Author Q&A: Karen Engelmann

  • December 17, 2012

An interview with the author of The Stockholm Octavo

Life is close to perfect for Emil Larsson, a self-satisfied bureaucrat in the Office of Customs and Excise in 1791 Stockholm. He is a true man of the Town — a drinker, card player, contented bachelor — until one evening when Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, a fortune-teller and proprietor of an exclusive gaming parlor, shares with him a vision she has had: a golden path that will lead him to love and connection. She lays an Octavo for him, a spread of eight cards that augur the eight individuals who can help him realize this vision — if he can find them.

Set against the luminous backdrop of late-18th-century Stockholm, as the winds of revolution rage through the great capitals of Europe, The Stockholm Octavo brings together a collection of characters, both fictional and historical, whose lives tangle in political conspiracy, love and magic.

How did you come across your first fan? Are they still made or only relics? Is the art of “fandom” that you describe in the book once practiced or completely invented?

My mother had a small collection of fans, and they were enchanting to me as a child — beautiful and intricate, they conjured another time and place far from the suburban Iowa house I grew up in with seven siblings (six of them boys). You can still buy beautiful fans today, primarily in France and Spain and many countries in Asia. I have ordered a few online, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City carries fans from the newly revived House of Duvelleroy in Paris. The “art of fandom” has been written about since the early 18th century, most famously in a humorous essay by Joseph Addison in The Spectator in 1711. The language of the fan was understood to exist and be practiced — no doubt differently in every culture — but was never documented until the early 19th century when Duvelleroy printed a guide as a PR piece. In The Stockholm Octavo, the character of the Uzanne takes this language to invented extremes; there are no known cases of attempted murder by folding fan!

Mrs. Sparrow, the reader? Soothsayer? She explains how she came to use the cards, that she needed an outlet for her visions. Did she really need the cards or did she use them as subterfuge? The cards don’t enlighten as much as they seem to obscure the issues. Why wouldn’t she share more direct information with Mr. Larsson, the Seeker?

The Seer, Mrs. Sparrow needs the cards as a distraction from the burden of the Sight, as a means of making money and to lay the Octavo, which she does not offer except in cases that demand this particular spread. Her fortune-telling clientele does not always have the benefit of her visions, which are beyond her control. But the cards serve as a backup when she does experience a vision, at which point she will offer an Octavo, and the cards help the Seeker achieve this vision in a beneficial way. But Mrs. Sparrow is also an expert at the gaming tables, and known to cheat on occasion, so some readers may wonder if her dealings with the narrator, Emil Larsson, are helpful guidance or meant to push him in a direction of her choosing. I know where my loyalties lie.

Do you think powerful women still practice secret arts to get their way? Can you give us some 21st-century examples?

If by “secret arts” you mean fortune-telling, spell-casting, charms, etc., I would say definitely yes! One need only enter a neighborhood Botanica or type in “love spells,” “tarot” or “astrology” on Google — over 18 million hits just for love spells. But engaging in the secret arts is not limited to race, gender, economic class, religion or culture. In 2011, I met a numerologist in Istanbul who had a long client list of very highly placed individuals (men and women) in the public and private sectors. He flew in several times a year to read for them. He was amazing.

You have at least five female characters: Margot Nordén, the Uzanne, Mrs. Sparrow, Johanna and Anna Maria Plomgren, all of whom have determined their own fate, even in the 1790s. Is this an historical/fictional anomaly? Or have you just called the reader’s attention to what has always been true?

This self-determination for my main female characters is absolutely a fictional choice, but not necessarily a complete historical anomaly. Allowing them to have a heightened desire for personal freedom and then take action to achieve it fits the revolutionary period, even if it was for most women of the time a thwarted desire. Mary Wollstonecroft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) took a long time to catch on; it’s barely caught on in parts of the world today. But while 1790s Stockholm was without question a man’s world, the Town had some very accomplished women. Women ran many of Stockholm’s inns and worked in all manner of trades. The Swedish Academy of Art installed its first female member, Ulrika Pasch, in 1773, and one of the city’s most popular journalists was Anna Maria Lenngren. I believe there have been many brave and resourceful women all through history; most of their stories just never make it to the archive.

Does dressing the part really make one better at the act, whatever it is? If I put on some carpenter pants and attempted to build a bookshelf, might the pants help me inhabit the role and therefore improve my carpentry skills?

Dressing the part does make a difference — to a point. Otherwise I would have plumber’s overalls in my closet next to the carpenter pants. You need only observe the difference when a man or a woman puts on a business suit, gym sweats or evening clothes. Posture, carriage, voice, mannerisms all change. A change of dress can allow people to inhabit a world they otherwise would be unable to penetrate; that’s what undercover cops do. It can also be aspirational, like teenagers at the prom. We all rely on our clothing as much as actors rely on their costumes, especially if it is a part that we are eager to play.

It’s 1791 and your characters are surprisingly modern. Is this indicative of the Swedes?

While the Swedes have always been a bit ahead of the curve in many respects, the modernism in The Stockholm Octavo is my way of connecting to a contemporary audience — many of whom still believe in fortune-telling, magic, misogyny, the monarchy, an oligarchy, herbal treatments and dirty politics. The novel was never intended as a history book or an anthropological record. It was written to be entertainment.

The Sekretaire (the excise tax collector) in the story seems to exercise less power than he really has. Why is he so reserved? Or is he just uncertain?

Sekretaire is not a particularly high office, and Emil Larsson is a man with many fears, one of which is being unable to hang onto the rung of the social ladder that he has climbed with such great effort. His modus operandi is to remain unremarkable: do your job, do not make waves, do not make personal connections, keep your head down. The Octavo and Mrs. Sparrow force him to finally engage with the people around him.

What did you know about Sweden before you moved there?

ABBA, Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman, Greta Garbo and the word ombudsman.

The Octavo: the Seeker, the Prisoner, the Teacher, the Courier, the Trickster, the Magpie, the Prize and the Key. Should we all have each of these characters in our lives? What happens when we become the Prisoner of the Teacher and the Trickster runs off with the Magpie?

While we may have people in our lives at any given time that fit those descriptions, the Octavo is only meant for events of great significance. The cards fall in one of the eight positions because the person the card represents will play that particular role in the event; it does not mean they have that role forever. The position of the card in the spread is simply another clue to the identity of the eight, and how they can be used by the Seeker to influence the outcome. If in the course of the Octavo forming, the Trickster runs off with the Magpie, the Seeker must figure out how this event can be used to his or her advantage. I’m sure it has happened more than once!

Mr. Larsson believes that “the devil has marked him for his own.” Mrs. Sparrow, the diviner, tells him that the “devil cannot mark you. But others are eager to see his mark in anyone, especially when times are uncertain.” She goes on to say that “Fear trumps reason then, and people find evil before they ever look for good.” How did this woman become so astute? She’s the proprietor of a gaming club in an alley, which seems an odd choice for someone who had access to the king.

I have met many people of humble means who have great wisdom to share. That wisdom is often a result of acute observation and a keen mind, which do not always accompany social class or higher education. Mrs. Sparrow’s rooms were on Gray Friars Alley, but do not let the name mislead you. Many of the streets in the Town (now called the Old Town, or Gamla Stan) are named gränd which translates as alley, and while they are narrow they are lined with some exquisite structures that any king would be happy to visit.

In the story, Johanna, the “apothecaire” says, “I have come for a future, sir, and would prefer that my past remain where I left it.” These too are quite intelligent and bold words from a young lady who has run away from home. Generally, one would think they’d come from a woman with a more certain future. How do bravery and optimism grow in the desperate?

When life is hard and the options are few, the smallest act of kindness can rekindle hope. In this particular scene, Johanna has just been met with enthusiasm and enterprise by Master Fredrik Lind and his wife. Master Fredrik was complimentary and generous to Johanna in a previous scene as well, so she has reason to grasp at the optimistic belief that he will indeed help her to find a good position that will allow her to stay in the Town, use her skills and escape the cruel future her parents have set for her.

All of her herbs are the same as now — Valerian root, hops, chamomile flowers, dried moss, Saint-John’s wort, Belladonna, henbane, oil of jasmine — and the purveyor recognizes that Johanna may be attempting to send someone to their maker yet he provides her with her entire list. Why doesn’t he stop her or refuse to sell a young stranger these powerful herbs? Surely he couldn’t have known that King Gustav III would relax criminal penalties.

There has always been a place to buy contraband or dangerous goods if a buyer has the purse for it, and the apothecary of the Lion is hardly a reputable sort. But really, all of the ingredients on that list were used for healing at the time, and still are today. The danger is in the dosing.

Ulrica Arfvidsson, a fortune-teller in the Gustavian reign reminds me of both the Uzanne and Mrs. Sparrow. Is Mrs. Sparrow based on this real-life fortune-teller? Ms. Arfvidsson was a tea reader, Mrs. Sparrow uses cards. If Mrs. Sparrow is modeled on Ms. Arfvidsson, where else did you depart from the history? What is true?

Mrs. Sparow was inspired by Mamsell Arfvidsson, but not modeled after her. I wanted my main characters to be as free from the constraints of the archival record as possible, and Arfvidsson’s story did not fit with mine. She apparently read coffee grounds and cards as well as tea leaves, though Verdi used her as the cartomancer in his opera “The Masked Ball.” His main characters diverge from history even more than mine, and my Seeker and his eight are pure fiction. I did attempt to make the events of Gustav’s last years as accurate as I could without spending a decade in the stacks. The 1789 Act, the attempted rescues of the French Royals, the bankruptcy of the nation, the rivalry of Duke Karl, the last parliament, the masked ball, etc., all happened. I did fudge the date of Gustav’s departure for Aix la Chapelle in 1791. He left in late May, not June. I am sure there are other errors, but it was never my intention to be a biographer.

Is the Uzanne also based on a real person?

No, the Uzanne is a complete fiction, although the women of Gustav III’s court were powerful, and when they deserted him after his attempts at reform in 1789, the king was crushed. I added the Uzanne name to the list of Patriots imprisoned by Gustav in 1789 to give the Baroness a powerful, political revenge motive. This pitted her directly against the Royalist Mrs. Sparrow. The Uzanne has her obsession with folding fans to echo the fan of playing cards in the hands of her rival Sparrow — it was a case of Ladies, choose your weapons.

Did you feel as if you had to reveal which character played which role in the end? Why?

It’s old fashioned, but I like tidy endings.

How apt is it that at the end of the book the Seeker seems to be moving to America?

America is about as far from the Town as Emil can imagine: wild, new, rough and unsettling. He had no intention of ever leaving Stockholm, but believes this journey is part of his destiny; he is traveling there to find Johanna Bloom and the completion of his Octavo. You may think he is moving there, but he may not even make it into port.

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