Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ein Herz Fuer Wien!

Today we get a glimpse into another pivotal European city: Vienna. Since so much of twentieth century history was shaped here, we're lucky enough to have an expert guide: J. Sydney Jones, long term Viennese resident and writer of the Karl Werthen mystery series set in Vienna at the turn of the century. The starred Kirkus review for the second mystery in the series, REQUIEM IN VIENNA, gushed "Confident prose and mastery of historical detail, woven into a convincing narrative, make this sophisticated entertainment of a very high caliber."

So, Syd, is there any setting you really want to write about but haven't?

The short answer is NO.

Here’s the long answer. I have set my book-length work in locations all over the world, from England to Colorado, from the Central Asian steppes to Central Europe, from Crete to Washington, DC, from Ireland to Oregon, and most particularly in Vienna, Austria. And you know what? I have found my home; the grass is no longer greener elsewhere.

Vienna 1900--that is my fictional home; that is where I stake my claim and build my fictional edifice. How come?

Well, I was raised on the coast of Oregon before it was chic to live by the ocean. We were all about logging in the winter and tourists in the summer. Fishing and crabbing were year round. The logs are long gone; ditto the fish and crab. Tourists tend to linger. But the provincial Oregon boy was bowled over by his first big city experience: Vienna. Like many of my generation, I had my first taste of Europe via a junior-year-abroad program. I picked Vienna out of a hat simply because it had no language requirement. 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. For a young man who loved history, Vienna was a living museum. I stayed on for almost two decades after my student year.

But Vienna was more than a second home; it was my personal laboratory. I became a writer there and I found a theme there, as well--the exploration of the amazing artistic/cultural/intellectual renaissance of Vienna 1900. Vienna in the two decades before World War I created our modern sensibility through the works of such seminal artists, writers, and thinkers as Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Otto Wagner, Loos, Schnitzler, Mahler, Freud, and Wittgentstein. At the same time, Vienna 1900 was also the breeding ground for such future tyrants as Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler. In my mind Vienna is every bit as important to the history of the twentieth century as are St. Petersburg (home of the Bolshevik revolution) and Berlin (home of the Nazis).

I thus found my setting in both a geographical and temporal sense. My first books using that setting were nonfiction, ViennaWalks and Hitler in Vienna, 1907-1913. Finally I adapted Vienna 1900 to a fictional series, the “Viennese Mysteries,” each featuring a luminary of the time: the artist Klimt is suspected of serial murder in the first, The Empty Mirror, while the composer Mahler is the target of an assassin in the second just-released, Requiem in Vienna. My fictional lawyer and private inquiries agent, Karl Werthen, teams up with the real-life father of criminology, Hanns Gross, to solve these crimes or prevent catastrophe in books that are a blend of historical whodunit and literary thriller.

Home is where the heart is. No, I vow to no longer go a wandering. I am quite content at home in Vienna 1900.


Sophie Littlefield said...

Don't laugh, but I've always thought Mahler would be a great character to put in a novel and...and...I would kind of secretly like to try. I have *no* idea how to make that work with contemporary Missouri. Maybe a time travel...

Meredith Cole said...

Vienna has been on my list of places I'd love to visit for years. And that time period is so fascinating. I will definitely have to check out your mysteries, Syd!

J. Sydney Jones said...

Sophie--No laughter from this end re Mahler in a novel. He was great "material"--though sometimes I feel a bit ghoulish using real folks in my novels. He was at the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic in New York from 1908 to 1910--have him guest conduct at the Kansas City symphony?

Meredith--Good to hear that there are other Viennophiles out there. Check out my Web site for more info on the books. I would love to hear your reactions.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great job holding down the fort, Syd!

So many seeds of the disasters I write about in 1930s Berlin were germinating in 1900 Vienna. It's just one of those magical places and times where thought and energy and swirling around. I know we discussed this on your blog (or was that Murderati?), but I do wonder where that city is today. Barcelona? Bangkok?

And Meredith: HUGE CONGRATULATIONS on your Agatha nomination!!!! WOO-HOO!!!!

Terry Stonecrop said...

Exotic places always intrigue me in novels. I hadn't thought about the role Vienna played at that time but from what you said, it surely did. Sounds good.

And congrats, Meredith!

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful post, Syd!! And welcome to Criminal Minds! I can't wait to read REQUIEM IN VIENNA. My time there was all too short, but I have glorious memories of a beer hall, goulash, and the Kunstistoriche Museum. :)