Author Chat with Susan Fletcher (Journey of the Pale Bear), Plus Giveaway!
Today we're excited to chat with Susan Fletcher, author of Journey of the Pale Bear. Read on for more about Susan and her book, plus a giveaway!
Meet Susan Fletcher!
SUSAN FLETCHER is the acclaimed author of the Dragon Chronicles as well as the award- winning Alphabet of Dreams, Shadow Spinner, Walk Across the Sea, and Falcon in the Glass. Ms. Fletcher lives in Bryan, Texas.
A runaway boy befriends a polar bear that’s being transported from Norway to London in this lyrical and timeless adventure story about freedom, captivity, and finding a family.
The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.
Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom—perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?
Based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London, this timeless adventure story is also a touching account of the bond between a boy and a bear.
1. What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
One day I stumbled upon Daniel Hahn’s fascinating book, The Tower Menagerie, from which I learned that foreign potentates, starting in medieval times, used to give one another wild animals—and that, over the centuries, the Tower of London held leopards, lions, elephants, porcupines, camels, bears, and a host of others. Yikes! One animal spoke to me over all of the others: the “pale bear” (likely a polar bear) given to King Henry III of England by King Haakon IV of Norway in 1252. For some reason, the bear was allowed to swim and hunt for salmon in the Thames River.
This seemed hard to believe for a lot of reasons, but there is sound, historical documentation; it really happened. I loved the thought of the 13th century denizens of London watching their very own polar bear swimming in the River Thames. And what I loved even more was that this is a story of hope, of the one animal in the menagerie not condemned to live out its whole life in a cage.
2. Which came first, the title or the novel?
Funny you should ask! As a matter of fact, after deciding to write about the “pale bear” in the Tower of London menagerie, I had a hard time figuring out exactly how to focus the bear’s story. Then one day I stumbled upon another book, Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey, which tells of the gift of an elephant, in 1551, from King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian. And Saramago focused on the journey of the elephant. That, I thought, I could do! Journey of the Pale Bear! And now I could begin to write.
3. What was the most difficult [or emotional] scene to write?
The hardest bit wasn’t exactly a scene; it was a series of scenes: Part 3, The Low Countries. I can’t tell you how many times I wrote this section, and tore it apart, and wrote it again! Part of the problem was that back in the 13th century, people didn’t think about animal rights as we do today. In the 13th century, they thought that keeping a big bear, or lion, or leopard in small barred cage was no problem. I wanted to realistically bring Arthur to the point where he feels that the bear should not be caged, but I didn’t want him to be a 21st century boy in medieval clothing. This transformation had to take place when Arthur and the bear are alone together in the Low Countries, and boy, did it ever give me fits!
4. What do you like most about the cover of this book?
I wrote about this in the Cynsations cover reveal, and I really can’t say it better than I did then:
When you put a polar bear at the heart of your novel, you’re almost guaranteed a good cover. I mean: a polar bear. Those guys are inherently gorgeous and magnificent. Still, it took me a moment to catch my breath the first time I saw the jacket art. I wasn’t prepared for just how stunningly beautiful it would be.
It’s the light—the puddles of light on the surface of the water, the streaming undersea light, the tips of light on the polar bear’s snout and neck and crown. It’s the texture of the bear’s fur. It’s the masses of intense underwater blue. It’s the expressions of the bear and the boy—worried but not hopeless, setting off on an adventure not of their own choosing, straddling the boundary between documented history and some kind of dream.
Many, many thanks to illustrator Shane Redenschied, and to my editor, Karen Wojtyla, and to all the other folks at Simon & Schuster who contributed to this amazing cover.
5. Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more: Drafting or Revising?
I like them both, but drafting is a more anxious time for me, because I always have the feeling in the back of my mind that it might just all come apart and collapse. Also, the writing in early drafts is... How shall I put this? Bad. Well, every so often an inspired bit comes out, but mostly it’s really rough. Also, the world and my characters are kind of vague at this point, not fully formed. But revising is the time when things start to come into focus. I’m understanding my characters better; the world is beginning to seem real. I know what time of year it is, and what plants are there, and what the air feels like and what color is the sky. And I can take some time to buff up my, er, substandard prose. In revision, I’m starting to believe: This might actually work; it might actually become a book.
6. What new release book are you most looking forward to in 2018?
I was lucky enough to read several drafts of Marion Dane Bauer’s transcendent picture book The Stuff of Stars while she was revising. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this book! It’s one of those books you wish had been around forever: You wish somebody had read it to you when you were a child. You wish you could have read it to your own children when they were young. It’s illustrated (gorgeously!) by Ekua Holmes.
And I have also read a draft of Kathi Appelt’s Angel Thieves, due out in 2019. All I can say is... Wow!
7. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to tell the story of how my polar bear made the switch from boy to girl.
Nobody knows if King Henry’s bear was male or female. But in order to write this story and really make my fictional bear come to life, I had to decide, one way or the other. As part of my research I contacted the Oregon Zoo, where I met, up close, the resident brother-and-sister polar bears: Conrad and Tasul. Conrad (the male) was enormous (1500 pounds!), and had a commensurately big and goofy personality. He was kind of a show-off, a ham. I really fell for Conrad. For a long time, he was the model for the bear in my book. I thought that he and Arthur would be buddies—two young guys on the loose together. I knew that it would require a stretch of the imagination for readers to believe that a boy and one of the most dangerous animals on the planet could be friends, without one of them (almost certainly the bear) killing the other. But, you know, stranger things have happened.
However, with more research on polar bears, I began to waver. Young male polar bears are really, crazy dangerous. I mean, female polar bears are super dangerous, too, but young males are even more so. And Arthur and the bear do all kinds of things close together, with nothing physical to separate them. So, kind of reluctantly at first, I changed the bear to a girl.
But as it turned out, this worked in ways I hadn’t anticipated. For instance, right from the get-go I had Arthur calming the (still male) bear by humming. I found out later that polar bear cubs do this sort of humming thing with their mothers. That worked out, kind of unexpectedly. There was also an early scene where the bear reaches out a paw to make contact with Arthur. I found out later that mother polar bears do this with their cubs. So, the energy changed from the two- guys-on-a-crazy-road-trip energy to a mother-and-cub kind of vibe. I decided that the mother bear might have been separated from her cubs, and that this could make her connection with Arthur deeper and more believable.
8. Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
Back in the day, when I first decided to become a novelist, I was so determined to MAKE IT HAPPEN that I made an ambitious schedule for myself and did not deviate from it no matter what. If I got stuck on something, I just logicked my way to an answer and kept going.
This may be admirable, but it’s not wise.
My old friend and mentor Eloise McGraw taught me that sometimes it’s best to wait. She told me that when she got stuck on a story problem, she would write down the question and set it aside. Then every morning, she would look at the question. She would never force an answer. But one day, the answer would just be there. And it would be right.
I had been into forcing. And more often than not, the answers I got by forcing—by thinking my way consciously through a problem—turned out to be wrong. In other words, when I got deeper into the book, I realized that my invented solution wasn’t going to work, and I’d have to cut entire long passages.
But when I started using Eloise’s method, the answers would come while I was sleeping...and they would be right.
So now, when I’m stuck on one thing or another, I write down my question, fold it up, and toss it into a wooden bowl in my office. I think of it as sort of an idea cauldron. I try to just let my question go—not think about it. Every morning, I open up the question and look at it again. I don’t force. I wait. And eventually, the answer is just there.
Journey of the Pale Bear
By: Susan Fletcher
Release Date: October 2, 2018
Three winners will receive a copy of Journey of the Pale Bear (US only).
I love the cover and the storyline. I adore Susan's Fletcher's work and this does not seem to be exception. I cannot wait to read.