By Louise Ure
Today’s guest is J. Sydney (Syd) Jones, whose second novel in a historical mystery series set in Vienna 1900, Requiem in Vienna, launches today.
Each book features one of the cultural luminaries of the day. The first in the series, The Empty Mirror, has the painter Gustav Klimt accused of murder and this second book finds the composer Gustav Mahler the target of an assassin.
“A rich, beautifully written historical mystery … first class,” said the starred Booklist review.
“Confident prose and mastery of historical detail, woven into a convincing narrative, make this sophisticated entertainment of a very high caliber,” wrote the Kirkus reviewer in another starred review.
Publishers Weekly said: “Jones’s fine second Viennese mystery … smoothly blends a compelling period whodunit with bountiful cultural and social details.”
Let’s get to know Syd a little better:
LU: It’s clear from your work that you know Vienna well. Tell us a little bit about your years there.
JSJ: I went to Vienna initially as a student. It was my first experience of a big city and I fell in love with the place. This was during the Cold War–the Russians had just crushed the Prague Spring movement–and the city was most definitely Central European with the ambience of a much earlier time. Faded elegance best describes Vienna during that time. It has since gotten a facelift and joined Western Europe in a million small and irritating ways, but at the time, for a young man who loved history, Vienna was a living museum. I stayed on for almost two decades after my student year, working and living in other parts of Europe as well: Paris, Florence, Molyvos, Donegal. But I always kept coming back to Vienna for that feeling of home.
LU: How did you happen to choose fin de siecle Vienna as the time period? What is its special appeal? And have you ever been tempted to write about modern day Vienna?
Vienna became not only a second home to me, but also a major theme for my writing. When I was first there, fin de siecle, or Vienna 1900, was not the cottage industry it has since become. You could still pick up a Klimt sketch for a reasonable price or bid on Werkstätte pieces at the Dorotheum with a chance of actually winning. Maybe it was a wonderful course I took on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus at university in Vienna, maybe it was the as yet undiscovered territory of the intellectual/cultural ferment of the period–whatever, I became hooked on turn-of-the-century (20th) Vienna. I researched it for years in preparation for my first big nonfiction work, but soon discovered that no one was interested. But for Hitler there has been perennial interest. Linking the story of the (largely Jewish) cultural renaissance in Vienna 1900 with the flip-side tale of Hitler’s down and out years in the city, I found quite a lot of interest; thus publication of my Hitler in Vienna.
I have also used Vienna for a more recent historical backdrop in a stand-alone thriller, Time of the Wolf, set during World War II, and wrote three unpublished novels in a series featuring an American foreign correspondent set in contemporary Vienna. But it seems my efforts at an earlier Vienna are the ones that have proven more successful.
LU: Your work is peopled by real historical figures like Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, Hans Gross and Alma Schlindler. What are the special challenges you face when including real people in a work of fiction?
Using historical characters in fiction obviously poses some challenges. With fabricated characters, the writer is in total control of backstory, personality, and physical characteristics. However, when using actual figures in a fictional setting, you do not want to do a disservice to the historical record. I read widely about my characters–biographies, journals, diaries and letters if available, newspaper accounts. But at some point you just have let your writerly instincts take over and get inside the character. Klimt, for example, as I portray him in The Empty Mirror, is a bit of a crude barbarian, but loveable all the same and a true genius. I took my lead from bits and pieces of historical writing about him, especially about his weight-lifting and brawling and his love of pastries. Other characters give you more insight to start with. Alma Schindler (later Mahler) kept a diary for the years I was interested in that provided me a window into her psyche as well as the social happenings of the day. There are also dangers in this approach. Using Klimt as a suspect in a series of brutal murders earned me a headline in one of Vienna’s tabloids as a “Scandal Author.”
LU: Tell us about your protagonist, the lawyer Karl Werthen. Why is he the perfect foil for the other lead character, Hans Gross, and this series?
Werthen and Gross have a long history and it is Gross (one of those actual historical figures in my series) who first prods Werthen back into the world of criminal law and investigation. Gross, as I portray him, is a blustery old coot in many ways, but also in possession of a keen mind–he is known as the father or criminology, after all, and an inspiration, some say, for the character of Sherlock Holmes. Gross is fusty, persnickety, and a great egoist, largely unaware of his self-centered ways. Werthen, younger than Gross, is sensitive and caring, a man with artistic sensibilities and even some ambition to be a writer. Where Gross is all action and drive, Werthen is more reflective and in possession of a sense of humor–something missing in Gross’s resume. They play off of each other quite well, and over the course of the books Werthen increasingly comes out of the shadow of his mentor. Theirs is not a Holmes-Watson association, but rather a collaboration of equals. It is just that Gross only rarely recognizes this.
Their pairing also allows me to bring out important themes in the series, including anti-Semitism (Gross is the unconscious racist whereas Werthen is an assimilated Jew), and feminism. Werthen’s wife, Berthe, and her group of friends (including the early feminist writer, Rosa Mayreder) are integral characters in the ongoing adventures.
LU: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Is there a difference in how you face your writing day for those two different kinds of writing?
Half of my published work is nonfiction. When starting out as a writer, I was very practical, figuring that I could publish nonfiction more easily than fiction, and then establish a name and cross over to my first love, fiction. Practical isn’t always smart, and publishing works in mysterious ways. Anyway, while concentrating on novels now, I have continued to work in nonfiction and in freelance journalism to pay the bills. The biggest difference between the two is that with nonfiction there is not that niggling little bit of dread in the stomach when I sit down to work each morning: I know where the day’s work is going. Fiction demands more. I pretty closely map out my novels scene by scene, but there still needs to be that spark, that bit of invention and surprise in each scene. You hope you get it every day; sometimes you don’t.
LU: Tell us about the birth of this new series. You’ve been writing for over twenty years, and yet this new series set in turn of the century Vienna represents a whole new direction for you. Did it require a new agent and new publisher? How did you go about getting it published?
The Viennese Mystery series is the first time I’ve allowed myself to use, in a fictional format, the material I’ve researched for so many years. I guess I was always too conscious of historians looking over my shoulder before. Once I set on Gross and the fictional Werthen, however, the writing became hugely fun for me and I forgot about the constrictions of nonfiction. My enjoyment–if you believe the reviewers–comes across in the books to create an entertaining blend of fact and fiction. And what was also surprising about the series was the relative ease I had in getting it published. I did need to change agents for this new direction, and had positive responses from a number of really good people. I teamed with Alexandra Machinist at the Linda Chester Literary Agency. She loved the book and the series concept and made the sale with the first submission. It seems my earlier works on Vienna helped, making me something of a Vienna expert, but it was also the high concept and Alexandra’s enthusiasm and savvy that did the trick.
LU: What famous Viennese characters or situations are you working on for the next book?
Book three is finished and features, among others, ten-year-old Ludwig Wittgenstein, long before his fame as a philosopher. The modernist architect Otto Wagner and the mayor of Vienna at the time, Karl Lueger (role model in demagoguery for young Hitler) also figure in this tale of machinations to sell off the sacred Vienna Woods to developers. Book four in the series is in the works now and focuses on literary Vienna–Arthur Schnitzler (the playwright whom Freud called his doppelgänger), Felix Salten (of Bambi fame), ur-bohemian Peter Altenberg, and a host of other literati of Vienna 1901. Another major character is the famous prostitute and madam, Josephine Mutzenbacher, whose memoirs are a sort of Viennese Fanny Hill. Like I say, this series is great fun to research and write.
LU: Thank you, Syd. It’s a pleasure to get to know you. Check back in on our comments section today and meet the rest of the ‘Rati crew.
PS: Not only is it Syd’s launch day for Requiem in Vienna, but it’s also the day that the trade paper edition of my Liars Anonymous hits the shelf. Go out and buy somebody’s book today! And since Amazon appears to have backed down in their power grab over e-book pricing (although I don’t see that their ordering buttons are lit yet) feel free to order from them or go to BarnesandNoble.com or to your independent bookseller!