, at least in her earlier works. Her latest novel, Ghosthawk, is different; she became fascinated with the land around her home in Massachusetts, land which had become home to English settlers some 400 years earlier but that had supported Native Americans for much longer. She researched the novel's background using primary source documents and some contemporary works. Ghosthawk tells two stories; firstly of Little Hawk, an eleven year old Native American boy, and then of John Wakeley, the son of English settlers. As the novel progresses, these stories become inextricably intertwined. Initially, Susan considered making the white protagonist a girl but realised early on it was unrealistic for the era. And for those who want to know whether Susan is a plotter or a pantser, she had this to say, "I know the beginning and the end and not much in the middle."

Bowing to the inevitable, Marcus moved on to discuss The Dark Is Rising sequence (cue much audience satisfaction and over-excited squeaks from me). Susan explained that she drew directly on places she had known when she lived in Britain when choosing locations for the books - North Wales (where her mother grew up), Buckinghamshire (where Susan grew up) and Cornwall (where her family holidayed). When asked whether it was true that she had written the last half page of the final book, Silver On The Tree, before she had finished the first, Susan told us it hadn’t quite happened that way. The first book in the series was written as a standalone story which she left open-ended because she liked the characters so much. A skiing trip gave Susan the idea for The Dark Is Rising novel but it wasn't until she realised it should be a sequel to Over Sea, Under Stone that it began to really work. She went on to create four more titles and plan the series. "It was like a symphony," she said, "I needed to know where it was going."

Marcus handed over to the audience for questions and Jo Cotterill was by far the quickest on the draw. She asked whether it was true that Susan had round windows in her house with the symbols from The Dark Is Rising books incorporated (it is - there are two windows, each with one symbol). When asked whether the Cold War between the US and the USSR had influenced her writing, Susan replied that it was actually World War II which fostered a belief in them and us, goodies and baddies, the light and the dark. When faced with a question about what she might have done if she hadn't been a writer, she told us she might have been a gardener. "I like gardening, perhaps I'd have done a degree in horticulture."

Jo also asked what Susan was working on now. She replied that she was touring now but she had a small idea which she hoped would grow into a bigger one.

I'm pretty sure that's what every single person in the audience hopes too, Susan. Now, where do I sign up to meet Tolkien?

Susan's remaining tour dates are here.

Me, with Marcus and Susan, hoping their brilliance is catching (also wondering why I didn't wear a nicer jumper)


Julie Cohen said...

So amazing. I'm a huge fan of her work and I can't wait to read her latest. She really inspired me to be a writer. I'm jealous you got to meet her but thank you for writing this up for the rest of us!

R F Long said...

Oh my goodness, how amazing to meet her. I'm so jealous and fangirling away here.

Thanks so much for writing this up. She inspired me so much as well.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I met her once at a library conference in Hobart. Fan girl is an understatement. I couldn't think of anything to say. And she was surrounded by other fan girls... I do have a letter from her somewhere - she used to answer her fan mail in those days before the Internet.

Must check out her latest.

Tamsyn Murray said...

I thanked her for writing The Dark Is Rising and told her she'd inspired me to become a writer. And she wrote my name down to look me up later. Should've said J K Rowling...

Penny Dolan said...

Tamsyn, thank you so much for sharing your meeting with Susan Cooper on Awfully Big Blog Adventure and for your picture.

I love to hear real life tales of writing heroes - and that includes the heroines like Susan. There are some lucky people going to that fantasy gathering.

(Well done, Jo, for the questions.)

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks so much for a fascinating account, Tamsyn. I wonder if she every met Diana Wynne Jones, another superb fantasy writer, who also went to Tolkien's lectures (and also said they were pretty much inaudible)? Imagine them all in the same room together...

I'm going to Susan Cooper's Brighton appearance - really looking forward to it!

Tamsyn Murray said...

Thanks, Penny! There were many audience questions but I had to miss a lot out or the post would have been War-And-Peace-like.

Emma - it was my pleasure! My legs go all wibbly when I think of those lectures (and all the talent they inspired, in spite of being mumbly). Enjoy Brighton!