Shades of Vienna Past

 

 

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!

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14 thoughts on “Shades of Vienna Past

  1. J. Sydney Jones

    Louise,
    Thanks much for having me on Murderati. And please, do not get me started on the Amazon-McMillan deal. I loved the irony of Amazon accusing McMillan of corporate mendacity and greed, as if Amazon’s e-book pricing is all about the consumer. I guess my Viennese Mystery series is destined for difficult launches. Last year the first in the series, The Empty Mirror, came out on President Obama’s inaugural day. We can all figure out who won that skirmish.
    Thanks again for having me on your blog, Louise, and good luck with the paperback edition of Liars Anonymous.
    Best,
    Syd

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Syd,
    Wonderful to meet you here at Murderati. Your books, all of them, sound fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to answer Louise’s questions so fully so that we could get a good feel for them.

    Congratulations, also, on the release.

    AND, Louise,
    Congrats too! Thanks for a really interesting interview today.

    Reply
  3. Rebecca Cantrell

    Happy launch day Syd and Louise!

    I love the sound of the Vienna books. I can’t wait to read the Schnitzler, so write that one faster, please! I do sometimes think there are vortices of cultural change that hit at certain times in certain places and shape the whole world. Just like 1930s Berlin, turn of the century Vienna is one (Freud, Klimt, Mahler, the list goes on and on). Makes me wonder where that energy is these days. Any ideas?

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    Pari and Alex, thanks for the drive-by greetings.

    And Rebecca, I vote for modern day Ireland as one of those hotbeds of inspiration. Or maybe Iraq/Afghanistan. Whatcha’ think?

    Reply
  5. J. Sydney Jones

    Hi all and thanks for the positive words about Requiem in Vienna. Becky, re your comparison between 1930s Berlin and Vienna 1900–spot on. Societies in ferment and turmoil. I can’t remember who it was now, but one writer on Vienna 1900, speaking of the cultural renaissance that was spawned in this dying society, said that "swamp fires burn bright." I also like Karl Kraus’s famous aphorism that Vienna is a laboratory for world destruction.
    Pari, thanks also for your kind words–Vienna is a long way from your New Mexico patch, but it is great fun to have a series focused on place, as I am sure you will agree.
    Ditto the thanks to you, Alexandra. Go historical indeed. There was no lacking of investigators of the paranormal in Vienna 1900.
    Best to you all,
    Syd

    Reply
  6. Rebecca Cantrell

    Hey Louise, I think there has to be an element of safety in a society for the intellectuals to be able to concentrate on new and random stuff while sipping coffee and I don’t think Iraq/Afghanistan are safe enough. I like the idea that of Ireland. What about Africa? Or maybe Asia? I haven’t lived abroad in so long, I don’t have the insight into it, but my gut says it’s a non-European city.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Rebecca, you may well be right. Syd’s "societies in ferment and turmoil" are the impetus … but that genius can’t be recognized until there’s a bit of safety and security to allow one to look back.

    Reply
  8. J. Sydney Jones

    It takes a crossroads culture for the sort of synergy needed for breakthroughs such as happened in Vienna 1900. You had a dozen nationalities cosseted together under the Habsburgs. Vienna, despite the usual conception, was not really Germanic–neither is it now. Slavs and Jews and Poles and Ruthenians and Czechs and you name it all inhabited the city. Tiny Moravia contributed a number of the major cultural shakers, including Freud and Mahler.
    Modern cities that might fit that bill? How about Los Angeles or New York? That are in ferment and turmoil to boot? I’ll go with Detroit.
    In other words, I doubt we can predict these things, only recognize them a couple generations after they take place.
    Syd

    Reply
  9. BCB

    What interesting questions you ask, Louise. Remind me to never let you interrogate me. And great answers. I know very little about that time period. Intriguing.

    Syd, I’m pretty sure my mom read The Empty Mirror — I remember her telling me about a mystery set in Venice, but I wasn’t paying close attention. As usual. She loves all things historical and she had very nice things to say about that book. I’ll be sure to tell her about this one.

    Adding more books to the Must Buy/Read List (including yours, Louise!). Damnit. My kids joke that I should open my own library. Seeing as how half the inventory of my local library, along with an equal number of purchased books, is piled up all over the place at any given moment, they might have a point.

    Reply
  10. BCB

    And I think cultural change "this time" isn’t limited by geography. We’re part of it, right here, right now. It’s the internet bringing people together in ways we’ve never before imagined, making friends (perhaps enemies), exchanging ideas, communicating huge amounts of knowledge and information and opinion. Across cultures and borders and languages. We’re getting to know each other in way that obviates our differences and shows us our similarities. That’s a pretty big deal. IMO.

    Reply

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