"Still the Water Creeps In": Interview with Christian Harder of RVA Magazine, August 2011
If so inclined, you can go to the original feature here.
The leaky former home of which I speak.
Susann Cokal, author of the acclaimed novels Mirabilis (2001) and Breath and Bones (2005), has lived in regions of vastly diverse nature. She was born and raised in California, visited family in Copenhagen, went to school in New York, and studied in France. Now, as Director of VCU’s Creative Writing Program, Susann calls Richmond home. Susann has been published in many journals: Prairie Schooner, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, to name a few. She has reviewed fiction for The New York Times Book Review, and is currently at work on a novel set in Richmond.
There’s recently been a lot of noise about Richmond’s artistic potential; just a few weeks ago, Mayor Dwight C. Jones spoke at a downtown creative festival, “I.E.,” spouting such platitudes as: “We need to embrace the creative energy, and the city needs to create a platform for the energy to be released.” As politicians, pundits, and pollsters become interested in the city’s artistic endeavors, it becomes less clear whether “creative energy” is grandstanding or genuine. With this in mind, Susann discusses her life of writing, and answers my questions about the importance of location, region, and environment to a writer’s work. Is Richmond a creative city after all?
Christian Harder: It seems many writers welcome long, difficult journeys to foreign lands—France, Morocco, China, even Canada—hoping the trip will inform their work. How does environment influence a writer?
Susann Cokal: Hm, I’ve never been to Canada, or to Morocco or China, so I can’t speak to that. But I do love to travel, and in my youth I was okay with long and difficult. Now, difficult, not so much; I decided to rule out youth hostels some years ago in Avignon, as I listened to overpartied youngsters being sick outside the window all night. I do like to write about foreign lands, especially with historical settings. The past is a foreign place in itself, after all.
When I was in my twenties, I wrote a lot of stories set in places like France, Denmark, and Turkey–I think it was necessary for me to get distance from where and who I was.
Reality is disappointing, so we turn to fiction. My reality then seemed very limited, even though I loved the places I was living (e.g., San Diego–who wouldn’t love that?), so I thought about the places I’d been and, by extension, the people I might have been but wasn’t. My mum was Danish, and actually my grandmother’s neighborhood in Copenhagen is the closest thing to steady home ground I have–my family moved a lot. So now I’m finishing up something set in Scandinavia in the Renaissance, among the castles and coastline that I love; I’ve also embarked on a novel set in Richmond.
Maybe age makes one more distant from one’s life and home in a way. Or else closer. Or some such. In the words of one of my grad students, who used this as her thesis title: “Far Away Is Here.”
Christian: Writers typically prefer a certain type of room or space to write in.Hemingway liked a masculine place in Key West; Robert Hass favored California. On the other hand, Kerouac wrote On the Road in a crummy New York apartment. Is your room at all peculiar or indicative of a writer’s enclave?
Susann: Ha. This answer would vary at different times of my life and for different drafts. It is important always to have a cat in the room, I find; that’s the one constant. For a while I wrote in the sleeping porch of my house here, which is great for plants–lots of windows, view into trees, nice to have a separate dedicated space for telling a certain story–but I had a flare-up of lifelong back trouble and for the last couple of years have done most of my work in bed. I love my bed; the mattress is just right, and sometimes I can write myself to sleep. I look up and see four pictures on the wall: an engraving of a church in Poitiers; a medieval map of Venice; Carpaccio’s Dream of Saint Ursula; and The Effects of Good Government, a fresco in Siena.
Also inspiring: on my dressertop I have an Art Nouveau nude bronze that my Intended gave me for Christmas, plus a little tourist model of the castle in Elsinore that he bought there a couple years ago, and two figurines of mermaids. All are inspiration for either this novel or the next one, which will be set in Richmond in the 1920s.
Christian: Did California–your natal land, and a state of immense natural elements–encourage your young creativity?
Susann: Oh yes. And still does; it’s a big part of my Wild West novel, Breath and Bones, and I write short stories set there. As I said, my family moved around a lot, so my first memories aren’t in California--they’re on the Puget Sound. But the West Coast is very important and dear to me in some primal way (if those words don’t contrast too much). Big booming waves, rocky cliffs, sharks, palm trees … I get weepy when I go back. I really was born in Woodland, CA, though, so I am a native. And sometimes I wish all those people would leave my state alone!
Christian: You studied in Poitiers, France; a city of striking architecture. Did the history and physicality of this environment inspire your writing?
Susann: They were a direct influence on my first novel, Mirabilis. I made up a city for that novel, but I based the layout largely on Poitiers, and some of the church names are the same. There was a ruined church that I sneaked into a few times; it’s in the opening scene of the novel (also in ruins then). Now it’s been spruced up into a concert hall, which I find a little disappointing–I liked the potential represented by the ruin, the fact that I could make it anything I wanted, give it any story. At the time, nobody knew the name of the place or who’d built it, but art historians have since found the answers. Which I won’t give here because I want my version to be “true”!
Christian: You were teaching in San Luis Obispo before you came to Richmond. What inspired the move? Was the drastic change intimidating?
Susann: I loved [San Luis Obispo]; I lived in a little townlet right by a bay, and from the second floor of my house I could see the bay, a big chunk of rock, and some ocean. Astonishing unspoiled beaches; if there were more than five people on a beach with me, I’d get miffy about the overcrowding. And I had some wonderful friends there and in Berkeley and San Diego. But … I wanted a job with more emphasis on the humanities and on research and creative endeavor (I’d been teaching at a polytechnic university), so I started looking around. My family had lived in Lynchburg for a few years when I was little, and I had a vague memory of dogwoods in Richmond.
When I got here for the interview, I was surprised at how beautiful I found the city, even in February. Now I get to live in a modest house on Monument Avenue and walk to VCU past all these gorgeous old houses--happy-making and inspiring.
But yes, the change was intimidating; Californians aren’t huge fans of seasons, and I find the hot, humid summers crippling. Which means I spend more time inside writing and reading, so actually it’s fine. And I have a goldfish pond in the backyard to remind me of the Pacific waters.
Christian: Now that you’re a long-term resident who’s familiar with the city, what do you admire about it?
Susann: Hm. Everything I just mentioned … and the fact that there’s such an artistic and intellectual community here. In addition to my colleagues at VCU, I know scores of great people from James River Writers, other types of artists, photographers, historians–all very fascinating.
In terms of the physical city itself, I love to walk along and swim in the river, and Church Hill and the Fan and Museum District are all of another era. I like brick and copper building materials; they’re very Danish. I bought this house, in fact, because it smelled like my grandmother’s old house and is of roughly the same era. Now it’s the setting for my Richmond novel–-the house was built in 1920, when the Avenue was mostly being finished off. And it’s had a leak ever since I moved here; I’ve poured thousands of dollars into fixing that one elusive hole in the roof/wall/something, but still the water creeps in. Which is a fine metaphor for a ghost story, which is what I’m writing.
Christian: A lot of press—especially recently—has hailed Richmond as an ‘artsy’, progressive city. Do you feel this designation is merited?
Susann: Oh, definitely. I think I covered this [previously], but I’ll say again that the number of universities in the area and the lively theater and arts scenes, plus organizations like Art 180 and James River Writers, make this a great place to be artsy.
Christian: Both University of Virginia and Virginia Tech ranked in the country’s top fifty MFA programs in a recent Poets & Writers study. VCU also boasts quite an impressive program. Any idea why Virginia might be a hotbed for these successful institutions?
Susann: Oh, those rankings. They’re the subject of much debate, as they’re based on one fellow’s survey of prospective grad students and their interests. In past surveys, VCU has ranked in the top 50, and even Poets & Writers calls us one of the “top underrated programs” in the country. UVa and Tech are obviously great schools and have stellar programs, but so does VCU! (Full disclosure: I’m the current director of creative writing there.) And there’s GMU for the DC crowd, and JMU and Old Dominion, Hollins University–lots of places to be a writer.
And so many great writers live here now! I hesitate to name any because the list is so long I don’t want to leave anybody off, especially since many of them are my friends. But several Pulitzers and National Book Awarders (and finalists for both awards) live here in Richmond, and lately VCU’s MFA faculty and grads have been gathering up NEA grants by the basketful.
Christian: So, in short, is Richmond a writer’s city?
Susann: YES! A great place to be a writer … or just look like one. (Callback to 1970s ads for the Barbizon School of Modeling.)