By Karen Harper
I was pleased to interview J. Sydney Jones because I love and write historical novels, and I’d read an earlier book of his for a review a while ago. My endorsement of his earlier “Viennese Mystery” said something like this: What Arthur Conan Doyle did for Victorian London and Caleb Carr did for old New York, J. Sydney Jones does for Vienna. This multi-talented author really brings place and character alive! And how perfect for an author to have lived for years in the setting for his mystery series.
What is THE THIRD PLACE: A VIENNESE MYSTERY about?
THE THIRD PLACE is the sixth installment in my Viennese Mystery series, set at the turn of the twentieth century and featuring private inquiries agent Advokat Karl Werthen and his partner in crime detection, the real-life father of criminology, the Austrian Hanns Gross.
In this series addition, Werthen and Gross investigate the murder of Herr Karl, a renowned headwaiter at one of Vienna’s premier cafés. As the investigation turns up new clues, Werthen and Gross are suddenly interrupted in their work by a person they cannot refuse. They are commissioned to locate a missing letter from the emperor to his mistress, the famous actress Katharina Schratt. Franz Josef is desperate for the letter not to fall into the wrong hands, for it contains a damning secret. As the intrepid investigators press on with this new investigation, they soon discover that there has also been an attempt to assassinate the emperor. Eventually, Werthen and Gross realize that the case of the murdered headwaiter and the continuing plot to kill the emperor are connected, and they now face their most challenging and dangerous investigation yet.
Of all the writers I’ve known or interviewed, you seem to have written in the most formats and genres: fiction and nonfiction and within those parameters, narrative history, mysteries, and stand-alone thrillers. You were a correspondent and freelance writer throughout Europe. Which came first for you and do you have a favorite? Is one form more challenging?
And may I add juvenile fiction to that mix. I published a YA novel a few years back, Frankie, about the Ludlow massacre, and my middle grade novel, Bach Is Back, will be out next year.
What came first was the journalism work in Europe. I had this idea as a young writer that you must first cut your teeth on journalism, go from there to book-length nonfiction, and then finally graduate to fiction. That’s basically been the trajectory of my career, but I am not sure I would recommend it to others. It confuses the heck out of agents and editors.
What I like most is blending my sense of history with a fictional tale. All of my novels are historical fiction of one sort or another. They are set variously in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with the Viennese Mystery series; in the midst of WWI with the 2015 thriller, German Agent; during and immediately after WWII with a couple of early thrillers and most recently with the 2013 Ruin Value; or in the afterglow of the Cold War, 1990s Europe, with this year’s Basic Law.
All writing is challenging. The trick is to love the story you’re working on. The rest comes easy then. Or sort of easy.
Obviously, your close ties to Vienna shape much of your work, since the city seems to be one of the main “characters” of your mystery series. Do you begin with the place/setting or with character or plot?
Setting and character come first for me. Once I focus on those, and do some more research, I can find a way into the mystery aspect. And despite the nostalgic sepia view most have of Vienna 1900, there was plenty of murder and mayhem going on, all lovingly reported in the newspapers of the time.
Your titles are intriguing in themselves. My favorite is The Empty Mirror. Do your titles grow from your writing or do you have them before you write? And why THE THIRD PLACE?
Yeah, I like The Empty Mirror, as well. That took a lot of work. It was originally titled The Empress and the Anarchist. So anything would have been an improvement over that clunker. I try to get the titles to resonate with the main historical figure each novel features. Mirror, because Klimt’s model– who is killed in that with Klimt being charged—actually holds a mirror without reflection up to humanity in a Klimt painting. Requiem in Vienna for the second, a Mahler book—someone is trying to off the unpopular new Court Opera director. The Silence for book three, which features young Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent.” I especially like The Keeper of Hands; that title has more to do with the uber-villain than with the protagonists. And last year’s A Matter of Breeding very much resonates with the plot.
THE THIRD PLACE, out in October, takes its title from the Viennese saying, First is home, next comes work, and then the third place is the coffeehouse. In fact, much of the inspiration for the writing of this book comes from the Viennese coffeehouse and its history and legends.
Your research seems to blend so beautifully with your story that it never seems to take over. Do you research as you go or have it under control before you write?
Both. I have inhabited Vienna 1900 for decades, ever since the research for my breakthrough nonfiction, Hitler in Vienna, 1907-1913. That book was meant to be a narrative history of the Viennese renaissance of the turn of the twentieth century, but at the time I wrote it, Vienna 1900 had yet to become the cottage industry for writers and art historians as it is now. I needed to pair that book with a biography of Hitler’s formative years in the city to get it published.
And I am glad you feel that the history never takes over the book. The early books in the series dealt quite heavily in the history of the era as backstory. As I have progressed in the series, I find that I am much more at home in the time and the books have become increasingly character-driven.
It’s obvious from TV shows and bookshelf thrillers that forensics are fascinating. Can you share some information on early forensics as revealed in THE THIRD PLACE?
Forensics was still in its birth throes when my books are set, and the secondary protagonist, Dr. Hanns Gross, is the real-life father of what he liked to call criminalistics. In fact, blood types were only discovered—quite by accident—in 1901 at the University of Vienna by Karl Landsteiner. He got a much belated Nobel three decades later. The new blood-typing comes into play in this novel at one point. And the Viennese police headquarters had just opened a new Forensics Laboratory at the time of this novel, 1902.
Overall, however, I enjoy the fact that these mysteries all take place long before the marvels of CSI-type investigative practice, before DNA testing, before cell phones and e-mails left cookie-crumb trails for the police and investigators to follow. It’s about detection, in the old-fashioned manner, for Werthen and Gross.
Any advice for those hoping to be published? Can you share about your beginning/break-in story?
Two pieces of advice. One, don’t talk about your work, just do it. Two, never quit your day job. Or find a day job that suits you, that is not onerous. Chances are, you’ll be working at it even as a published author. Okay, and a third caveat. Don’t chase trends—you’ll always be behind the latest new thing if you do so. Write about what moves you, what you love.
As regards breaking in, pure luck has much to do with it. I patiently followed my little formula for success: begin with journalism, then go to book-length nonfiction, and finally to fiction. The trouble came with step three. I had success in the first two, and wrote six or seven novels but they all ended up being ‘close but no cigar’. And it was not because they were unpublishable. It was mostly a matter of luck. Finally, luck came my way and I met very much by accident a powerful New York agent who believed in me and I finally got my first novel, Time of the Wolf, published.
Don’t rely on it solely, but never underestimate the power of luck.
You have great Publishers Weekly and Kirkus reviews among others. Do you pay attention to reviews? Is there a way to “read” reviews?
I pay some attention to reviews and am heartened when someone else finds value in what I spent a year or so creating. But industry magazine reviews—except for library sales—do not mean a whole lot in determining a book’s popularity. Much more important are the reader reviews at Amazon and Goodreads. I pay attention to those, too, especially the negative ones, to see if there is something I really am screwing up.
However, as your last question suggests, it is very difficult to really “read” reviews, to have an honest and coherent takeaway. Much depends on personal taste. To be a writer you need a thick skin and a fairly large—if not always active—ego.
Can you give readers and writers any advice on balancing a demanding writing career with “real life?” Is that a challenge for you with a young son in the house, or have you found a good balance and discipline for your extensive writing career?
After a number of decades as a professional writer, I have established a balance. Family comes first. Always.
I know that does not sound very professional or like something that a driven artist would say, but you know what? This life is one time through and it is family that makes life matter.
My first years writing I was a selfish arse; the writing always came first. You can imagine that resulted in a few failed marriages. I got older, I got smarter if not wiser. I don’t compartmentalize my life so much anymore. Plus I’m pretty much a full-time writer now with loads of freelancing along with the books. I work at home—the commute is very short. I work pretty much every day and I work with full concentration, a few thousand words in various formats. But I also take time out of each day for “real life.”
Don’t blink. Life goes by fast.
Can you tell us what you are working on now and what will be published next? Hopefully, more Viennese mysteries!
I am at work on book seven of the Viennese Mysteries, Dying of the Truth, in which Werthen, his wife Berthe, and Gross are chasing art fraud on a scale that threatens the reputations of the grand museums of Europe and ultimately leads inside the shadow government of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.
This won’t be the next published, however. First comes a change of direction for me, the middle grade novel I mentioned about, Bach Is Back, in which a man-made hole in time sucks up baroque maestro J.S. Bach and hurtles him 260 years forward in time, directly into the path of twelve-year-old Nathaniel Morgenson. What ensues is a very unlikely friendship across the centuries and generations. This book is very much a result of the “young son in the house” you mentioned above and a science fair project he worked on.
J. Sydney Jones is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels of the critically acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, The Empty Mirror, Requiem in Vienna, The Silence, The Keeper of Hands, and A Matter of Breeding. He lived for many years in Vienna and has written several other books about the city, including the narrative history, Hitler in Vienna: 1907-1913, the popular walking guide, Viennawalks, and the thriller, Time of the Wolf. Jones is also the author of the stand-alone thrillers Ruin Value: A Mystery of the Third Reich (2013), The German Agent (2014), and Basic Law (2015). He has lived and worked as a correspondent and freelance writer in Paris, Florence, Molyvos, and Donegal, and currently resides with his wife and son on the coast of Central California.
To learn more, please visit his website.