It’s always a happy day here when critically-acclaimed historical novelist Mary Sharratt, who has been featured here before on her books Iluminations and The Dark Lady, stops by for a chat! We welcome her to talk about her new book of 2018, Ecstasy, which I loved – but I love all Mary’s books, each one different, but wholly mindful of women’s place in history. Ecstasy was an Amazon Book of the Month, a New York Post Must Read Book, and a Chicago Review of Books Best New Book of April 2018.
“Both during her life and after, Viennese artist Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel (1879-1964) received countless love letters; Sharratt’s passionate novel is another, one notable for its focus on Alma’s artistic talent and early feminism as well as her beauty. . . . this winning historical novel offers an enjoyable portrait of an ambitious woman whose struggles are as relevant today as they were a century ago.” – Publisher’s Weekly
You’ll see my review within the next week. Today, Mary talks about her book on composer Alma Mahler and writing women back into history. This is one not to miss!
Hi Mary! It’s always such a pleasure to have you stop by Oh, for the Hook of a Book to talk about your books and all the women you’re highlighting in history. Finally, spring looks to have made its way to Ohio – we had sunlight and daffodils blooming this weekend. I’m sure we’re still in for rain, after an already long rain and snow season here, but I’ll take a few days of nice weather. I’m not sure how the weather is in England now, but of course, we both know that there is likely chance of rain.
So, let’s sit on the back porch together, listen to the birds in the trees as we speak, and I’ll pour you a Bellini – do you like them? We can have them with some assorted chocolates! I know it’s not afternoon tea, but it’s lovely weather, and there is no reason to not celebrate your wonderful book in such fashion with a chilled cocktail!
Mary: Ooh, a Bellini sounds absolutely delightful, not to mention the chocolate. I’m sure Alma would have loved it, too! And how lovely to sit on the porch after being snowed in in Minnesota on my recent book tour. It’s such a pleasure to be invited back to chat on your wonderful blog.
Erin: Alma did love champagne, I think! Oh, my goodness – I was so glad to hear you made it across the pond to the U.S. for your tour! But snow? I know, it’s really one of the first nice days we’ve had here.
Sit back and relax for a while with me and let’s talk about your newest book Ecstasy, a novel of Alma Mahler, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The cover is FABULOUS – since it’s the cover, the icing on your masterpiece, let’s start there. Who and how did they come up with the art design for such spectacular art? Do you think it’s done its job in helping to sell your book?
Mary: I am so grateful and excited about ECSTASY’S stunning cover. The designer is Martha Kennedy at HMH. She has created quite a few of my covers. She is a genius! The jacket image is from a poster by Alphonse Mucha that was originally created as a perfume ad! He was a contemporary of Alma and Gustav and hails from what is now the Czech Republic—then part of Austro-Hungary. Not only does the beautiful art reflect the Art Nouveau zeitgeist but I think it truly captures the mood of ECSTASY. The large white rectangles with the bold black typeface spelling out the title were meant to evoke piano keys and this motif continues inside the book under the chapter number headings. If you can bear to pull back the gorgeous jacket, you see that the book binding itself is just exquisite. There’s kind of a marbled effect on the cover. The book is such a beautiful object that it’s certainly a selling point! I hope my readers will find the writing inside as beautiful as the cover and design!
Erin: Oh, I’m positive they will! As for the book content, written again in your elegant and engaging style, what drew you to write on Alma? What did you learn the most about her while researching that allowed you to so vividly create her character for readers?
Mary: As a lifelong Gustav Mahler fan, 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. 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.
Erin: Of course, I know that in all the stories you’ve written of women, you’ve brought them back out from their hiding places on the fringes of history, and into the limelight for posterity. Do you feel you accomplished this with Alma? Changed mind, introduced to others, and created a historical legacy? Why?
Mary: I certainly hope so. I hope my readers will gain deeper insights into this ambitious, intelligent, fiercely loving, creative, and complex woman. I hope they will look up her music and appreciate her as a composer and life artist who was so much more than a femme fatale.
If you go to my website, you can download a resource sheet with a link to Alma’s complete recorded songs on YouTube.
Erin: Why do you feel it’s important to re-surface women such as Hildegard von Bingen or Alma Mahler or others? Each woman is different, admired for each of their own gifts and contributions, so what do you feel Alma offers to other women? What will she speak to some of them about?
Mary: I’m on a mission to write overlooked women back into history, because, to a large extent, women have been written out of history. And women like Alma who do stand out and clam their power are often the most maligned. Even an amazingly accomplished polymath like Hildegard von Bingen—she was a visionary abbess, a composer, theologian, physician, and scientist—was nearly written out of history. Historians disputed the authorship of her work and decided it was all really written by some unknown man! Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey in Germany. In 1956 Marianne Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship.
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.
What Alma’s story reveals 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—wives and mothers. How do you stand true to your belief in your own talent if the wider culture is telling you you’re selfish or inferior for wanting to do anything else than take care of others?
Alma was not only a composer. Ultimately she pioneered news ways of being as a woman that was in itself a work of art.
Erin: In most of your books, and many by other historical fiction authors of today, women helping men, but who weren’t credited or acknowledged, even when they created their own amazing art, literature, music, are the main feature. Can you give us some historical base for as to why they weren’t at the time, and why you think they have advantage to be remembered now? Do you think that women still play second fiddle to men, even in the arts?
Mary: I think men in male-dominated culture just expect women to be their selfless helpmeets. In his twenty-page letter to Alma stipulating that she stop composing as a condition of their marriage, Mahler asked her if she could think of his music as her music from then on. And to a great extent she did. She tirelessly transcribed hundreds of pages of his symphonies and even filled in the notation while he was off in his composing hut working on the next movement. Yet many Mahlerites would be loath to acknowledge her as his collaborator and colleague in this regard.
Women definitely still play second fiddle to men in the arts. I am a passionate classical music fan and go to many concerts and I have never once seen a female composer in the repertoire. Even now in 2018! As for the visual arts, walk into any museum and you’ll see far more female nudes by male artists than any kind of work by female artists. Even in the literary world, male authors are still taken more seriously, more widely reviewed, and more likely to win major prizes. And they probably get bigger advances.
Erin: Alma, as many women then, was forced to give up music for marriage. How and why did this happen? How did they find their way back to their true calling and specifically, did Alma, and how?
Mary: Gustav Mahler famously asked Alma to give up her own composing career as a condition of their marriage. Bowing to social pressure and faced with the enormous wall of misogyny that told her she was inferior and could never achieve what a man could achieve, Alma reluctantly agreed to his demand, even though it broke her heart. In this way 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 marriage and motherhood? How much female potential never reaches fruition because of the demands of motherhood and domesticity. Even now the bulk of this work is placed on women while men can still pursue their careers and dreams.
But, as we see in the novel, Alma eventually does take back her power in a really big way. She would go on to publish three collections of her songs and to see her work performed on stage.
Erin: For people who aren’t reading your work, or haven’t read it yet, what contributions did Alma make to the musical landscape? Where are here fingerprints still found now? Can she influence future generations?
Mary: Alma mostly composed lieder, or art songs. The lied (song in German) is a musical genre that sets a poem to classical music and is generally performed by a solo vocalist with piano accompaniment. Alma’s lieder, composed under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, are arresting, emotional, and highly original and can be compared with both Zemlinsky’s work and the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg. Alma’s passionate songs plunge you straight into the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna.
According to her diaries, Alma wrote over a hundred lieder, several instrumental pieces, and the beginning of an opera. However, most of her work was lost when she fled Austria after the Nazi Anschluss. Only seventeen songs remain. The good news is that they are now being performed and recorded.
I certainly hope she will influence future generations of female composers.
Erin: What kinds of struggles did she have as a female composer?
Mary: To start off with, no one took her seriously. Her first teacher, Josef Labor, was very harsh and said things like, “If that’s the best you can do, you might as well give up.” Or if she composed something he halfway liked, he would say, “That’s a very honorable accomplishment—for a girl.” For a long time he refused to teach her counterpoint, because he thought it would overwhelm her delicate female brain. Alma had to be a truly determined creative soul to keep composing in the face of such scathing and unconstructive criticism. Alexander von Zemlinsky, her second teacher, was the first to treat her with respect. Under his guidance she made the leap from being a talented amateur to an aspiring composer bordering on the professional. Then she met Mahler, who demanded that she give it up. I wish she would have married Alex instead, but her parents absolutely forbade the courtship.
Even today some (mostly male) commentators refuse to take her seriously and say she was a just an overrated dilettante.
Erin: Beyond her work, many men were drawn to and interested in Alma from a romantic point of view. Why were they and how did play out in her life? What did you draw on from this for your novel? How did you find the balance between romance and biographical plot? Tell us about your focus.
Mary: While Alma struggled to be taken seriously as an aspiring composer and fought a constant battle against her own self-doubt, one place where she did receive much praise and validation was in the salon where men admired her for her beauty and charm. But those who were drawn to her beauty sometimes didn’t look deeper than the surface. As a result, Alma felt that she had two separate souls that were constantly at war with each other—herself as a distinct creative individual and herself as an object of male desire. Meanwhile she was under tremendous family pressure to marry.
Alma truly longed to become a “somebody” and make her mark on the world. It seemed that her experience of trying to be taken seriously as a composer was so discouraging that she thought she could more easily make her mark by becoming the muse of a great man. And she was a muse par excellence for Mahler. During their married life she became an indelible part of his every symphony. She was also his feedback sounding board and he took her critique seriously and made substantive revisions based on her advice.
But as far as the romance in the story goes, reclaiming her sexuality was a major way that Alma reclaimed her personal and creative power. She knew could mesmerize and inspire brilliant artistic men, and if her husband over the years began to take her for granted, she could shine her light elsewhere. Her aura of enchantment and seduction was her superpower. It would be a mistake to say she was running from one man to another. By reclaiming her sexual freedom, she was reclaiming her independence and self-determination. I almost see it as a shamanic soul retrieval. She took back her sovereignty.
Erin: Why are so many gifted women, with lots of male suitors, often persecuted by both men and women? Does this happen even today? How perception change?
Mary: Like sexually liberated and unconventional women throughout history, Alma to this day faces a backlash of misinterpretation and outright condemnation. We still have a monstrous double standard when it comes to female sexuality. We still love to slut shame women. Can you imagine doing the same to a man—ignoring Picasso’s art and simply slamming him as a terrible husband and boyfriend with his loose, promiscuous ways? Gustav Klimt could get away with using his working class models as a kind of harem. He reputedly had syphilis and left behind fifteen out-of-wedlock children. But he’s a “great man” so we focus on his art and benevolently overlook his quirks and foibles.
Erin: Vienna, historically, was a place of open creativity in the arts and progressive in its creation, and yet, also very misogynistic and conservative. How did those two things clash? What kinds of research did you to about Vienna at the time and what was one of your favorite discoveries?
Mary: Vienna, at this time, was the capital of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire at the very height of its power. While it was artistically innovative with radical new art, music, and literature, it was also a deeply conservative place. Both misogyny and anti-Semitism were pervasive. In many ways it was a neurotic, schizophrenic culture. Vienna in this period had the world’s highest suicide rate. It was no accident that Freud invented psychoanalysis here—look at all the raw material he had to work with! I went on several research trips to Vienna and did a lot of reading to evoke this sense of time and place. I steeped myself in the art and music of the time.
One of my favorite discoveries were Alma’s friends, Ilse and Erica Conrat. They were from an upper middle class Jewish family and their parents wholly supported their ambitions. Ilse, who was exactly Alma’s age, became a professional sculptor, exhibited in the Secession Museum alongside the work of Klimt, and won major prizes. Erica was the first woman to get a doctorate in art history from the University of Vienna—they had only just opened a few of their academic faculties to women and were far behind the rest of the Western world in this regard. So while Alma sacrificed her music for marriage, she had these two ambitious accomplished friends who were pursuing their dreams. The bitter irony is that I had never heard of the Conrat sisters despite their amazing achievements—they were written out of history. But Alma is remembered because she was so enmeshed in the lives of famous men. It was only through Alma’s diary that I learned these women existed.
Erin: Alma’s life seemed to begin to change when she came to America. What facets of America at the time helped at the time and are they still in place, or are we falling backward?
Mary: An anti-Semitic smear campaign in the Viennese press all but forced Gustav to resign from the Vienna Court Opera. Then he and Alma started a new life in New York where he conducted with the Metropolitan Opera and later with the New York Philharmonic. This move would change Alma forever.
Back home in Vienna, her life of self-sacrifice, of subsuming herself in her husband’s existence, had seemed normal, because it was the norm for the vast majority of Austrian women. But in New York Alma would meet an entirely new breed of women who were far more liberated even than her friends, the Conrat sisters.
Before I did the research for this novel, I had no idea that the person who reinvented the New York Philharmonic for the twentieth century and who became its president was a woman—Mary Seney Sheldon. Nor did I even know of the existence of ethnomusicologist, Native American rights activist, and composer, Natalie Curtis. These women made a deep impression on Alma and forced her to rethink everything she thought women were capable of.
Then, as now, America was plagued with social inequality and yet it was far more egalitarian than Austria with its emperor and rigid hierarchies. America had opened its universities to women decades earlier than most places in the Old World. A woman from a wealthy patrician background could accomplish a great deal. Notably Mary Seney Sheldon was married with children and she was an ambitious high achiever who completely reshaped the cultural landscape of America’s leading metropolis. She and Natalie Curtis held up a mirror to Alma’s self-sabotage, to how she had given away every last scrap of her power. Meeting these women unleashed an alchemical transformation inside Alma that would culminate with her taking back her power and living her life on her own terms.
I hope America continues to be a haven for strong, accomplished women working to change our world. We can’t afford to let it slip backward.
Erin: What other women in history do you hope to write about in the future, if you’re continuing on with this writing journey? Or will you write something else next? Tell us what’s happening for you going forward?
Mary: 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.
Erin: Oh, I’m VERY excited!! I am so happy for you that Ecstasy has received such major media and outlet praise. Other than books sales, why has this been important to hear and does it inspire you to keep writing?
Mary: Every author needs validation or some kind of proof that their book has reached an audience who finds the book meaningful. 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.
Erin: What books are on your own most wanted list for you to read this summer?
Mary: Amy Bloom’s White Houses and Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia.
Erin: How is life overall and how are the beautiful horses?
Mary: Miss Boo, aka Queen Boudicca, my beautiful Welsh mare, is in fine fettle and enjoying the rich spring grass. She sends pony kisses to you and your readers. The fields over here in Northern England are full of baby lambs and I have daffodils and tulips in my garden.
Erin: It sounds so beautiful, I can’t wait to get back to England one day. Kisses back to Miss Boo! Thank you so much, Mary, for coming and sharing a Bellini with me and talking about your book. You’re welcome anytime! Cheers to more fabulous success of Ecstasy and many more books. Let’s pour another and enjoy the view – cheers!
Mary: Cheers! Or as Alma would say, zum Wohl! It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you, Erin!
ECSTASY BY MARY SHARRATT
Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover & eBook; 400 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary
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 –
ALSO IN AUDIOBOOK –
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
Author Mary Sharratt, Biography –
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.
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