Thursday 15 September 2016

An interview with Stephanie Burgis, by Y S Lee

Stephanie Burgis’s Masks and Shadows (Pyr Books) is a bold historical fantasy set in Hungary, 1779, at the height of the Habsburg monarchy. Featuring opera, alchemy, political intrigue and “the most famous castrato in Europe” as its romantic hero, it’s an astonishing, richly detailed novel. As both a musician and a music historian, Burgis writes about the power of music with unusual freshness and subtlety. She also has a keen eye for social and cultural detail. And, as fans of her middle-grade Kat, Incorrigible trilogy might expect, there’s a difficult and compelling sibling relationship at the heart of the story.

Masks and Shadows stayed with me long after I finished it and I’m so eager to read its companion novel, Congress of Secrets, to be published this November (also by Pyr Books). Steph has kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us here.

YSL: So, the Habsburgs! And the astonishing rococo confection of Eszterháza Palace! What first drew you to this time and place?

SB: It all started with my love for late-18th-century opera. Vienna was seen as a cultural capital of Europe – but Joseph Haydn, one of the two legendary composers of the era (along with Mozart) only ever got to visit Vienna in the winters. He spent most of his life stuck in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, in his employer Prince Nikolaus’s palace, Eszterháza. He and Mozart form a really interesting contrast to each other, because Mozart was the first famous composer to strike out on his own, move to Vienna and try to support himself as a capital-A Artist - whereas Haydn was a loyal retainer to the Esterházys for almost all of his life. He lived where they lived and composed what they wanted him to compose. He wasn’t even allowed to sell his music elsewhere without their permission – and since he wrote his operas to suit Nikolaus’s particular taste, they didn’t follow all of the expected formulas for the operas performed in the theaters in Vienna.

Haydn loved the rich musical life of the capital, which he only got to experience during Prince Nikolaus’s annual visits – but his cultural isolation for most of the year led to the development of a really interesting and original musical style on his part, and Eszterháza became famous for the glorious music performed there. His operas are gorgeous and idiosyncratic, and his music was part of what drew visitors to Eszterháza from all over Europe.

I wrote my M.A. thesis on Haydn’s opera Armida, and I spent three years researching a PhD on opera and politics in Vienna and Eszterháza between 1765-90. At the end of the three years, I only had half of a thesis written…but I did have a whole first draft of Masks and Shadows! So the research turned out to be useful after all. ;)

YSL: You describe your hero, Carlo Morelli, in the clearest possible terms: a musico with a “high, sweet tone of… voice”. Other characters see him as a “freak”, his voice “alien”, his face “disturbingly feminine”. While he’s also brilliant, compassionate, good-looking and rich, making him the romantic hero is still a radical - and possibly divisive - move. Can you tell us about this decision? And how have readers received Carlo as a hero?

SB: The first time that a draft of this novel was sent out on submission, back in 2005, it was taken to Acquisitions meetings multiple times only to be shot down by marketing departments who said they didn’t know how to market a romantic fantasy where the hero was a castrato. Luckily, times have changed, and by the next time it went on submission, in 2014, people were much more receptive to that idea. Whew! (And I love my publicist at Pyr Books!)

Part of my inspiration for this book actually came when I was reading about how divisive the idea of castrati romances were in eighteenth-century Europe. The castrati were famous for their sex lives as well as their voices, having tumultuous romantic affairs with both women and men, but when they actually fell seriously in love and wanted to get married, it became a much more provocative social issue. The question of whether castrati should be allowed to marry was a hotly debated issue that went to court again and again throughout the century - and which brought up a lot of the same arguments that would return in the late 20th- and early 21st-centuries over the issue of gay marriage.

The Catholic church took the stance that castrati could not be allowed to marry because they could not physically father children (the only “true purpose” for marriage); the Church of England initially said that they could legally marry, but then in a landmark case near the end of the century, they annulled a castrato’s marriage (against his will) because they said it could never have been a “real” marriage anyway.

Again and again, though, women and castrati did fall in love and want to marry, and as I read about those court cases, I started imagining my own characters…who of course are officially the most unsuitable match possible for each other…but who are perfect for each other anyway!

YSL: Joseph Haydn and Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy are significant characters in Masks and Shadows. That takes some nerve! How do you reconcile the authorial desire for maximum drama with your historian’s duty to real figures?

SB: It can be nerve-wracking! What really helped in this case was that I’d spent so many years reading about Haydn and reading his letters that I had a very vivid sense of him as a person – I felt very confident in imagining how he would have reacted to all the situations in my novel. And Prince Nikolaus cut such a dramatic figure in real life, it wasn’t necessary to add much for the sake of fiction!

Stephanie Burgis, author of Masks and Shadows

YSL: You treat servant characters with the same interest and dignity as the Empress of Austria, and at least two of your characters, Carlo and Anna, threaten the entrenched social hierarchy in complex – and potentially revolutionary – ways. At one point, even the conventional and dutiful heroine, Charlotte, utters something so offensively democratic that she’s forced to flee the room. What shaped your interest in social mobility and radical (for the time) political ideas?

: The late eighteenth century is a fascinating time because on the one hand, it was the era of the Enlightenment, when philosophers were openly debating the natural rights of all men, regardless of birth; but on the other hand, it was still a rigidly class-based and hierarchical society. I’ve always been fascinated by the glittering history of aristocratic Europe – while also being perfectly aware that if I had been alive myself in any of those earlier time periods, I would have been the one scrubbing the ballroom floors rather than dancing in glamorous outfits!

As far as I know, there’s not a single upper-crust ancestor in my family history, whereas there were a lot of poor farmers, tailors, etc. The wealthiest ancestors I know of were my Jewish-Ukrainian ancestors, who had to flee the Ukraine in the early 20th century in the wake of a vicious set of pogroms. By the time they’d reached America, all of their money had been spent on their escape – and my great-grandfather (the child of the family) ended up becoming a founding member of the United Auto Workers union. So I grew up hearing stories of the battles they fought for reasonable working hours, etc. – and when I started researching those glittering 18th-century upper-class lifestyles, it was natural for me to be just as interested in the servants who made it all possible!
: While we’re talking about Anna, a maid who becomes an opera singer: is hers a story lifted from history? It sounds like a fairy tale but I desperately want it to be true!

: I’m afraid her story wasn’t lifted from history! But it was a plausible story in that particular situation. Opera singers often came from families of professional musicians, but that wasn’t always the case, and many of them did have interesting and unusual origin stories.

YSL: I love that, in a time of heavily powdered hair, the revelation of someone’s hair colour becomes an intimate detail. The clothing, too, is remarkable – the skirts are immense and stiffly starched (Charlotte taps her finger against hers, at one point). Was it tricky plotting action scenes while respecting the limits of women’s fashion?

SB: It really was! Aristocratic women’s skirts were so wide at this point that they presented real challenges for choreography especially at the climax of the novel. They were, of course, gorgeous in a very stylized way – but I had a lot of fun writing the scene where Anna (the maid-turned-opera singer) has her first experience of wearing a noblewoman’s outfit as the costume for one of her operatic roles. She grew up as a servant, so of course she saw all the (massive) advantages that came with aristocratic birth – but then, her clothes at least allowed her the freedom to move (so that she could get her work done)! Clearly, any sensible person would choose the safer and far more privileged life of a noblewoman over that of an overworked and underpaid maidservant, but it’s still a fun moment to bring out that trade-off.

YSL: Your Kat, Incorrigible trilogy (for children), features such warm, delightful sibling relationships. But in Masks and Shadows, the idea of family becomes deeply sinister: parents use their children as political tokens, husbands are either impotent or despotic, and sisters find themselves locked in childhood roles that can only damage them as adults. The novel’s one mutually caring couple exists outside the legal definition of family. How did this reversal come about?

SB: Honestly, most of those relationships in Masks and Shadows are taken directly from the historical record. Prince Nikolaus really did relegate his wife to the shadows in their own palace (even though he refused to allow her to move away from it) while he ruled with his young mistress by his side; his mistress really was married, and her husband was paid off by Nikolaus. (We know very little about the real mistress and her husband – whenever Haydn referred to the mistress in his letters, he did it in code, because discretion was extremely important for a loyal servant - but historians have picked out those details.) My aristocratic heroine, Charlotte, is a fictional character – but aristocratic young women were generally married off for dynastic reasons, and since they were raised by an army of servants and only tended to see their parents for short, controlled visits, it’s not surprising that they often didn’t have very close, loving relationships.

Of course, Charlotte’s family goes beyond that norm, which is part of how she and her sister Sophie developed their particular relationship dynamics – Charlotte was her sister’s protector during their early years, which helped save both of them at the time, but which hasn’t led to an entirely healthy relationship as adults.

On a more metaphorical level, this book is very much about the roles that people were (and are) expected to perform in real life just as much as in opera – and it was important to me to show Charlotte being pushed into finally questioning those roles and the rules she’s grown up with. (Her epiphanies are also quite plausible within that time period – there were a number of really interesting 18th-century noblewomen who notoriously flouted their families to run off with “unsuitable” matches of one type or another!)

YSL: Could you leave us with a quotation that encapsulates the flavor of Masks and Shadows?

SB: Of course! I like this one from Carlo’s point-of-view, at the end of his first scene as he rides through the front gates of Eszterháza:

“The most notorious alchemist in Europe and a probable Prussian spy rode in the carriage with him.

“This might well be an interesting visit, after all.” 
 YSL: Of course, Carlo's visit is much more than merely "interesting"...

Thank you so much, Steph, for talking with us about the intricacies and pleasures of writing historical fiction. And congratulations on the achievement that is Masks and Shadows!

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She has published over thirty short stories for adults and teens, as well as an MG Regency fantasy trilogy, known in the U.S. as the Kat, Incorrigible series and in the U.K. as The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson. Her first two historical fantasy novels for adults, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets, will be published by Pyr Books in 2016, and her next MG fantasy series will be published by Bloomsbury Books, beginning with The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart in 2017.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries/Agency novels, published in the UK by Walker Books and in North America by Candlewick Press. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.


Ruan Peat said...

What an interesting era, I learnt some at school but I realise now, so very little or any reality, I will be looking these series up for a read. Thank you

Y S Lee said...

Hope you enjoy it, Ruan!

Marjorie said...

I loved 'Masks and Shadows' and am looking forward to 'Congress of secrets'!