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SunLit Interviews

How one intense image blossomed into a young adult work of mystery and romance

Sparks fly between characters in Susan Cunningham's "Crow Flight," but a lot of what propels the plot is rooted in one of the author's passions -- science

Author Susan Cunningham.

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office analyzing data on wool apparel. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.

The following is an interview with Susan Cunningham.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book? 

I was researching crows and was surprised to learn how smart they are. I used to think crows were annoying – they made a mess of the trash and squawked and ruined other song bird nests. But when I learned that their intelligence is on par with great apes, dolphins and four-year-old children, I started to love them.

During that research process, the inspiration for Crow Flight came in one image. Two teenagers – a boy and a girl – standing at the edge of a wintry field with brown grass and icy air, and trained crows flying around them. I felt that image so intensely, it just pulled me through the whole story.

“Crow Flight” by Susan Cunningham.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I’ve always been a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver and how she weaves science through her stories. I remember checking out her books in high school and feeling so excited to sit in her stories, her language. And Rainbow Rowell is one of my recent favorites; I can read and re-read her novels. For YA Rom-Com, right now I’m loving everything by Sandhya Menon and Jenny Han. Their books are so heartfelt and fun. And I really, really love “What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum. If you haven’t read it, you should – it’s fantastic.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit? 

This scene takes place about a quarter of the way through the book, but it’s the first one I imagined after all of that crow research. It’s also the first scene I actually wrote. In this scene, Gin (a logic-loving, computer-coding teen whose eyes are set on getting into Harvard) first sees Felix (the new kid in school who’s also her partner in their Computer Simulations class) training his crows. She’s noticed crows hanging out around him before, but this is the first time it’s clear that he trains them. Gin is intrigued, and you can start to see the sparks between her and Felix fly.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I love the entire writing process and feel so lucky to get to do this work. But my favorite part is getting down the very first draft, when the words just flow and the pages pile up and you can see immediate progress on this idea that’s been churning around your head and your heart. While I love aspects of the revision process – when the plot gets worked out and characters become more fully who they’re meant to be – revision can be a bit harder for me, just because you don’t always see the progress that’s being made. But revision is honestly the biggest part of the whole process.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

I struggled with Felix’s character at first. He was totally lovable in my mind, but in the first draft, he came across as more cool and distant and hard to decipher. But eventually, through revisions and rewrites, I was able to capture his true character more accurately.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

All of my research for this book was really fun. It was fascinating to learn more about how computer models are used to try to predict everything from weather and traffic, to love and war. And I loved digging into the intelligence of crows. For instance, crows can recognize human faces, they are thought to have “crow funerals” when loved ones die, and one species of crow can make and use “hooks.” That last one may not seem like a big deal until you find out that only one other animal makes and uses a hook as a tool – us people!

What project are you working on next?

I tend not to talk much about my works in progress until they’re finished. I once heard author Jennifer Haigh compare sharing early ideas for a book to popping the cork on a bottle of champagne – the excitement and interest you have as an author can just fizzle out the more you talk about it. But, I can share that my next book will also be for teens, and will involve romance, mystery and, of course, a little bit of science.

Buy “Crow Flight” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “Crow Flight” by Susan Cunningham.