Author Interviews, Book Resources

Karen Cushman Interview Transcript

  • Grades: 6–8

About The Midwife's Apprentice

Discussion Question:
What do you predict will happen to Alyce after the end of the story?

  • Student response: I think she will go back to her village and become a midwife and get married to Will.
    • Karen Cushman's response: I think that's the likely ending. But maybe she'll become midwife to the Queen or she'll get married and have 21 children and just be midwife to herself.

Discussion Question:
What do you think is significant about Beetle's choice to change her name to Alyce?

  • Student response: Her name is significant to her because once she got the name Alyce she wasn't anonymous.
    • Karen Cushman's response: Excellent point. She was someone - someone named Alyce.

Discussion Question:
What do you learn about Beetle from the way she treats the cat?

  • Student response: That she was caring nice and willing to provide for someone else.
    • Karen Cushman's response: Exactly.

More Questions about The Midwife's Apprentice

Student Question: Who won in the fight? The eel or the cat? Please tell us why! Thanks a lot!

Anonymous and Luca

Karen Cushman: The eel would have an advantage because he could breathe underwater. I think he thought he won the fight, but the cat turned out just fine. He survived the fight and found a home, too.

Student Question: How did you pick a cat for your book, The Midwife's Apprentice? Also, how did you pick the name of the cat?
- Chase, Brian

Karen Cushman: Dear Chase and Brian,
The cat picked me. My own well-loved cat, Lobelia, sat on my lap while I was writing the book. Every once in a while she would walk across the computer keys and type something of her own. Lobelia was orange and white, just like the cat in the book. And if you were letting a cat pick its own name, what else could it be except Purr? Or Meow? Or Rowr.

Student Question: Is Alyce at all like you?

Karen Cushman: I think we are all a little like Alyce, especially when we are figuring out just who we are and searching for a place to belong.

Student Question: I am reading your book for English class. How long did it take for you to write this book? How much research did you do on this book? I am interested in writing a book on medieval times; how should I get started? When are you going to write your next book and what do you think it might be called? Did you ever know someone who is like Jane?

Karen Cushman: The book took about 9 months to write, the same length of time it takes to make a child. Interesting, huh? I had done a lot of research on the Middle Ages for Catherine, Called Birdy, so I knew a lot about the time and place. The research I did was for specific about childbirth, herbs, and healing.

If you want to write a medieval book, you should start by reading books about the Middle Ages. Lots of books. Fiction and Nonfiction. You might start with Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph and Frances Gies and Growing Up in the Thirteenth Century by someone whose name I have forgotten. Also look at the book lists in the back of my medieval books.

I am writing my next book now. It is called The Passion of Saint Francine and is set in Los Angeles in 1950.

And, no, I don't know anyone exactly like Jane, but I think lots of people are a little like her.

Student Question: Alyce is a very interesting character. How did you think of her? Do you have a friend or family member like Alyce?

Karen Cushman: It's impossible to say exactly where a character or an idea comes from. I was staring at my computer screen, wanting to start a new book, when I saw the image of a child sleeping in a dung heap, longing for a name, a full belly, and a place in this world. And Alyce was born. I have no friend or family member who is like Alyce, except in the way we all are - born without a name, looking for a home.

Student Question: How did you come up with the name "Alyce?" Also, how do you pronounce it? Like Alice or Alyse or ... ? Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.

- Jamie

Karen Cushman: Dear Jamie,
The name Alyce just popped into my mind and seemed right for this nameless little girl. I think it is pronounced "Alice."

Student Question: I read The Midwife's Apprentice and loved it. But why did you decide to put the setting in medieval times?

Karen Cushman: I thought the Middle Ages were an appropriate time for a homeless child looking for a place to belong. In another time period, the story might not have been believable.

About Catherine, Called Birdy

Discussion Question:
How would you feel if you were engaged to Shaggy Beard? How do you react when your parents make decisions for you?

  • Student response: When my parents make a decision for me they give me things that I never ever in my whole entire life had liked. I also think I'm in trouble.
    • Karen Cushman's response: That's true for Catherine, too. Luckily everything turned out all right.

Discussion Question:
In your opinion, what makes Catherine such a lively character? What do you like or dislike about her?

  • Student response: What I like about her is that she makes the books exciting.
    • Karen Cushman's response: That's what I like, too. Things are always lively and exciting when Catherine is around.

More Questions about Catherine, Called Birdy

Student Question: Do you think the covers of your Catherine book match how you thought Catherine would look?

Karen Cushman: I think Catherine as she looks on the hardcover book is much the way I pictured her, except I thought she would look less serious and solemn. The artist who did the cover, Trina Schart Hyman, looked past Catherine's humor and exuberance to come up with something deeper.

About Both Novels

Discussion Question:
Karen Cushman includes lots of colorful language and expressions from the time. Do you have a favorite?

  • Student response: My favorite piece of colorful language is where Catherine says, "Corpus Bones!" I think that piece is so funny and very colorful and full of laughs!
    Modesty, AMS.
  • Student response: "God's Thumbs" is hilarious because it's funny when people curse today, but when she uses profanity, you won't get in trouble for it!
    Jalen, AMS

Discussion Question:
How do you think life was different for a girl than for a boy in the Middle Ages?

  • Student response: I think boys got more privileges than girls, which, since I am a girl, I don't think was fair at all!
    - Jaclyn, AMS.
  • Student response: In the Middle Ages boys had more freedom than girls and way more choices than girls.
    - Modesty, AMS
  • Student response: I think that life was different for a boy than a girl because boys back then had a lot more freedom, such as girls could not choose who they would wed and girls had to take care of the boys.
    - Andrea, AMS

Discussion Question:
What surprises you the most about medieval life? What would you like or dislike about living in Medieval England?

  • Student response: I was surprised that your father could marry you off to anyone. I would dislike sharing my room with other people.
    - Christian, AMS
  • Student response: If I was wealthy like Catherine, I'd like to live like she did in Medieval England. I think it would be pretty fun to live there. At least I'm a boy, so I could have a better choice for whom I wanted to marry.
    - Andrew, AMS
  • Student response: Girls marrying at 14 surprised me the most. Also, boys having more freedom than girls. I would dislike having no freedom.
    - Gabrielle, AMS

More Questions about Both Novels

Student Question: I understand that a lot of your books have to do with the Medieval time period. Exactly what do you like so much about this period in history?

Karen Cushman: The Middle Ages were an exciting, colorful, brutal time in history. The idea of a young girl living then and trying to make sense of her world appealed to me. And I think the medieval period is close enough to our own times that I can make an attempt at understanding it but distant enough to seem exotic and interesting.

Questions for Karen Cushman

Out of all of the books you have written, which one is your favorite and why?
Thanks, Jaclyn
The Midwife's Apprentice is my favorite, partly because it came fairly easily, without giving me a lot of headaches, and partly because I can identify with Alyce and her search for a place in the world.

How old were you when you first started writing?
Thanks, Ravaughn
I started writing when I was six, wrote a lot until I was out of college, and then took a short break of 30 years or so. I was almost 50 when I started Catherine, Called Birdy, my first book.

Does it take a long time to think of what you are going to write about?
Thanks, Andrew
When people ask me how long it took me to write my first book, I tell them 50 years (see my answer above). I think all sorts of ideas and characters have tumbled around in my brain for a long time before I ever start to put words on paper. It might only take me three years to think of a story and write it down, but in a way I have been working on it for years.

How much of your book is fact and how much fiction? What sources do you use to do your research into the Middle Ages?
My books are all fiction, but there are a lot of facts in them. I try very hard to be as truthful and accurate as I can about the place and the times, customs, food, clothing, beliefs, superstitions and so on. My resources range from history books to historical novels to the Internet. If you want some specific titles, turn to the Author's Note in the back of the books.

Your stories feature really interesting girls. How do you develop your characters? Do they have anything in common with you or people you know?
My girls are made up, but all have a little bit of me in them. Some have the same needs or fears that I do. Some, like Francine in the book I am writing now, are a lot like I was growing up and others, like Catherine, are what I wished I had been like.

I develop the characters slowly, over many, many drafts of a book. Each time I go through the manuscript, I add some specific detail or dialogue to bring the character to life and help us get to know her.

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation, Writing
  • Skills:
    Writing
top