In her debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann creates not only a convincing world and memorable characters, but a fate-changing card game. Mrs. Sparrow, the proprietress of one of Stockholm's most exclusive gaming salons, lays the Octavo for only the most special of customers—until her sixth sense informs her that a humble customs official, Emil, might play a pivotal role in the kingdom's fate. We asked Engelmann a few questions about cards, writing and the number eight.
The Stockholm Octavo is a puzzle novel, the kind of satisfying mystery where a reader can really revel in putting the pieces together page by page. What is it like to write this type of novel? Did its structure come first, or the story?
I let the novel reveal itself over a long period, which was both a puzzle and a mystery for me! Eighteenth-century Stockholm, folding fans, the assassination of Gustav III and the number 8 served as inspiration and main components. The real writing started with the fictional characters (backstory, personal details, a pivotal event in their life), most of which did not make it into the novel. The storyline emerged from these characters inserting themselves into history, and the structure came last. Everything changed dramatically during the various revisions, and keeping track of the details made me (and the editing team) crazy at times. With patience, hard work and a ream of sticky notes, it eventually came together.
You have a degree in the visual arts, and have worked as a book designer. How involved were you with the physical design of the book—and the cards that make up the Octavo?
My only part was to create the Octavo diagrams and the timeline for the front matter. I was consulted, of course, by the Ecco design team, who created the splendid design for the U.S. edition, which I absolutely LOVE. The Octavo cards are a 16th-century German deck that I discovered doing research on gaming. They fit Mrs. Sparrow’s philosophy perfectly, and the drawings (by Jost Amman) speak volumes about human nature. I wish that I had drawn them!
Have you actually laid an Octavo for anyone? Do you believe in divination?
I have not laid the Octavo and would decline if asked; reading cards (like any other skill) requires a special interest and ability, and takes years of study and practice (I have the interest but none of the rest.) As for divination, I do believe there are people with intuitive abilities who can sense and decipher energies that others cannot—but there are very few of them out there. To me, this is not dissimilar from people who compose, sing, do higher mathematics, or anything else at an advanced, professional level. It takes tremendous talent and rigorous training.
This novel explores many of the myths and legends that surround the number eight. Has this always been a significant number for you?
Absolutely! I was born on the 8th, into a family of eight children. I have carried a brass key ring stamped with an eight since college. I was told by a numerologist that my soul’s urge was eight, and it’s a beautiful number besides so it appeals to my design sensibilities. It symbolizes good fortune in China, but is rather ignored in Western culture. Maybe that’s about to change.
The French Revolution had an amazing ripple affect across Western Europe, and arguably did as much for other countries as it did in France. Do you think revolutions can be contained?
I am not a historian or scholar, but my response would be that revolutions spread—sometimes the ideas and intent rather than physical acts of rebellion. These revolutionary ideas can inspire likeminded action (with or without the upheaval and violence) or cause a reactionary backlash. That’s happening right now in the Middle East, isn’t it?
What did you learn about 18th-century Stockholm that surprised you?
Despite the geographical isolation, late 18th-century Stockholm was an incredibly lively and diverse city, full of culture, beauty, drama and fascinating characters. It’s not what one imagines when the topic of Swedish history comes up in conversation.
What are you working on next?
In an attempt to pull myself out of the shadows of the 18th century, I am working on a novel much lighter in tone, set in a more recent century (20th). This book also focuses on cards—but greeting cards this time. I am very interested in the juncture of art and commerce, and also the combination of text and image in books (although it’s not a graphic novel). The work (so far) has been gleeful, but is far from finished. Thanks for asking!
Read a review of The Stockholm Octavo.