About

 

The official version:

Sue Cowing was born in Illinois and now lives and writes in Hawaii. She earned degrees in history from Knox College and Emory University, then studied Chinese and Japanese history at the University of Hawaii.  After teaching history and Asian studies at La Pietra School in Honolulu for sixteen years, she earned an M.F.A. in Writing (poetry) from Vermont College of Fine Arts and began writing full-time.  Her poems have appeared in: Virginia Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Wormwood Review, Bamboo Ridge, Chaminade Literary Review, Hawaii Review, Negative Capability, and in several anthologies, including The Denny Poems and Sister Stew.

Around 1990, Sue began writing for children and now writes most often for them. Some of her stories and poems and a nonfiction article have appeared in CRICKET  and SPIDER magazines. The University of Hawaii Press published her Fire in the Sea: An Anthology of Poetry and Art in 1996. She has written two books for children: My Dog Has Flies: Poetry for Hawaii’s Kids (BeachHouse, 2005) and a debut novel, You Will Call Me Drog (CarolRhoda Books, 2011).

Sue has received Ka Palapala Po‘okela Awards for Excellence from the Hawaii Publishers’ Association for Fire in the Sea and My Dog has Flies as well as the 2006 Cades Award for Literature, the Grand prize for fiction from Negative Capability, and the Children’s Christmas Fiction prize from the Honolulu Advertiser. She is Co-Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators--Hawaii and has been involved with the Biennial Conference on Literature and Hawaii’s Children for fourteen years.


The leisurely version:

I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, in the days when was it a prosperous college and manufacturing town on the prairie, surrounded by equally prosperous family farms, and proud of its history.  We kids had a great public school education and free run of the neighborhood, played outside until dark--or at least until the five-o’clock whistle--ate apples off the trees and grapes off the vine and regarded ice and hail storms as entertainment.  Not one but two great zephyrs stopped for us on the way to Chicago—the Burlington and the Santa Fe. Our town could boast of the fifth Lincoln/Douglas debate; of Carl Sandburg; of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr, inventor of the Ferris Wheel; and of our high-school basketball team that often made it to the Sweet Sixteen. We grew up thinking there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do or be and nothing wrong that couldn’t be made right.  At least some of us did. I have a story to write about Galesburg that I haven’t written yet.

I started writing down  poems and stories when I was about seven, and I became a class and family storyteller/fabricator.  I loved poems, especially the Robert Frost and Ogden Nash Dad read to us.  I devoured fairy-tales, Grimm and Anderson, especially East of the Sun and West of the Moon and The Snow Queen--any story with a quest or a magic object in it.  I devoured mystery and detective stories.  I daydreamed in and out of school.   I loved exploring our grand old  library, though I was afraid to walk across the glass floor of the second-story stacks, which you had to do to get to the bathroom.   My favorite days then and now have always been rainy days, because they fill me with energy and ideas for inventing stories and poems and songs.

Once I got to college, I was so impressed by my own ignorance and inattention that I decided to study history, thinking that subject would teach me the most.  To my surprise, I came to enjoy it, especially the research. Even now, after I have given up studying and teaching history in favor of writing fiction and poetry, research is one of my favorite parts of writing. Something that impresses me I when I read history is that people act, not on the basis of what is true at that moment, but on what they believe to be true.  So if you want to understand why people did something, you need to know what they believed.

I have always thought that myths, legends, and fairy tales were true in that sense.  An illustrated book of Chinese tales I read in grade school stirred what would become  a lifelong curiosity about Chinese culture and art.  As soon as I could manage to do it, I moved to Hawaii to study Chinese history, which I’d had a taste of in college.  The written language proved too much for me, but I continued to enjoy exploring Chinese and Japanese culture (t’ai chi, tea ceremony, taiko drumming) and loved, still love, the multi-cultural world of Hawaii. 

Somewhere in the course of my schooling and teaching, I felt my academic work distancing me from my connection to the natural world and from my imagination, and turned more and more to reading and writing poetry to find language for things I didn’t want to lose. I went down parallel paths of teaching and (quietly) writing for several years, but found the two didn’t combine well, so I finally gave up teaching to write.  About that time I started to get more and more ideas for stories and began reading and writing fiction as well as poetry. Soon I was writing for children as often as for adults.

I believe that nothing we ever learn is wasted. My study of history helps me explore character motivation and make my stories “true” even if they contain an element of fantasy.  Once I begin to get those things right, room opens up in my story for exploring whatever most interests me at that moment--people I’ve known (or parts of them), things I want to know more about, hopes I hope against hope. In almost every story of mine there is a hint of Asian culture and a special object, and often a major character is some kind of artist. Focusing on writing means that I  don’t have time for many other things that I would like to do, but I can always write about them.  I hope to be lucky enough to do this for the rest of my life.