Mirabilis featured on thelaughinglesbian.com
It is an incredible gift to hear from someone who has read a story and found it meaningful enough to make contact. I was so moved to get my first note from Emily Larramore, then honored to be among her first interviewees for her blog, www.thelaughinglesbian.com. Go visit and spend time in her salon! Our conversation is here below.
Susann Cokal: An Interview with one of the Greats!
Posted on January 20, 2015 by Emily
I was going to try and do a Laughing Lesbian Favorite for Monday, but I finished up my interview with Susann Cokal who is my favorite author of all time and I figured, why not make it both?! I can not express enough how honored I am to get this interview and to get this time from Ms. Cokal. Since I was 14 years old this woman has impacted my life through characters in her books and I am thrilled at the opportunity to share her with you!
Have you ever read a book that resonated so deeply with you that it never loses its spark and your love for it never dies? Have you ever read a book that, no matter how many times you read it, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness when it’s over? How about a book that has traveled with you all over and whose characters have become your closest companions, carrying you through hard times and always available for an impromptu visit? The historical fiction novel Mirabilis is “my” book. The pages are worn and dog eared, and the spine is creased after years of being read. I have owned several copies of this particular novel because I was always giving copies away to share my love for it with someone else. Recently I had the opportunity to send my latest copy to Susann Cokal, the woman who breathed life into the novels Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and The Kingdom of Little Wounds.
It started innocently enough: me, an awkward fan, emailing the author of my favorite book, afraid of the response I would hear if any at all. But within a few days I received a reply that made my heart burst. Not only has Susann written a novel so profound that it has stuck with me for years but she is also quite possibly one of the most open and kindhearted women I have ever had the chance to encounter. I sent her the personal copy of my book and within a few short days she had sent it back with the most beautiful and personal inscription. I can’t say enough about this woman. Read one or all of her books; you will understand.
“Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and professor of creative writing and modern literature. Her new magnum opus is The Kingdom of Little Wounds, set in the Scandinavian Renaissance; it has received starred reviews in Kirkus, School Library Journal, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and Publishers Weekly, and an ALAN citation from the National Council of Teachers of English. Positive reviews also appear in Booklist, The New York Times Boook Review, and other venues. Icing on the honey-cake is a silver medal from the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award series.” – from
Emily: Susann, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me, I cannot express to you enough just how excited and honored I am to be doing this interview with you! It’s a bit surreal!
Susann: Thank you, Emily! It’s a bit surreal to me to—all good things are. You can’t imagine how much your words have meant to me. Writing a novel is a long lonely weird undertaking, and when the project ends up published it becomes a different thing, a sort of piece of one’s heart tiptoeing through the marketplace and asking people to like it. I am so grateful that you liked mine.
Emily: I am such a sucker for historical fiction with female leads and all three of your novels incorporate both. Has this always been your niche? You have such a talent for giving life to women of history, especially Bonne La Mère from Mirabilis; she has only been mentioned in history in brief passing and yet, you could easily fill the pages of a history book. Why history? Why women?
Susann: In my ninth-grade English class, we had to write an essay about where we’d be in ten years—what our professions would be. I did my essay in the form of a television interview (O the hubris!), wherein I was being interviewed by someone who might ask the very questions you’re asking now. My projected age was twenty-three, so I figured out how much education I’d have by then; we were also required to mention salaries and so on. So. My profession: writing historical novels for teenagers (I was a teenager at the time; my ideal audience has changed a bit as I’ve grown up and read more—now I have more than one ideal audience, I think). I wrote that I had a master’s degree and was heading toward a Ph.D. and that I’d published two books set in the Middle Ages.
And now … I have two Ph.D.’s (one in comparative literature, which requires knowledge of several languages and a dissertation creating a web of connections between different literary traditions; one in English and creative writing). I am a professor teaching world literature of the last 150 or so years. And I’ve published three novels … Not entirely on schedule with my ninth-grade dreams, but it’s kind of interesting to me that I stuck with it all. I never really wanted to be anything else, not since I learned to read and found out that actual people wrote the stories I loved.
As to Bonne of Mirabilis: Well, I’m afraid the fictional character is a composite of holy women in the Middle Ages. I made up the encyclopedia entry because I wanted to know what would happen to my characters after the big episode of their lives ended. I built some mistakes into the encyclopedia in order to show that history doesn’t always get its story right. For me, one of the big reasons to write historical fiction is to tell a story that couldn’t have been told at the time. So I wrote about a wet nurse (whose profession is to feed other people’s children with her breast milk) and her romance with her pregnant employer—definitely a story that would not have been possible to tell back in 1372. And I looked into other characters who would live on the fringes of their society: a dwarf who has run away from the lord who “collected” him, a sculptor so focused on his art that he begins to lose his mind; an anchoress, a sort of hermit who is bricked into a little room built onto a church; and an everywoman sort of character, the bakeress, who comments on some action in the voice of the townspeople.
Another reason I like historical settings is that I get a chance to explore the way people acted, dressed, and most of all thought in the past. I like to think that miracles are possible, though maybe not in a religious way; I want to believe someone can be so good that her or his goodness produces something wonderful in the world.
I sort of outclevered myself with that encyclopedia entry, then. It was intended to show the gaps in history and our pragmatic, empirical, magicless world—whoever wrote that encyclopedia would not have believed in Bonne’s miracles. And it never occurred to me that people would think I’d based Bonne’s story on a real person. But it seems about 90 percent of my readers, if not more, think there really was a Bonne. A prominent medieval scholar introduced me at a prestigious college as someone who had taken a bit of history and blown it into a book. I didn’t know if I should tell her it was fiction … I did do a lot of research, though. I lived in France for a year and studied medieval history, art history, and literature, and I continued my research while writing the novel. All in all, it took seven years.
Emily: Let’s get into some nitty-gritty: the sexuality and the sensuality that your works encompass. In your novels there is love, sensuality, sex, and even sexual brutality between both male and female partners and between female or same-sex partners. As a lesbian it’s easy for me to assume that homosexuality, like sex in general, has been a natural human behavior since the beginning of wom[men]. What drove you to incorporate the homosexual relationships of your characters? Do you believe that homosexuality was as prominent in the times of your novels as it is today?
Susann: I certainly do. Homosexuality, or perhaps I should say homoeroticism, has been with us since the days of primordial ooze. Though I suppose the earliest organisms were asexual … In the 1990s, the idea that sexuality and even gender exist in broad spectrums became a battle cry. It outraged some people and empowered others. But I think we’re coming closer to an understanding that we can’t limit concepts of sexuality to one neat little packet that we can tie up with a bow. It’s complex. Even friendship, close friendship, has an erotic tinge. You get swept away by a new friend, someone who understands and laughs at your jokes, is sympathetic to your problems, shares your taste in paintings and clothes and food—it’s another erotic engagement, though we label it as something else.
Homosexuality is abundant in the animal kingdom. Two of my cats are lesbians, for example. They were wee kittens from different abandoned families, and they fell in love and had a passionate relationship until, yes, the baby came along—another abandoned kitten who need a mom. The two older ones still mother her now. It’s sweet. At the cost of being labeled a crazy cat lady, I’ll say it gladdens my heart to see them all taking care of each other.
There are a number of reasons why civilizations have tried to quash homoeroticism. Anyone who tells you homoeroticism is bad because the Bible says so is plain wrong. Looked at objectively, a society struggling to survive depends on procreation, producing more and more members to keep the species, race, or culture alive. And now that technology has evolved, life expectancy has increased, and humans have overrun the planet and essentially destroyed it, we don’t have that imperative to procreate, which I think may be one reason our culture is starting to acknowledge same-sex marriages. We don’t need to make more people; we need to make fewer. Animal populations tend to surge and dwindle according to the resources available.
And we get back to that intention to write stories that would have been silenced at the time. There’s plenty of sex in old novels, if you know how to read the codes right, but now we can be open and up-front about it.
A couple fun facts to conclude: 1. I have a copy of a medieval handbook for monks called “Peccatum Mutum.” The Silent Sin. It categorizes various sexual crimes, from impure thoughts to masturbation to visiting a prostitute to having sex with another monk. The punishments recommended for each transgression are, of course, harsh. But the mere fact that this little book exists shows the range of sexual activity—everything the Church was trying to put down.
Emily: All of your novels revolve around pretty horrific situations that test the very lives of your characters, including disease, famine, abuse and so much more. I know, as a reader, I become so attached to characters that the physical and emotional pain that they endure is palatable to me personally. Does this happen to you as a writer while building bonds with your characters, watching them grow and having to endure their turmoil as it escapes onto the page from your mind?
Susann: Gads, yes!! One time I was very depressed for a week and couldn’t figure out what was bothering me (we don’t always have a tidy answer, but I think we always look for the one thing to fix). And then I realized that I’d let a character get raped—I hadn’t protected her from it because, of course, fiction is made up of bad situations that either grind a person down or give her/him a chance to rewrite the world. I feel awful every time I make something bad happen to a character. In The Kingdom of Little Wounds, I was utterly horrible to the character Midi Sorte, who lives in a harem while she’s a child and then gets captured and sold into slavery, where she’s raped. But I kind of had to go there. I feel a lot of compassion for her, but there are times I can’t read my own writing because it comes from such a frightening place. I try to give the characters some kind of justice and comfort in the end without seeming to paste on a sequined smiley-face. Truth is painful, and sometimes that kind of pain works best in fiction.
Incidentally, in my first drafts of novels I tend to go too gently. I have to force myself to create more obstacles and risks and consequences. Sometimes, if I’m having trouble finding my way, I tape a word like “FEVER” onto my computer. It reminds me that something really needs to happen and the characters really need to feel bad about it. And evil—I have to remind myself of the presence of evil, which is all around us in real life but somewhat hidden when we talk to ourselves. We have to define our dragons and fight them.
Emily: It’s so hard but so easy as a fan to ask for more! Hard because how could you possibly create something more spectacular than you have already created? And it’s so easy because the desire to fall in love with new characters and intertwine my mind into their lives and journey is so great. Do you have something else in the works? Any sneak peeks or hints??
Susann: For you, Emily, I would answer questions all day long. I so appreciate all the thought and feeling you’ve put into the reading.
I’m working on two new novels now. One is a magic-realist story set in the Middle Ages, about a mermaid who learns magic so she can go after her first love, who is a landish person, and possibly find her mother, who is also landish. Note: This is NOT a ripoff of “The Little Mermaid,” though that story is very important to me, as are several of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. He does creeping evil very well; his books were not meant for children.
And my other novel is a ghost story I’m calling Influence for now. It begins in 1917 with twin sisters and a man who falls in love with the “artistic” one. The “ordinary” sister, Flora, falls in love with him at the same time as her sister does, and when the artsy sister dies, Flora marries him. She loves both Jack and Mavis, and she has some sort of “heat” that ghosts like—in short, she feels Mavis haunting them and wanting revenge. One of the settings is the first house I bought in Richmond, a Queen Anne on the famous (in the South, at least) Monument Avenue (I have since moved south of the river, into an old farmhouse with some woods that will be a setting for a future homage to girl detectives). And the story has been influenced by a couple other parts of my life: one, my Great-Aunt Nelly, who was the official spirit medium for her fishing village, Gilleleje, Denmark. Nelly sank deeper and deeper into trances until one day she just stayed on the other side. My grandmother, of course, would wave that story aside and say Nelly was just epileptic, but I like the psychic version. And in 2012 I had a couple of concussions that have distorted my brain for life. That first year was awful and I fortunately don’t remember very much of it—I became dyslexic, couldn’t find words, slurred my speech, got chronic migraines that last till this day (I have about 27 migraine days a month, about ten of them super-intense such that I can’t think or read at all). Because I couldn’t sleep, I drafted Influence in about eight months—eight dyslexic months, so going back to revise is a challenging act of code breaking.
I keep praying for my brain to recover so that I can do more of the things that really matter to me. And I’ve also wished evil to befall the neighbor who so mistreated his dog that the animal turned vicious and attacked me. I fell and hit my head on a concrete step and the rest, as they say, is history. Virginia has terrible liability laws and I wasn’t able to get anything to cover medical bills or lost income … and oddly enough, all my life I’d been afraid of hitting my head on stuff like the bottom of a pool. And it turns out I was right to fear it. It’s been intellectually interesting to track the differences in me since then (for example, I used to love chocolate but now think it’s kind of gross). But I really, really want to get back to working at full capacity, especially since I’ve had such a nice boost with The Kingdom of Little Wounds recently.
Emily: To some, women are living in a “man’s world.” Female authors take on pen names or hide their gender due to female discrimination in the literary world, but you have not. Have you ever experienced any gender discrimination? Do you have any words of wisdom to young women writers??
Susann: Yes, it’s strange that women over the age of thirty make up the largest readership in the U.S.—and yet books by men are the ones most often reviewed, winning prizes, etc. I think there’s a historic mistrust of female intellect and art—that old supposed truism that women do crafts and men do art. It’s just not true. There’s also some belief that men write “serious” and “intellectual” books while women write cozy little puffs of romance, shopping, crying, and so on. Stupid, really. I’ve loved books by both genders, by various races and ethnicities.
I don’t even want to start listing the female authors I love because then I’ll seem to be defending the idea that women’s literature is something separate from men’s. Okay, wait. Jane Austen and Jeanette Winterson have been my longtime loves, and I read everything by Sarah Waters as soon as it comes out; the same with Cathleen Schine and Gigi Amateau. In class right now I’m teaching Little Town on the Prairie, to talk about women in pioneering days and how certain literary books for young readers train those readers to hold a few values dear. I could go on and on. And I suppose someone might want to make something of the fact that some of the writers I’ve listed are lesbians, but I doubt that has much to do with why I love their work—unless perhaps the struggle to negotiate a difficult childhood or youth in which persons around them threw up obstacle after obstacle, ending in the writer experimenting with and honing her ability to use language—perhaps that fight made them stronger artists. But I have no idea if that’s true. I just know novels have always been a refuge for me, and also a challenge. They offer a multiplicity of worlds within the words, a place to learn about being human, to have friends I wouldn’t have in real life. Real life is infinitely unsatisfying; a good novel is a peek into infinity.
Emily: Susann, again, thank you so much for your time. I have had butterflies since the moment I first contacted you! I will forever be a fan and cannot wait to see what you create in the future. Thank you!
Susann: Thank you, Emily! You’re the reader everyone dreams of having. And I like butterflies; in my second novel, Famke names herself after a butterfly. May you always have that butterfly feeling in the best of ways.
You can learn more about Susann Cokal at her personal website:
Read the NY Times review of Susann’s latest novel Kingdom of Little Wounds at:
And don’t forget to check out all of her novels at amazon.com.