Writing The Dark: an interview with Susan Cooper

By Andy Stout

Photo of Susan Cooper
MARSHFIELD, MA, USA - APRIL 13: Author Susan Cooper Cronyn at her home in Marshfield, MA. (Photo by Tsar Fedorsky)

For many children growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, Susan Cooper’s works, particularly The Dark is Rising sequence, were vivid touchstones. Part of a literary trinity, along with Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin, these three authors introduced readers to worlds filled with dark, uneasy magic; landscapes where good triumphed – mostly – but bad things more than likely happened along the way. This was ‘Young Adult fiction’ in all its senses, several decades before the term was popularised.

For many children growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, Susan Cooper's works, particularly The Dark is Rising sequence, were vivid touchstones.

Unlike Le Guin though, Garner and Cooper are very much rooted in place: Britain in particular. The country’s landscape, myths and legends, are central characters in their work, whether the Alderley Edge of Garner’s early books or the Welsh hillsides and Cornish fishing villages of Cooper’s. The magic is the magic of the land, intertwined with the histories and stories of its people, and it’s often wild.

Perhaps The Dark is Rising sequence is all the more powerful because it was born out of longing; written by a homesick Cooper who had not long emigrated to America where she still lives (and, incidentally, is still homesick). She has written much over the years: novels for children and adults, plays, screenplays and more; a biography of JB Priestley, the Orwellian nightmare of Mandrake and on to The Boggart. But it remains The Dark is Rising for which she is most known, and the books still resonate powerfully and richly reward rereading long into adult life.

“I took a piece of paper and wrote down the names of all five books, their characters, the places where they would be set, and the times of the year,” she writes of their creation. “The Dark is Rising would be at the winter solstice and Christmas, the next book Greenwitch would be in the spring, at the old Celtic festival of Beltane…

“On another piece of paper I wrote the very last half-page of the entire story, and then I spent the next six years writing the rest of the sequence—and pulled out that half-page when I reached the end of Silver on the Tree.”

All in all, they are magical books created on what she herself refers to as “a magical day.” They are also very much the products of place and, as she reveals below, of time too.

You grew up in England during WW II. Does a sense of conflict – and its aftermath – permeate your work?

If you spend childhood nights in an air-raid shelter listening to the bombs that somebody’s dropping in the hope of killing you, inevitably you’re going to grow up with a sense of the good guys and the bad guys, us and them – the Light and the Dark. I put my conscious memories of World War II into my only realistic novel, Dawn of Fear, which is largely autobiographical, but the fear and the sense of conflict clearly went down into the unconscious  – to emerge decades later when my imagination gave me The Dark is Rising sequence.

As for the aftermath – well, in World War II the good guys won. Hitler killed himself and the Nazis were routed, so you could call that a triumph for the Light, and I think all my books try to end on a note of hope. But the hope depends on mankind. As Merriman says to the children at the end of the last book in the sequence, “The world will still be imperfect, because men are imperfect. Good men will still be killed by bad, or sometimes by other good men, and there will still be pain and disease and famine, anger and hate. But if you work and care and are watchful, as we have tried to be for you, then in the long run the worse will never, ever, triumph over the better.”

You, Lewis, Pullman, Tolkien… all Oxford alumni. What’s in the beer at Lewis and Tolkien’s famous haunt, The Eagle & Child (aka ‘The Bird & Baby’) that encourages great fantasy writing?

When my boyfriend and I went to an Oxford pub, it wasn’t the Bird and Baby, but generally the Lamb and Flag across the road, so we never saw Tolkien and Lewis knocking back the inkling beer. But anyone doing a degree in English during the 50s must have been indirectly influenced by those two gentlemen, since they insisted that our syllabus end at 1832. As a result we spent far more time with, say, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur than with the Romantics or the Victorian novel, so that our imaginations were fed by past myth and fantasy – just as theirs had been. Mind you, they’d been at Oxford for a long time by then. Maybe there was something in that beer after all…

You moved to the US in the mid-60s, and are quoted as saying that the British and the Americans never really understood each other. Has that changed in 50 years?

That was a strong impression I got as a newspaper reporter in 1962, when I spent four months working in the US, and it was reinforced later when, at 28, I married a 47-year-old American widower with three teenage children and moved there for good. I even wrote a book called Behind the Golden Curtain, designed to explain the Yanks to the Brits, and vice versa. There was a golden curtain of incomprehension across the Atlantic, I said, woven out of distance, ignorance, media stereotyping and the insulating effect of capitalism.

I think the incomprehension is still there, in spite of the digital revolution, increased travel, and cultural globalisation. After 50 years on the American side of the curtain, I know a great deal more about the US and a great deal less about Britain, even though I go there at least once a year. The Atlantic is very wide, in very many ways. But I’d have to write a whole book again to explain how, and why.

Over Sea, Under Stone is a precursor to the rest of your books, much as The Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings. Is that a fair comment?

Yes – it was written ten years earlier, without any thought of related books. A publisher was offering a prize of £1,000 for a ‘family adventure story’: since this was more than I earned in a year as a reporter, I began to write one. But within two or three chapters, Merriman Lyon came into my head, making me forget about the prize, and Over Sea, Under Stone became a fantasy instead.

Ten years later, living in the US, I had an idea for a book about a boy who wakes up on his 11th birthday and finds he can work magic. Something made me re-read Over Sea, and I realised that the new book wanted to connect with it, and one magical day I found myself making a list of the titles and characters of four more books in a sequence of five. Then I started to write the second of the five, The Dark is Rising. At first I called it The Gift of Gramarye, but my editor was afraid that readers would think it was all about grammar, so instead we gave it the title I’d been saving for the fifth book – which eventually had to be retitled Silver on the Tree.

The Dark is Rising is set at Yule, Greenwitch at Beltane. How important was the Wheel of the Year in structuring the books?

In the list I made on that magical day, each book has not only its title and characters written against it, but also the name of a Celtic festival, though I’d never heard the phrase ‘The Wheel of the Year’ at the time. Over Sea had been set at Lugnasadh/Lammas; The Gift of Gramarye (later The Dark is Rising) would be the midwinter solstice; Greenwitch would be Beltane; Fire on the Mountain (later The Grey King) would be Samhain; The Dark is Rising (later Silver on the Tree) would be midsummer. And so they all were.

What were your sources and inspirations in writing the books?

The only possible answer to this is “everything I’d read since I first learned to read” – probably with an added stress on books about England and Wales during my first homesick years in America. I have a lifelong accumulation of British-rooted books that nourished my imagination, from The Mabinogion to David Jones, from the Trioedd ynys Prydein to Jacquetta Hawkes, from the Tain to Robert Graves. It’s impossible to be specific.

If authors could reboot their work, (as TV programmes and films do), what would you change about The Dark is Rising sequence?

Not much, I think, apart from modernising the children’s very dated dialogue in Over Sea. I was once hired to write a screenplay from The Dark is Rising, though the film was never made; it was much closer to the book than an adaptation by another writer filmed years later, which turned Will Stanton into an American teenager and gave him a twin brother who had spent 14 years locked up inside a snowglobe. There’s rebooting for you. Its entry in Wikipedia observes: “This film adaptation drew strong negative reaction from fans of the book series for its disregard of the source material,” adding, in a considerable understatement, “Susan Cooper was reportedly not happy with the adaptation of her book.”

Cornish fishing villages, Welsh mountains, Buckinghamshire forests…the landscape of Britain seems to be a character in itself. What is it about these islands that sings to you… even in your current Massachusetts salt marsh!

I’m like Alan Garner, in that both our imaginations were formed and fed by the parts of Britain in which we grew up – though Alan, more wisely, never moved away from his part. This strong sense of place is as hard to explain as love or friendship; it’s just there, forever, ineradicable, so that the landscape of the books is indeed as important to the story as any of the characters. By birth I am three-quarters English and one quarter Welsh, and you could say the same of the books in The Dark is Rising sequence.

One of your later novels, Victory, suggests that, even if you leave homesickness behind, it’s still easy to tap into. Do we belong to particular geographies?

Homesickness is as ineradicable as that strong sense of place – it never goes away. Perhaps it’s like phantom limb syndrome, which makes some people who’ve had an arm or leg amputated feel sensation in it even though it’s no longer there; perhaps the site of your earliest roots still tugs at you even after you’ve pulled them up and moved elsewhere. Or to change the image: each of us has a native geography, just as we have a native language, and it’s seldom fully replaced.

Do you think people still have that same connection to the landscape?

Some people certainly do. Just read Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful books, specially The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and Landmarks.  I do wonder about the very young, who these days are more protected from running wild outdoors than my generation was, and more inclined to look at landscapes on small screens. We should all give them Macfarlane to read when they turn 11 or 12.

Was Ghost Hawk the first time you tapped into the myths of your adopted homeland?

I wouldn’t say that Ghost Hawk really tapped into the myths of early America, which belong to the American Indian tribes. Though its narrator is the ghost of an American Indian, the story is really about the lamentable way the first English settlers treated the original inhabitants of the land that they invaded in the 17th century, and thereafter.

You’ve touched on Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis in several books. Is it still a touchstone for you?

I was delighted to discover James Lovelock’s first book (Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth) when it came out in 1979, because in 1964 I’d written a novel called Mandrake, based on the premise that the earth was sentient, and intent on getting rid of the race that had now acquired the ability to destroy it. (In my book, Armageddon came in 1980, but we’re still here!) Gaia theory doesn’t approach that fictional extreme, of course; it shows the earth as a self-regulating system maintaining the conditions for life, but you can see why I find everything Lovelock has written fascinating.

You’ve retold several British myths and legends over the years. What ones have you yet to tackle?

I don’t want to retell any one particular myth or legend, but they do all have a way of creeping into any fiction I write. Currently I’m writing a third book about a boggart. Stay tuned………