We had a chance to sit down and talk with the author of The Kingdom of Little Wounds author Susann Cokal about some of the biggest questions we had about her amazing book. Below is an edited transcription of just some of things we talked about in our two hour interview. To watch the full interview check out the videos below.
SUSANN: I think I am anticipating some of the questions.
ALEXANDRA: That goes into our question about Nicholas because everything that he does in the book can be read into as evil but in his head he’s pushing forward, doing what he wants to do. Chelsey wants to know where he came from.
SUSANN: I love how you put the question in her mouth.
ALEXANDRA: When we were coming up with questions for this my biggest question was ‘What was the hardest scene for you to write?’ and Chelsey was like “WHERE DID NICHOLAS COME FROM?”
CHELSEY: He was just so fascinating, will all his thought processes for medicine and how he’s am going to keep himself safe.
SUSANN: So you’re asking not so much where Nicholas came from as where did his penis come from.
CHELSEY: (laughter) Well, that is exactly it.
SUSANN: I guess I can use that word for this vlog. I won’t use some of the others.
ALEXANDRA: I think that is also, when we did our research on other people who posted reviews and videos, that came up in almost everything we watched.
SUSANN: His penis was one of the elements with which I started thinking about the story, actually. While I was still working on my first novel Mirabilis, which freaks out lactating women because it’s about a wet nurse who feeds people from her breasts, I woke up and there was this sentence: “All the children in the royal nursery were sick.” That would throw a country into chaos if you don’t know who is going to inherit, so I was thinking about beds lined up and nurses taking care of them and some conniving people who are trying to advantage of the situation.
Elinor was more of a villain in earlier drafts, because it’s her job to take care of the children, and Isabelle in a way is a villain because she is poisoning the children even though she thinks she’s helping them. She is trying out all this renaissance medicine that worked as explanations at the time – people thought they saw some improvement from pouring mercury into a wound – but I don’t see any real evil in Isabelle. I think she wants to be a good mother. The really horrible person is Nicholas, and he’s somewhat allied with Elinor at the beginning, but he’s willing to sell her out in order to get to where he wants to go.
There were a lot of controversial ideas about cures at the time. Mercury was really thought to possibly heal the sores of syphilis, or guauc, the gum of a tree from the New World, might help the disease. They were associating syphilis with colonialists having discovered the New World and bringing syphilis back with them, though the origins of the disease are debated.
Nicholas has some of that panic about syphilis: how you get it, what kind of person gets it, because at the beginning it’s mostly aristocrats and prostitutes. The people in the middle who can’t afford a prostitute who is infected with syphilis don’t get it as often. There was a widespread belief in the power of different gems to cure different ailments; amber runs through the novel because there is amber in that part of the world. It represents marital fidelity, true love, good health, especially good blood, though it depends on which book you’re looking at.
Nicholas has worked out this system where he has the jewels sown into his member and he also prefers not to have traditional missionary sex but to do other things because something that really terrifies him is syphilis. At the time syphilis was awful: you would go blind, go crazy. These days don’t hesitate to get a test kids, it’s a very easy cure, but in developing countries it’s still a problem, partly because of the fear of it. I kept thinking about this big knobby thing, and, of course, there is danger in having the surgery to get the jewels sown in.
CHELSEY: That does not sound fun on modern anesthetics, forget about back then.
SUSANN: They had a different theory of – not exactly germs – but they thought that bad smells would make you sick. They thought that the smell of sewage meant that little bits of fecal matter are entering your body, which is actually true because that is how we perceive the smell. So he follows mostly what would have been Arab medicine with the jewels, and his penis is kind of scary.
When I was signing my book the publisher bought merchandising rights which is normally t-shirts and stuffed animals or something. And I was thinking “Wow, what kind of merchandise would you sell for The Kingdom? A little penis purse?”
CHELSEY: How did you come up with the title?
SUSANN: I am really bad at titles, but from the first moment I thought of this story that’s the title that came to me. It’s the only time that a title has stayed with me from the beginning to the end. I had conceived of it as a story about a kingdom in political jeopardy but it was a very personal story about how politics effect us as individual people. Everybody back then would constantly have something wrong: terrible rashes or fleas and lice and other parasites that would feed on you, you were wormy or if you were sick someone would cut you to drain out the bad blood. Whether you were healthy or sick, you smelled bad and you had some kind of wound somewhere. Also, the title is kind of a wink at the middle ages because one of the English euphemisms for your lady parts is ‘Your little wound’. It says a lot about how people thought about sex then. If you have a vagina you have a little wound. Then there is the man’s masterly sword that is going to open that wound in you again and again.
ALEXANDRA: It’s really fascinating because I’m working through the title of the book now and yes, the majority of the characters are women.
CHELSEY: The Kingdom of Women.
ALEXANDRA: So I guess the next logical question is: are you working on anything else?
CHELSEY: The dreaded question.
SUSANN: The one for which I have to prepare glib answers to protect my innermost soul. When you publish something it’s sort of like ripping out your heart and holding it up to the world while it’s still beating and bloody and saying “Hey, what do you think of me?”
ALEXANDRA: That just makes me think of that scene in Indiana Jones.
SUSANN: That’s pretty much how it feels to me. I know lots of people who will take any opportunity to grab you by the collar and pull you aside and say “I am working on this really wonderful, sensitive novel about Charlotte Corday and the french revolution” and you’re like yeah, yeah, yeah. Those are usually the people whose work I don’t find as challenging and interesting. So let me see how I am going to live up to what I just said.
There is one novel which I am revising which is a ghost story about a marriage. It’s set right after World War I and now, after the great experience with The Kingdom I want to publish only YA stuff because I love the community of readers and writers. But I started this a long time ago and it’s set in the first house that I bought in Richmond, which was built in 1920’s on a big avenue.
When I wrote that, I had done the research and I had a severe concussion, so I couldn’t read or sleep. My brain got entirely rewired. I still don’t like chocolate and I used to love chocolate, but to escape the pain in my head I would put the laptop on my legs – which is interesting because I was dyslexic – and I would just type all night. I used the concussion and the chronic migraines as a way into the spirit world. Also, I had a great aunt who was the village psychic in a little town called Gilleleje on the coast of Denmark, and I always through that Great Aunt Nelly was interesting, so she’s in there as a character.
I am also working on a late medieval semi-prequel to The Kingdom which kind of takes up a story that Ava might have told. It’s the most purely magical thing that I have ever written because none of my novels are straight-forward realism; I usually like to write in some empirically possible explanation for the strange things that are happening. In this one there is no getting around the fact that a woman from the land mated with a man from the sea. The main character is their daughter who is technically half a mermaid and she lives with the merpeople. I’ve been figuring out what that world would be like. She comes to land and gets romantically involved with a wastrel boy she has rescued and also his mother who is a witch, or thinks she’s a witch. But I’ve had an interesting time; mermaids are kind of hot right now.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I saw that.
SUSANN: I worry about a glut on the mermaid market, but I am half Danish, my mother was named after a mermaid, so I have a right to it.
ALEXANDRA: Well, you’ve sold me.
A big thank-you to Susann for such a wonderful and insightful conversation! We learned a lot and had a lot of fun. To see the whole interview, check out the youtube videos below.