(Mary's latest novel, Ecstasy, released tomorrow!)
Welcome to Diary of an Earth Daughter's Issue 2 of Wild Magic Woman. I am honored to be working with Mary once again and to highlight a second novel of hers. Today we begin with a Q and A to get us underway. In this installment you get an insider's scoop of some of the workings, musings and mechanics of Mary's process and thoughts regarding her latest work, Ecstasy. Tomorrow stay tuned as Mary shares an intimate look at her own Heroine's Journey, an exclusive for our Circle Magica community!
Thanks to Mary for bringing two special behind-the-scenes glimpses to help us celebrate your mission of writing women back into history!
1. When were you first introduced to the Mahlers’ music and compositions?
I grew up with classical music and played violin from elementary school through my college years. I always write with classical music playing in the background to put me in the zone. When I was living in Germany in the 1990s, I fell in love with the sheer passion of Gustav Mahler’s music, the way he isn’t afraid to delve deep into the heart of human darkness and suffering, and how he brings you out again into sheer transcendence.
When I discovered that Alma Mahler was also a composer—one who was forced to live in Gustav’s shadow—I bought recordings of her work and fell in love with her passionate lieder. She plunges you straight into a maelstrom of emotion and longing. Her work truly evokes the heart and soul of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna.
2. Understanding that Alma is “a larger-than-life woman”, how was it that you chose to focus the novel on a portion of Alma’s life? How did you decide when to end her story in the book?
Originally, I wanted the novel to tell the story of Alma’s entire life, but it took me 400 pages just to try to do justice to her young adulthood and first marriage. Narrating the full sweep of Alma’s long and turbulent life would require a trilogy, at the very least. Who knows—maybe if ECSTASY is super-successful, my publisher might ask me to write a sequel or two!
3. Do you feel there is more to write about Alma in a subsequent work someday?
Definitely. There was her passionate relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, her decades with her third husband, the poet and novelist Franz Werfel, and her and Franz’s dramatic escape from the Nazis. They had to cross from France on foot and hike through the mountains of Spain until they reached Portugal. In Lisbon they boarded a ship for New York. I’d also like to write about her complex relationship with her daughter Anna, who became a celebrated twentieth century sculptor. I almost see mother and daughter as two halves of the same whole. Alma’s artistic sacrifice literally gave birth to her daughter’s determined brilliance and successful career.
4. If you could meet Alma what would you most like to converse with her about?
Gustav Mahler famously made Alma give up her own music as a condition of their marriage. This sacrifice proved to be soul-destroying for Alma and nearly destroyed their relationship. Later Gustav repented and urged Alma to compose again. He helped her get her first collection of songs published. After his death, Alma published two more collections of her lieder, totalling fourteen songs in her lifetime. Three additional songs were discovered posthumously, two of which were published in 2000. Beyond these seventeen surviving lieder, nothing else remains or has been found. We do know that, according to her early diaries, Alma composed or drafted more than a hundred songs, various instrumental pieces, and the beginning of an opera. These “lost” works may have been destroyed in World War II after Alma fled Austria and left most of her belongings behind, or she may have destroyed them herself. We will never know what posterity might have lost.
I would ask Alma what happened to all this lost music and why she didn’t share it with posterity. After all, she took Gustav Mahler’s scores with her when she escaped from Austria, but not her own. At the end of her life, how deeply did she regret this loss? And what was it like for her to see her daughter Anna succeed in becoming a respected and recognized sculptor with a vast body of work that was literally carved in stone?
5. In the book’s Historical Afterword you describe Alma as a Lebenskünstlerin- who are some of today’s “life artists”?
A life artist, for those unfamiliar with the term, is someone who succeeds in not only creating art but in truly living and embodying their creative spirit until their entire life becomes a work of art. With her insistence on her independence and sexual and creative freedom, Alma was a life artist who pioneered new ways of being as a woman. Another of my most beloved twentieth century life artists was Frida Kahlo.
Today’s life artists include women like visionary singer-song writer and poet Patti Smith. For me, she was far more radical and groundbreaking even than David Bowie. Just listen to her 1975 album Horses. African American spiritual elder Luisah Teish is a priestess of Oshun and a bona fide matriarch who stands in her sovereignty and refuses to let anyone else define who she should be. A prolific writer and modern contemplative, Sara Maitland lives as a hermit in the wilds of Galloway, Scotland. A Book of Silence is just one of the masterpieces that arose from the depths of her hallowed solitude.
6. What is your greatest wish for Ecstasy?
Previous books about Alma have generally presented her in a very negative and misogynist light. I hope ECSTASY inspires people to take a fresh look at Alma and recognize her as an artist in her own right, not just a femme fatale or a muse to famous men. I also hope my book helps readers understand why all these geniuses fell in love with her—her fascination and allure went far beyond physical beauty and sex appeal. I hope the reader, too, will fall in love with Alma in all her nuanced glory and recognize that her struggles as a female composer are as relevant today as they were a century ago.
7. As a writer, what is one experience you dream of fulfilling before you leave the earth?
I’m on a mission to write overlooked women back into history, a task I find both exhilarating and daunting. To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover their buried histories, we must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. So far I’ve written about the Pendle Witches of 1612, Hildegard of Bingen, and Renaissance poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanier. I wrote my novels to make these women’s lives accessible and relevant to modern readers.
I hope my books can inspire readers to care about women’s lost histories as much as I do and to rethink common misperceptions about women in the past. Together authors and readers can restore women to their rightful place in history.
8. What are you working on now? Can you give us a sneak peek at your new work-in-progress?
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 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.