I am a historian by profession and have taught at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. I published more than a dozen books on social history, then moved on to fiction and am now the author of five novels. I was born in Vienna and came to Canada to study, but more importantly, to get away from an ultra-conservative society and from Austria’s Nazi past. That, it turns out, is impossible. You can’t run away from your communal past, but I did find a way of dealing with it: in my writings. I have written about antisemitism both in fiction and non-fiction, specifically in The Inquisitor’s Niece, which received the Colorado Publishers’ annual award for best historical novel. Vienna is a character, so to speak, in several of my novels: The Painting on Auerperg’s Wall (the recovery of a painting acquired under murky circumstances in Nazi occupied Vienna) and Three Women and Alfred Nobel, about which I want to tell you more.
The story behind Three Women and Alfred Nobel:
When Nobel died in 1896, he left funds to establish the Nobel Prizes. Everyone knows that, but few people know that he also left a generous annuity to a Viennese woman by the name of Sofie Hess, who was his mistress for many years. You won’t find much about her on the website of the Nobel Foundation. Clearly, the board is determined to protect the image of Nobel and set him up as an ideal – an intellectual genius and an admirable philanthropist. They are coy about the fact that he had a mistress – a Jewish mistress! Paradoxically, he was also an anti-Semite. To keep Hess from publishing Nobel’s letters and revealing his less desirable traits, the Foundation bought the letters from her and kept them under wraps for 80 years. They finally deposited them in the National Archive in Stockholm. I obtained copies of the correspondence – more than 200 letters –and published an English translation (A Nobel Affair) in 2017.
Here is their story: Lonely millionaire falls in love with young Viennese flower girl and sets her up in an apartment in Paris. At first everything is wonderful, but it’s a “My Fair Lady” situation. He tries to educate her. She balks. Intellectual matters bore her, she wants to party and live life to the fullest. He turns into an old curmudgeon and accuses her and her family of being gold-diggers, “typical Jews,” but keeps supporting her. She gets pregnant by another man…
It has the makings of a novel, right? So I wrote the novel: Three Women and Alfred Nobel, published in 2018.
Fact and Fiction:
How closely does Three Women and Alfred Nobel reflect history? Of the three women protagonists, two are historical figures – Sofie Hess, Nobel’s mistress, and the pacifist Berta von Suttner, who was briefly Nobel’s secretary and persuaded him to set up the Nobel Peace Prize. I do respect my historical sources, but that said, I also consider it my right to guess at what the sources omit and to fill in the gaps. Putting words into the mouths of historical characters is my job as a novelist. Ida, the third female character, is my creation. You might think that Sofie’s story is dramatic enough by itself. Why invent another character? Because her story is too predictable for the kind of psychological novel I had in mind. Older man is attracted to sexy young woman. She cheats on him. He turns on her. The relationship falls apart. A little too simple, no? Berta von Suttner, the second historical character in my novel, adds another dimension: Nobel treated her with respect and supported her ideals. We now have two contradictory images of Nobel– the domineering male chauvinist on the one hand and the enlightened philanthropist on the other. This is where Ida, my invented character, comes in. I give her the job of sorting out the truth about Nobel. I made her a writer who wants to expose Nobel’s profiteering and his unscrupulous business practices. In chasing after him, she learns of events in Nobel’s life that soften her attitude toward him and put his actions in perspective. She also learns a great deal about herself. And that’s the theme of all my novels: characters making their way through the complexities of life and ultimately “finding themselves.” Well, maybe Ida is my stand-in. Novel writing has always been a way of finding myself.
Big Mistakes/negative feedback:
My biggest mistake is (or maybe I can say, was) impatience. As soon as I had finished writing, I thought I was done and immediately wanted to find a publisher for my novel. I’ve come to realize that writing the novel is only a first stage: churning out the raw product. I have to let the manuscript sit, revise it, and revise it again. Rushing a story is a bad thing. I’ve also learned to listen to my friends’ criticism. I used to be really thin-skinned. The mildest criticism hurt me terribly, and I argued back vigorously. I’ve now made it my motto that “The Reader is Always Right.” My friends may not always be able to put their finger on the problem, but if something bothers them, there IS a problem and I need to fix it.
Sources of creativity/writer’s block:
I divide my time between Toronto and Los Angeles. I’ve also lived in small villages in Argentina, Bulgaria, and Romania. I find travel a great motivator for writing. I am full of new impressions that need to be translated into words. At the same time, I often feel isolated and disoriented when I travel, especially if I don’t speak the language of the country. So I write – to get it all out of my system, the loneliness and the confusion, but also the excitement and the pleasure of exploring my new surroundings. That seems to eliminate writer’s block. When I’m home, I write every day at set times, pretending I’m an employee and writing is my paid job. In a way it is a job, but it’s also an obsession, an inner imperative.
Plans for future books:
I have another novel coming out next year: The Loneliness of the Time Traveller, a split-time novel, set in present-day Los Angeles and 18th century London. The story in brief: A time-traveller becomes nostalgic for her 18th century origins but needs to hunt down a manuscript in a rare book library to channel her return trip. The race is on: she needs to get to the 18th century in time to save her great love from being hanged for a murder he didn’t commit.