ADDRESSES: Home—Richmond, VA. Office—Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of English, 900 Park Ave., Hibbs, Rm. 306, P.O. Box 842005, Richmond, VA 23284-2005. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]
CAREER: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, assistant professor of creative writing and modern literature, 2001–c. 2004; Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, assistant professor, c. 2004–.
Mirabilis, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
Breath and Bones, Unbridled Books (Denver, CO), 2005.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies and journals, including Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and Gulf Stream. Contributor of essays about contemporary writers to Style, Critique, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, and Centennial Review. Reviewer of fiction for the New York Times Book Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Susann Cokal is an assistant professor of creative writing and modern literature at Virginia Commonwealth University. Cokal once told CA that some of the inspiration for her first novel, Mirabilis, "came from the year I lived in Poitiers, France. In between studying medieval art and history, I used to sneak into a decrepit medieval church whose nave was open to the sky. That church (renamed) is where Mirabilis begins. I wrote about a wet nurse because I'm fascinated with the idea that no matter how 'civilized' we've become, we still need this very primal function; also, wet nursing was the more honorable way for a woman to make a living from her body."
Cokal's first novel, Mirabilis, is set in the fourteenth century in Villeneuve, France, a crowded and disease-ridden town. After unseen hands raise her up during Mass, Blanche Mirabilis is hailed as a saint; after she gives birth to a fatherless child nine months later, however, she and her daughter must live in disgrace. Blanche dies in a church fire, leaving her daughter, Bonne, an orphan. Bonne spends her adolescence doing laundry before she decides to become a wet nurse—a good life for a young, unmarried woman. She is soon employed by the wealthiest woman in Villeneuve, Rade-gonde Putemonnie, who is a pregnant widow. Rade-gonde and Bonne begin a sexual affair. Bonne is fed rich food, even after the village is attacked by the English and the people begin to starve. In order to save them, Bonne feeds the villagers with her milk. Reviewing the book for the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Joy Parks commented, "Mirabilis is original, humorous, and fascinatingly bizarre, an enigmatic story wrapped in a gauze of feminine sensuality." New York Times critic Sudip Bose wrote, "Cokal's prose is vivid, and she is adept at scenes that recreate a distant and terrifying world."
Cokal's second novel, Breath and Bones, was inspired by the history of the American Southwest and concerns the frail, consumptive but beautiful Famke, a red-haired Danish orphan who becomes the artistic muse for Albert Castle, a British Pre-Raphaelite painter. When Castle leaves for the United States, Famke follows him by marrying a polygamous Mormon and then escaping Utah and traveling to Colorado to find Castle. There, she finds his paintings among the squalid brothels, but not him. When her illness threatens her life, she finds refuge at the California home of a strange inventor whose cure for her disease involves a bizarre electrical device and who believes she is a member of an underground, violent labor union.
In an interview with Valley Haggard of Style Weekly, Cokal described Breath and Bones as a "'picaresque bildungsroman,' or a coming-of-age novel in which the main character is prone to travel." Critics appreciated the book's historical aspects, although some took exception to coincidences that pepper the plot. The novel is a "labyrinthine, literary bodice-ripper," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and a writer for Kirkus Reviews called the book's humor "very dark, the descriptions of bodily afflictions baroque," yet appreciated Cokal's portrayal of the Old West "as a brutal but oddly liberating society."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of Mirabilis, p. 1835; April 15, 2005, Kaite Mediatore, review of Breath and Bones, p. 1429.
Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2001, Sandra Scofield, review of Mirabilis, p. 4.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, September, 2001, Joy Parks, review of Mirabilis, p. 38.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2005, review of Breath and Bones, p. 189.
Kliatt, September, 2002, Susan G. Allison, review of Miribilis, p. 16.
Library Journal, June 15, 2001, Wendy Bethel, review of Mirabilis, p. 101; March 1, 2005, Jyna Scheeren, review of Breath and Bones, p. 76.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 1, 2001, Susan Larson, review of Mirabilis.
New York Times, September 23, 2001, Sudip Bose, review of Mirabilis, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2001, review of Mirabilis, p. 56; March 7, 2005, review of Breath and Bones, p. 49.
Style Weekly (Richmond, VA), May 18, 2005, Valley Haggard, review of Breath and Bones.
Washington Post, July 27, 2001, Carolyn See, review of Mirabilis, p. 24.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (September 29, 2006), Luan Gaines, "An Interview with Susann Cokal"; (September 29, 2006), review of Breath and Bones.
PopMatters.com, http://www.popmatters.com/ (June 10, 2005), Megan Milks, review of Breath and Bones.
Susann Cokal Web site, http://www.susanncokal.com (September 29, 2006).