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.

Guest Post – On Making Paperweights: Jacqueline Friedland Talks Strong Women and Memorable Books

Happy Beltane, everyone! I’m so excited to have Jacqueline Friedland as my guest here today. As her post below makes clear, she’s a soul-sister of mine in her love for strong women. Her post really got me thinking about how our early experiences with reading shape who we are later on as writers. I think I may do a follow up post on that with my own thoughts. But this post is about her, not about me. Take it away, Jacqueline!

Photo: Rebecca Weiss Photography

Did you ever try to figure out why certain novels make you fall in love and others make you fall asleep?  Perhaps you’ve wondered if there is a common thread, a specific literary ingredient that draws you so deeply into certain stories?  Maybe if you could identify a trend in the books that invariably keep you reading late into the night, that knowledge might allow you to better hone in on other books that would provide you with equal delight.

As a voracious reader and an author, it has been important to me to pinpoint the devices and themes embedded in the books I most adore.  Not only can such knowledge save me from muddling through books that don’t speak to me, but it can also help me to create written work of my own that feels appropriate and substantive in all the right ways.  Over the past several years, I have identified several characteristics that lead me to gravitate towards a novel.  I like a fast-pace, a strong plot, accessible prose, maybe some romance, perhaps some humor.  Nothing scary, gory, or overly experimental.  But there is something more elusive that has made certain books stay with me for years.

When my mother read aloud to me during my early childhood, we loved The Little Engine that Could, The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie.  As I grew older, I was drawn to books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club and Anne of Green Gables.  Then there were the books that shot to the top of my list as I reached adulthood: Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre and The Bronze Horseman.  What these books all have in common are strong female characters (and if you weren’t aware, Watty Piper’s plucky little engine is indeed female).  These works of fiction portray girls and women who have grit, the will and determination to continue striving until they reach their goals.

There is an additional commonality between these characters though, which is that these females are not only strong, but kind.  In today’s world, there is so much discussion of women needing to be strong, but not enough emphasis on the fact that in appropriate circumstances, kindness should be perceived as a type of strength.  The ability to think about others and see past one’s own experience in interacting with people requires a special kind of fortitude.

In creating my debut novel, Trouble the Water, I felt it was imperative to include positive messages about feminine power and decision making.  The manner in which my characters approach the circumstances fate deals them is what I believe defines their spirits and ethos.  I wanted to portray characters who could make the best of difficult circumstances while also being brave enough to reject conformity.  I created women who took the lemons life handed them and decided to use those lemons as paperweights.  After all, not everyone likes lemonade.

The central female characters in Trouble the Water are each willing to think outside the Victorian or antebellum box, despite the constraints of the 1840s.  The women are courageous enough to make their own choices and to shout until they are heard.  Abigail Milton, the story’s protagonist, has worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire England, receiving a pittance in recompense since she was eleven years old.  When her parents ask her to travel to America so that she may live off the charity of their old friend in Charleston, and thereby lighten the financial burden on her family, she agrees to set off on her own, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a stale bread crust and unwavering determination to make a better life for herself.

As the story unfolds and Abby discovers that her new home is rife with clandestine efforts to free local slaves, she is excited, energized, and eager to participate in the abolitionist effort.  Rather than judging the high-risk and profoundly illegal activity of her patron, Douglas Elling, Abby wants to jump directly into the trenches of abolition with him.  It’s a whole different kind of #metoo.

Throughout the story, Abby repeatedly resists being corralled into any of the stereotypical gender molds of the day.  From her penchant for physical exercise to her continued rejection of assistance from men, even those who simply offer to carry her bundles, Abby is her own person.  She is desperate to create meaning in her life, which she believes can be achieved through teaching and helping others.  When she develops romantic feelings for another character, she struggles greatly over how to reconcile those feelings with her burning desire for independence.

In addition to Abby, the other women featured in the novel are full of conviction and tenacity.  Cora Rae Cunningham, a beautiful, spicy, nineteen-year-old who has rejected one marriage proposal after another will not be seduced by wealth nor forced into an arrangement that is not to her romantic satisfaction, much to the dismay of her plantation-owning, socially conforming parents.  Clover, a house slave impregnated by her master, refuses to birth her baby into a life of bondage, and in the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, takes her chances on running North.

Creating a realistic historical novel that depicts female characters who are ahead of their time, models for women in any time period, is a challenge that I was glad to undertake.  I felt it was incumbent on me to portray women who were progressive for their time, active players in their life stories, rather than passive guests, living out the scripts that had been handed to them by other forces.  My characters have strong backbones, as well as moments of unexpected kindness and generosity.  They are just the type of women who would keep me reading deep into the night.

Sounds like your characters and mine would get along great! Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I know I can’t wait to read her book! If you have any questions for Jacqueline, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure she sees them.

Neal Katz – Victoria Woodhull and #MeToo

Neal Katz

Two years ago when I was in Chicago for BEA and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, I met Neal Katz, a fellow author who is also telling Victoria Woodhull’s story. I knew about him (or rather his name) because I had researched others who have or are writing about her. But I had no idea he’d be so charming and gracious. He’s truly a wonderful man.

Neal is approaching Victoria’s story as a trilogy, so he’s able to go much more in-depth into Victoria and Tennie’s lives than Madame Presidentess does. The first book in the series, Outrageous, won 10 awards. Now he’s now preparing to publish part 2: Scandalous. So if you’re hankering for more on Victoria, go buy his books!

As part of Neal’s pre-publication publicity (say that five times fast), he wrote a great article on how Victoria used her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to launch the #MeToo of her time: http://thevictoriawoodhullsaga.com/rise-up/. Go, read, now!

(I also took up the subject of Victoria and #MeToo, but from a different angle.)

Some people might question why I would promote Neal’s books since they are direct competition with mine. My answer is that we aren’t really competitors; we are allies.  As much as I want book sales, that’s not really what this is about. It’s about getting Victoria back into the historical record where she belongs. And the more voices we have out there promoting her, the better. No two writers approach a subject the same way, so even if you’ve read mine, you’re likely to learn something new from his, and vice versa. Plus, the more indie authors (and all authors, for that matter) work together, the better off we all are.

[Guest Post] The Reincarnation of Jo March: Writing Strong Women in Historical Fiction by Steve Wiegenstein

Please welcome my special guest today, historical fiction author Steve Wiegenstein. He’s a good friend, fellow Missourian and a fun drinking partner! I love this essay. I hope you do too.

Photo credit: Kaci Smart

In an earlier post on this blog, Nicole writes about the challenges of portraying strong women in proper historical context, responding to some recent articles and speeches by Hilary Mantel and others. I’d like to echo some of her thoughts and add my own perspective.

Perhaps the greatest gift I have been given in my writing life was to have been raised by and among strong, intelligent women. My mother, aunts, grandmother, and “neighbor ladies,” (to use the regional generic) were people with clear opinions, broad knowledge, and a profound sense of right and wrong.

Only from the perspective of later life have I come to understand the obstacles they dealt with. When my mother was born, the Nineteenth Amendment was less than three years old, marital rape was still an unheard-of legal concept, and women made up only about one-fifth of the workforce. A “strong woman,” pretty much by definition, was trouble.

The farther back in history we look, the more dispiriting the story becomes. From witch-burnings to marriage laws to the simple daily grind of being seen by those in power as something less than human, the lives of women through the ages were characterized by disempowerment and oppression.

And yet . . .

As a novelist, the prospect of writing story after story about disempowerment and oppression is so dreary. So it’s understandable that writers look for that prototypical “strong female lead character” that publishers, agents, and readers prize. There are a lot of legitimate ways to do this, none of which are wrong.

We look for the exceptional women who have gained historical fame—Elizabeth I, Madame de Stael, Catherine the Great. We search out the exceptional women who deserved more fame than they received in their time, like Sophie Scholl, Mary Katharine Goddard or Nicole’s own Victoria Woodhull. Or we step into the realm of the mythical and semi-mythical, to the Amazons, Valkyries, or other women of legend.

But there’s another tack I’d recommend, and it’s the one I have chosen in my work. Rather than look among the famous or near-famous, I think there’s plenty of drama in the everyday struggle itself. When I think of great American characters, Jo March certainly comes to mind, and although she is not a character in a historical novel (the events of Little Women are nearly contemporaneous with its publication), I think she points the way for us.

What do we remember about Jo? For me, it’s her wide range of emotions, the vividness of her portrayal, and the determination with which she deals with the challenges of life as they confront her. In other words, she is a character with whom we can “relate.” Before Jo is the model of a strong female lead, she is a vibrant human being trying to find her way in a world that underestimates and sometimes thwarts her. Characters like her can be found throughout history and in our own family stories, women who strove to accomplish their goals, whether great or small. As we search for ways to bring those strong female characters into our fiction without violating the realities of history, a good place to start is in the diaries and journals, the stories and jokes, of ordinary people who are anything but ordinary.

Steve Wiegenstein’s most recent novel is THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press).

Note from Nicole: Steve’s new book came out September 26. You can order it here.

Book Review: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

I am SO not a math and science person, but I think The Other Einstein may well end up as my favorite book of 2017. I remember seeing it reviewed in the New York Times when it first came out, but because I don’t give a hoot about science, I didn’t read it. I was afraid it would go over my head. (There is a little science in there I didn’t understand, but it is not at all overwhelming.) Over the next year or so it kept showing up in various places and when it appeared in the “People Also Bought” section on the Amazon pages for my books, I knew I had to read it. I wanted to know what readers (and Amazon’s algorithm) thought the books have in common.

As it turns out, that was identifiable right away. Not only is it about a strong historical woman whose story really hasn’t been told, the tone or “voice” of the book strongly matched my own. That is a hard thing to qualify, so you may just have to go with me on that idea. But I was hooked immediately and knew this was going to be the tale of my kind of woman: intelligent, determined and unwilling to let anyone or anything stand in her way.

The story opens with the early education and formative family years of Mileva Maric, an unusually smart Serbian woman, for whom no marriage is expected because a deformed hip has left her with a limp. Because of this, her father sees fit to encourage her love of school and studying, especially science. He even goes so far as to move the family to help her become one of only a handful of women who study at the Zurich Polytechnic university. During her first year of study – she is the only female physics student in her section – she makes a pact with one of her female roommates that they will eschew men and embark upon a life dedicated to study and science.

As we know from the title, that’s not what happens. A charming Mr. Einstein enters her life and everything changes. After years of her fending off his advances and a prolonged courtship due to money issues, Albert promises to build a life with Mileva based in intellectual discussion, shared science and joint experiments – the very thing of which she has always dreamed.

I won’t ruin the plot by telling you what happens, but I will say this: the very same things that made Einstein charming in the beginning make him a royal asshole as the story progresses. I can’t tell you the number of times I said out loud while reading this book, “You are such a dick.” Kudos to Marie Benedict for being able to create such a complex character that I was drawn in by him, only to be betrayed right alongside Mileva.

I wish Mileva would have fought back more. That is the one thing I wish was different in this book and about her character. She was so smart, so strong in many other ways, but Albert was her weakness. There were many times when I said to her, “why are you still taking this?” (I listened to the book on audio, so it wasn’t quite as weird to talk back to the character.) I would have told him off and gotten out of the relationship at the first hint of trouble. But then again, I’m a 21st century girl (great, now I’m singing “21st Century Digital Boy” by Bad Religion) who was raised on a healthy dose of feminism and the message that I can do anything I want and not to let anyone stop me. I’m sure being a woman in Serbia in the early 1900s, raised on the idea that your role in life is to keep house and have children would have given me a totally different mindset. As an author, I know Marie Benedict was being true to the time period, but it frustrated me as a reader.

And maybe that is not a bad thing. The fact that she elicited such strong emotion from me is testament to the author’s talent. I know I will never look at a picture of Einstein again within inwardly (and maybe outwardly) grumbling. I can’t even hear/read his name without shuddering now, given that he takes great pains in the book to remind Mileva that Einstein means “one stone” and point out that when they married they became one. You’ll have to read the book to see how that gets used against her. What Albert did to Mileva is appalling and puts her squarely in the ranks of some of history’s most royally-screwed women. If this book is to be believed (and it IS fiction, so Marie Benedict has had no shortage of controversy from readers/reviewers) Mileva was robbed of an honor that would have firmly emblazoned her name in history, among many other slights.

I can’t fathom why this book wasn’t a runaway bestseller. That is perhaps the highest praise I can give a book, and its author. I will definitely be reading Marie’s other books as she writes them. I only hope they all uncover stories like Mileva’s. They may be rough on the emotions, but they are stories that need to be told.

PS – Interesting side note: Marie Benedict has written three other books under the name Heather Terrell, The ChrysalisThe Map Thief, and Brigid of Kildare. I read one of them a long time ago and HATED it. HATED IT! She has come a long way. (No, I’m not telling you which one.) But I plan to read the other two now.

Twitter Chat Recap

If you missed the Twitter chat I did last week, you’re in luck. They’ve storified it and given me permission to re-blog it.

Here’s the link to the full chat or you can click on the image below. Hope you enjoy!

Join Me Tonight for a Twitter Chat!

I’m doing a twitter chat tonight from 7-8 p.m. CST on strong female characters in history and I’d love to hear from you!

Visit Strong Women Write to learn more! #StrongWomenWrite