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Acclaimed author lives and writes on Vashon
Author Karen Cushman’s career didn’t get off to a typical start. Her first novel — “50 years in the making,” she jokes — was snapped up by a leading children’s book publisher and earned national honors.
Her second book, “The Midwife’s Apprentice,” was recognized as the year’s best American children’s book and awarded the 1996 Newbery Medal.
Perhaps her most widely read novel, the volume about a homeless girl taken in by an ill-tempered midwife in medieval England, shares a common trait with all of Cushman’s books to date — a young female protagonist.
“In a way, they’re all me, so I think there’s some issue or some memory that I relate to in each of them,” she said.
An Island resident for six years, Cushman said she never set out to be an author of young adult fiction.
“It’s just what comes out,” she said.
She’s most interested in issues facing young adults — growing up, finding one’s place in the world and what it means to be human.
She explores these timeless issues from the differing perspectives of her protagonists, each of whom is placed squarely in a rich historical context that Cushman researches by “dipping into” dozens, sometimes a hundred, resources for each book.
She wrote her last book, “The Loud Silence of Francine Green,” from her woodsy Vashon home. She’ll be at Vashon Bookshop this Saturday to read from it, answer questions and sign copies of the novel, newly released in paperback.
The young woman for whom the 2006 book is named is much like Cushman herself, she said. Francine Green, 13, has learned to be quiet, lest she get herself in trouble. Her adolescent life revolves around pop culture, Catholic school and, since the book is set in 1949, fear. Fear of Communists, fear of the atomic bomb, fear that her own loose lips might somehow sink ships.
In 1949, Cushman was a few years younger than her character Francine, which lent itself somewhat to her portrayal of the timid schoolgirl.
“I did remember a lot of those fears and fantasies,” Cushman said.
But while writing, Cushman struggled at times to separate her own memories and opinions from those of Francine. It was a constant back-and-forth, she said, in which she discovered where Karen ended and where Francine began.
“I wasn’t writing my story,” she said. “I had to decide — does Francine feel this, or do I?”
“The Loud Silence of Francine Green” is effortlessly youthful. Readers may find themselves chuckling, for they are privy to the unspoken thoughts of first-person narrator Francine, as well as the everyday banter between her and other characters. Portions of the novel are humorous because they offer a glimpse into the life of a teenager 60 years ago. It’s unfashionable, according to Francine, to have one’s saddle shoes entirely clean — instead, it’s preferable to have them covered with a respectable amount of grime, she says.
And other parts of the novel elicit giggles for their unabashedness or naiveté.
The following snapshot of Francine is given midway through the book, and in fact is the root idea from which the novel sprung:
“Unlike most Catholic girls, I’d never wanted to be a nun. I thought about being a saint sometimes — it seemed the highest calling to which a Catholic girl could aspire, since Mother of God was already taken — but never a nun.”
Cushman had envisioned a girl who wanted to be a saint, but “didn’t fit in with the other kids.”
Her heroine has to overcome her circumstances to “stand up for what she believes in, and first, she has to find out what she believes is worth standing up for,” Cushman said.
A Chicago native and longtime Californian, Cushman and her husband Phil made their way to Vashon in part because they were looking for someplace rainy, she said.
“I love it rainy — I’m a moody, romantic artist,” she said. “I like the fire and to listen to the rain.”
Cushman had always been a wordsmith, writing poems, stories and jump rope rhymes as a child, but didn’t pursue a career in writing after graduation from Stanford in 1963.
She’d planned to become a teacher, but lost the nerve.
“I think in a way, I was like Francine, and the idea of standing up there in front of these sixth- or seventh-graders was intimidating,” Cushman said.
Instead, her life led her on a circuitous path to fiction authorship. After college, she was a telephone company employee, adjunct professor in John F. Kennedy University’s museum studies department and even a secretary, despite her refusal to learn proper typing. She “pecks,” she admits.
“I used to say, ‘If I learn typing, they’re going to make me into a secretary,’” Cushman said. “And they made me a secretary anyway.”
Cushman is finishing rewrites of her latest book and is considering buying voice recognition software to speed up the creative process when she begins her next novel.
In the final stages is “Alchemy and Meggy Swann,” which chronicles the life of a crippled protagonist after she moves to the London home of her father, an alchemist.
And Cushman plans to take on an entirely new challenge with her next book — the main character will be male.
“And that isn’t because I’ve written seven books about a girl, now it’s time to write about a boy,” she said. “It’s because this story and this dilemma and this voice that was in my head for this story belong to a boy.”
Though she said her typical readers are girls between 10 and 14, she said her audience ought not be restricted to that age. She cited the broad educational use of “The Midwife’s Apprentice,” which has been incorporated into the curriculum of second-graders at the Marin County Day School and 12th-grade English as a Second Language students at a school south of Los Angeles.
The seniors, newly arrived immigrants, could “really relate” to the issues facing Beetle, the marginalized and belittled midwife’s apprentice.
“I think it’s important to let anyone who needs it to find it and relate to it,” she said of her literature.