Susann Cokal Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susann Cokal
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Susann Cokal

An interview with Susann Cokal

What inspired you to write Mirabilis?
Inspiration is a sticky subjectI can't say exactly where Mirabilis came from, or at least how the different elements managed to congeal into a story for me. Most of the characters and events lived in my mind for years before I figured out how they fit together. For example, I've always thought wet nurses fascinating because they use their bodies to make both food and an honorable livingI just needed to find a story to fit such a remarkable profession.

A lot of ideas came from the long-ago year I lived in Poitiers, France, which was an important city during the Middle Ages. I didn't have money to travel, so I got to know the town and outlying villages very wellmostly on foot, which is the way my characters would have had to get around, too. I became more and more interested in how common people (not fairy-tale princesses) conducted their lives in medieval times; I wanted to imagine what they would be like in love, for example. One of the tidbits that really fascinated me was that a sculptor had put his name on a capital in nearby Chauvigny, at a time when almost no one signed an artistic work. I kept wondering what would suddenly make someone decide that his name (rather than God's) had to be on a piece. The signature is "Gofridus mefecit" (Gofridus made me), and it gave my struggling church sculptor his name. In Poitiers itself there was a small church that was open only one day a yearSaint Radegonde, named after "the most perfect woman of her time." When I finally got to go inside, it was beautiful and very moving, and I found out all I could about the actual Radegondea sixth-century queen of Soissons who left her husband and started an abbey.

Most of all, I think I was inspired by the feeling of being an outsider, like Bonne. Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but I was one of those wildly unpopular adolescents, and I've always carried that feeling of pariah-hood inside me. Living in a foreign country brought back the feeling; even though I'd studied French for eight years, I couldn't speak it like a native, and I always felt different as I walked through the streets. (I get the same feeling when I visit my family, almost all of whom are Danish and live in Denmark.) In the beginning, Bonne is an outcastthrough no fault of her ownand she's trying to find some toehold in the town's very narrow society.

What research did you do to prepare for writing this novel?
When I first began to figure out the story, I took another trip to France and visited as many medieval towns as I could. Naturally, this was my favorite part of the researchwandering around the narrow streets, looking at the way the houses were put together, imagining people gathered at the city well or the marketplace. On that trip, I also got to eat some wonderful food, which wasn't quite the case when I researched medieval cuisine. A lot of medieval food was very nasty, and the fancier dishes seem to be almost invariably flavored with parsnips and celery, which I dislike. Still, I cooked and ate a number of dishes (a good place to go for recipes is Madeleine Pelner Cosman's book Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, which I've had since high school). Apart from travel, and in addition to the courses on medieval art and history I'd taken in Poitiers, I read bookshelves full of social history, religion, saints' lives, and art theoryI read for a year before I even began the first chapter, and I kept reading all the way through the writing process. Toward the end, I also sneaked away to a medieval house in Tuscany, where the kind owner let me imagine I was one of the original inhabitants.

There are times you seem to play with the reader, tossing in literary allusions, for instance. Do you write for different kinds of readers, or do you even imagine your audience(s) when you write?
I think I wrote Mirabilis primarily for an audience of one: myself. I wrote a book that I would like to read, and because I enjoy literary allusions and little winks at historical events and art objects, I put some of those in there. As I revised with the idea that this novel would actually be published, I did think about the different kinds of people who would be likely to see it and possibly pick it up in a bookstore or a library. Of course I hoped (fervently) that a good number of them would like it enough to bring it home. But I didn't prepare the book for any specific audience; I think I have to trust Bonne to find the right people.

What are you working on now?
I've left the fourteenth century for a little while and have moved into 1885 America for a novel I'm tentatively calling The Glass House Beast. It's about a tubercular model looking for a lost love in the West; on her quest she is kidnapped by a band of adolescent anarchists riding in a stolen train, and she inspires their scheme to destroy a mansion made of glass ... I also have in mind a story set in the Renaissance, in a Nordic kingdom where the babies are ailing.

What is it about history or historical events that captures your imagination?
I don't want to sound disingenuous, but I like the stories in history, and I like the feeling of getting lost in a different time, a different mindset. I wrote Mirabilis the way I did partly because medieval people were willing to believe in a way that most of us will not. For example, they had faith not only in miracles but also in monsters, and in a different system of medicinenot necessarily incorrect beliefs, just different ideas with different demonstrations of proof. Lately I've been having a great time reading about strange businesses and crimes and ordinary daily life in the Old West. While I'm playing with the history, I wallow in a different world and become somebody else.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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