This is not your school's summer reading list

Susann Cokal

smiling2.susann

  1. How did you come to the story The Kingdom of Little Wounds?

Oo, that’s always a hard question for me!  I think stories come to me by mood … often a sense of loneliness … in this case, loneliness combined with helplessness. I have the mood and then I start to think of people to talk to, others who might be feeling that way and who might help me through a difficult period in my life.  (Of course, I can’t feel lonely and helpless the entire time I’m writing something–The Kingdom took me almost nine years, for example–but you know that sense when an emotion washes over you … )

In this case, three people came to me:

Ava Bingen, a seamstress with a spotty past; Midi, a slave who is as good at nursing the royal children as she is angry at the people who have put her in this position; and Isabel, a mad queen who has to save herself from the threat of divorce and disgrace.  They are all

imperiled, and somehow they have to come up with a plot to save themselves.

The story that came to me is set in 1572 in Scandinavia, a period and place that have always interested me. I love wandering through castles and ruins and reading about the kings and queens such as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII.   Perhaps even more interesting is trying to find out about the lives of common people–I would have been a commoner, for example–by looking at shards of pins and old paintbrushes and traditional houses that have somehow survived the ages.  And Scandinavia is in some ways my home. My mother was Danish and most of my family is still in and around Copenhagen, so that watery kingdom (a queendom at the moment, under Margrethe II) is the most constant place in my life; I’ve moved around a lot.  And the Renaissance interests me because it was such a time of change–literally, rebirth (that’s what “renaissance” means).  The culture was changing from a Catholic religious base to a more human-centered system of knowledge and power.  Women were taking on marginally more power, and the middle class was really starting to be born and to have rights.

But now I’m making it sound intellectual, and really writing is a matter of taking what I know and letting it beat for a while in my heart, then come out of my fingers. It takes me a long time to get a plot right.  I was inspired in part by the oldest recorded fairy tales, which usually don’t have the tidy and happy endings we’ve come to expect; fairy tales are about learning to adjust to a new stage in life and either resign yourself to, say, marriage–or discover that you’re clever enough to defeat the enemy and make your way in the world.  The oldest stories we know don’t always end with success; in one version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the mother-in-law eats the happy couple’s children.  I wrote some “ragged” fairy tales for the novel, ones that trail off or end flatly, with debatable success.  That’s both magical and lifelike to me.  Novels ask us to come up with a real conclusion, though, and I tried to weave together the three story lines into a sort of tale that allowed all of my girls to find a new place in life from which to continue.

 

  1. What makes your main character a strong girl?

I have three main characters, and I think they’re strong in different ways–given the time period, they generally have to discover the ways in which they’re strong and how they can be strategic with what life has given them (which is true no matter when you’re living).  I’ll break it down:

- Ava Bingen is probably the “everygirl” character, the one who feels most like somebody you  might meet.  The neighbors with whom she grew up discovered that she “committed a sin” with a man, and so she’s in disgrace.  Her fortunes seem to take a turn when she gets work as a seamstress at the royal palace, but there she falls victim to a predatory lord and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  She has to find the strength to get past the sins and labels her society has pinned on her–and realize that, with her skills at storytelling, she is clever enough to concoct a plan that might save herself and her family when they’re in danger.

- Midi Sorte is a nursemaid and a slave, stolen away from a privileged childhood in a country for which she has no name.  She was given as a gift to the Queen, but she’s expected to spy for a wily countess–the same countess who cut her tongue to make sure she can’t speak.  Midi, who is the royal children’s favorite nurse, has some secret strengths.  One of them is her anger (which can also lead her to make mistakes about interacting with other people); another is the fact that she can read.  She and Ava seem like natural enemies, as they start to compete for the same man’s affections, but they have to come to some kind of alliance if they’re going to survive.  Which is hard to do, since Midi can read but not speak, and Ava can speak but not read. They have to find a way to communicate.

- Queen Isabel is older than the two girls–she’s almost forty–but her lack of empowerment and certain tricks of the court have kept her childish.  She loves her children and wants to save them from their mysterious sickness, so she has studied the medicine of the day; as queen, her major responsibility has been giving the kingdom a viable heir to the throne, and she’s in disgrace for “letting” the children get sick.  She has to find her own power by realizing she’s not the madwoman other people have tried to convince her she is–she has the ability to scheme too.

So, in a lot of ways, the story is about strength.  I think it lies within the three characters; they need to discover it for themselves.  And the very first line of the story ends with “power.”

 

  1. Finish this sentence, strong girls _________.

know when it’s really their fault, when to apologize, and when to forgive themselves.

 

  1. What are you working on next?

Right now I’m revising a ghost story set in Richmond in the 1920s–I like to jump around in time, it seems.  Twin girls are seventeen when they meet the man they both fall in love with; he goes off to the war, and one of the girls dies of influenza.  The remaining sister marries the man, and then they’re haunted … or are they?  And is it by the ghost of the dead sister or by the demons of war?

I’m also researching a YA set in the 1890s, as the country still reels from the Civil War and the South is finally getting on its feet again.  This story is a sort of homage to Nancy Drews, as there will be a pair of teenaged sleuths riding their bicycles around and trying to solve a murder.

And, of course, I want to return to the Middle Ages (setting of my first book, Mirabilis) and the Renaissance.  I miss the magic of those times! … I’m toying with a story about a girl who is half-mermaid and performs miracles.

 

Thank you for featuring me!  I love Girls of Summer and am so thrilled my girls made the list!

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