March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Debut: SLJ Chats with Susann Cokal About ‘The Kingdom of Little Wounds’

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Author Susann Cokal describes herself as “a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and professor of creative writing and modern literature.” She can now add young adult author to that list with the October release of The Kingdom of Little Wounds (Candlewick, 2013), a complicated, intense, and provocative story for mature teen readers set in late-16th century Skyggehavn, Scandinavia. Susann CokalIn this debut YA, for every bit of opulence there are two measures of squalor; for each triumph, there are multiple tragedies.

The two central characters are Ava Bingen, a royal seamstress and daughter of an inventor, and Midi Sorte, a mute nursemaid whose foreign origin is unknown. A new star appears in the sky, and the country takes this as a sign—but of what? Action occurs in and outside of the palace walls, giving readers a great sense of place and history. The Kingdom of Little Wounds, told from multiple perspectives, is ultimately a story of survival.

Sometimes I felt like I needed a scorecard to keep track of the King and Queen’s connections, and their relationships with the court and other countries. Royal families sure are messy, aren’t they?

Yes, they’re messy—tangled—and especially so back then, when it was a tight tangle: the same families married into each other, though they ran different countries and duchies, so it wasn’t always easy to say who was related to whom and where the alliances lay. There was so much in-marrying that when a man (always a man) wanted a divorce, he could usually prove that a marriage was null by reasons of consanguinity—blood relations. So you were supposed to marry someone from a select group, and then you had to please that person so your marriage wasn’t declared an incestuous sin.  Alliances were shifting more often than on an average episode of Survivor; [and] anyone in favor for the merest moment was suddenly besieged by other courtiers hoping to get a leg up on the ladder. I imagine it all as the kind of clog you find in a U-joint under your sink—all tangled up, tightly wound, everything touching each other, and slimy.

While 12-year-old Princess Sophia is preparing to receive her new husband (and secure peace between Scandinavia and Ӧstergӧtland), who is likely three times her age, she considers her parents’ marriage, “the marvel of Europe,” and how “her father doesn’t even have a single bastard”. Was it common for royalty in the Renaissance period to lead duplicitous lives?

It was common and even expected for kings to have mistresses. Those who didn’t dally with other ladies and servants (and I can’t think of a single example of such a man) would have been considered “off” in some way, which of course King Christian is. Women also had illicit sexual liaisons outside of marriage, but those were officially forbidden, unless a woman and her husband had an “understanding” about not being faithful. Anne Boleyn, for example, was accused of all kinds of transgressions before Henry VIII had her decapitated—affairs with numerous men, including her brother, as well as of witchcraft, which was a catch-all way of describing any kind of transgressive behavior on a woman’s part.

Royal bastards could come in handy as supportive statesmen or as girls of royal blood who might be married off to someone with whom the family needed an alliance. Mary, Queen of Scots, had a bastard brother who was greatly loved by their father, James V, and who fought on Mary’s behalf… for a time, until that nasty tangle of alliances made it clear Mary was going to lose her throne.

The entrenchment of syphilis creates an atmosphere of fear and weariness, both in the city and in the palace. A dizzying variety of cures are offered to the sick, including some concoctions developed by Queen Isabel for her own children. Can you share a bit of your back matter in the book with SLJTeen readers on how this disease became a central feature in The Kingdom of Little Wounds?

I like your choice of words:  “the entrenchment of syphilis.” It was a mysterious disease and a terrifying one, and there were many theories about how it came to Europe—its first appearance was in approximately 1494.  My interest in syphilis for the novel started as part of what would have been the daily historical background (we’ve always feared STDs), but it came to mean much more to me—that inexplicable evil that can lurk anywhere, that comes from trusting too much or from venturing into new places. It’s fear embodied. Here’s what I wrote about syphilis in the historical note:

It was known as “the French disease” or “the Italian disease” until 1530, when Italian poet-physician Girolamo Fracastoro wrote an epic poem about a shepherd named Syphilus, who defies Apollo by worshiping the lord his land rather than the god himself, and who suffers the uncomfortable consequences.

There are two camps when it comes to determining the disease’s origin. One side says it came back from the New World with Columbus; this is the theory that my Doctor Krolik espouses and the reason he uses sap from an American tree in his attempt at a cure. The other side (less interesting) says it already existed in Europe, but wasn’t really noticed until the French invaded Naples that year and came down with the nasties. I’ve recently heard yet another hypothesis: It was a relatively harmless disease among South American llamas, whose lonely herders used them as convenient sexual outlets. The herders passed it on to their women, and the women passed it to European explorers.

The remedies that physicians tried then, notably including mercury, were usually poisonous and brought their own set of deadly symptoms. (Good news, though—syphilis is now easily cured with penicillin.)  Famous sufferers include Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), who caught it from her husband; Denmark’s mad King Christian VII; and Adolf Hitler. There really was a doctor in the early centuries who decided to prove syphilis was not a venereal disease by experimenting on his own penis. Of course, he proved himself wrong instead and died an unpleasant death.

Women and children are treated like chattel by their own families in Skyggehavn. One baby is traded for another, one prince disappears and another takes it place, one countess is substituted for another. Was there really this little value placed on human life in 1572 AD?

The Kingdom of Little WoundsThis is a great question. I’m not sure if the answer is that people valued human life too little—I think it’s more that when they saw an opportunity to survive, they took it. The countess substitution, for example, requires a big stretch of the imagination, and it’s meant really to fool just one person: mad Queen Isabel, who at the moment has some power and misses the countess who used to be her best friend (or so she thought). So the Machiavellian court supplies her with a most unlikely substitute, and to keep up the illusion they have to treat the new countess as they would have treated the old one. It’s part of that messy tangle of alliances; it’s also part of a social contract, whereby people occupy the positions they do only because most of us agree to let them. On a deeper, more emotional level, we see what we want to see in other people unless circumstances force us to do otherwise—I think that’s one reason why fairy tales about changelings have always been so popular (and why they turn up in The Kingdom from time to time). We want to believe we can be with the person who truly meets our primal needs. That’s one of the ways we convince ourselves to keep on living.

The relationship between Ava and Midi is both contentious and collaborative. Eventually the reader realizes that these two women are just as capable of cruelty as the men that attempt to control them. Each has a softer side, though, which they have walled-off in order to survive. 

I’m not sure the girls are born with such cruelty inside themselves; I think they develop it as a response to what happens to them. Ava is the victim of a vicious rumor and is abandoned by her lover; Midi is captured from a land the name of which she doesn’t even know and then forced into sexual slavery. The easy thing to say is that life is rough and only those who adapt can survive. I feel that about my job at a university often enough.

Most of us protect some secret, vulnerable, squishy part of ourselves behind a shell of professionalism, popularity, Mean Girl-ishness—whatever it takes to keep that tender part safe. And it doesn’t always work. Ava and Midi are pretty horrible to each other at times, partly because they fear each other before they realize that only by working together can they prevail against the people who are keeping both of them down. When they do work together, they devise a scheme that protects some people and brings others very low. Some readers have told me that’s their favorite moment in the novel. But I hope that afterward, their vulnerable inner selves manage to emerge and feel safe. I’d like to think life can be like that.

Count Nicholas’s method of saving for a rainy day brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “family jewels.” Was this common practice in the Renaissance period?

Yes, he uses his man-parts as a purse, “in case he has to ransom a king, for example.”  It’s always good to carry some wealth with you, even stitched under the skin of your own genitals (something I don’t actually recommend, even with today’s improved medical hygiene). One of his other explanations is that the jewels inside—rubies, turquoise, diamonds, pearls—protect against various diseases, including syphilis, which they probably don’t. But back then, people did believe that gemstones had magical and medical properties that would cure disease and heartache, and if you were fleeing from an invading army, you’d be likely to swallow your valuables and hope they took a while to work their way out so they might be of use to you when you reached a safe place. Nicolas takes that strategy a step further; at any time, he could make a little cut and get himself a good handful of gold in return.

People today do ornament their genitals that way. Japanese yakuza, or gangsters, have a pearl sewn into their penises each time they kill someone. They believe the bumps not only make them look manlier but give extra pleasure to their female partners as well. And the practice is spreading to other cultures, including Americans who enjoy body modification—it’s another form of a tattoo or a piercing.

Ava’s father is part-scientist, part-optometrist, and is persecuted because of his rudimentary telescopes—I found it to be a fascinating contradiction that while some parts of Skyggehavn society wanted to see things more clearly, others wanted to blur and obscure reality.

Perspective glasses—glass objects that would change your perspective on heavens and earth—have been around as long as we’ve had historical records. Ancient Greeks and Romans used to gaze through one or two glass spheres full of water to make the stars and moon seem closer (obviously, something you wouldn’t want to do with the sun; you’d magnify its rays and blind yourself). The night sky was one of the ultimate mysteries, laid out in a deliberate yet irregular pattern, so it had to hold some meaning. Remember, this was at a time when people believed God had created the universe for the use of humankind, so every element in the place held some meaning for people.

Everything changed one night in November 1572 (the exact night is in question)—suddenly a supernova, brighter even than the sun, appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia, and everyone who could see that dizzying bright light felt it must mean something special. The heavens had looked the same since the star maps of the ancient Greeks; what could this change signify? Especially when reflected in the muck of the witch’s hollow in the Skyggehavn palace courtyard, a sort of sinkhole that couldn’t be fixed and that to most people meant sin, a wound waiting to be healed, a place people might toss their dirtiest secrets or most valuable jewels and hope the truth about themselves might never be discovered.

There were as many theories about the star’s meaning as there were people trying to find it. Ava’s father, Klaus, is a lens-grinder by trade—meaning he grinds circles of glass that people try on in his shop, trying to find a combination that helps them to see better in their daily lives (we call these “our glasses” now); it’s natural that once he masters earthly vision, he should turn to the heavens.  He’s fascinated by the science of it—taking out the water, putting two lenses together and watching the moon and stars grow closer and clearer—and it was in fact early lens-grinders who made prototypical telescopes well before Galileo produced his famous one in the early 1600s.

Some of us are looking for Truth; some are looking to hide it. Most of us are doing both. It’s the way we survive; we take the truths we can accept, seek out deeper ones, trick ourselves into believing what we need to in order to make it through a rough patch or even a regular day. Oscar Wilde once wrote (and the band The Pretenders quoted), “We are all of us in the gutter; some of us are looking at the stars.” What are the rest of us looking at? Probably much the same thing—it’s all in how we interpret what we see.

Any final comments for readers/librarians?

Thanks so much for reading this interview!  Especially if you’ve made it all the way through!  The Kingdom of Little Wounds is one of Those Books for me; it contains everything I know and feel and suspect, from broken fairy tales to hopefulness to scheming to dashed dreams. I’ve been thinking about it for about fifteen years now, maybe longer, and it took me eight years to write—in about nine drafts. I’m bogging myself down in the math now, but I want to say how important the story is to me, and how lucky I was to find it such a good home with Liz Bicknell at Candlewick, and that even if I am lying in the gutter (as I surely am), this experience has given me a glimpse of a star that brings a little hope in the midst of all the wicked muck. Thanks for reading!

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  1. Kara Ashanti says:

    This is such a great interview – I’m so happy I found it. Big, big fan of Kingdom here.