Sunday, 7 October 2012

Cards On The Table - An Interview with Karen Engelmann

Recently I published a review of a truly spectacular book, "The Stockholm Octavo" by Karen Engelmann.  I awarded it the maximum 5 crosses and felt it was so exquisite that I also awarded it with The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield Award.  If you haven't read my review, you can find it here.

Karen has very kindly given me an interview where she tells us the story of how she came to write the book and at the end of the interview are details on how to win your very own copy of "The Stockholm Octavo"!

  1. Your book “The Stockholm Octavo” is simply breathtaking.  Where did you come up with idea for such a story?  
The novel grew out of my experience of living in Sweden for almost 9 years. I was in my 20s and working in design and illustration at the time. The impressions of the country, especially Stockholm, were indelible. Later in life, when I began to take writing seriously, I knew that this was material I should explore. I spoke the language and knew aspects of the culture, landscape, and temperament from personal experience, but I knew little to nothing about Swedish history. I began to read about the Gustavian age, a period that still resonates and fascinates Swedes. I got completely hooked; it has drama, murder, beauty, refinement, and revolution — all great stuff for fiction. Weaving those elements together with folding fans was the unlikely start to the novel, which began as my Master of Fine Arts thesis. Getting to the book that you now hold in your hands was a mysterious and wonderful five-year process!

  1. In my review, I described how beautiful your book is.  It reminds me of how books were 50 years ago, designed to be treasured and displayed and, most importantly, to be read.  How did the concept come about? 
I love the way the book has been packaged! It’s an argument for the power of a beautiful object and displays the ability of great design to communicate. Because I worked so many years in design, I also know how much work was required and what great talent was brought to the project. The interior of the book was designed in NYC by Suet Yee Chong. I provided the text, the timeline and Octavo diagrams, and she took it from there. I think it is gorgeous. The Two Roads cover for the UK edition was designed by Al Oliver. The hand-drawn title is just delicious and the silver embossing, wonderful texture, ornate border, and choice of deep indigo endpapers (!) are brilliant. Bravo, Suet and Al, and many, many thanks!

  1. Can you explain how you researched your novel? 
Researching this novel required an enormous amount of reading, much of it in Swedish. Two friends in Malmö served as my “librarians” and sent me many books on Swedish history, culture, architecture and Stockholm (and a much needed dictionary!) The Internet was also an incredible tool — without it the book would have required ten more years to write! I also looked at period furniture and artwork, and read (in English) about European history of the 18th century, the French revolution, folding fans and playing cards. It was reading about cards that sparked the invention of the Octavo. Gaming was an enormously popular pastime of the period and the novel’s protagonist, Emil Larsson, and his cohort Mrs Sparrow were already avid card players. But in reading about the history of cards, I discovered that cartomancy blossomed in the same period as that of the novel. The first book on divination with cards was published in 1770 and the system we know as Tarot was invented in 1781 (both in France.) Since Mrs Sparrow was French by birth, a fortune teller and smitten with card play, cartomancy was a perfect way for her to express her theory of the eight.

  1. How did you begin writing?  
I wrote quite a lot as a teenager, but was more enthralled with the visual arts. That was my path of study and my profession, but after returning to the US from Sweden I was drawn again to writing and it became a passion. I found words to be a more satisfying and flexible means of expression than any artist’s tool. I wrote a lot of (bad) poetry and then went directly to long fiction. I love the opportunity to dive deep into characters, settings and stories.

  1. What type of genres/authors do you enjoy reading?  

 My pile of books is pretty eclectic; I like to read good fiction of all types and from all periods. The only books I seldom read are true crime (too scary) and thrillers (because I end up staying up until 3AM!) I would never reveal my one favourite book or author because I would inevitably change my mind in a day or two, but there are some books that had a big impact: Toni Morrison Beloved, Tolkien Lord of the Rings, Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, Mark Helprin Winter’s Tale, Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jeanette Winterson The Passion… oh, the list could go on and on!

  1. Are you working on another novel?  If so, what can you tell us about it?
I am working on another novel and it is something completely different. It is historical (barely) and it does involve cards (greeting cards.) More I cannot say as yet, but I am eager to get back into the mess of a first draft I have left stewing for a couple of months.

  1. Fun Question – which three people from history (fictional or real) would you invite to dinner and why?
After spending so much time in my fictional Gustavian Stockholm, I would have to make it an all-Swedish supĂ©, starting with Gustav III. By all accounts, Gustav was a charming man, although he refused to dine with commoners so it’s uncertain if he would accept my invitation. I might have to make it drinks. It would be wonderful to get the story first hand and he could settle so many arguments that scholars have about his life! In order to make Gustav feel more comfortable, I would also ask Carl Michael Bellman, the poet, composer and party boy of the period. If conversation lagged, he could perform. Thirdly, I would ask painter Ulrika Pasch. She was a successful miniaturist and portrait artist, had her own studio, and was a member of the Swedish Academy. She was often employed by the Court but was said to be a very humble person. Personally, I think she must have been tough as nails to make it in the man’s world of the late 18th century and I would love to hear what she had to say.

  1. Fun Question – what event in history would you like to be a fly on the wall at?
The Big Bang.

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