Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Susann Cokal

Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and sometime professor of creative writing and modern literature. She lives in a creepy old farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, with seven cats, a big dog, a spouse, and some peacocks that supposedly belong to a neighbor.

Cokal's first young adult novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, received several national awards, including a silver medal from the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award series. Her books for adults, Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, received some nice notice too.

Cokal's new novel is Mermaid Moon.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I suppose the question could be generally philosophical: How much work should the title do? I always agonize over titles. For a long time, I called this book The Half-Made Moon, which I thought was a lovely title that pointed to a real moment of change—a half moon can wax or wane, and when it is half-made it is full of potential. The action takes place over four days when the moon over the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands cuts that half-slice in the sky.

But then I thought, This is a novel about a mermaid; shouldn’t there be some indication of that? You know, for people actively looking for books about mermaids (or trying to avoid books about mermaids, I suppose). So I decided that a half-made moon really looks like the flukes of a mermaid’s tail, and the people who are around for the action during a half-moon might name that shape after the person who brought about the events that make that time memorable. And there’s a nice alliteration, which I like.

So I hope the title brings readers in!

What's in a name?

Character names are always to some degree allegorical, or at least rich in meaning for the author. Jane Austen used to fiddle with names a lot; for her the difference between a Jane (a name she used a few times in fiction) and an Anne was enormous, though that difference might not register for us much now.

As Sanna, the principal narrator, explains, mermaids are named after sounds, and her name comes from the hiss of water withdrawing from sand. I made that name up because it sounded happy to me; I love the beach and spent many meditative hours there when I was lucky enough to live in California. Only much later did it occur to me that “Sanna” looks a lot like “Susann”—and in Scandinavia, the two names are pretty much alternates (both of them mean “lily”). So I suppose that in a way I did sign that protagonist pretty heavily.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenaged self always intended to write historical novels for teenagers. When I was thirteen and we had an assignment to imagine our work lives fifteen years in the future, I wrote an TV interview in which I talked about my PhD and my books. (O the hubris! The hope!)

What would surprise the teenaged Cokal is that I wrote this one about mermaids. My mother collected them, being Danish and middle-named after a folkloric mermaid, so for many years I sort of turned up my nose at them as being Mum’s Creatures. It was my version of teen rebellion; in most other ways, I was a low-maintenance kid. Now, of course, I see in mermaids what she did—that ambiguous, amphibious nature, the mystery, the magic.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I left this question for last—because it’s hard even to write about beginnings and endings, much less actually to write each one of those parts for itself (if you can follow my convoluted sentence). I usually think I have an amazing first line from the start, and sometimes, a few years into the process, I have to crowbar that amazing line off in order to get the opening to what it should be.

I never have the right ending in mind. I always have something imagined for the ending when I start to write, but it always changes. And when the right one comes along, after years of preparation and months of fevered prayer that somehow the conclusion will strike, it’s thrilling and uncanny and just plain weird. I figured out what should happen at the end of Mermaid Moon about six months before I knew how to make it happen, and then the key line to trigger the resolution didn’t occur till one day before I turned in the final, revised manuscript. That was a gift from the writing gods.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I don’t believe people who say they don’t see themselves in their characters. I think you have to, to establish the sort of empathy you need in order to write them believably.

Or maybe that means I’m a narcissist who has to see herself reflected everywhere?

Well, I feel deeply along with each one of them, even the villains and ninnies. Because I am those things at times too. And I love each one of them in some way—perhaps especially the villains—because relationships with my characters have to last all my life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In some way, every little experience or object is an influence, though it might not seem so when you first see it. There’s always family, to start with—the bonds that are there or that one wishes were there. I think that comes out a lot in Mermaid Moon, which is a quest for a mother, a clan, and an identity.

I always decorate rooms with images and objets d’art that inspire and bolster what I’m working on. For this one, I have a Persian carpet that used to belong to my mother, now hung on the wall; framed copies of Jiri Trnka’s illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen, a book I’ve had since childhood; a dozen or so tiny mermaids (not Little Mermaids; they’re different) by Royal Copenhagen China; a dead mermaid an artist made for me using my hair; heaps of shells from my excursions to various beaches over many decades … heaps of history, really.

I like to create the right soundscape too. I have a wave machine going constantly (good for tricking my post-concussive tinnitus), and when I need to be lifted out of myself, I play medieval songs written by Hildegard von Bingen and performed by Anonymous 4 or Sequentia. Those recordings have got me through dissertations and novels and grim, sleepless times, and they are most helpful for writing novels, which have to come both from deep within and from some ethereal place to which I rarely get access.

So everything becomes an inspiration at the right time. And sometimes the right time is in a memory.
Visit Susann Cokal's website.

The Page 69 Test: Mermaid Moon.

My Book, The Movie: Mermaid Moon.

Writers Read: Susann Cokal (March 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue