Q&A between Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo, and Eleanor Brown, bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
What inspired The Stockholm Octavo?
Some years ago, I had an opportunity to devote some extra time to writing and was drawn to the subject of folding fans. Once considered indispensible, fans were nearly forgotten, but my mother had collected them, and their beauty, craftsmanship, and fragility fascinated me. Doing research, I read a great deal about the 18th century (when fans were a must for any fine lady.) While both these topics suggested France, I had lived nearly 9 years in Sweden and decided to look there for inspiration instead. Swedish friends supplied me with books, which I read (very slowly) with growing fascination; this was dramatic material that English language readers knew very little about, especially the Gustavian age. At some point during this germination period, a friend gave me an old German pamphlet, “Bilder Zaubereien” (The Magic Picture Book.) The magic lay in the books construction: eight sections of eight pages each that only revealed themselves when the pages were flipped in a specific way. The fluttering of pages was reminiscent of a fan and the fact that I have always loved the number eight inspired me to construct a story that was the literary and physical equivalent of this clever pamphlet. Putting form over content is no way to write a book; I failed miserably and put the project aside, but my interest in fans, the number eight, and late 18th c. Sweden held fast. Eventually I entered an MFA program with the intention of using the material in eight short stories connected by a folding fan. In fact, the project began with eight character sketches, but it soon became clear that my characters needed more pages and grew into a novel set in 1790 Stockholm. The means of connecting the eight became the Octavo. And the fan? Well, what's an assassination without an interesting weapon?
There's such an impressive amount of detail in the story, on topics as diverse as cartomancy, herbalism, secret codes, and Swedish history. What about these subjects caught your attention?
The last item on your list holds the key to all the others. Once I opened the treasure chest of 18th century history, I couldn't help but find all manner of weird and wonderful topics that fascinated me and defined the age. Card play was a primary source of entertainment throughout Europe. In 1770, Ettiella wrote one of the first books on cartomancy using a piquet deck, and in 1781 the Italian tarocchi deck became a means of divination as the Tarot. The healing arts were based in plant remedies, but apothecaries sold ground Egyptian mummies as a curative powder. Women used the movements of their folding fans as a secret language. Kings employed astrologers and magicians to decipher the signs and alchemists to fill their bankrupt treasuries. All of this seemed utterly foreign at first, but gradually I connected to the needs these 18th century people felt: the desire to know the future, to heal (or harm) with medicines, have wealth and security, create art, find love, connect to others, have a life with meaning. Not so different, really. These historical details lured me into the world of 18th century Sweden, and the motivations behind them let my characters inhabit it fully.
I've never been to Sweden, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know Stockholm is a city made up of islands until I read your book! Where does your interest in Sweden and its history come from?
My connection to Sweden began (as do many of these international adventures) with love. I will spare you the sappy details, but I maneuvered my way to Stockholm via a sketchy study abroad plan in order to be with the man I eventually married. The study plan was a complete bust, but we moved to Malmö and lived there for nearly 9 years. I absorbed a great deal of Swedish culture during that time, but my interest in history came only after returning to the U.S. Perhaps it was a way of examining where I had been and an attempt to understand the roots of that environment so elegant and austere at the same time. Once I latched onto folding fans and the late 18th century, the Gustavian age was waiting to be explored; it is a period much written about that still holds great fascination for Swedes and was a pivotal time in their history. Delving in was sheer delight, and I hoped to bring some of that history (albeit in a fictional and even fantastical fashion) to readers.
Your characters are so vivid and memorable mysterious Mrs. Sparrow, the elegant and dangerous Uzanne, sweet but clever Johanna, and the narrator, Emil, who is both sympathetically hapless and astonishingly brave. What inspires your characters?
My characters are made from this recipe: consider the many fascinating people you have encountered in your life from artists to xenophobes. They are all the raw ingredients and inspiration needed to begin. But art can imitate life only to a certain point: fiction demands more. Combine experience, education, observation with imagination and a generous sprinkle of lies, then make a claim that there is no resemblance to any person living or dead. Work hard to understand where your characters come from and where they want to go, literally and figuratively, so they have substance and genuine flavor. Then spice them up to serve the story. If additional color is needed, life often supplies it. For example, during a time I was trying to understand Mrs. Sparrow, I was in a cab when the driver announced (unsolicited) that she had the Sight, told me how it came to her, what it felt like, and what she saw. Throw that into the mix. Once you have everyone in place, stew for several years. Adjust seasonings. Cut the fat. Love your creations deeply. Serve in the most beautiful way possible.
One of the things I love about The Stockholm Octavo is that I honestly have never read anything quite like it I could compare it to everything from Dangerous Liaisons to The Da Vinci Code. What are some of the books and authors that inspire you?
So many books! So many authors! There are ideas, characters, techniques and styles in nearly everything I read that I want to steal (like your wonderful symbiotic first person plural in The Weird Sisters.) But to narrow it down, books that allow a heightened or expanded version of reality have always been inspiring to me. Attending Catholic school meant reading the Bible, the lives of the saints and other religious texts. I confess to reading a lot of comic books while growing up and still like graphic novels. The Brothers Grimm (the gory, scary versions) were an early influence and a good lesson in how to write a page-turner. I was enchanted with the meeting of gods and mortals in Greek mythology as a child, and thrill to modern interpretations like the play Metamorphosis by Mary Zimmerman and the novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. A few books that directly inspired The Stockholm Octavo would have to be Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. These novels all presented complete and complicated worlds (and in the first two examples, historically grounded.) The characters were compelling and the stories riveting. But the writers didn't hesitate to introduce ghosts, golems, or a parallel universe or two, allowing the unknowable to co-exist with the commonplace. I wanted my novel to express the notion that history is, to a certain extent, a mystery, and I took courage from these authors and their wonderful work.
The title of the book comes from Emil's search for his “octavo”, eight people around him who influence the events of the story. Do we all have an octavo? Who would be in yours?
By the time I finished writing The Stockholm Octavo, Mrs. Sparrow had me convinced that the Octavo was as fine a theory as any to explain the complex web of connections that direct the course of a life. Sparrow believed most people have at least one Octavo and suggested that we might have multiples. If you stop to consider, I think you could identify at least one Octavo of your own. I listed one of mine in the acknowledgements the eight people that surrounded the writing and publication of this novel. The Octavo is a theory easily examined in retrospect. The challenge is having a skilled Seer correctly interpret the cards in advance and guide the Seeker to the most beneficial outcome!