Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In Tune with Vintage Vienna

Images from Vienna, 1900, with music by Johann Strauss II.

In case you haven’t noticed it yet, the first part of my recent interview with historical novelist J. Sydney Jones was posted this morning on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. This is of course timed to correspond with the release of Jones’ fourth and latest Karl Werthen “Viennese Mystery,” The Keeper of Hands (Severn House), the plot of which its publisher describes this way:
Vienna, 1901. With the police seemingly indifferent to the murder of a 19-year-old prostitute known as Mitzi, brothel-keeper Frau Mutzenbacher turns to lawyer Karl Werthen to find out what happened and bring her killer to justice. Yet the more he discovers about the mysterious Mitzi, with her secret past and impressive roster of clients, the more questions Werthen’s investigation throws up.

At the same time, Werthen undertakes a second commission: to find out who viciously assaulted playwright Arthur Schnitzler. Schnitzler believes his latest controversial play might have been the motive for the attack--but is there more to it than that?

As he navigates the highs and lows of Viennese society in dogged pursuit of the truth, Werthen finds himself drawn into a conspiracy of espionage and affairs of state.
That’s a pretty simplistic breakdown of what is actually a rather complicated and propulsive yarn involving important officials with secrets to hide, competing espionage agencies, and a killer practiced in the diabolical art of shutting people up for good. Viennese lawyer/private eye Werthen, last seen in The Silence (2012), tackles all of the questions and dangers involved here with the assistance of his increasingly resourceful spouse, Berthe Meisner, and real-life criminologist Doktor Hanns Gross. Jones’ careful pacing, attention to historical detail, and self-assured prose make The Keeper of Hands--like the previous entries in this series--well worth the time it takes to read.

As is so often the case with my author interviews for Kirkus, I gleaned considerably more material from Syd Jones than I had any hope of fitting into today’s column. The 64-year-old author--who grew up in a “little beach town” on the Oregon coast but now resides in the Santa Cruz, California, area with his wife and young son, Evan--responded at satisfying length to my numerous questions about his past, his writing career, and his reading preferences. Rather than file away what I couldn’t fit into Kirkus, never to be seen by the reading public, I am posting the greater part of our exchange below.

J. Kingston Pierce: When and why did you first visit Vienna, and what were your earliest impressions of that city?

J. Sydney Jones: I initially went to Vienna as a junior in college in 1968. I had planned on attending the University of Stirling in Scotland as an occasional student. But those were the years of the Vietnam War and the draft and student deferments; my draft board did not go along with the non-graduating status I would have in Scotland, so I looked around for a school abroad that did not have a language requirement. I’d studied German at university, but had no real desire to go to school full time in that language. A junior-year-abroad program in Vienna fit the bill--and it turned out to be a terrific fit all around, quite by accident. Some of my best friends are from those days. That year in Vienna changed my life.

JKP: For how many years did you later live in Vienna?

JSJ: I went back to Vienna following graduation, newly married, and stayed there on and off throughout the 1970s and most of the ’80s. This was the high point of the Cold War and a good time to be in the spy center of Vienna and also a good time to be away from the U.S., if the fashions say anything of the times. I had already determined as a student to become a writer; Vienna became my Paris, my school of life.

JKP: One of your previous, non-fiction books, Hitler in Vienna, 1907-1913: Clues to the Future (2002), looked at Austrian-born Adolf Hitler’s experiences in the imperial capital. What did you learn about Hitler and Vienna by focusing your research this way?

JSJ: Hitler in Vienna was indeed a labor of love. It took five years of research and writing. I had initially intended the book to be a popular narrative history of Vienna 1900 and its amazing renaissance: think Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Klimt, Schiele, Loos, Otto Wagner, Wittgenstein--the list goes on and on of those who helped to shape the modern sensibility. At that time (mid-1970s), New York publishers were most definitely not interested in Vienna 1900; now it has become a cottage industry. Publishers were, however, interested in Hitler, so I paired the two--“a tale of genius versus malignancy” as a melodramatic blurb. Hitler scratched out a living of sorts in those years painting pictures that would be sold to frame shops. It was the frame that was of interest, not the picture, much like you might buy a small frame today with a photo already in it just for advertisement sake. Hitler worked mostly for Jewish frame dealers when he wasn’t living rough on the streets, a failed wannabe artist who was gaga for opera, especially the works of Wagner.

I used the eyes of an outsider to research that book and it was ultimately published in German first. The Hitler angle took my rose-colored glasses off vis-à-vis Vienna: not all schlagobers and waltzes. Anti-Semitism was a deep and ugly vein in the landscape of Central Europe, and Vienna was no exception. An early pre-Nazi National Socialist Party had its start in turn-of-the-century Austria.

JKP: The shorthand version of your biography is that you produced several non-fiction books about Vienna, and then began writing your current series of Viennese Mysteries. But in fact, you penned two standalone historical thrillers before delivering your first Viennese Mystery, The Empty Mirror (2009). What were those novels about, and how did they prepare you to compose the Karl Werthen novels?

JSJ: I wrote two thrillers for NAL back in the early 1990s. The first, Time of the Wolf, is available now as a Kindle (with a wonderful cover by the talented Peter Ratcliffe). It should have been titled In Death’s Time, as it came from a dream I had about this person--obviously a police inspector--coming down an immense flight of marble stairs and thinking to himself: “Only one more death in death’s time. Who will care?” The novel has a Gorky Park sort of feel to it, featuring a Viennese police inspector in 1942 who uncovers documents proving that the Final Solution is being carried out. He resolves to get the secret out to the Allies, but his mission is compromised and soon the SD, German security services, is on his tail. Publishers Weekly called this novel an “exciting intellectual game of cat and mouse ... [that] offers driving tension from beginning to end.” The book is a bit edgy vis-à-vis sex and violence. It remains one of my favorites.

The other thriller, The Hero Game, is set in Ireland during World War II. Its premise is that the Nazis mount a secret mission to Ireland to foment a second uprising, which will distract the Brits just at the time of a planned German invasion of Old Blighty. It also has my biggest howler--I have the Irish leader, a good Catholic, attending mass in a Protestant church. Those thrillers were my education in pacing and writing action scenes, both of which have come in handy in the Werthen books. They are also powerfully character-driven for thrillers.

JKP: What is it about the setting of Vienna in the diapered days of the 20th century that so attracts you as a novelist?

JSJ: I have to admit, it took me a good half-minute to figure out “diapered days”--nice.

I love the time, simple as that. I feel at home in that time. I have since first encountering it as a student. There is terrific resonance with our own times, there are fascinating personalities with quirks and dark sides. Lovely material. Plus, Vienna, when I first went there, was not so far removed from those times: the buildings, the feel of the society. All from another age.

JKP: And what can you accomplish as a novelist writing about Vienna in the late 18900s, early 1900s that would not be possible to do as the author of non-fiction works?

JSJ: It’s funny: I thought that writing this material as fiction would free me up from the obsessive constraints of getting every little historical nuance right. Wrong. I use actual historical characters in each book of the series, and I continue to feel an obligation to getting things right about them in the fictional format, as well. In Requiem in Vienna [2010], for example, featuring the composer Gustav Mahler, I had the appropriate volume of excellent Henry-Louis de la Grange Mahler bio (Vienna: The Years of Change) ever at my side to double-check for Mahler’s daily movements. It’s the same for all the books. If I have a real character speak, I want to know that this is a good facsimile of what they actually talked about.

I only every wanted to be a fiction author; I started with non-fiction as I figured that would be the easiest way to break into print. From travel articles to travel books to narrative non-fiction and then, voila, I could make the leap to fiction. It sort of worked that way, but it is not necessarily a recipe for success. But what the hell, I was young and definitely not a MFA grad--I had to figure these things out for myself. So there is no great moral purpose in my choosing to use this rich Vienna material in a fictional format rather than non-fiction. I am simply being selfish--this is the kind of book I want to write. Werthen and company are just plain fun.

JKP: Do you spend a lot of effort trying to immerse yourself in 1900-1901 Vienna while you’re writing the Werthen books? If so, what do you do to get yourself in the right mind space to recapture life in Vienna during that period?

JSJ: Actually, the Werthen books are planned to cover the era from 1898 to 1915. I am still in 1901 with the fifth book, the same year as The Keeper of Hands. But the books are planned to progress year by year, the characters aging with a sell-buy date. And yes, there is a great deal of immersion in the times. Besides reading tons of history for each book, and focusing on the particular real-life person from the time, I also do a daily bit of time travel via photos and newspapers. Bless the Internet. Time was, if you wanted to do any real research on Vienna 1900, you had to be in Vienna and go to the National Library and request actual newspapers one by one or visit their photo archive and present credentials to show that you deserved a look-see. Now that library has put such information online. I can browse several newspapers for the very day I am writing about over a century ago, see what was in the news, the weather, the social gossip. I can stroll down the street I am writing about in Vienna via the online photo archive. It is a wonderful resource.

Apropos this resource, one of my recurring minor characters in the series is Karl Kraus, of whom I lovingly referred to in one interview as “the intellectual pit bull of Vienna.” Kraus was a cultural critic, grammar policeman, and word maven of Vienna 1900. A frail-looking man, Kraus beavered away for over three decades, single-handedly publishing his magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch). In this journal he took on the hypocrisies of the day, stood up to the rich and the powerful when need be, fought crime and societal stupidity, and generally pissed off everybody. The ultimate aphorist, Kraus termed Vienna 1900 a “laboratory for world destruction.” And guess what, the entirety of his publication can also be found online.

JKP: How realistic is Werthen’s role as a lawyer/private investigator? Have you read about other people in Vienna at the time who engaged in comparable endeavors?

JSJ: Werthen is spun out of whole cloth, though a few months ago I did run across an obscure reference to a private investigator at the time working on Praterstrasse. I could find no further information, however. Werthen and his wife, Berthe, are at the heart of the books, and I do not want their creation to be limited by any real-life forebears.

JKP: Your new novel, The Keeper of Hands, follows a rather complicated plot course. It starts out as a whodunit, with a murdered young brothel employee, but soon expands into a work of intrigue about rival European intelligence agencies and the criminal consequences of seeking to cover up indiscretions among “important” people. What led you to concoct this tale, and how do you think it represents growth in your series?

JSJ: Actually, most of the books in the series follow this arc from mystery to thriller; from whodunit to stop-them-from-doing-it. The first in the series, The Empty Mirror, sets up this format: it begins with the death of an art model and the trail ultimately leads to the Hofburg [Palace] and the secrets involving the deaths of an archduke and an empress. Keeper is this format on steroids. I very much wanted to deal with the espionage agencies of the times and also to create a vile antagonist. I love vile antagonists. Herr Schmidt from Keeper will be making reappearances.

(Right) J. Sydney Jones

JKP: The plots of each of your Viennese Mysteries start with a cultural luminary or two from the city’s colorful past--future philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Silence, for instance, and composer Gustav Mahler in Requiem in Vienna, and authors Arthur Schnitzler and Bertha von Suttner in The Keeper of Hands. One real-life figure keeps coming back, though: Hanns Gross, the so-called father of criminology. How has Gross found a regular role in your series, when other authentic characters have not? Is it simply because he has an expertise in criminal analysis, or is there something else he contributes to your storytelling?

JSJ: Gross is one of the team, not merely an incidental player. ... He is ... instrumental in finding a sort of informal justice, as in The Silence. Gross’ ongoing role is part of the reason why the series is called the “Viennese Mysteries” and not the Werthen series. Besides, my private inquiries agent’s name is a strange one: Americans are going to be pronouncing it”wurthan” when it is actually “vairtun.”

JKP: Are there other authors currently penning mystery or thriller fiction who you think do a particularly good job of capturing their chosen historical time periods?

JSJ: Where do I start? Philip Kerr nails Germany before and after WWII. Jacqueline Winspear ditto for post-WWI England. Alan Furst, especially in his first novels, transports you to Central Europe and the Balkans in the 1930s. You want Shanghai and the People’s Republic of China in transformation during 1990s? Read Qiu Xiaolong. This list could go on with a number of excellent writers.

JKP: Is it true that, beyond composing your Viennese Mysteries, you’re also working on some new standalone thrillers? What can you tell us about those? And will we be seeing any of them in the near future?

JSJ: Glad you asked. My novel Ruin Value will be out this October from Mysterious Press/Open Road. It’s a suspense thriller set in Nuremberg just before and during the War Crimes Trials. It features an ex-OSS agent whose job it is to track down a serial killer (they were called multiple murderers at the time) in that city of ruins. He enlists a German, a former Kripo (criminal police) agent in the hunt. And there is also a well-connected American journalist who is out after the scoop of her life. I am very excited about this, working with [editor] Otto Penzler and with the excellent folks at Open Road. This is, to my mind, exactly what the e-book business needs--a house with proven editorial oversight and professional packaging and marketing.

JKP: In what ways do you still need to grow as a writer?

JSJ: I must confess to a very non-professional desire: at this stage of my career I am much more concerned about improving my backhand than I am my writing hand. Which is not to say that I do not still try to grow with each book--I think Keeper is the best of the series thus far--but such growth is on the macro scale, not the micro. I do not consciously atomize the writing process while I am at it. Some of that comes, of course, with revision. But when I sit down to work in the morning it’s all about the story and the characters and giving them room to live.

JKP: You’ve previously cited the works of Gerald Seymour and John le Carré as being particularly strong in their quality of dialogue. Is that the part of writing fiction you find most difficult?

JSJ: Let's put it this way: I think my sense of plotting and character development are my strong suits.

JKP: Whose books are you reading right now?

JSJ: On the non-fiction side is Daniel M. Vyleta’s Crime, Jews and News: Vienna 1895-1914; a re-reading of Edward Crankshaw’s superb The Fall of the House of Habsburg; and Maria Hornor Lansdale’s Vienna and the Viennese, a book published in 1902 and full of delicious slice-of-life apercus about Vienna 1900. For fiction there is William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms (Boyd is my favorite contemporary author: his Any Human Heart is at the top of all my lists--that guy can write) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, which I am reading with my son at bedtime. I had never read the Wilder books before and I must confess to [their being] a guilty pleasure. Among all the other joys of having a child at my time of life is discovering all those books one should have read as a youth and did not.

JKP: Finally, when you first visited Vienna back in the late ’60s, you were intending to establish a career as an attorney, not as a wordsmith. Are you glad now that you gave up those aspirations to practice law, and became a man of letters instead?

JSJ: I have only partially given up those dreams. Remember that Werthen is a lawyer, the protagonist of my [never-published] mainstream Irish novel, Yanks in the Glen, was a lawyer, and, as you will discover, the protagonist of Ruin Value studied the law.

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