Welcome to Sunday Spotlight. Today our guest is Phyllis McDuff, here to talk about her latest novel, Bequest.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I have been writing since I was a very small child. I started with letters sent back home from Vienna.
How many novels have you written and published?
None. My first work, ‘A Story Dreamt Long Ago’ is a memoir. It is the story of my mother Bettina Mendl’s escape from Vienna in 1938. Bettina was a wealthy Jewish heiress to a baking and banking dynasty. During Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, she lost everything but she was grateful to escape with her life. What worries me, is that Hitler was welcomed by Austria with the sort of enthusiasm that was repeated recently by America for Trump.
I was very pleased when the German language version of ‘A Story Dreamt Long Ago’ won the Austria Prize for Services to Literature.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Depends on if you include research time. Bequest took 2 ½ years to research. If you have been funded by Arts Queensland you can do it a lot faster. Sometimes you need a lot of time to digest your research and mull over the direction of the writing. High speed writing is obvious to me. There is too much of it.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
When I came back from Vienna at 17 in 1961 after my debutante season, I was shocked in the difference in culture between Australian and European teenagers in terms of social skills, and ignorance of science and culture. I was entirely out of my depth, even with people of my own age. The most cutting difference was the alcohol abuse prevalent among Australian teenagers. In Vienna, we would discuss poetry, art, and science over a single glass of wine.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
Old Australian classics, Ruth Parkes, Darcy Niland and Kylie Tennant and Ion Idriess.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
In Year 12 we had to write an essay on our future. I wrote that I wanted to be writer and so it has happened. Although I never decided to become a writer and never really expected to be one.
One of my favourite childhood books was “Tom Mix and his horse Trigger”. It was a classic cowboy story with a ghost in it that I loved to bits. I remember in the American Library in Vienna, I discovered the works of Thornton Wilder and loved those to bits too.
What inspired your most recent book?
Bequest is, from my point of view, a true story. It is woven around the family myths my mother told me around a gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Queen Victoria as a young woman and how it came to be in the family’s possession.
My grandfather Fritz Mendl, who is the subject of my upcoming book Salvation Bread, helped finance the escape of many Jewish families through the pawning of their family jewellery. Each piece told a different story of desperate flight and impoverishment of previously wealthy families.
I can still picture the little spot beside the creek at Tarpoly when my mother Bettina told me the story of the bracelet. I remember the urgency with which impressed the tale on me and that I didn’t understand why the story was so important. It was 1953, and Bettina was heading back to Vienna to attempt to have her property restored that was confiscated by the Nazis. She must have been unsure if she would return.
How much research do you do? As an author of Historical Fiction, how do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
This is the hardest thing to do right. Do you focus on the characters and throw in a few historically accurate details to give the narrative that little bit of spice, or do you ground the story in interesting events of a period of history and risk overwhelming the story with the inevitability of its own ending?
Do you read your book reviews? Do you appreciate reader feedback and take it on board, even if it is negative? How do you deal with negative feedback after spending so much time writing your book?
Absolutely. I discuss all feedback with my editor.
How much planning do you do? Do you plan / plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progresses? In terms of characters, are they already a firm picture in your mind before you start writing or do they develop a personality of their own as the story progresses?
I am a meticulous plotter. I have my own system that I have successfully taught to many other authors. I draw up a grid of thirty squares and allocate plot elements to each. Then, I begin to write.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters?
No. I never transfer entire characters. I infuse some character traits into my characters, but never transplant a whole person onto a thumbnail sketch from a different time and place.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
Not really. I have emptied so much of myself into my pages that there is very little kept back.
If you could go back in time for a year, which historical era would you choose to live in?
Very difficult to choose. Do you pick a time filled with events like wars and famines and see how enormous events unfold? Or do you choose a quiet period of time where you can get to know the people and how they think and feel? I am fascinated by people who have all they need and it bores them, so they feel the desire to turn their perfectly good existence upside down, just for fun.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, known as Sisi. She is a minor character in the Bequest. I felt close to her as a she was, like my mother Bettina, an accomplished horsewoman and had a tragic family life. She hunted in challenging terrain such as Ireland and Hungary and the Greek Islands at a time when women did not usually hunt. And all this in a corset with an 18 inch waist!
When did you discover the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge? Do you think the challenge has had any impact on the awareness and discoverability of Australian Women writers? Have you personally benefited in terms of exposure of your work to new readers?
Through my friend, Emily Cooney of Emily for Emphasis. She has given my work new life by introducing me to ebooks and the wide world of Amazon.
Bequest is the story of a gold bracelet containing a miniature of Queen Victoria by Guigilomo Faija, inscribed ‘from Victoria R, May 1849’. An heirloom from my mother Bettina Mendl who fled Vienna in 1938 ahead of the Nazi occupation losing everything; an extensive villa, vineyards, a castle in the Tyrol, the Ankerbrot factory, and a stable of prize winning tournament horses. She fled to Australia with an English five pound note in her pocket. She survived the war and retrieved the bracelet and discovered its story.
In 1848 waves of rebellion claimed the Royal Houses of Europe one by one, leaving Queen Victoria and her family in the gravest of danger.
The young Queen pregnant with her sixth child, survived two assassination attempts in two days.
Now Anna, a young Austrian maid in the Royal nursery, must undertake a secret mission to save the lives of the precious children in her care.