Both authors are Richmond transplants, pulled to the East Coast by Virginia Commonwealth University Curran to attend the M.F.A. program and Cokal to teach in the English department. Although their books are vastly different in scope and circumstance, each is the result of a fiercely determined passion to write and a fearless eye for revision.
Curran, a Milwaukee native, moved to Richmond in 1998 and draws from both cities to create the world of her novel. Formerly the editor of Richmond.com and currently executive director of the James River Writers, Curran is living out her dream of becoming a published author.
Her path to publication hasn't always been smooth. "When I was at VCU, I didn't win any prizes," she says. "I couldn't get published. I didn't get any fellowships." But waking up at 5 every morning for a year to write for two hours before her workday paid off. She was picked from the slush pile by her dream agent, Eric Simonoff, who encouraged her to revise. For 10 solid months. After a massive revamping, "Whores on the Hill" went to market in January 2004 and sold within a week.
"I wanted to write a book about what really is going on with teen sex," Curran says. "Teen sex is very scary, and it's exciting and dangerous and very passionate. I wrote about things I'm afraid to talk about, things that are taboo. That's part of why it's interesting to me."
Experimenting with a combination of styles that diverge from traditional narrative and jampacked with '80s lingo and memorabilia, Curran's work evokes a collage of memory and emotion that is both funny and sad. The characters within "Whores on the Hill" will resonate with almost anyone who managed to survive high school.
Curran says that fiction is pulled from every facet of life but denies that this novel is autobiographical. "I did go to an all-girls' Catholic school and everybody did call us the Whores on the Hill," she says. "It is set in Milwaukee and I'm from Milwaukee. But that is it. The rest is total fiction." Curran is at work on her second novel and a book of short stories.
In contrast to the mirror of emotions evoked in "Whores on the Hill," Cokal takes us outside the realm of the familiar into the life and death of a hauntingly beautiful tuberculosis-stricken Danish orphan in the 19th century.
"I always expect more of myself," says Cokal, who earned a B.A. in French literature from the University of California, San Diego, a master's degree and doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate in creative writing from Binghamton University.
Born in Davis, Calif., Cokal lived in various locations, including France and New Mexico, before moving to Richmond in the fall.
Immediately following the success of her debut novel, "Mirabilis," Cokal began to write "Breath and Bones" each morning while teaching at California Polytechnic. In spite of her teaching load, Cokal discovered that it was possible to force her inspiration to conform to a schedule.
Cokal calls it a "picaresque bil-dungsroman," or a coming-of-age novel in which the main character is prone to travel. And "Breath and Bones" covers an enormous amount of territory of the American Old West. Following Famke's trail, readers meet prostitutes, polygamists, pre-Raphaelite painters and anarchist dynamite bombers who seem more real than some actual historical figures. Cokal garnered research from medical history and art museums in the United States and abroad, as well as from libraries and her history books that form a solid 16 square feet of shelf space.
"I like historical narratives," she says, "but it is true that every character has something of the writer in him or her. I have asthma, so that feeling of breathlessness worked into 'Breath and Bones.'"
Both of Cokal's parents died while the novel was in its planning stages, creating an impact on the narrative. "My father loved trains and the Old West," Cokal says. "In these ghost towns and long stretches of empty area with mines and railroads, I started telling myself the story that eventually became 'Breath and Bones.'"
Cokal based the figure of Famke on her mother, a redheaded Danish model, in combination with the pre-Raphaelite idea that "women with tuberculosis were really sexy because they're burning hot to the touch, and they have bright red cheeks and pale skin and bright shiny eyes. Their heart rates are elevated so they're living life really fast."
Cokal is working on a novel set in the Renaissance about the effect of a queen's mental disorder on her country, as well as a short story about two sisters, one of whom is a contestant on "The Price Is Right." She will participate on a panel at the James River Writers Festival in October.
Cokal and Curran each offered the same advice to aspiring writers that they carefully took themselves: "Write something that you would want to read." S
Colleen Curran will have book signings and readings at the Libbie Place Barnes & Noble May 19 at 7 p.m. and at Chop Suey Books May 20 at 7:30 p.m. www.colleencurran.com. Susann Cokal will have readings and signings at Book People May 21 at 3 p.m. and at the Midlothian Barnes & Noble May 22 at 3 p.m.
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