An interview with Susann Cokal, author of 'The Kingdom of Little Wounds'

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Susann Cokal’s first foray into young adult literature is getting rave reviews.

Cokal, who is an associate professor in the Department of English, part of the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, is the author of “The Kingdom of Little Wounds,” a novel set in the Scandinavian Renaissance that was published by Candlewick Press in October. The book has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal. “The Kingdom” also earned an ALAN citation from the National Council of Teachers of English, and Publishers Weekly named it one of the best books of 2013 for teens.

“The Kingdom” is a tale of palace intrigue set on the eve of a royal wedding in the fictional kingdom of Skyggehavn in Scandinavia in 1572. The plot turns on the dark schemes of a cruel, power-hungry courtier and the dangers of a mysterious illness that has afflicted the royal family. A royal seamstress and a mute slave are pulled into court politics and must fight to save themselves and the royal family’s young princesses. The novel explores a time and place when adolescent brides and the institutionalized abuse of women were commonplace.

Reviews have praised Cokal’s “lyrical writing, enthralling characters and compelling plot” (Booklist). They also have noted the grimness of the subject matter and the graphic descriptions that can make for an occasionally upsetting – but enduring – reading experience. Candlewick is publishing the book as a young adult novel recommended for older teens and adults. “The Kingdom” is Cokal’s third novel.  

Cokal recently answered questions for VCU News about the book.

What inspired you to write a story set in a fictional kingdom in 16th century Scandinavia? Was the creation of this world – one based on a real time and place but with your own imprint – part of the pleasure in writing this novel?

Inspiration ... that's a nebulous, slippery, thorny question (and it invites mixed metaphor) – because I'm never quite sure where I get it.

Usually I start with a mood I want to evoke, and usually that mood is loneliness; but I think my books and stories express isolation in different ways. With “The Kingdom,” I woke up one morning (or at least
I imagine I woke up this way) with a line in my head: "All the children in the royal nursery were sick." That situation would have been very dangerous for the kingdom, as without a clear heir to the
throne, relatives and courtiers would have been fighting for power, as relatives and courtiers tend to do. So that was one germ of the story.

I chose Scandinavia because my family is Danish, and I usually go to Denmark every year (though I don't have much family anymore, an aunt and uncle and my cousins and their families). I love it there. I love watery places, canals, the nearness of the sea, the soaring spires of the gorgeous castles ... My aunt Gunver and I like to take historical jaunts and look at odd corners of the country, and my uncle Ole is an expert on Vikings.

One bit of inspiration for the foundation story of the city of Skyggehavn is a ritual that Danes perform on Sankt Hans Aften (Midsummer) every year: They set the figure of a witch on a boat, push the boat onto the water and set it on fire. You can see the smoke up and down the coastline. That image remained with me from childhood – and I just saw the ritual again last summer – and as a kid I wondered where the witches would go afterward (of course, I never believed fire could kill a witch). So Skyggehavn is founded when witches cast out of Norway (which used to be Danish) float around in their little wooden boats until mermaids catch the rudders and guide them to the rocky soil where they start a city that grows rich from amber and whale oil.

What interests you about fairy tales, and how did your interest in them inform this book?

Hm ... My interest is in the potential for disaster (a very Scandinavian viewpoint). Most of the fairy tales we know these days have happy endings, thanks to a movement that began in the 19th century that positioned fairy tales for children only and wanted to protect young ears from ugly truths. But the violence and sexuality are still buried in symbols in the happy-ending stories — Sleeping Beauty traumatized by the first sight of her own (menstrual) blood, for example. And fairy tales used to end more raggedly. Some old versions of Sleeping's story carry on after the wedding and into problems with the mother-in-law, who eats her grandchildren to be mean.

I don't really believe in happy endings. And I don't think happy endings teach us as much about life as unhappy ones do, or compromise endings (you get part of what you want, and it's always tarnished). That's why I wrote the sort of flat stories that come in Ava's (the royal seamstress) voice in the novel; some of them are variants of, say, Bluebeard or Snow White, but they're about ugly or too-innocent girls who make mistakes and suffer. Or who become clever in a cruel way.  (Please don't think of me as cruel.)

The novel moves among different viewpoints, but the chief protagonists are a seamstress, a slave and a mad queen. Can you discuss the reason these characters and their place in the world became the focus of this story?

Mad Queen Isabel was always in the story; she fashions herself into a sort of Virgin Mary figure, caring for the sick children as she cares for the people of her country, who are in some way all her children.

Ava the seamstress came to me as I was walking over a bridge in Venice; I thought she'd be so excited to be working at a palace, among lords and ladies who'd live in the grand homes that still line the Venetian canals – she seemed like a good viewpoint character, someone to represent the reader. Of course, she has to have a dark secret for which she's suffering, and bad things happen to her at the palace before she can work her way to a happy (or compromised) ending.

Midi (the slave) shows another way of being a woman or girl in a heavily patriarchal society. She's dark, but she doesn't know exactly where she's from, only that she was once wealthy, then captured and used as a sexual plaything and passed from one horrible hand to another. She represents the slave who seems impossibly trapped in the unhappy ending, but she has a lot with which she can strategize. For one thing, she has a lover who has taught her to write, so even though she can't speak (one of her owners mutilated her tongue), she has that power of communication. She and Ava don't like each other at first, but they have to bond in order to survive – and work with Mad Queen Isabel – so one of the challenges is that Ava can speak but can't read, and Midi can read but can't speak: How are these three people going to make sense to each other?

Did you approach this novel as a work of young adult literature or did that evolve as the book did? What appealed to you about writing in this genre for the first time?

I confess I didn't write for a particular audience. I wrote a story I wanted to read now. When I was 12, I would have been horrified at what happens here; when I was 16, I would have sneaked around to read it. And I was surprised when a publisher of books for teens and children decided to take it and put it forward – for older teens, of course. Girls' bodies will always be battlegrounds, it seems, and
with last year's election (and this year's), the subject seemed timely. There's violence and rape among the luxuries of the court; the court depends on rape, in fact, to keep functioning. And I think that struck a chord with my editor, Liz Bicknell, who is associate publisher of  Candlewick; she says it felt like an important message to bring into the discussion, perhaps especially for teens. And I have always loved young adult books – I used to work in the field, for many years – so I was pretty thrilled that she saw “The Kingdom” as a potential YA.

The paperback, incidentally, is going to be marketed for both adults and teens, so may the sun never set on “The Kingdom!”

Early admiring reviews have referred to the book's difficult subject matter and "frank and upsetting depictions of rape, child marriage, miscarriage and syphilis." Can you explain what drives you to write about these difficult topics and the challenges they offered you as a writer for this book?

Yes, it is upsetting. And I have that darkness in me – probably comes from fear as much as my innate pessimism. I've always been fascinated by medical subjects and how disease changes the perception and experience of the body. Coincidentally, one semester my graduate fiction workshop wrote a lot of stories involving STDs, which made me think of how strange it must have been when this mysterious disease popped up in 1494 and then spread.

As I mentioned above, rape is a tool in all sorts of power games; there are rapes or threats of them in all my novels, come to think of it, as well as the fear of falling into a life of prostitution. Contemporary American women have more power over their bodies than ever before, but we stand a strong chance of losing it, which frightens me. And it is hard to write about such topics – I'll get depressed when something bad happens to a character – and yet, you know, life is not a happily-ever-after. We have to fight every day.

This is your third novel, following "Mirabilis" and "Breath and Bones." How do you think "The Kingdom of Little Wounds" fits into your body of work so far?

As I said in another interview, for me this is one of "Those Books" — one that contains everything I've been thinking and fearing and planning for years (the idea first occurred to me perhaps 15 years ago, in fact). Mirabilis was that kind of book too, my very first. It's sort of like a musician's first album – which contains the person's whole life – vs. the second album, which is more specific and themed, maybe experimental – and then comes the third album, another entire person.

I hope to have more of Those Books in me. This one matters especially because for the last two years I've been dealing with a serious head injury that knocked away a lot of my memory and made me occasionally dyslexic and aphasic. So when I got the book contract, doing the final revisions was like discovering something new – and I had to keep checking that I was doing so with the right words.

What are you planning next?

I've been working on a ghost story set in Richmond – set in the house that I just sold, in fact. It's on Monument Avenue when the last grand houses and statues were going up, just after the first World
War; a woman believes herself haunted by the ghost of her sister, who died in the influenza outbreak at the end of the war. I'm calling it "Novel with Occasional Concussions," since I wrote most of it after my head injuries and during the times of intense pain and hallucinations and sleeplessness – I'd pick up the laptop and type to try to distract myself from the pain. Some of it is pretty garbled, but I ended up using concussions as a trigger for spectral visits, so I guess the unpleasant parts of my personal fairy tale have yielded a compromise ending after all.


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