Interview with Author Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt

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.

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Book Review: Ecstacy by Mary Sharratt

I’m so excited to be part of my friend Mary Sharratt’s blog tour for her book Ecstasy, which has one of the best covers I’ve ever seen. Mary and I met through the Historical Novel Society when we were on a panel together on women in history at the 2017 conference.

Ecstasy tells the story the relatively unknown Alma Mahler, a composer who would become the wife of famed composer Gustav Mahler. Alma was a woman ahead of her time (1879-1964), one who insisted on educating herself and working as a composer, even as all the women around her, including her sister, were doing the societally-acceptable thing and getting married. But through them, Alma witnessed that she would be forced to give up her dreams and so resolved to devote herself to music. Unfortunately, as any reader of women’s history or female historical fiction can tell you, such independent thinking – especially prior to the last few decades – rarely resulted in happiness for the woman.

If there is one idea to sum up Alma’s life and Sharratt’s book, it is that if Alma didn’t have bad luck with men, she wouldn’t have any at all. Before Alma even marries, one can see that she is desperate to find love and so has a tendency to adore the men who catch her fancy, an all-encompassing adulation that can only lead to ruin. As a result, her story – through no fault of Sharratt’s – often feels like watching a moth flit from one candle flame to the next, if only to find out how badly it will get burned this time.

As I reader, I wanted to shake Alma. Even I could see that she would have been better off with impoverished Alexander von Zemlinsky, than the rake Gustav Klimt (her first kiss) or any of her husbands, especially Gustav Mahler, on whom the balance of the book focuses. Alexander was the only one who truly respected Alma’s talent and would have allowed her to continue composing. While their relationship had its share of troubles – not the least of which was her family’s opposition to him being poor and Jewish – it was Alma being dazzled by Mahler, an older, womanizing star composer that killed her chance at happiness. (How many of us have been there? Those bad boys might be pretty, but they are also trouble.) She didn’t like his music, wasn’t inspired by him and knew he was controlling, yet she married him anyway, like so many other women in times when marriage was a requirement. The irony is that he was also Jewish and was known to be in debt. But yet, her parents allowed the relationship, albeit reluctantly.

Sharratt does an excellent job of portraying the misogyny of the period, especially as shown through Mahler. The only historical fiction portrayal that irritated me more was Marie Benedict’s Albert Einstein in The Other Einstein. I consider any strong feelings that I experience – especially loathing a character – a compliment to the author and a sign of his/her talent. Sharrat does not pull her punches. Mahler has the audacity to lay out to Alma exactly what he expects of her as a wife, demanding that she give up her own composing and “regard my music as your music (127)” and saying she “must become the person I need if we are to be happy together. My wife and not my colleague” (127).

The very traits which Sharratt uses to make Alma a historically accurate character make her also maddening for a modern reader. In her relationship with Mahler, she vacillates between being adoringly googly-eyed at her husband and feeling unworthy of his greatness (she almost acts like a victim of emotional abuse) and railing at him quite rightly for the injustices of the way he mistreats her. I think this is not only a personality trait, but a reflection of the times in which Alma lived. It seems like every time she is nearly brave enough to act as an independent woman, she recoils into the shell of the obedient housefrau that society expects. For all of her modern thinking, Alma has very little self-esteem, which is reinforced by Mahler, her parents and society at every turn. At one point she thinks to herself, “My only hope of distinguishing myself, of doing something truly remarkable, is by marrying a great man and sharing in his destiny” (131) and at another, Sharrat’s narration tells us, “Since she couldn’t find her way back to her old self, she would allow Gustav to shape her into a better self” – both thoughts inconceivable to my modern, feminist mind.

As a tale of what one woman endured and was willing to sacrifice for love, this book is a great read. It will be of particular enjoyment to fans of opera and classical music of the period, especially that produced in Vienna. Not knowing much about either, many of the references went over my head and I wonder how much richness I missed by not having the proper education to fully appreciate the book.

Ecstasy tells only a portion of Alma’s life, but her luck didn’t seem to improve any after Mahler’s death. In her Author’s Note, Sharratt writes that at after Mahler, Alma “made good on her aspiration for an independent life,” but not necessarily a happy one. She married two more times, but had affairs during each marriage, which says to me her bad luck with men and her desperate search for love continued throughout her life. I have to wonder how different Alma’s life would have been had she lived now, in a society that allowed and encouraged her to make her own choices, to be exactly what she wanted, with or without a man.

Join me here tomorrow for an interview with Mary Sharratt. Don’t forget to scroll down to the end of the post for a chance to win a paperback copy of the book.

Ecstasy
by Mary Sharratt

Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover & eBook; 400 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary

 

 

READ AN EXCERPT.

In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era.

Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees? In Ecstasy, Mary Sharratt finally gives one of the most controversial and complex women of her time center stage.

Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?

Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.

Available in Hardcover & eBook:

Amazon | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Indiebound

Also in AudioBook:

Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

Praise for Ecstasy

“In ECSTASY, Mary Sharratt plunges the reader into the tumultuous and glamorous fin de siècle era, bringing to life its brilliant and beguiling leading lady. Finally, Alma Mahler takes center stage, surging to life as so much more than simply the female companion to the brilliant and famous men who loved her. Sharratt’s portrait is poignant and nuanced, her novel brimming with rich historic detail and lush, evocative language.” – Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress

“A tender, intimate exploration of a complicated woman, Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY renders in exquisitely researched detail and fiercely imagined scenes the life of Alma Mahler — daughter, wife, mother, lover, and composer — and the early 20th Century Vienna and New York in which she came of age. I loved this inspiring story of an early feminist standing up for her art.” – Meg Waite Clayton, New York Times bestselling author of The Race for Paris

“Evocative and passionate, ECSTASY illuminates through its tempestuous and talented heroine a conundrum that resonates across the centuries: how a woman can fulfill her destiny by being both a lover and an artist.” – Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

“Mary Sharratt makes a triumphant return to the page with this masterful portrait of Alma Mahler, the wife of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. Set in a time and place when a woman could only hope to be the power behind the throne, Sharratt brings a meticulously researched and richly illuminated account of a young woman who was a brilliant composer in her own right. Alma may have had to suppress her own talents to support Mahler; however, ECSTASY reveals that she was a woman who “contained multitudes.” ECSTASY is an important work of historical fiction, as well as a timely and topical addition to the canon of knowledge that needs to better represent important women and their contributions.” – Pamela Klinger-Horn, Excelsior Bay Books

“Alma Mahler’s unexpected, often heartbreaking journey from muse to independence comes to vivid, dramatic life in Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY. Sharratt skillfully evokes turn-of-the-century Vienna and the musical genius of the era, returning Alma to her rightful place in history as both the inspiration to the men in her life and a gifted artist in her own right.” – C.W. Gortner, bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel

“Mary Sharratt has more than done justice to one of the most interesting, shocking, and passionate women of the 20th century. Overflowing with life and lust, ECSTASY explores this flawed but fascinating woman who was not only muse but a genius in her own right.” – New York Times Bestseller, M.J. Rose

“A deeply affecting portrait of the woman rumored to be the most notorious femme fatale of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Mary Sharratt’s ECSTASY is as heartbreaking and seductive as Alma Mahler herself.” —Kris Waldherr, author of Doomed Queens and Bad Princess

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.

Her novels include Summit Avenue, The Real Minera, The Vanishing Point, The Daughters of Witching Hill, Illuminations, and The Dark Lady’s Mask.

For more information, please visit Mary Sharratt’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a paperback copy of Ecstasy! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Ecstasy

 

Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Conference

Before I begin, I just found a cache of 65 comments in the trash of my website. Thanks for that, web site. I’m so sorry to have missed them. So if didn’t respond, I wasn’t being rude; I just didn’t know they were there. I have responded to all of them now. 

Also, I completely missed my blogiversary. This little ol’ blog turned six on June 16.

And now, on to our main topic…

At the end of June, I had the pleasure of attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland Oregon. It was hands-down the best, most fun conference I’ve ever been to. From the second I stepped into the hotel, I saw people I knew or who knew me, and it felt like a homecoming. These truly are my people. It was humbling and immensely gratifying to have so many people approach me, saying they loved my books and/or had seen me speak somewhere and learned something. I have to say that for the first time I felt like, maybe not a celebrity, but a rising star. I was certainly encouraged to continue on my journey as a historical fiction author!

I have to say I was thrilled by the diversity in the program offerings. In addition to panels on craft and dedicated to certain time periods, there were panels on everything from gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s England and race/minority viewpoints in historical fiction to LBGT characters in history and including women’s stories in history. It was encouraging in an increasingly polarized culture to see that within the Society, authors are talking about all forms of inclusiveness. On a similar note, there were workshops and koffee klatches for both traditional and indie authors and both forms of publishing (as well as being a hybrid author) were talked about on panels. Here again, I took comfort from the open-mindedness I experienced.

Honestly, there were so many great choices, it was often hard to decide which workshop to attend. (Note to HNS: Please bring back the recording of sessions. I would buy every single one.) Of the ones I attended (that I wasn’t on), the one I enjoyed the most were Writing in Multiple Genres, which reaffirmed that you can and perhaps should write in multiple areas, especially if you can make your fiction and non-fiction relate (which mine do, whew!)

From Bustles to Suffragettes panel

I was on two panels and lead a packed koffee klatch. The first panel was “From Bustles to Suffragettes: Writing Victorian Era & Gilded Age Fiction” with Stephanie Carroll, Leanna Renee Hieber, Amanda McCabe (Laurel McKee) and moderator Susan McDuffie. I had corresponded with these ladies online but had never met most of them until the conference. Stephanie and I were roommates at the conference (we met at the 2015 conference in Denver) and Leanna quickly became my new favorite person. (When you share a love of Victoria Woodhull and outspoken Victorian women, I guess this is bound to happen!) We certainly shared a feministic vibe and were two of the more passionate panelists in our answers. We all worked really well together and I’m very glad to have met all these ladies.

Putting the Her in History panel. Photo by Jessica Knauss.

Next was “Putting the ‘Her’ in History” with Patricia Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and moderator Stephanie Lehmann. I was somehow magically added to this one a few months ago and I’m so glad it happened. First of all, I love Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharatt as authors. Okay, I love Patricia Bracewell in every respect. I like to think of her as one of my writing idols. Needless to say, I was humbled and thrilled to be on this panel. Again, we were a group of well-spoken, intelligent women with no shortage of opinions and more than enough moxie to voice them. As Patricia Bracewell wrote in her blog post reflecting on the conference,”I can only tell you that my fellow panelists were passionate and eloquent about the roles of women throughout history, about the definition of POWER, and the difficulties that historical novelists face in bringing all-but-forgotten women to life.” We must have gotten rather feministic without realizing it, because when the panel started, there were four or five men in the audience; by the time it was over, there were none left. Oops. Sorry guys. We really meant no disrespect. But our message was received. I’ve seen the panel called the best of the conference on several wrap-up blogs like this one and Jessica Knauss said she thought we “had possibly the best energy of any of the panels.”

My koffee klatch was an “ask me anything” style open forum on being an indie author. About 25 people showed up and it was a rapid-fire hour. I barely stopped talking to catch my breath the whole time. Luckily, there were a few other experienced indie authors in the room (hi Lars!) so when I didn’t know the answer (like on KDP select, for example) they were able to fill in for me. Several people told me they really enjoyed it and learned a lot, so I can’t ask for more than that!

Lookie! I got to meet Geraldine Brooks!

The guests of honor, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing, The Golden Chord, Year of Wonders) and David Ebershoff (The Danish Girl, The 19th Wife, Pasadena). I have been a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ writing for years, so it was a dream come true to get to hear her speak. I love that she said she “looks for the stories that are too crazy to be believed” as the basis for her fiction. Finding those is one of my favorite parts of research (Victoria’s family, anyone?) and even if readers don’t believe them, they are things that need to be told. A woman after my own heart, Geraldine gave my favorite quote from the whole event when reflecting on her time and experiences as a war correspondent in the Middle East: “In societies where women are publicly silenced, they find ways to wield private power.”

I had never heard of David before he spoke and I wasn’t expecting to be interested in, much less bowled over by, his speech. But I was captivated. He spoke so eloquently of the life of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in the transgender movement, who was the inspiration for his book The Danish Girl. His speech helped me understand transgender issues a little better and I actually teared up when he talked about Paramount quietly replacing the long-lost headstone on Lili’s grave.

Hooch Through History.

And what would a conference be without extra-circular activities? The first was Hooch Through History, a multi-flight alcohol tasting event that was accompanied by a well-researched presentation about what drinks were popular at different times in history and why. We had mead (which I’ve had before and find way too sweet), mulled wine (which I am very familiar with due to my German/Austrian heritage -YUM!), two kinds of gin (the first, which was an older type was kind of okay, but the second tasted like pine trees), absinthe (which tastes and smells like black licorice – all  kinds of wrong) and a bellini (which was my favorite drink of the night). I knew some of the history from my own research, but it was fun to learn more and taste with my friends. It was a unanimous opinion in the sold-out room that this should be an annual event.

Stephanie Carroll and I at the masked ball.

On the final night of the conference there was Hellfire at HNS, the first ever after party. It was so much much! It was a masquerade ball, and even though they gave out free domino masks, I bought a fancy bejeweled mask to wear, as did a few other people. You could choose from two activities: learning Regency dance or learning to play whist. I had major blisters on my feet from the stupid shoes I wore the night before, so dancing was out, but luckily I love playing cards. I can’t say I fully understand whist yet, but I think I have the basics down and my partner and I won, so there is that. I had a really, really good time and I hope they do something like this again in 2019.

My new discovery from this conference is author Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens). I saw her on a panel on Myth, Magic, and Fairy Tales in Historical Fiction. She also spellbound the crowd with recitation of the fairy tale Tam Lin (click the link to watch my shaky video). I fell in love with her. She mentioned on the panel that she has a PhD in fairy tales (how awesome is that?) and that she’s written 40 books in 20 years. As soon as I heard that, I realized that is my new goal! (The books rewritten part; though the PhD would be cool too.)

Jenny Q. and I

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, I met my lovely cover designer, Jenny Q., in person for the first time!

Next year the conference is in Scotland. I really wish I could go, but unless things change that isn’t going to happen. So I’m already looking forward to 2019. I’m considering being on the board, so we’ll see where that goes!