introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 20, 2005

Author2Author: René Steinke & Susann Cokal, pt. 2

by Ron Hogan

René Steinke: I love the character of Famke in Breath and Bones. One of the things I struggled with early in Holy Skirts was the Baroness's dependence on men for her destiny and even at times, her identity. This would not have been unusual for the period, but I felt like it was risky to introduce a character like this for modern readers. Famke has a similar trajectory, and I wondered if you also struggled with this--did you find it hard to sympathize with that kind of situation? Or how did you get around it? Famke can be passive, but she also has a strong inner core. I also admired the way you handle her posing scenes--I struggled a lot with the scenes in Holy Skirts when Elsa is posing, because the drama is so subtle. I also wondered about the historical sources that you quote at the beginnings of your chapters--what made you decide to include these?

breathbones.jpgSusann Cokal: I'll start with the easy part first--the historical excerpts at the beginnings of chapters (e.g., "The electric air excites the nervous systems of newcomers to a high tension, producing a sort of intoxication of good health, with keen appetite, perfect digestion and sound sleep"). I took them primarily from guidebooks written around or before the time Breath and Bones takes place, from winter 1884 to summer 1886 (the one above is a description of Colorado from King's Handbook of the United States, a very popular guide).

I put them in for a few reasons: First, and most obviously, to help give a sense of each place my characters were passing through. Second, the novel is written in third-person omniscient, but each section comes from a close point of view, so the epigraphs give a different perspective on some of the scenes and point out how biased the viewpoint character might be--Myrtice Goodhouse, for example, is not a very reliable or charitable observer, so I needed something that would give perspective on her and what she sees. And third, the guidebooks are a great example of how stuffy even a casual nineteenth-century voice could sound; they're sometimes pedantic, sometimes ebulliently enthusiastic. I didn't write Breath and Bones in a strict nineteenth-century voice, but I did want the flavor of one, and the guidebooks gave me a good dose of it. Also, sometimes, they're just plain interesting--amusingly naive or shockingly sexist, racist, and otherwise problematic. And these are the books that taught travelers how to perceive the world back then.

And now on to what might seem to be sexism in my own novel. I think you and I both struggled with the fact that, at the times our books are set, most women did have to allow men to determine their identities. That's not so appealing to us, of course--for example, I'm unmarried, parentless, and in my extremely late thirties; I'm even a schoolteacher, so in the 1880's I'd be considered the most dreadful sort of spinster. That was the way of the world then, but modern readers and writers might not want to spend so much time with such characters. (My college students, for example, always balk at reading The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart searches for a perfect husband; they want her to open a hat shop or take her small inheritance and live at the seashore.)

When I thought of Famke, I threw in some of the classic elements of nineteenth-century literature: She's an orphan, was raised in a religious community, and embarks on a (perhaps misbegotten) quest for love. Orphan stories are inevitably stories about identity--finding one or shaping one--and with female characters in particular, that identity tends to come through learning who one's father was or finding the right man to marry, the right "Mrs." to become. I didn't want the traditional kind of plot in which identity comes through a man, but I did know that Famke would need a lot of helpers on her quest and that, given the constraints of the time, most of them would be male. I thought it would be interesting if she borrowed some elements of identity from each. So I made her a bit of a chameleon; she joins up with several men, and even masquerades as a man for a while, but never holds on to any one persona for long. She's both a picaro and a bit of a maneater, I'm afraid; she marries a Mormon patriarch in order to get passage to America, and she plays up to a slightly unbalanced doctor in order to benefit from his innovative cure for her tuberculosis. She sees her dependence on men as something with which to strategize; her apparent vulnerability allows her to act forcefully, because she has something they want, too.

What she has is, of course, on display in the posing scenes. I always knew that the first line of the main text would be "'Don't move,' he said"--to me, that sums up certain notions of the nineteenth-century: a man telling a woman not to move, to hold a pose, to keep embodying an image he likes. That's the idea of the Angel in the House, the good example, the good mother, the even-tempered paragon that girls are told to be in books like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie (the recurrence of the word "Little" can't be an accident). But I think that, like the Jo March and Laura Ingalls of those books, most girls--and women--must have rebelled from time to time; it was too hard to hold that pose. So my favorite scene in the book is the night of the tableaux vivants in San Francisco, when Famke and other girls play "living pictures." These were marvelous entertainments in which women arranged themselves as the figures in famous paintings and held absolutely still--one of the best examples of that static identity women were supposed to maintain. (Tableaux vivants were also excuses for public nudity in the name of Art, and the police sometimes raided them.)

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