In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo tells the story of a Swedish clerk who looking for love but finding himself deep in political intrigue. Here is what Karen had to say about reading, writing, and the temptation of a chapter on The Virgin Lotteries.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
When I tell people that I am from Iowa, it usually elicits at least a smile if not a laugh. At surface level, there is something corny about that statement (pun intended) but then people remember the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and the smiles are replaced by a somber reverence. Ah, the Workshop… if only I had known what I really wanted back then! Although writing was a serious adolescent interest, visual art trumped it, and I received a BFA from the University of Iowa in drawing and design. This was my career for many years, but the desire to write never completely disappeared. There was a period of time I did drawings with text, but eventually I found that words served as a more satisfying tool of creative expression altogether. I kept my day job but spent a great deal of free time writing: first poetry and journaling, then longer works. I took classes, joined a writing group, read scores of how-to and self-help books for aspiring writers, then decided to immerse myself in an MFA program. That graduate degree was the turning point; I knew that I had found my tribe at last. Long fiction is what I love to read and what I love to write.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
A coffee alarm goes off in my head about every 90 minutes when I am writing. I stand up, walk to the kitchen, make a large fresh cup, go back to my desk. Sometimes the coffee will sit for 83 minutes, but then I drink it down stone cold, sometimes with a thin scum of milk on top. It is almost always empty just before the next mental ding. When I hit a bad patch or a sticky problem in the work, I either take the dog for a walk or clean — both very practical procrastinations. Maybe it’s just the physical movement, but that seems to shake out solutions. And I always have a scented candle burning on my desk when writing — there is comfort and inspiration in the flame itself, plus it masks the smell of my dog, who occasionally indulges his fondness for deer scat.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I lived in Sweden for about nine years. That experience was potent, and emerged shortly after returning to the US in drawings, journals, an attempted memoir and poems. But there was a much larger, more ambitious idea that ambushed me later: historical fiction set in Sweden! This was fairly preposterous; I knew little to nothing about Swedish history and had never done serious research. But once I started reading, I was hooked: the story of Gustav III (Sweden’s fascinating, late-18th century monarch) was juicy material that I could use as a basis for my own fiction. Some scenes and ideas for plots were transcribed and tossed, then the demands of work, children and life took over. But the idea for this Gustavian story would not go away and demanded to be taken seriously. In 2007, I took on the challenge and enrolled in the MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont. It provided me with the structure, professional advice, tools and deadlines to actually complete a manuscript, which eventually became The Stockholm Octavo. The experience changed everything for me — it’s difficult to enumerate the ways. I found my voice, my colleagues, my calling, my art. Writing this story taught me the true meaning of laboring for love, which is the real heart of the creative process.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
There was a lottery in Stockholm in the late 18th century that was called the Virgin Lottery — it was set up to give dowries to young maidens of common birth in order to encourage marriages and population growth. The drawings were held with great fanfare, much drunkenness and all the excitement and despair that goes with gambling. Orphaned children would draw the winning numbers, and famous individuals in the Town would serve as officials. I wrote an entire chapter based on this event but had to let it go; it did not serve any real purpose other than I thought it was cool, which is a common temptation for writers of historical fiction.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The working title of the novel was The Octavo — even though in the early stages I was not quite sure what the octavo actually was or how it worked, other than it involved eight characters and the geometry of the octagon. By the time I finished the first draft, the concept of the joined octavos had emerged —two separate fortune-telling spreads combining to reveal a larger, more important purpose. I named the construction the Stockholm Octavo, and this became the title. When the book was picked up by Ecco, there was mention of a change but nothing more happened until the first cover was designed. At that point, there was a flurry of discussions about the word octavo and whether it was too esoteric and/or unpronounceable, and the title was changed for about two months to The Stockholm Eight. This was (happily) changed back before the galley copies were printed and the book began its journey to final publication.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
TSO required loads of research — more than I ever imagined. The good news is that I thoroughly enjoyed it — like a treasure hunt that would turn up the most unexpected wonders. In many respects the research process mirrored the writing and revision: I did some fairly general research on Swedish and European history and culture of the period before I began writing. This supplied the big picture, but was not nearly specific enough to make a believable historical setting. As the manuscript progressed I got deeper into the details: how fans were made, common local food, clothing, architecture, maps of the town, herbology, cartomancy, card games and gambling, professions, politics, and so on. By the time I was at the copy editing stage I was checking recipes for eel and trying to determine the exact location of the baptismal font at the Great Church in 1791. The hardest part is knowing when to stop researching and determine what you can leave out; you cannot let the facts overcome the story.