Susan Fletcher has always wanted to be a writer, though she can’t pinpoint why. The author of Journey of the Pale Bear wrote for fun as a child, writing poetry, random musing and lyrics for songs she composed on the piano.
“I think I loved to write partly because reading was so nourishing for me,” Susan told Cracking the Cover. “And partly, too, because I have always loved words—playing with them, their meanings, their sounds. To this day, I collect words, my most recent acquisition being a word in German, morgenfrisk, which means, ‘to feel fresh or lively in the morning.’ I feel morgenfrisky when I wake up and realize I have an entire morning to play with words!”
Susan’s latest book, Journey of the Pale Bear is based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London. The book follows the bear and Arthur, the bear’s young keeper, as they travel from Norway to England.
Journey of the Pale Bear took years longer to write than any other book Susan has written. Life events did slow the process, but Susan also says writing a novel just takes her a long time. “At the beginning of the process, my story is mostly just fog, and the only way to make things clear is to spend time with it—writing, reading, rewriting, thinking.”
There was a lot of research involved, too. “I had to find out a lot about polar bears,” Susan said. “I had to find out about the menagerie in the Tower of London. I had to find out about life aboard 13th century ships. And just in general, I had to find out how people lived in the 13th century—what they wore, what they ate, what happened when they were sick or injured, what sorts of things surrounded them.”
Along the way, not only did Arthur’s character develop, but the bear’s did, too. When she started Journey of the Pale Bear, the bear was male, and Arthur was going to be its best buddy. A ways in, Susan became uneasy with this plan. Young male polar bears are among the most dangerous animals on the planet. She began to question the plausibility of a child-bear “friendship.”
“So, I changed the bear to a female, a mother bear who maybe had had some cubs, and I began channeling that whole mother-to-cub kind of energy with the bear and Arthur,” Susan said.
In the book, Arthur has a way with animals. His humming in particular is soothing to the bear. It’s a plot twist that just happened as Susan wrote, but it turns out to be based on reality. After changing the bear from a boy to a girl, Susan learned polar bears do hum.
“I found out from Amy Cutting, a curator at the Oregon Zoo, that polar bear cubs do a kind of humming-thing with their mothers,” Susan said. “In real life! And I’d had no idea of this when Arthur began to hum!”
Susan says she also started writing for the “right reason,” too. “I fell in love with kidlit, some writers in particular: Ursula K. Le Guin, Katherine Paterson, Daniel Pinkwater, Susan Cooper, Eloise McGraw, Laurence Yep, Virginia Hamilton, just for starters. When I read their books I was filled with a combination of envy and longing: If only I could do that!”
Now that she’s found her groove, Susan says story situations are much more interesting to her if she can put a youth in the middle of the action. “I love coming-of-age—that most important time in life, when a character is sailing blithely through childhood and then some earthshaking event comes along, forcing the character to navigate a world more complicated and unprotected than she had imagined before,” she said.
Susan is reticent to speak about current writing projects, particularly when they are in the early stages, but she is working on something with “a little romance in it, and it has something to do with the way developments in science today will affect kids in the future.”
Learn more about Susan Fletcher and Journey of the Pale Bear by reading the complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
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. To read about the fascinating story behind the inspiration for Journey of the Pale Bear, visit her website, SusanFletcher.com