Karen Engelmann e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (November, 2012)
Karen Engelmann is a writer and designer. She was born and raised in the American Midwest, then moved to Sweden after completing university studies in drawing and design. The city of Malmö was home base for eight years, but she now lives just north of NYC.
Her new novel, The Stockholm Octavo, is set in in 1791 Stockholm, the Venice of the North. It is the story of Emil Larsson, a bureaucrat and card shark. Gaming house owner Mrs. Sofia Sparrow draws Emil into laying his OCTAVO, a form of fortunetelling with playing cards that reveals eight people surrounding a significant event in his life. Emil can influence the outcome of this event in his favor - IF he can find his eight in time.
The Stockholm Octavo has it all - a fascinating era; political intrigue; prophecy and magic; the language and artistry of folding fans; romance and connection; and characters (good and bad) you will want to spend time with.
Q: You chose a fascinating period in Swedish history for The Stockholm Octavo, one little known to Westerners aside from those of us who have read Annemarie Selinko's Désirée. What drew you to this era?
A: Living in Sweden for nine years, it was impossible to avoid the Gustavian age — even for an American illustrator with no interest in history. The drama, culture and controversy of Gustav III captivate people still, and the city of Stockholm is infused with his spirit. It was not until many years later, writing The Stockholm Octavo, that I immersed myself in this history and had a genuine “Now I get it!” moment. Gustav III and his era are juicy subjects that rival any others in European history and deserve much more attention. TSO is a start; even if its narrative is more fiction than history, the details of Gustav's reign are real.
Q: Do you find it ironic that, at a time when other rulers were brought down by not listening to the masses, King Gustav III was assassinated for trying to do too much, perhaps too fast?
A: Yes, it is an irony, but the desire to maintain political control is as powerful as trying to gain it. The aristocracy in Sweden was gunning for Gustav from the time he came to power in 1772. He staged a bloodless coup, replacing a constitution heavily favoring the nobility (which was terribly corrupt and dangerously influenced by foreign powers.) From that point on, a significant portion of the aristocracy wanted Gustav out. Eventually, they succeeded. On the other hand, the commoners adored their King (even when he made himself a near absolute monarch) and his death only inflamed their animosity toward the aristocracy and fervor for reform. Gustav's political reforms may have helped the nation avoid a violent struggle, but he paid the ultimate price.
Q: Mrs. Sofia Sparrow's Octavo readings remind me somewhat of the Tarot, though, unlike a typical reader, Mrs. Sparrow pushes her seeker hard to take an active role in identifying those on the cards and assuring the outcome. Did your Octavo evolve from the Tarot?
A: The Octavo was very much inspired by the Tarot — another product of the late 18th century using a heavily illustrated deck of playing cards. The meanings of the four suits were adapted from tarot texts, and the numbers on the pip cards from tarot, numerology and other esoteric works. The deck used for the Octavo is a German work from the 16th century. It portrays humans and their characteristics, which are at the center of Mrs. Sparrow's Octavo. There are many different methods of cartomancy, so it was plausible that Mrs. Sparrow would invent an octagonal spread that fit with her philosophy of the number eight and her interest in the Divine Geometry. Insisting on the Seeker's involvement is not such a stretch; some Tarot readers see the cards as an indication of current energies rather than a set prediction, and that it is up to each person to use the knowledge the cards offer to make wise choices.
Q: Our life directions often seem to me to be determined by serendipity ... chance meetings, random decisions. In your novel, Emil Larsson appears to be attempting to nudge serendipity towards his desired outcome - do you believe this is something we can all do, given proper focus?
A: Yes! But it is really a challenge to focus, especially on people — the most important ingredient. First of all, it is hard work. People are oftentimes scared and/or scary. Interaction takes resolve and courage. Secondly, we have so many distractions and alternatives — legit and not so much. Life and work are truly demanding. But it is much easier to be busy with some random task or look at your smartphone than engage with another human being. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen or been in conversations where one of the participants is attending to an electronic device at the same time. Who knows what knowledge, connection or good fortune is lost in this way?
Q: The Uzanne's dark use of folding fans adds atmosphere to your novel - were young ladies of the era trained in the language of fans, just as they were in etiquette and dance? And were such fans named as they are in your story?
A: The language of the fan was never a subject for instruction as far as I know, probably because it was mainly used for conveying flirtatious and covert messages — hardly proper training for a well-bred young lady! But The Uzanne is a collector and expert on folding fans in the extreme; she would believe the use of the fan was a crucial skill for any woman. The naming of fans is not a practice I can recall reading about in my research either, but a fan collector I know referred to her fans with the feminine pronoun, so I took it from there. Naming a valuable fan is not so different than naming your car, which is a pretty common practice.
Q: You must have researched herbalist lore extensively. Given the difficulty of determining correct dosages, did honest herbalists often come under suspicion of poisoning and witchcraft in these times?
A: I don't recall reading about this type of accusation in Stockholm of the time, but my research was not that extensive. Physicians and apothecaries of the period employed all manner of erroneous methods that people accepted as science, and death was a constant companion. If something went wrong there were lots of explanations other than wrongdoing on the part of the practitioner. These were respected, learned trades and predominantly (if not exclusively) male. Allegations of witchcraft and poisoning would more likely be aimed at the village “wise women” who dealt in natural cures, and on the women nursing the sick.
Q: Your hero, Emil Larsson, seeks 'Love and connection' in The Stockholm Octavo. Do you see these as the true goals of a well-led life?
A: Yes indeed I do.Find out more about Karen Engelmann, her novel, Stockholm, folding fans, and the Number 8 at KarenEngelmann.com.
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