Sunday, October 27, 2013

Susann Cokal

Susann Cokal is a historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and professor of creative writing and modern literature. Her new magnum opus is The Kingdom of Little Wounds, set in the Scandinavian Renaissance; it received starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and an ALAN citation from the National Council of Teachers of English.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Cokal's reply:
Like many people with jittery minds, I always have a few books going at once. A novel for every mood, a book or two for classes, some history, some vintage magazines for research ... I may sound a bit ADHD, but I'm also OCD, so I have to finish them all at some point. Sometimes a book that was just fine in the first half (say, Keith Donohue's The Lost Child) really grabs me after a hiatus--I devoured that second half and am his devoted fan for life.

So. Right now. For my class on the Modern Novel, I'm reading Woolf's Between the Acts. It's my favorite of her novels--all that dreamy oscillation between memory and "current" life that is her signature, along with wonderful character sketches, patterns of imagery, and commentary on English history via a play-within-the-novel. It's her last book; she killed herself before she made the final fiddly edits, and I love it partly because I think of it as a pebble thrown into the great unknown.

Discussion with student the other day:
Student: "Professor, I have a question ... It's kind of embarrassing ... I'm almost done with this book and I love it, I mean I really love it, but..."
I: "You're wondering why."
She: "Yes!!"
I: "You're asking yourself, What's the point?"
She: "Yes! Yes!!"
I: "That is the point. And now we're going to talk about points..."

We had a great class meeting afterward.

For historical fun I'm reading The Devil in the White City, a history of the Chicago World's Fair of 1892-1893 and the man billed as America's first serial killer, who used to dismember innocent fairgoers in his elaborately labyrinthine hotel basement. Right now I'm looking at houses to accommodate a stepfamily, and some of the basements and root cellars of the older places bring that book to life--one former mansion (which also had a life as a rooming house) has a big room with a dirt floor and three old boilers: a sort of museum of boilers through the ages. It looks perfect for dismembering. Oddly enough, though, what's most fascinating to me in that book is the debates over landscape architecture and how the Midwest should be represented. Somebody needs to write a novel about Frederick Law Olmsted.

Since I'm working on novels set in the 1920s (at revision stage) and the 1890s (planning stage), I like to leaf through magazines from the eras. You find out so much about how people lived their lives and thought about themselves from, say, The Ladies' Home Journal. The ads are fascinating. Sometimes I buy the products on eBay; I like to hold the relics and channel the spirit of the woman who wore those fake curls from Sears or the man who had the erotic pin tray.

For fun, right now, one side of my bed is choked with a number of novels: After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell, a new favorite author who somehow makes oblique prose reveal shattering psychological truths. I just love her. And a YA called The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, which is a semi-magical twist on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie--what will a class full of girls do when their teacher disappears during a forbidden field trip? It's wonderfully sophisticated and pared down to essentials. Another YA, this one by Meg Medina, called Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass; I was picked on a lot in junior high, so this one is a natural (there are also some asses I'd like to kick, so the very title makes me feel empowered, though probably in a bad way). And Nancy Drew's The Spider Sapphire Mystery--why? Why not? I've always loved it, and I want to go to Kenya and solve The Mystery of My Life.
Visit Susann Cokal's website.

--Marshal Zeringue