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Combining Reality and Fantasy for Advocacy
By The Editors
Susann Cokal is an award-winning novelist of both adult and young adult fiction and the editor of Broad Street Magazine. Her latest novel, Mermaid Moon (Candlewick Press), was released on March 3rd, 2020. Like many others publishing books this year, Cokal has had to give up on appearing at and hosting events to promote the release of her latest novel. Her novel in circulation, Influence, focuses on Spanish Influenza, a pandemic often forgotten, but has reemerged with resurrected interest among epidemiologists and the general public.
We talked with Cokal about using fact and fantasy to advocate for women's agency, what it means to chase a "healthy" life, and subverting expectation in the idea of "happily ever after".
Much of your work fuses historical and fantastical themes. What inspired you to combine these genres to deliver a narrative about women's agency and power?
Someone quoted to me recently, “May you live in interesting times.” It felt like a curse.
I don’t want to offer some daunting answer that says we need a boost from fantasy to make history work. But if we don’t start with fantasies—as in empowered fairy tales and novels or just “What ifs” in the political warroom—we won’t get anywhere. The arc of the universe is long and it’s taken a bad twist lately.
But as terrible as this moment in history is—pandemically, politically, and most of all ecologically—in a weird way, it is not the worst ever for women. Some obvious evils are toppling. There was the Weinstein verdict, for one thing. If only we could achieve the same results on an even higher political plane! I’m heartbroken about what’s happened with female politicians this time around, but the important thing is that Warren, for one, did get so far. And to quote another campaign: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” We’re persisting.
The old mermaid stories portray women with power; the mermaids sing, and land-dwelling sailors crash out of love for them. It’s always seemed to me that they would naturally form a matriarchy, rather than obedient subjects of a mer-king, so that’s how I imagined them for Mermaid Moon.
In that book, a lot of what I wrote was personal as much as political (another time-honored slogan). I went through some bad years after a head injury and with the onset of Sjögren’s Syndrome. For a while I was unable to speak more than a couple of sentences a day, or to walk much, or to read; my body had defeated my brain and my brain was struggling to get free (it persisted). One way it did that was telling this story about a young woman learning to find the magic inside herself and determining the shape her own body might take. It’s a shifting body, as her identity shifts too. And she had to be a tough girl, because I needed a tough girl in my life. I lay in bed telling myself the story, and I was able to write it on my laptop with eyes closed. Never was sure if it would turn into anything … but it did. Right now, in this terrible historical moment.
Your latest book, Mermaid Moon, is a young adult feminist interpretation of popular mermaid legends. Your previous book, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, also utilizes the power of fantasy to deliver a harrowing tale of three women fighting against institutionalized sexism to save other princesses in the kingdom. How do stories like these help redefine "happily ever after"?
Is there ever really a happily ever after? Maybe we have to define what that means for ourselves every time. The oldest recorded versions of fairy tales didn’t have happy endings. They reached points of happiness and then continued beyond that, to where the evil mother-in-law ate the children or the once-called charming prince found another wife. The old versions prepared us for disappointment in a way Disney does not.
Tolstoy (a fantasist in his own way) said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So maybe happiness does look the same for some people…the beloved and supportive partner, the thriving business, the well-ordered home, the stimulating hobbies, the good health. But who ever gets all of that?
“Happily ever after” is always some kind of compromise. We don’t get everything we want, and we shouldn’t. If there are no dreams left, what are we? Smug. And not human, in that sense of a humanity that is always striving to find something beyond the physical world and creature comforts. Striving might be the happiness; I’ve read a lot of artists who’ve succeeded beyond very wild dreams, looking back nostalgically on grotty apartments and rejection slips and nervous ambition as the best eras of their lives.
In The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Ava Bingen—a seamstress turned nursemaid turned maid who tells fairy tales to the sickly royal children—doesn’t know too many happy stories. But she sees a chance to use the old templates of fairy tales and wrench a happy ending for herself out of the horrors of rape and displacement and servitude to a queen gone mad, not to mention her uneasy partnership with Midi Sorte, a mute nurse who has long been her enemy. And to do that, she tells a version of a fairy tale that we might find somewhat familiar. Her story has an effect on Midi and mad Queen Isabel. I won’t say whether the ending is happy or not, but it might be, and I think it’s the possibility of finding a happy ending that keeps us going and, ideally, becoming better people.
How has COVID-19 affected your career and your personal life?
The most obvious prong in what is for me the trident of COVID-19 is what’s happened to Mermaid Moon, which came out early in March. That book has nothing to do with the virus and everything to do with bodies, as it starts when a young mermaid who is half landish goes looking for her mother. So there is something in it that addresses the way we’re all questioning our bodies now: We’re made up of multitudes of tiny creatures who control the way our skin feels and our lungs work, even the way our brains function whether we’re in the grip of disease or of that ever-elusive angel, “Good Health.” What are we, anyway?
Mermaid Moon debuted at an uncertain time—author events have been canceled, obviously, and right now nobody knows whether isolation is going to make people read more or not. I do hope it will—not just my book, lots of them … But with bookstores closed and Amazon not prioritizing deliveries of reading material, it’s hard to say. Fortunately, a lot of independent bookstores are still fulfilling orders for their clients, either by delivery or mail. I’m very glad to be able to get new books to read that way.
The second prong is a manuscript I just finished in February, which is called Influence--about the effect of twins on each other, ghosts on the living, and Spanish Influenza on the world of 1917 to 1920. I first got the idea when I moved into an old house in Richmond, Virginia, and spent the first night listening to creaks and cracks and pings. A lot of research and years of writing and a brush with my own death (unrelated) later, I at last had a manuscript—which my agent sent out just as the epidemic was reaching the United States. A lot of what I learned and wrote down is eerily similar to what’s been happening now, with quarantine, face masks, sterilizing the mail…I’m not sure the novel will ever see light of day, so I’ve put a passage about what life was like in Richmond during the pandemic on my website.
Now I know there are dozens of authors writing new work about life in a pandemic…and there was a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review warning that none of them will be very much good. So who knows? I do feel almost as if I’m living in a world of my own making, perhaps even more than writers usually do. Or maybe it’s of my making plus the influence (get it) of history.
As for personal life, the third prong—I’ve been home for the last few years due to illness, so social distancing isn’t a huge adjustment (except that my husband’s home now too, which is good…at least until he finds out how I really look and what I eat as I hang around the house all day, maybe).
Why is it important for people to support the arts, even during times of uncertainty?
I’d say especially during times of uncertainty. The arts are what hold us together—as a community, certainly, but also within ourselves. You listen to a song and are lifted out of yourself. A painting might make you dizzy; it might make you weep. And we really are the stories we tell, in words as well as those other media. A great movie or even a trashy one, at the right moment, can give you strength.
I suppose I could add that there’s never been a moment in the history of the world when times have been certain. But each uncertain time brings its own anxieties, and they are real. While I was first sick, the nature of time itself changed for me. I wrote my way out of the worst of it with both Mermaid Moon and Influence. I’m not the same person as I was pre-TBI, and time is still convoluted and just plain different for me. Definitely uncertain. But without the consolations of art, there’s just …life, and you won’t be satisfied simply to exist.
What are your other book recommendations for those who are looking for material to read during mass quarantine? (In addition to your own, of course!)
Ooh, always hard to choose! Right now I’m reading two good ones: Clare Beams’s brand-new novel, The Illness Lesson, which is as wonderful as her debut collection of stories. And Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist (2009), which I recommend to all writers who feel frustrated with the current moment (corona, the publishing industry in disarray, whatever your plague, his cynical and hilarious look at writing will make you laugh).
Perhaps my favorite book read last year was Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, which came to me right when I needed solidarity in melancholy middle age and (as my husband insists) a dash of hope that it’s never too late to reinvent your life. If you feel your life’s on hold during quarantine, this book will comfort you.
I also recommend Agatha Christie. Chances are that even if you can’t get any new ones, you have a few old copies somewhere, and they are GREAT for showing how much can be accomplished in a closed-off setting. Some of what is accomplished is murder, of course, but the greater push is toward putting the world in order, sorting out the love affairs and the kited checks and, yes, discovering the miscreant in the whole messy midst.
For middle-grade and teen lit, The Turnaway Girls by Hayley Chewins is rich and strange; she has a new one coming out in the next couple of months too: The Sisters of Straygarden Place. Wilder Girls (Rory Power) may feel uncomfortably close to the bone, as girls at a former school are isolated by some mysterious illness and receive intermittent so-called help from the outside world. For that matter, read Marianne Wiggins’s 1989 novel, John Dollar—it’s for adults but it shows what girls can do when marooned on an island.
And if you aren’t in the mood for new books, return to all volumes of Mary Poppins and to the Alice books. The world is really that weird.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.