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Karen Engelmann: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Karen Engelmann worked as a illustrator, graphic designer, and book designer for many years before turning to writing, which she calls her "full-blown passion." Her debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo, is being published this month by Ecco.

How did you come up with the idea for the Octavo? Is it based on any historical forms of cartomancy?

Finding the Octavo literally took years, although the notion of the eight took hold early in the process: I wanted eight characters. Perhaps this came out of the 8s in my life: born on the 8th, I was one of eight children, and have carried a brass key ring stamped with a large 8 since college. As a graphic designer, I found 8 a beautiful form. In the course of my research I found a book, The Fan, by Octave Uzanne. Octave's book inspired the character and surname of my villain, and his given name got me thinking further about the number 8: music (octaves), paper and books (octavos) and geometry (octagons.) The octagonal form inspired the notion of my eight characters surrounding the protagonist. I wrote the entire first draft of the novel with my narrator, Emil Larsson and his cohort, the fortuneteller Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, literally trying to figure the Octavo out. They discovered the philosophy and octagonal diagrams that are still in the book, but the Octavo felt incomplete. An early reader asked: "It's cool, but how do you do it?" Neither Emil, Mrs. Sparrow, nor I could answer. During the first round of revisions, I did more research on playing cards and discovered that the late 18th century was the official birth of cartomancy—the first book on the subject was published in 1770 by Etteilla, and the Tarot came into being around 1781. Since Mrs. Sparrow was already a card player and fortuneteller, cards would serve as a perfect tool and the Jost Amman deck, which is a fabulous catalogue of human types, seemed made for Mrs. Sparrow's philosophy. I did a lot of reading about cartomancy, tarot in particular, but invented the Octavo to fit the needs of the novel.

Folding fans and the "language of fans" play a key role in the plot. Is this a particular passion of yours? Of all the fans you describe so vividly in the story, do you have a favorite?

My mother gets the credit for inspiring the folding fans. She had a modest collection, but they were magical to me, especially as a child. Much later, I visited an exhibition of rare fans in a museum in Sweden, and was taken by their beauty, mystery and opulence. When I decided to write a novel set in late 18th-century Europe that had female characters in central roles, I knew folding fans would play an important part. Women used every available means at their disposal to survive in the man's world of the period, and the use of folding fans as a means of communication was an aspect too delicious to ignore. Of the fans in the book, I would want to possess the Chinese Princess, the fan that Mrs. Sparrow throws on the table as a bet in the card game against The Uzanne. The Princess is a child's fan made of pierced ivory, so she is small and sturdy enough to carry around in my purse, and has a red silk tassel for some added pizzazz.

Stockholm itself, The Town, almost feels like a character in the novel. What was the Stockholm of the 1790s like, and what made it the perfect setting for your story?

The Town was, and remains, infused with the spirit of Sweden's most fascinating and controversial ruler, Gustav III. Stockholm was at its height during his reign (1772-1792) — a capital city of what had once been a great power, enlivened by the vision and personality of a king that Voltaire called an "enlightened monarch." The arts flourished, intellectual pursuits were encouraged, and there was a lively exchange of ideas with the rest of the world. Since the novel had Gustav's assassination as a central thread, there was no other location that would serve. On a more personal note: Stockholm was the first European city I ever visited, and it made an impression comparable to first love. I could not resist going back, at least in my imagination.

What was your research process like for the book? You lived in Sweden for a time, right? Any particularly useful sources you'd recommend to your readers?

Living in Sweden for nine years gave me the sensory information, the language skills, and the interest in Swedish history that inspired the novel. The actual research was challenging, since the best material on Gustav and Stockholm is written in Swedish and so required more time and concentration. I have two good friends who provided invaluable help, sending stacks of books (including a Swedish dictionary that must weigh 15 pounds). There is a bibliography on my website for interested readers (both Swedish and English sources) and I would love to see the Swedish volumes translated into English. One cautionary note for writers: the amount of available material can be overwhelming. If you are fascinated by a topic, it can be hard to know when to stop and the story and characters never emerge. Plus, writers want to stuff everything they've learned into the narrative and this can kill the story. About 100 pages of my manuscript were cut and most of it was factoids. Listen to your editors!

On your website you call yourself a "late bloomer" when it comes to writing. Tell us how you ended up a writer, and do you have any advice for other aspiring writers out there?

I ended up a writer because I could not help myself. As for advice, the poet Rumi says it much better than I ever could: "Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. You will not be lead astray."

I know it's hard to pick favorites, but what are some of the writers or books you think have had the most impact on your own writing style (or just those you find yourself reading again and again)?

A few of the books that had an impact on me as a reader and a writer would be: Toni Morrison's Beloved, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish ... the list could get very long.

What's your own library like today? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

The contents of our library change often, as the bookshelves are purged due to space constraints but they usually have a mix of all kinds of fiction (classics, contemporary, literary, genre) biographies and non-fiction. There is a shelf dedicated to Dickens, one of poetry, two shelves of plays, children's books, a smattering of graphic novels, several shelves of Swedish material, and scads of art books. It's a fairly eclectic collection.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

One of the best books I have read in a long time was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain—a brilliant, satiric look at America through the experience of an Iraq war soldier. A total WOW. Hillary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies was a wonderful follow-up to Wolf Hall. I fell into the novel instantly and can't wait for the third volume. I also loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—so deviously clever! All of these books made me jealous, which is the highest compliment I can give.

Do you have a sense yet of your next project?

I am taking a breather from the 18th century and the demands of research to write a novel in a lighter tone. It also has cards, but this time it's greeting cards. The meeting of art and commerce is interesting to me, as well as the way that people choose to express themselves to others. The first draft has been in a box fermenting for a couple of months; I'm planning to open the lid and see how it's doing very soon.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Books by Karen Engelmann

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