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*Breath and Bones* by Susann Cokal - author interviewAn Interview with
Susann Cokal

Interviewer Luan Gaines:What was your inspiration for Breath and Bones?

Susann Cokal:I probably never would have thought of this novel if it weren’t for my father, who died nine years ago. There is a lot of business associated with an unexpected death, so over the next few years I drove from my home in Berkeley, California, to New Mexico fairly often. To get there, I would take obscure roads and stop to visit local history museums and old houses, anything that might show me a life different from the one I was living just then. My father had loved the Southwest. He was interested in trains and mining and outlaws, and as I gathered small factlets about the area, I started telling myself stories that he might have enjoyed. That was the actual germ of Breath and Bones, of the prostitutes known as soiled doves and the wealthy eccentrics who built medieval Tuscan towers in Nevada. And then when, about a year and a half after Dad’s death, my mother was diagnosed with melanoma—more drives, more museums, more stories.

Is Famke based on a real character? Is Albert Castle?

Neither one of them has a real-life antecedent, but I took bits and pieces of real people to create them. With her red hair and white skin and blue eyes, Famke is the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite model—and the tuberculosis is part of that aesthetic as well. One of the great Pre-Raphaelite models, Elizabeth Siddal, was tubercular. Albert is my own idea of a second-rate would-be-great artist, fitting a category of people who don’t often get biographies written about them. He shares one habit with the great painter William Holman Hunt: Like Hunt, when he gets tense after long hours of work, he takes to the street and runs till he feels calm.

Was there something in Famke from birth that set her apart from the other children in the orphanage, something Sister Birgit recognized and nurtured?

I think so. I think Famke has a kind of neediness combined with her apparent strength, and it’s that combination that appeals to Birgit and the lovers Famke eventually meets. As a new-found infant, Famke is so strong that she breaks the glass nipple of the bottle that the nuns give her to suckle—and the glass tears her mouth, so she badly needs someone to take painstaking care of her. Birgit needs to feel needed, and Famke needs to feel loved.

Why did you choose the 1880's as the time frame for your novel?

There were a number of considerations. When I planned the story, trains were supposed to play a much bigger part, so I needed a transcontinental railway (which was completed in 1869). I also wanted rail connections between certain cities, so that meant 1884 or later. I wanted to keep the setting in a sort of mythic Wild West, which I feel died away around 1890. And, frivolously, I really like the clothing styles from the 1880s … There were a number of serendipitous discoveries once I’d chosen my dates (1884 to 1886), such as the Danish queen’s founding of a new orphanage in 1885.

*Breath and Bones* by Susann CokalMeeting "the Saints" gave Famke the opportunity to pursue Albert to America. How common were such visitors in Denmark, recruiting money for their causes?

They were and still are very common. Denmark, southern Sweden, and England were great recruiting grounds for the Mormons back then, though the missionaries weren’t so much collecting money (most of their funds came from tithes back in the States) as new converts. In fact, for a while the number of Mormons in England outnumbered those in America. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund allowed missionaries to lend money to new converts who wanted to come to America; I’m afraid a number of newly minted Saints took advantage of the opportunity, then forgot religion when they arrived here. Famke is of course one of those people. She takes extra advantage by marrying her missionary—and soothes her conscience with the notion that he has at least one other wife to comfort him when she runs away.

Heber Goodhouse fell willingly under Famke's spell. But would she have survived the hard years in Utah if she hadn't been compelled to leave in search of Albert?

Hm, that one’s difficult to answer. I can’t imagine Famke staying in Utah, certainly not on a farm; that was never a question for her. From the beginning, she plans to chase Albert—in her mind, he needs and wants her as a muse. By the way, most Mormon farms were much more successful than the one I gave Heber Goodhouse and his family; there’s plenty of testimony to the Latter-Day Saints’ hard work and industry, making the desert bloom.

Beauty is both a curse and a blessing for Famke. How much does her stunning appearance determine the course of her life?

Beauty is both her power (her genius) and her undoing. And beauty opens up a certain set of dangers, especially if you think about it in historical context. An ugly serving-girl was less likely to attract her employer’s attentions and end up with an illegitimate baby and no references. So although beauty makes Famke famous, at least to an extent, and attracts the men she uses to make her way in the world, it has also made her vulnerable. But I don’t pity her too much. I’m sure we’ve all heard models and other good-looking people lamenting the handicap—other people resent the beautiful ones, bosses don’t take them seriously, etc. It’s still better to be beautiful.

You must have done an extraordinary amount of research in writing Breath and Bones. Where did you begin? How did you locate sources?

There’s a wealth of material about the West in general and about the topics that interested me in particular—Pre-Raphaelite art, Mormon emigrants, orphan trains, mining, prostitution, tuberculosis, medical gizmos … I visited a lot of local history museums as I drove around the West, and I bought enough books to fill more than sixteen feet of shelf space (not counting what I checked out of the library or what I gave away when I moved). I actually love doing research. I love imagining my way into a different time and a different kind of life. To find sources, I did some basic searches through the library and bookstores, and when I’d read those books, I looked at their bibliographies for new directions. Also, a colleague at California Polytechnic State University, Joanne Ruggles, invited me to come watch her life drawing class a few times. I got to study how the models posed, particularly how they handled that public nudity, and how the students reacted to them.

*Mirabilis* by Susann CokalViggo is an interesting character, both loyal and noble. Does he play a significant part in connecting the plot and the other characters?

I think he does—the ending wouldn’t be possible without him, really. And he is perhaps the only completely positive male character.

Both of your novels are historical, Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, albeit divided by centuries. Which was the most difficult to write, from a historical perspective?

Each of them brought a different set of difficulties, or perhaps I should say challenges. But Mirabilis was probably harder to write for the simple reason that it was my first novel—or at least the first one I believed in enough to keep rewriting and refining. It’s hard for some of us to give ourselves permission to dedicate ourselves to writing, to say this is important enough to keep doing. Mirabilis was the novel with which I did that. There are more discrepancies in the historical records about the Middle Ages than there are for the nineteenth-century American West, so one of the big challenges there was in deciding what I believed it must have been like.

Once in Colorado, Famke realizes she is safer disguised as a man, a drastic change for such a woman. Was this change in appearance more beneficial than detrimental?

Definitely. It would have been impossible for her to move around the West the way she does if she weren’t disguised as a man. She’s a good mimic, so she can pull it off. Myrtice, the novel’s other “virtuous” woman Famke’s age, could never manage it; that’s why she needs Viggo’s protection as she travels.

Famke's short life is essentially sad, but she touches those she knows indelibly, Viggo, Sister Birgit, Mr. Goodhouse, Edouard Versailles. Isn't there something innately appealing about this young protagonist?

I hope so—that’s what should keep people reading! In the world of the novel, of course, there is Famke’s beauty, and then that desire for love that I think draws people to her. She’s awfully selfish, but I don’t think she has bad intentions.

Famke is hungry for more than the world has to offer a woman of her station from the beginning, eagerly biting the glass of her infant's feeding bottle. Can you speak to the symbolism of the broken glass cutting her lips, the blood she coughs up and her belief that being with Albert will heal her of the disease?

In our culture, it’s traditional to associate being in love with having a disease—we say we’re lovesick, we’re suffering from love, we feel passion (which can mean strong emotion or strong pain and suffering). In many novels, someone with “a heart condition” is not only physically weak but also susceptible to lovesickness (I’m thinking particularly of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier). Coughing up blood is, in a sense, akin to wearing your heart on your sleeve. As to the symbolism of the broken glass nipple—I think I’d like to leave that one open to interpretation.

Edouard Versailles is a doctor of the times, inventing a "cure" for a malady of the lungs that uses electricity to stimulate healing. Is there ever a better time for doctors and their so-called machines, before the practice of medicine is governed by rules and regulations? And aren't these men especially adept at "cures" for women's problems?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, producing “hysterical crises” in women’s sexual parts became a great medical industry. Doctors did it first manually, then decided that technique wasn’t genteel enough, so they started inventing all kinds of machines. It was the era of the medicine show and the snake oil salesman, so yes—a great time to be practicing medicine freely. And if the orgasm cure seems quaint, just look at any recent issue of Cosmopolitan magazine; some of us still seem to believe that having an orgasm will cure all manner of problems, from depression to bad skin.

Other than Alfred, every man that Famke meets literally wants to keep her. How does her position of dependency illustrate the plight of women in the rigid 19th-century society?

Women of the time did depend, almost universally, on their menfolk for a public and legitimate identity. Famke manages a little more freedom than that, because she is truly creative about the way she lives her life. But men did expect to keep the women they loved, and in some way every man she meets (except, perhaps, Viggo) sees Famke as a kind of object to be hoarded up.

Albert Castle disdains the Impressionists, holding to the old school philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Yet in America, the quality of his work deteriorates rapidly. What happens to all his good intentions? Is Famke the missing ingredient?

She certainly thinks she is! The sad truth is that Albert is not a very good painter, and in any event the heyday of the Pre-Raphaelites is past when he tries to join up. In America, he decides to paint for money for a while—always a bad reason to produce art, as the art quickly becomes something else that way. He believes he still has great artistry in him, but I think the reader knows better.

You write of blood on Famke's lips as a baby, coughed from her lungs, on her chemise as she poses. Is this blood symbolic of female sexuality? Why/why not?

I don’t really like to comment on my own use of symbolism, but it is true that women are traditionally associated with blood and water and other flowing substances—obvious reasons, of course. In the nineteenth century, over 90 percent of the population was host to the tuberculosis bacillus, whether they were showing symptoms of the disease or not. And tubercular women were considered sexy—their body temperature went up, their skin got very white, their cheeks very red (the “hectic flush”), and their eyes bright. They were literally hot to the touch.

With pollution and other problems, everyone coughed. In general, it was a bloodier time.

Then there are the other substances, Viggo's embalming fluid, Albert's paints, Edouard's "galvanic invention". Are all of these symbolic of the ebb and flow of life? Why/ why not?

I think life mostly ebbs in this novel. And when people feel most passionate, in some sense they are closest to death.

In Hygeia, tuberculosis sufferers are so numerous that they are referred to as "lungers". What is the mortality rate for those with the disease at that time? Is there ever any hope for them?

“Lungers” was a common term—for people whose lives had been taken over by their lungs. The survival rate is hard to pin down, but in 1890 there were approximately 280 deaths from tuberculosis per 100,000 persons living in the United States.

Why did you begin your novel in Denmark and then bring Famke all the way to America and through the West?

I did that partly because my mother was Danish, and I was writing this story somewhat from that sense of loss during my parents’ illnesses and deaths. I love Denmark; it’s always been a magical place full of spires and green copper roofs, swans, castles, and really delicious cakes. Also, we in America don’t see too many novels set partly in Scandinavia. But this was always primarily an American novel, showing how immigrants might have adapted, how people were constantly on the move, constantly changing their identities.

Edouard Versailles is as reserved as a Victorian maiden. Why is he so out of tune with his physicality? Is this a common problem for men of his position and wealth?

He’s in part what the literary historians call a Man of Sentiment—more of an eighteenth-century phenomenon—and he’s also dedicated to the nineteenth-century cult of mourning (his parents died, one of consumption and one of grief, and he can’t quite forgive himself for surviving). So even as he’s moving into the future with his medical inventions, he’s stuck in the past; and even as he tries to focus on the body, he can’t get away from his emotions. Class and wealth give him the leisure to devote himself to his feelings.

Famke puts enormous energy into locating her beloved Albert. What will happen if reality doesn't live up to her dreams? Or is she too focused on surviving to even consider the outcome of her search?

How can reality ever match up to our dreams? But of course we have the dreams because we can’t stop hoping … Actually, last night I was watching some dancers with a friend of mine, who said, “Now reality has spoiled the fantasy.” I suppose the biggest hope is always that reality will be even greater than fantasy.

Are you currently working on another project? If so, can you share something about it with us?

Yes, I’m working on a new novel. It’s set during the Renaissance, in a Scandinavian island country I’m making up. I have to invent a country because this time I want to write about the ruling family; the queen has a mental disorder that affects the country’s well-being.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I think the best advice I can give is for people to ask themselves why they’re writing. If you want to write for readers, you should find a group of people—a class or a more informal writing group—who will read and critique your work. If you want to write for yourself, that’s fine too. Whatever you do, you should work on something you really love and care about; life is too short to spend it on art you don’t enjoy.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Susann Cokal via email for Click here to read her review of Breath and Bones.


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