About The Author
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. She received a BFA (Drawing/Design) from the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Karen worked for many years as an illustrator/graphic designer, first in Sweden, then in New York City. But her early call to writing remained strong and eventually she took the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College.The Stockholm Octavo began as her MFA thesis. Combining politics, cartomancy, ambition and folding fans into a heady fantasy with a historical core, it tells the story of Emil Larsson, a self-satisfied bureaucrat and devoted card shark living in Sweden's capital city in 1791. Gaming house owner Sofia Sparrow draws Emil into laying his Octavo, a form of fortune-telling with playing cards that reveals eight people surrounding a significant event in his life. Emil can influence the outcome of this event in his favour -- if he can find his eight in time.
We chatted with Karen about cartomancy, women and politics in the 18th century, and the secret language of fans.
Questions & Answers
Where did the idea for the book come from? Did you start writing it while living in Sweden or only once back in your native US?
Identifying an exact source for the idea of the book is nearly impossible, but a seed was planted early on in the form of folding fans. My mother had a small collection and as a child, I was fascinated with their beauty and fragility. When I travelled to Sweden as a young adult, one of my first outings was to Kulturen museum in Lund, where they had an exhibition of truly exquisite and valuable fans. I did a number of drawings with folding fans, but it was not until long after I returned to the US that they opened in my writing. The fans led me to the 18th century, and my own experiences abroad led me back to Sweden and the Gustavian age. Folding fans and Gustav III became the unlikely combination that served as basic ingredients. The Octavo and the notion of the eight emerged eventually as the framework and transformative force of the story.
The eponymous Octavo is a spread of cards, akin to tarot, that augurs the eight individuals - if they can be found - who can help your hero Emil Larsson fulfil his dreams of love and connection. Card-playing was central to social life at the time, but how much was cartomancy practised?
There were several popular fortune-telling methods of the period of which playing cards was one (reading coffee grounds or egg whites was another) but the late 18th century was a pivotal time for cartomancy. The first book on the subject was published in 1770 by Jean-Baptiste Alliette (under the pen name Etteilla.) Etteilla used a standard French deck of 32 cards plus one, but also mentioned an Italian deck used for the popular game tarocchi. This deck of 52 plus 22 trump cards was the tool of choice for another Frenchman, Antoine Court de Gèbelin, who declared the tarrochi deck was connected to Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic. Court de Gèbelin's essay on the subject was published in 1781 and began the occult sensation we know as Tarot. These two gentlemen paved the way for the practice of professional cartomancy, for which Mrs Sofia Sparrow of my novel is very grateful.
Also taking centre stage are fans and the language of fans and you make a convincing case for their importance at social engagements of the 18th century, with people even taking lessons to improve their handling skills. Were they really taken so seriously and if so, why?
I cannot name a historical figure so obsessed and dangerous with folding fans as The Uzanne or her protégées, but fans were an expected and important part of a well-dressed 18th century woman's ensemble. A lady's fan was a fashion statement, speaking volumes about wealth and taste. As an extension of her body, its handling revealed breeding, for graceful movements and exquisite positioning were the mark of aristocratic training. And while conversation and wit were part of any social gathering, there might be urgent messages too brash or risqué for the lady to say aloud. The language of the fan, a loose collection of gestures said to originate in Spain, could in fact communicate these simple but important thoughts in a way that would not be overheard or intercepted. In a moment of passion, a woman's ability to use her fan well would be taken very seriously indeed!
The plot depends on skilled interpretation of what is not obvious - cards, motives, the language of fans, complex social situations and the healing or harmful properties of plants. Do you think this degree of subtlety has been lost in the let-it-all-hang-out 21st century?
Such an excellent question! It is indeed difficult to be subtle today, when competition for attention of any kind inspires excess, and the demand for speed makes thoughtful consideration 'too expensive' on many levels. Add to this the fact that we face information overload and an infinity of choices everyday. We are expected to absorb and interpret so much more than a person living two centuries ago. Nonetheless, I believe that our ability to be sublimely subtle still exists and, if we slow down and focus, we can experience it from others and practice it ourselves.
Your attention to detail is astonishing, from descriptions of food and settings to the harshness of the Stockholm winter. How did you do your research?
The foundation of the research came from living in Sweden. Perhaps because I first studied drawing and design, I have a very good visual memory, and I suspect that moving to a foreign country before developing language skills heightened sensory intake: the smells, tastes, textures, architectural forms, weather and landscape made an indelible impression. The fact that Stockholm was the first European city I ever visited made it utter magic. But obviously much more information is required to write a novel set in the Gustavian age! I began with Internet research and museum visits to look at period rooms, paintings and folding fans. Then I moved to print, which I like because you can dog-ear and fill with notes and stickies. Books on the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and folding fans were quite easy to get hold of, but Swedish history books were scarce. I relied on two friends in Malmö who supplied me with an incredible array of volumes in Swedish that I read and re-read (very slowly.) Because the book is Fiction with a capital F -- meant as entertainment rather than erudition -- I did not spend time in archives or consult numerous experts. And I confess I did not visit Stockholm at all during the process; common sense, inspiration, imagination and truly excellent editing made it all come together.
You studied drawing and design. When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Are the beautiful drawings of the cards your own, and did you always plan to include illustrations?
Writing was an early love, but I threw it over because the visual arts seemed cooler and more exclusive (lots of people think they can write but not very many think they can draw!) Writing returned to my life when I returned to the US after living in Sweden, and first appeared as text that I added to drawings. Over time, I began to journal and write poetry but was still attached to pictures -- collage, doodles, tear sheets, etc. -- and I still worked in design. But writing became more and more important, and when I attended my first writing conference, the head teacher wisely suggested that I concentrate on the text and forget about the visuals for a while. Over time I wrote a novel, short stories and poems, but it was hard to shake off my art training so I usually ended up designing the manuscripts as books.
The Stockholm Octavo began as my master's thesis, and I was again wisely instructed by one of my advisors: this time, to use drawing to clarify the structure of the novel in my own mind. I also did a lot of doodling on the side to try and figure out how the Octavo worked. There was no intention to include these drawings but they did make the concepts of the geometry clear, so I made proper diagrams and The Stockholm Octavo became an illustrated book. After devising the cartomancy system of the Octavo and designing the chart, I went in search of antique cards to fill it and found the gorgeous Jost Amman deck from the 16th century (I SO wish they were mine!) It was as if his cards had been drawn specifically for Mrs Sparrow's theory and for the characters in the novel. They made a perfect addition to the book.
The Stockholm Octavo has romance, intrigue, suspense, high drama and scandal and must have been enormous fun to write. What parts or characters did you most enjoy writing?
Writing out Mrs Sparrow and The Uzanne, the opposing forces behind the political scene, was completely satisfying. They are both slightly mad and utterly passionate about their beliefs. Once I set their motives and goals, they were hell-bent on success (toppling all rivals in the way), which makes for a good story. Using Gustav III's assassination contributed to the excitement; I had a dramatic tightrope of history for these characters to dance across in their own unique way, and I never worried they would be pulled down by personal historical data.
Ultimately, it is the women who hold the power, with many of the men acting as their unwitting pawns. How involved were women in reality in the politics of the day?
I found little mention of powerful women (with some notable exceptions, like Catherine of Russia) in the historical texts I read. But in truth, I believe women had a great deal of power, wielded in subtle ways and usually behind the scenes. Women could not vote or serve in government (unless they sat on the throne), so they used what means they had at their disposal to affect policy: beauty, wit, money, title and children to name the obvious. Social manoeuvring was also effective; Gustav III was crushed when the women of the aristocracy deserted his court after the 1789 Act of Unity and Security (the men followed.) Gustav understood full well the influence these women had; he called them 'the Fifth Estate' and claimed they gave him more trouble than the other four estates combined. This is one of the reasons The Stockholm Octavo revolves around Mrs Sparrow and The Uzanne: I wanted to portray what ambitious, intelligent and motivated women might do to achieve goals that went beyond personal gain in an 18th century man's world.
The plot is pleasingly complex. How did you manage to keep track of all the twists and turns? Did you know them all yourself from the outset or were you to some extent on a voyage of discovery with Emil?
All I knew at the start of the novel was I wanted eight characters who would create something called the Octavo, folding fans would play a part, and Gustav III would be assassinated at some point. The rest emerged in the process. It took about 2500 pages and five years of writing so everybody got lost, tired, depressed and bored out of their minds along the way: Emil, the Eight, me, my family, thesis advisors, early readers, my agent (Amy Williams,) and the brilliant team at Ecco (Editor Lee Boudreaux, Associate Editor Abigail Holstein and several meticulous copy editors.) Luckily, they were all patient and generous with their guidance, and pulled me out of the weeds many times. The revision process was nothing short of a miracle (with several boxes of red pencils and piles of sticky notes thrown in.)
Do you have another book on the go, is it also historical?
I confess to reading books about Gustav III's son and recently visited Stockholm's Drottningholm Palace and Court Theatre (thrilling!) so I may eventually end up in the Town again, but at the moment I am working on something completely different -- a kind of palate cleanser. It's recent history (20th century), very lightweight, and it does have cards (greeting cards this time.) Too soon to tell if it makes any sense at all but I am having fun!