Extended Interview: Susan Cunningham, author of "Crow Flight"
● By Alesha Damerville
By Jennie Lay
Long dark nights and frigid air send you diving for the blankets. It’s prime time for snuggling in with a good read. This extended interview is part of a series of conversations with four authors of brand-new – but wildly different – books. Indulge in their stories, then bundle up and venture out to hear their backstories during live talks in Steamboat Springs throughout the winter.
A Debut Takes Wing: “Crow Flight” by Susan Cunningham
Susan Cunningham is a local Steamboat Springs author with a reporter’s resumé and a passion for science. The spark for her debut novel, “Crow Flight,” came from researching ravens and crows: “Once I learned that their intelligence is on par with great apes, dolphins and 4-year-old children, I started to love them,” she says. The tale emerged as a flash image: “A high school boy and girl, standing at the edge of a wintry field with brown grass and icy air, and trained crows flying around them. I felt it so strong, it just pulled me through the whole story.”
Steamboat Magazine: What made you turn to fiction – and how is your journalism foundation coming into play in your stories?
Susan Cunningham:I’ve always loved both writing and science. Maybe because they both involve stories. Science is the story of how things work – plants, stars, the human body. And writing is all about our stories, the stories of our souls. Journalism gave me the opportunity to hear lots of stories, while also teaching me the art of writing fast.
SM: Thinking back to your reporting days, what were your favorite kinds of stories to report and write about?
SC:The stories I loved most were all about people – their accomplishments and struggles, why they are who they are. I was not a big fan of controversial stories as I don’t love conflict … and then you’d run into this person you had just written a difficult story about in the grocery store.
SM: Where did you grow up, and what brought you to Steamboat?
SC:I grew up in Northern Virginia and got a masters in journalism at CU Boulder. I was placed in Steamboat at the Steamboat Pilot & Today for a summer internship and met my now-husband. I fell in love – both with him and the town!
SM: How does it feel to finally see your years of hard work bound behind such a beautiful cover? And now that you’re deep into this, what surprises you most about the business of publishing a book, launching it into the world?
SC:I really love the cover, too! It feels so magical to see this book as a physical thing, not just a big Word document saved on my computer. It’s been interesting to see how the publisher takes the book and does their thing: I’m no longer the one in charge. And it’s been surprising to feel how emotional it is to have something I’ve worked on so long, alone, get prepared to be thrust out into the world. But being out in the world is the purpose of a book – that’s where it really lives, in the minds and hearts of the readers, and I’m grateful this book has that chance.
SM: What do you read, both on your down time and in research/writing prep mode? Maybe a longtime and a recent favorite?
SC:I’ve always been a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver. I love sitting in her stories, her language. And Rainbow Rowell is one of my recent favorites; I can read and re-read her novels. For research, I read books on whatever topics I’m learning about – for “Crow Flight,” that was books about crows and computers.
SM: What were your favorite books as a teen?
SC:One long-time favorite is “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger. I’ll never forget standing at my locker in high school and feeling devastated at the realization that I couldn’t just call up Zooey Glass.
SM: Any special writerly influences – mentors you’ve sought in person or on the page?
SC:John McPhee was an incredible influence. To get to learn from him through a college class was such a privilege. And Laura Pritchett, a phenomenal writer based in Fort Collins, has been so helpful. She has a knack for giving good feedback that doesn’t leave me feeling like the whole book is helpless.
SM: Is there a book that you think everyone should be reading – in addition to your own?
SC:“The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman. She spoke at the library in Steamboat this fall. Once you understand how incredibly smart birds are, you have a whole new appreciation for them.
SM: YA is a blossoming genre, with so many different kinds of stories being told. What compelled you to write for a young audience?
SC:For me, YA stories are just the stories that come out. Maybe because books were especially powerful for me then. Or maybe because it’s an intense time of life, with so many unknowns. Everything feels real and raw. It just lends itself to stories.
SM: As a science geek, I sense you did a lot of cool crow research for this book. What mystified you most about these birds?
SC:So, so much! They do so many smart, wonderful things. Like solving multi-step puzzles where they use one tool to get another tool to get another tool, eventually getting to the food reward.
SM: What else did you have to learn about to write this story – any new research realms for you?
SC:The computer modeling was a brand-new field for me. Thankfully I had some good help – my tech-savvy sister and a mathematician friend who creates computer models.
SM: What is at the core of this story that you hope people will take away from your book? And did you set out with that mission, or did it evolve over time?
SC:My main hope is that teens will enjoy it. There’s so much power in that, being drawn in by a book that you don’t want to put down. And second, that it inspires girls who do like science and tech and math. Maybe it’s different now, but when I was in junior high and high school, being smart was not, like, the coolest thing you could be.
SM: You wear many hats in Steamboat, in addition to novelist. How do you balance the writing life in Steamboat, including your different kinds of work and raising a family?
SC:I feel lucky to have a few different jobs I enjoy, but it does mean that I end up working a good bit early morning, evenings and weekends. Like all working moms, I definitely don’t always feel balanced. But I strive for it!
SM: Mandatory question for every Steamboat winter interview: What’s your favorite ski run?
SC:Rainbow. Just because I love the views and the easy pitch down. It feels a bit like flying to me.
SM: If you could be a character from any book ever written, who would you want to be?
SC:The boy in “Hatchet”by Gary Paulsen. I’d often dream as a child that I was stuck in the wilderness, alone, and had to gather food and build shelter. Of course, these were all fantasies I had from the comfort of my own room…
Meet the author! Susan Cunningham talks about “Crow Flight” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.