THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS by Susann Cokal just came out, and the author stopped by to talk about the book, and much more!
Also, she’s offered up a copy of the book, plus a t-shirt, to one lucky winner, so be sure to check out the details at the end of the post!
You’ve lived in so many diverse places and have an extensive background in writing, but what in particular inspired you to begin writing your new novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds?
In a way, it started about fifteen years ago. A sentence occurred to me—I think it was upon waking up, but we always feel that way about sentences that matter to us—“All the children in the royal nursery were sick.” That sentence isn’t in the novel, but it rattled around in my brain while I worked on other books and stories, and it started to build a world around it … like a little grain of sand causing an oyster to fashion a pearl (if I can pay my brain such a roundabout compliment). Having healthy royal children was essential to the health of a Renaissance kingdom; you needed somebody you knew could receive the crown, ideally a male heir. I used to read a lot about the Tudors and Stuarts in high school, so I was fascinated by that world—child marriages, evil plots, and all.
And out of the idea of the sick children came the idea of the people that others might not care about so much, the very people who might take care of the children: nursemaids and their mother, plus some doctors (who I really see as a touch of evil in the novel, as medicine was brutal back then). I’ve always been interested in the lives of outsiders, as I’m been a bit of one myself, so I started focusing on those characters—especially the disgraced seamstress, Ava Bingen, who goes to work with mute slave Midi Sorte in the stinking, nasty nursery. She’s a sort of Everywoman character. Midi has had a very hard life; she was a child in a palace, then stolen away to become a slave. She doesn’t even know where she’s from, exactly; it might be Africa or Asia or the Middle East. She can read and write, but she can’t speak because someone sliced her tongue. Ava can speak but can’t read. And the two of them compete for one man’s attentions (and are abused by another man). So I was interested in how these two could strike up a partnership and how they might worm their way into some kind of better solution, especially by working with Queen Isabel, who’s been dismissed as a baby-breeder, nothing more.
The setting is Scandinavia in 1572. Given your background, I understand the Scandinavian setting, but what made you decide to set it during the 16th-century time period?
At first it was a matter of convenience—as are the Scandinavian elements, as my family is Danish and I go to Denmark almost every year. The 16th century was a tumultuous century all over, of course, and I already knew a bit of what had happened in Scandinavia because I love going to museums and reading odd little history books that I buy there. And then there was my high school passion for the British 16th century, so I married those loves to each other.
I happened upon 1572 as a great year for a novel—in part because a big northern war had ended just five years earlier, in bigger part because a star suddenly appeared where no star had been before … a supernova, no less, that shone during the day as well. It changed the way people thought of the world—as far as they knew, the heavens had never changed, so what had brought about the birth of that star? I had to explore that question.
Did you do any particular research for the book?
Oh, yes! I love to do research, and the allure of big dusty books and museums and getting to travel to foreign countries cannot be denied. I remember the first book I bought for this project was Tudor Feasts—I wanted to be able to taste what the characters would have tasted. And now I cook those foods for book events. I also went to Venice twice, as it’s a watery city where you can still feel the Renaissance all around you. No cars, no horses, just boats and walking. Once I stayed there for a week and studiously avoided seeing any transportation other than the vaporetti (boats that serve as buses). It was magical. Of course I was by myself on my birthday in the most romantic place on earth, with people kissing on bridges all around me, which was weird—but it gave me that all-important outsider experience again. Wry smiley icon.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I wear skirts more often than pants, she joked feebly. But I am at first a big plotter—lots of outlines, notebooks full of facts, pages for characters and things that might interest them or that they might say … and then I sort of fall out of the notebook and get more pantsy as I go on and the various people and places become real to me. I can always return to the notebook if I need more inspiration. And I like to have an ending in mind as I write, as well as an idea for my next project; there’s always a point at which I feel despair over the thing in progress, so it helps to be able to tell myself that it’s okay not to be perfect with this one; the next will be my masterwork.
You must have pleased the cover gods, because it’s one of the most stunning covers I’ve seen in a long time! Do you think it captures the essence of the book?
Isn’t it incredible? I feel so lucky—it was done by a wonderful Finnish artist named Kirsi Salonen. Right now Goodreads is running a “choose the best cover” contest and Kingdom is winning with 38% of the vote!
That artwork went through three drafts, and I got to comment on all of them. First I sent off pictures of things the characters would have used and the castles that inspired the castle in Skyggehavn. The first version was wonderfully crumbly and kind of like a sunset by Turner. The second version evolved … and then came the glorious third. I love the brooding castle and the supernova in the sky, plus all the little key elements from the plot that decorate the frame. And those are two great-looking mermaids!
What would you like readers to take away from The Kingdom of Little Wounds?
That is a deceptively hard question, because it seems so simple … I want them to have an experience, you know—to have felt something, been afraid, laughed, been entertained, feel satisfied with the ending. And a lot of that comes from hoping that they see how three females, including two who are only sixteen or seventeen years old, get strategic when everything seems stacked against them. I hope I show that, despite the fairy tales in the book (which have pretty tragic endings, like some of the very oldest fairy tales recorded)—even though stories and experience alike prepare us for something awful, there might be hope at the end.
And in fact, if I were to read my own life as a fairy tale … I didn’t fall a hundred percent in love until about five years ago, and then it was with someone I had known for years already. I’d thought my love life and career were flatlining, but then there was this marvelous person right in front of me, and we are so happy! We just bought a house yesterday.
Dark themes are certainly common in your novels, but what is something that you find truly terrifying?
Truly terrifying … Well, in 2012 I had two concussions, one very serious (my miscreant neighbor’s dog attacked me and my head hit a concrete step). And my mind hasn’t been the same since—I have terrible migraines about six days out of seven, and sometimes I’m dyslexic and stammer when I speak. I also lost a lot of memory; I remember almost nothing of 2012, for example. All my life, I’d been afraid of hitting my head—I never learned to dive headfirst into a pool because it just seemed WRONG to point my head at concrete—and it turns out I was right. What truly terrifies me is losing my ability to think, remember, and express. Those first few months were very bad. And I still can’t do math in my head.
Maybe another way to say it is that I’m terrified that so much of my self depends on how my body is doing, and we don’t always have control over that.
What, and/or who, has influenced you most in your writing, and in your life?
Very hard to choose! The writers I read as a kid, obviously—Maud Hart Lovelace, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edward Eager, Mary Poppins, The Borrowers series … a wonderful book called A Room Made of Windows … and incidentally, most of these books feature characters who are interested in writing and in how stories work. Mary Poppins has a touch of the demonic about her; she is not very nice in the books, and the story of her and the Plasticine man and woman that Jane makes has haunted me as much as “The Tinderbox” by Hans Christian Andersen. One of my prized possessions is a signed special edition of Mary Poppins. I have it hidden inside a different cover so that no bibliophilic burglars find it.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Hm. I’d love to repeat the magical experience of realizing I could read, when I read Rumpelstiltskin to my mother when she was sick. That was incredible—the marks made sense to me! For an adult book, I’d choose Lolita. Nabokov’s language is also magical; the first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down—just spent a weekend with it, trying to decipher the puzzles and the tangle of emotions I had about the subject. Which, in a way, is one of the subjects of The Kingdom—older man, adolescent girl, power struggle.
What are you reading now?
I have one of those jittery minds that can’t read just one book—partly because I have to read for the classes I teach as well as for research and pleasure. Here’s my current breakdown:
-for class: Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf; Perfume by Patrick Süskind
-for research: The Devil in the White City (the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892-3 and America’s creepiest serial killer—I’m planning a girl-detective story set in the 1890s); The 1920s and 1920s Fashion: A Sourcebook, since I’m finishing a ghost story set in the house where I currently live (which I think is haunted). It was built in 1920, so I’m imagining the first residents being haunted.
-for pleasure: Love and Lament, a novel by John Milliken Thompson; Courting Greta, a contemporary novel by Ramsey Hootman (who was first my student and now my friend); Come August, Come Freedom, a middle-grade novel by Gigi Amateau about a young slave who started a famous rebellion in Richmond, VA.
What’s next for you, this year and beyond?
Who knows? Now I have to get my current house ready to sell and move into the 1910 farmhouse that we just bought. I’m hoping to finish up my ghost story, Influence, which is an adult marriage about a young couple haunted by the spirit (or so they think) of the wife’s twin sister, who used to be engaged to the shell-shocked hero. That’s the one set in this house. And I am plotting out an 1890s YA mystery about a girl growing up in the South with a single mother; racial discrimination and even definitions of race were tangled at the time, just a generation after the Civil War, and my heroine finds out a secret about a friend … and possibly about herself. Maybe someone there will live in the new-old farmhouse into which I’m moving!
Keep up with Susann: Website
2.) Giveaway is for 1 copy of THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS by Susan Cokal +T-shirt 1 winner
3.) Giveaway is open US residents (or those with a US mailing address)
4.) You must enter before 11/2/13
5.) Giveaway book and t-shirt courtesy of Susann Cokal
6.) Please see my Giveaway Policy.
About THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS:
A young seamstress and a royal nursemaid find themselves at the center of an epic power struggle in this stunning young-adult debut. On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion. Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can.