From Hitler History to Mahler Mystery: J. Sydney Jones’s Writing Life

Some authors exude the pleasure of reading and writing (and, surprisingly, when you meet them, many just don’t.) J. Sydney Jones is such a man, with a breadth of writing experience in a range of genres that’s deeply impressive and carries with it an obvious love of his craft. His Viennese Mystery series is a fascinating way to delve into one of Europe’s loveliest, most cultured cities – and damned entertaining, too. He’s also the man behind a great new blog Scene of the Crime, which focuses on the role of place in crime fiction – check out Syd’s interview with Berlin noirmeister Philip Kerr. Here Syd discusses his career and his ideas about writing.

How long did it take you to get published?

I started out in journalism, so I had a sense of accomplishment right off, publishing my travel pieces in newspapers and magazines all over the place. Books are a different animal, but again I went with travel first and had some good early success with walking, hiking, and cycling guides. I wrote eight novels, though, before I got my first one, Time of the Wolf, published.

With the current “Viennese Mystery” series, things were easier. I had a bit of an author platform with several well-received books about Vienna and an agent who is most savvy. First query landed us the book deal.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

Tried and trusted here: you can look a lot further and do a lot worse than E.M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Another classic is Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction. These will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I just love the erudite discussions in both.

What’s a typical writing day?

I get to work about nine in the morning after I drop my son off at school. I try to devote the first hours of the writing day to the current fiction project--currently the fourth book in the Viennese Mystery series. Then some exercise--tennis, if I am lucky--and lunch, followed by more mundane freelance stuff in the afternoon that also helps to pay the bills.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Each of the books in the Viennese Mystery series features a famous historical figure of Vienna 1900. Requiem in Vienna focuses on musical Vienna: the composer Gustav Mahler is the target of an assassin and my protagonist, the lawyer and private inquiries man, Karl Werthen, is hired to protect him. The books are a blend of historical whodunit and literary thriller with more than a dash of historical/cultural/food lore thrown in.

Here’s what a Kirkus Reviews critic had to say of the current series installment: “Sophisticated entertainment of a very high caliber.”

How much research is involved in each of your books?

There are decades of research in the books. Explanation: I started researching Vienna 1900 long ago for my book, Hitler in Vienna. Since then I have continued to read heavily in the period, but for each book I still need to bone up on the historical folks I am featuring. Some writer once said that research was sort of like writing without the creative sweat. I enjoy the research; I probably commit about three months to each before I even begin the plotting. And thank whomever for the Internet--I can even get full editions of Viennese papers of the time online.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

Karl Werthen is a successful lawyer and sometimes inquiry agent, an assimilated Jew, and a distinct Viennophile. And I haven’t got a clue to where he comes from, other than a shared love for Vienna. He just appeared full-formed on the first page of The Empty Mirror, the initial in the series. A minor character, he elbowed his way to the forefront by the end of the first draft; the series concept actually had the real-life father of criminology, Hanns Gross, as the protagonist. A crusty old curmudgeon, Gross tugs Werthen away from his safe wills and trusts gig back into criminal law in that first one, to prove the artist Gustav Klimt innocent of murdering his model. But it just worked out so much better to use Werthen as my lead and Gross, the pompous pro, as the sometimes sidekick.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Somewhat odd. For example, my Hitler in Vienna was first published in Germany. I originally queried publishers there in German, and it was bought sight unseen (Hitler, at the time, was a hot topic). When they received my doorstopper of a manuscript in English and realized it needed to be translated, they were none too pleased. But they sucked it up and published anyway.

Then when trying to sell the English-language rights, I had a hell of a time convincing editors in England and the U.S. that no, they would not have to have the book translated. I already had the English original of the manuscript.

What books have influenced you?

As a young man I loved the lyricism of Steinbeck. Lee from East of Eden is still one of my favorite fictional characters. And of course there was Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Then during the almost twenty years I lived in Vienna, I became an avid reader of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British authors. Blame it on the British Council. A wonderful resource in its day with massive armchairs around a humming ceramic stove. Thomas Hardy became my literary hero; I open one of his novels and begin reading his scene-setting on some desolate heath in the south of England, and I get actual chills. The language just works for me. And Conrad. Don’t even get me started on Conrad--and the bugger wrote in a second language! A guilty pleasure also became the works of J.B. Priestley, especially his Good Companions.

Did these books influence my writing? Who knows, but they surely have made my life fuller. Le Carre, of course, pushed me in new ways with dialogue and plot, as did the early fiction works of Paul Theroux (Saint Jack, Picture Palace). I wish I could make my dialogue sparkle and crack they way those guys do. But this catalogue could go on for some time. Basta.

Thanks, Syd. Fascinating insights.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Matt.

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Comment by I. J. Parker on February 20, 2010 at 12:44am
Salzburg is nice. Or Innsbruck. I used to live there.
Comment by Matt Rees on February 19, 2010 at 3:49pm
Syd's got Vienna nailed down. But there's always Linz, Graz and Salzburg up for grabs!
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 19, 2010 at 5:19am
Hah! And here I was toying with doing a mystery series set in Austria. Good for Syd.

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