If you didn’t get the chance to listen to my radio interview about Victoria Woodhull and Madame Presidentess the other day, you’re in luck! They gave me a copy of the recording. Just click on the image below to begin listening.
Today, author Mary Sharratt joins us to talk about her new book Ecstasy, which I reviewed yesterday. I’m very excited to find out the details behind this fascinating and unusual book!
1. What initially drew you to Alma Mahler as a book subject?
I am a lifelong Gustav Mahler fan and Alma has always fascinated me. Few twentieth century women have been surrounded by such as aura of scandal and notoriety. Her husbands and lovers included not only Mahler, but artist Gustav Klimt, architect and Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet and novelist Franz Werfel. Yet none of these men could truly claim to possess her because she was stubbornly her own woman to the last. Over fifty years after her death, she still elicits very strong reactions. Some people romanticize her as a muse to great men while others demonize her as a man-destroying monster. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous observation that well-behaved women seldom make history could have been written about Alma.
Although Alma was a composer in her own right, most commentators, including some of her biographers, completely gloss over this fact and instead focus quite narrowly on her sexuality and on how they believe she failed to be the perfect woman for the great men in her life. How dare she not be perfect!
But I wanted my fiction to explore who Alma really was as an individual—beyond her historical bad girl rep and beyond all the famous men she was involved with.
2. What kind of research did you do to help bring Alma to life?
For me, both primary sources and place are paramount. The key primary sources I relied on in writing Ecstasy were Alma Schindler’s diaries (her published diaries end shortly before her marriage to Gustav Mahler) and Mahler’s letters to Alma during their life together. Taken together and supplemented with their music, these primary sources form a narrative. First we have a very beautiful and passionate young woman who yearned to be a composer. Then she fell in love with composer and star conductor Gustav Mahler who demanded that she give up her own music as a condition of their marriage. Bowing to social convention, she reluctantly agreed. Then his letters to her reveal what a shadow Alma’s sense of anguish and loss cast on their marriage. Interestingly, Alma later destroyed most of her letters to Gustav, so we only get his side of their voluminous correspondence. Her self-imposed silence in this historical record forms its own narrative, as well.
I also read biographies of the Mahlers, but I like to begin with the primary sources and form my own conclusions, rather than just taking any one biographer’s word for it.
The other main stream of my research is place—literally inhabiting the same landscape as my characters. I went on three separate research trips to Vienna and immersed myself in the art and music of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna. I listened obsessively to the music of both Mahlers while writing the novel. I also visited their summer homes in Maiernigg and Toblach. It helped that I studied German and used to live in Austria and that I played violin up until my college years.
[Note from Nicole: Oh, I am so jealous of your research trips! I haven’t been to Austria since I was 11, but I loved it then. My mom was born there.]
3. What is the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Once I sat down and did the research, an entirely new picture of Alma emerged that completely undermined the femme fatale cliché. I read Alma’s early diaries compulsively, from cover to cover, and what I discovered in those secret pages was a soulful and talented young woman who had a rich inner life away from the male gaze. She devoured philosophy books and avant-garde literature. She was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at Vienna Conservatory, though her family didn’t support the idea. Besides, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned with her whole soul to be a composer, to write great symphonies and operas.
[Note from Nicole: I have a feeling we’re going to see more and more stories like this as authors like you and I take on famously maligned women in order to right their histories.]
4. Why did you choose that specific time in Alma’s life to highlight as opposed to covering her whole life?
Originally, I wanted the novel to tell the story of Alma’s entire life, but it took me 400 pages just to try to do justice to her young adulthood and first marriage. Narrating the full sweep of Alma’s long and turbulent life would require a trilogy, at the very least. Who knows—maybe if Ecstasy is super-successful, my publisher might ask me to write a sequel or two!
[Note from Nicole: Good luck! I’d like to see a few more!]
5. What’s your favorite scene/part of the book?
I loved writing about the young Alma Maria Schindler, this gifted young woman effervescent with creative potential. The scenes of her composing and losing herself in her piano playing were the most delightful to write. I also, of course, enjoyed writing about this very passionate young woman exploring her burgeoning sexuality. When I was workshopping one of those scenes with my writers group, such glee and hilarity ensued, including enthusiastic whoops, that someone knocked on the door of our meeting room and asked us if we could please shush. We rent our meeting room at the local Buddhist center and our spirited discourse had disturbed the meditation class!
6. What do you think Alma’s life says to women today?
Gustav Mahler famously asked Alma to stop composing as a condition of their marriage. Deeply in love and in awe of his genius, she reluctantly agreed, even though this broke her heart. In this regard, her story is a starkly cautionary tale and also, alas, one that is all too relevant today. What do women still give up in the name of love? How much female potential never reaches fruition because of the demands of motherhood and domesticity?
What Alma’s story reveals is how hard it was (and often still is) for women to stay true to their talent and creative ambition in a society that grooms women to be caretakers. Why are female composers so sorely underrepresented, even in the twenty-first century? I am a classical music fan and attend concerts every chance I get. I’ve never seen a female composer on the repertoire of any major orchestra or venue I have visited. Nor have I ever seen a female conductor.
Fortunately, though, Alma does eventually triumph and take back her power.
7. What message or feeling to do you hope readers come away with after finishing Ecstasy?
I hope my readers will be as moved by Alma’s story as I am. I think the time has truly come for a more nuanced and feminist appraisal of Alma’s life and work, and I hope Ecstasy challenges some of the commonly held misperceptions about her.
Alma has been traditionally viewed through a very male-centered lens. Only within the last decade or so have more nuanced biographies about her emerged and only in German! Ecstasy is currently the only book available in English, to my knowledge, that takes her seriously as a composer and as a woman who had something to say and give to the world besides just inspiring genius men.
[Note from Nicole: Wow, that is an amazing accomplishment! Congratulations and thank you for bringing her proper story to the English-speaking world!]
8. What’s next for you? Any books currently in the works?
My next book is a trip back to the late Middle Ages. Revelations, my new novel in progress, should be of special interest to fans of my 2012 novel, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Here I return once more to the realm of the female medieval mystics. Revelations is the story of the intersecting lives of two spiritual women who changed history—earthy Margery Kempe, globetrotting pilgrim and mother of fourteen, and ethereal Julian of Norwich, sainted anchorite, theologian, and author of the first book in English by a woman. Imagine, if you will, a fifteenth century Eat, Pray, Love.
[Note from Nicole: Ahhhhh! I’m so excited! I loved Illuminations. In fact, it’s my favorite book of yours. I’m all over this new one.]
9. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m on a mission to write women back into history. To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.
It’s important that women today realize how quickly our lives and achievements can be forgotten and buried. Or heaped with misinterpretation and condemnation if we push too hard against the traditional feminine life script—Alma is remembered but she’s also been slated as a “bad” and even “hysterical” woman. We must do everything in our power to keep alive the memory of accomplished women and hope that future generations of women will remember what we have accomplished.
[Note from Nicole: We share the same mission. Men do love to call us hysterical, don’t they? Hopefully together, and with the other female authors who also focus on women, we can make a dent in history.]
Thank you so much for being here, Mary! Readers, if you have questions or comments, please leave them below and I will make sure Mary sees them.
I’m so excited for all of you to meet author Aimee Brown, whom I’ve known online for a few years now. Yesterday, I reviewed her debut novel, Little Gray Dress, which is definitely a don’t miss! She gave me the opportunity to pick her brain so I asked her about her book, chick lit and what she sees in the future. Take it away, Aimee!
Thank you, Aimee! I hope everyone goes out and orders your book. I, for one, can’t wait to read those two books you teased above!
Questions or comments or Aimee? Leave them for her below.
Just a quick note to let you know that the Unscrambled Authors podcast episode I was interviewed for a few weeks ago is up: Listen here. I haven’t listened to it yet, but the interview went really well.
Also, I’m up on Mary Tod’s blog today talking about what makes successful historical fiction. Check it out.
The blog challenge for this week is “Meet My Best Friend.” That would be fellow writer Courtney Marquez. We actually met through our day job (we work for the same company, but in different states), but quickly found out we share a love of all things books and writing. That was in 2009 and we’ve been friends ever since. We’re even planning on writing a book together. (I think that’s on the schedule for 2019.)
What’s one thing you’d like all our readers to know about you?
I’m going to tell you one thing which will give you some context for my answers to the other questions. I’m a pretty curious, nosy if I’m honest, person. I tend to have wide and varying interests. I like everything from R&B to bluegrass. Romantic comedy to foreign films. Classic literature to popular fiction. So, just keep that in mind as I answer!
Tell us about your family.
I come from a pretty tight knit nuclear family. My mom, dad, younger sister and I moved a lot due to my dad’s job in the Air Force. When you move every four years and the only constant are those people, it really makes a bond. I have since moved to my parent’s hometown and get to live near a fairly large extended family. I’m married to a wonderful partner. We have two children. Kailen who will be 18 this year and graduates high school in May. And Eli who is 9, going on 25.
What do you do now and what do you want to be when you grow up?
I am currently a brand manager for a fairly large health care organization. When I was little, I had no idea what any of that even meant! For a few years, I wanted to be a marine biologist who studied sharks. Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t great at the STEM subjects. I have always loved to read, so I majored in English Literature. “Maybe a professor,” I thought. I may still be deciding what I want to be when I grow up! Ha!
What are your hobbies?
Reading and reading. I also listen to a lot of podcasts while I do housework or computer work. I’m going to add my kids to this list as well. It’s where I am in life right now.
I know you’ve traveled all over the place. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Visiting is one thing. Living is whole other deal. I think living someplace really gives you a chance to understand a culture and the people. I LOVED living in Cairo in college. LOVED it. I’d go back there in a heartbeat. I loved the people. I loved the crazy activity of that huge city. I loved the mixture of modern and ancient.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Since we’re all friends here, I guess I’ll tell you. I love stroopwafels. They are this amazing little caramel treat from the Netherlands. You can sit the cookie-like creation on the top of your mug of tea or coffee and the caramel inside gets all soft.
If you could only read one genre of books for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
This might actually kill me. Go back to the first question for a reminder about why. I’m sitting here looking at my bookshelves and it’s so hard to decide. I guess I’d probably have to say historical fiction. Ugh. So hard.
What first attracted you to me? Or what do you remember about the day we met?
We sat next to each other at a large meeting. We had to do one of those awkward ice breakers to get to know everyone at the table. You said you were writing a book. That cinched it for me. You were too cool for school.
What do you think has kept us friends? (Read: How in the world do you put up with me?)
I’m always on the lookout for people who will challenge me or look at the world differently. We have some key similarities, but we’re very different. I think that keeps the friendship fresh and interesting. We challenge each other, but in an encouraging way.
Thank you, my dear! Be sure to check out Courtney’s blog and say hi in the comments below.
I am so excited to bring you today an interview I recently had with bestselling historical novelist C.S. Harris. You may know her from her wildly popular Sebastian St. Cyr thrillers, or maybe under her other names Candice Proctor or C.S. Graham. Now she’s out with a new Civil War-era historical novel, Good Time Coming, which I was fortunate to be given a copy of through the Historical Novel Society. I’ll be writing a feature article on it that I’ll share once it’s published, but I was also lucky enough to get to sit down with C.S. and ask her a few questions. And I have to say, this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever had here.
Most people know you for your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. What made you want to change from writing Regency historical thrillers to straight historical fiction set during the Civil War?
I am still writing my Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series—the twelfth installment, WHERE THE DEAD LIE, will be out in April 2017, and I’ve almost finished #13, tentatively entitled WHY NOT THE INNOCENT. But it’s all too easy for an author to get into a rut writing the same kinds of stories with the same characters and settings. So I think it’s important for any writer—and especially one with a long-running series—to occasionally venture outside her safe zone and try something different. For a while I was also writing a contemporary thriller series, but I found keeping two series going at the same time too stressful. So a standalone seemed the best answer.
What was your inspiration to write Good Time Coming?
My very first historical mystery, Midnight Confessions, was set in Occupied New Orleans (the book has been revised for republication and should be available early next year). In the process of researching that story I became fascinated with the effects of the Civil War on the population of Louisiana (spoiler: it was pretty horrific), and I’d been wanting to write a straight historical about that ever since. What happened to civilians in the Civil War is a virtually untold story.
Why did you choose to make your protagonist a 12-year-old-girl?
Some of my favorite books have been coming of age tales, and it seemed the right way to tell this story. Children bring an unblinking honesty to their experiences that I felt was particularly appropriate for the complexity of the issues I wanted to explore. The journey from child to adult is basically a loss of innocence, and to watch that development happen to someone in the midst of an experience as horrendous as war is truly gripping.
And Amrie is a girl because we already have countless books about the experiences of boys and men in war. This is about war as seen through the eyes of the women and children left behind to cope with a world falling apart in every way imaginable.
What kind of research did you do to make the book historically accurate?
I researched this book for almost a dozen years. I read hundreds of letters, journals, and memories, along with general histories of the Civil War and more specific monographs. I visited the story’s various towns and battle sites—Port Hudson and Camp Moore, Bayou Sara and Jackson—and spent many a day wandering around St. Francisville’s haunting churchyard. I basically took the real incidents recorded by people who lived through the war and wove them into a story. With the exception of the central incident in the book—Amrie’s killing of the Federal captain and the events that flow from it—I made up very little of what’s in this story. And that is truly terrifying to think about.
How hard was it for you to work from the point of view of the South when traditionally history is told by the victors, and therefore our country has glorified the role of the North? How did this influence the way you told your story?
I had to make Amrie’s family staunch abolitionists; I simply could not have been sufficiently sympathetic to them as main characters otherwise. Plus I liked the way this shifted the dynamic of their interactions with their neighbors, both white and free people of color. But when it came to the actual events in the story, all I did was stay true to what actually happened to the women and children of St. Francisville. It really was brutal. As a professional historian, I’ve always been irritated by our cultural tendency to both glorify war and forgive the sins of one side while focusing endlessly on the sins of the other. This book doesn’t shy away from the sins committed by either side.
And I should probably state for the record that the only Civil War veterans on my personal family tree fought for the Union; one great-great uncle even died at Andersonville.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book was your willingness to challenge long-held beliefs and viewpoints about the Civil War (i.e. President Lincoln was a hero, he abolished slavery out of the goodness of his heart, the Northern soldiers were the good guys and the Southern the bad, etc.) Can you please tell me a little about your motivation behind this and what kind of a reaction you’ve received so far?
I think it probably comes down, again, to my training as a historian. I have long been bothered by the all too common tendency to turn history into a series of comfortable myths that we as a nation tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good about our past. It’s incredible to me that here we are 150 years later and both sides of that war are still telling themselves “feel good” distortions and outright lies. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wonderful thing, but that shouldn’t lead us to distort the explicit reasons he gave for doing it, or overlook the truly heinous things he also did. Likewise, too many Southerners still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge just how horrific the institution of slavery was both in theory and in practice. I don’t spare either side in this book. I guess in a lot of ways this story was an expression of my frustration with myth-making. I wanted to write about what really happened because it is so important to acknowledge that and finally have a real conversation about it. Unfortunately, myth busting is not popular!
In the Author’s Notes to the book you talk about a reticence of history to admit to rape being employed as a weapon of war during the Civil War. (I came up against a similar circumstance when depicting Guinevere’s rape by Malegant in Arthurian legend – most people either don’t know its part of the myth or don’t want to think about it.) Can you please talk a little about your reasons for including it and how you came to understand it would be important to your story?
When I first started plotting this book, I believed the commonly accepted “truth” that rape in the Civil War was rare. But as I read all those original sources written by the women who actually lived through it, I realized that was just one more myth. Rape has always been a part of war. What we’ve seen in our own lifetimes in places like Bosnia and the Congo isn’t something new; it’s the reality of war, and it has always been. But historically, women who were raped in wartime did not talk about it. Why would they, given their societies’ traditional ostracization of women who were raped?
As I read these women’s accounts, I also came to realize the importance of the fact that the people of 1860 weren’t very far removed from the time of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. That meant they knew exactly what had happened to their mothers and grandmothers in those wars (something else we don’t talk about). It’s one of the reasons the people of the South were so afraid of those armies of men marching against them. And they were right to be afraid. The North’s battle cry was “Beauty and Bounty!” In other words, Rape and Plunder! Yet 150 years later we still don’t like to admit it.
To be honest, I didn’t realize just how controversial this aspect of my story would be. Many of the editors who read the manuscript cited the rape part as their main reason for rejecting it. I guess as a writer you can kill people by the thousands, but you’d better not have a woman raped by American soldiers.
What do you think are the key themes of this novel? What do you hope readers walk away from it knowing/believing/feeling?
This book is about women’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity, about the way friends and neighbors can come together to survive great hardships, about love and loss and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.
But the main theme of this book is the idea that there is good and bad in every person and every nation. I am frankly shocked by some of the things I am seeing in our country today. I never thought I’d see Americans screaming “Sieg heil!” and panting swastikas on tombs, or hear talk of the Nazi-style registration and internment of a religious minority. Somehow we have failed to learn the right lessons from history, and I think the tendency to mythologize the past is one of the reasons for that failure.
If you could summarize your experience writing Good Time Coming in one sentence, what would it be?
Oh, wow; that’s hard! I’d say writing Good Time Coming forced me to move outside my comfort zone in many different ways; to confront my own prejudices and assumptions; and to think long and hard about what it would be like to experience things I hope I’ll never have to face.
Do you plan to write more straight historical fiction like Good Time Coming? What can readers expect from you next?
I do plan to continue writing other things as I also write my Sebastian St. Cyr series. I’ve just finished a novella set in World War II that will be part of an anthology due out probably in 2018. That was a new experience for me because I’d never written anything that short before. It’s a very different format, so that was a challenge.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon?
I find it unfortunate that coming of age novels these days tend to be seen by the publishing industry as “young adult novels.” They don’t have to be, and in fact some of the best were never written to be. I also find it curious that editors think young adults can handle large-scale massacres, zombies, vampires, and the end of the world, but not non-graphic rape. What does that say about us?
Thank you, C.S. Harris for being with us today. Good Time Coming hits stores December 1, so you don’t have to wait long to read it for yourself. Pre-order or order it today! You won’t regret it; it really is a great book.
Questions for the author? Leave them here and I’ll let her know she can get back to you.
AE Heller was kind enough to interview me on her blog. Here’s the result…
In case you missed it, here’s the interview I did a few weeks ago with the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. Learn about my research and writing processes, tips and tricks, and even get some inside scoop on the Guinevere books!
Just wanted to let everyone know you’ve got two chances coming up to see me in person at St. Louis Writer’s Guild events! I’ll be doing and interview on my books and research on August 15 and conducting a workshop on querying and getting an agent on August 24. Please check out my events page for all the details. I hope to see you there!