Holly Müller is a novelist, short story writer, and musician. She is half Austrian and half Welsh and lives in Cardiff. Her debut novel, My Own Dear Brother, a historical fiction set in post-war Austria, was published in February this year by Bloomsbury. She was also published in the Parthian Books’ anthology of new Welsh fiction Rarebit and the Seren Books’ 2015 anthology New Welsh Short Stories. She has written for The Independent, The Guardian, and performed her work at various literary events including Hay Literature Festival 2014, and Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015. Holly is also the singer, lyricist and violinist in the band Hail! The Planes who have appeared at various UK music festivals.
After reviewing My Own Dear Brother earlier this month, I interviewed Müller in a very busy and loud café in Cardiff. This is a shortened and edited version of the 2-hour long interview in which Holly and I got carried away talking about the research and the writing of My Own Dear Brother, feminism, writer’s block, creative writing courses, and the processes of being published.
Durre S. Mughal: Where did you get the idea from, for the novel?
Holly Müller: Well, I suppose there’s two answers to it, which is that, one, it is obviously inspired by my family background. I wanted to write something about Austria, and it sounds really clichéd but I was compelled to write something about it, because I don’t really know Austria that well and I don’t speak fluent German, that sort of thing. I couldn’t speak to my family fluently and the culture was quite different. My dad didn’t really bring any of that in to my family, so I was just really curious and fascinated about my own history and about this place where he was from. I wanted to know more about my dad I think and his upbringing and his identity.
The actual idea for the book started off as a short story called the Krampus, which was also the working title of the novel and it was centred around this Krampus tradition. It just felt like there was a lot that could be expanded on. I was doing a postgrad at the time, and the people on the creative writing workshop at the time got me thinking about how this should be a novel. I was originally a short story writer and a poet so I hadn’t actually thought about it, but then I seriously considered it and started to develop it.
I think maybe it actually is. You’re probably right, it’s just I didn’t realize it. I’ve written short stories and I really enjoyed that, and I’m proud of some of the short stories I’ve written but it doesn’t feel quite right. I think I’m a maximalist instead of a minimalist, like I have a lot of words. Instead of condensing my prose sometimes it’s easier to let it go.
So did you have an interest in historical fiction, aside from your personal history?
Not a particular interest – I’ve read some but I didn’t think I wanted to be a historical fiction writer. It’s just that I wanted to write that book. I don’t think I want to write more historical fiction even now, it just happened.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I think I was always keen about the idea of writing since A-Level. My English teacher in high school encouraged me to send my extracts off to university when applying. He got me to send a piece to UEA, which as you know is the pinnacle of CW. And I did and they offered me an interview and then a place. And I think they only have 10 places a year, and that hit home to me that I must really have something. But I didn’t take the place because I was too scared.
Oh no way?!
They were really like, you have to breathe, live, drink, eat writing every minute of the day and they were so intense about it. I was 18 and I was just like, ‘I just want to get drunk a bit! So I think I’ll go a bit more lukewarm on this.’ So I sort of missed that boat but I’m quite glad.
Ah well, you’re fine now, it’s all worked out… Did you have the plot in mind before you started to write the novel?
Certain elements were in my mind quite clearly. Like the place and the kind of atmosphere, the idea of krampus, something about Ursula and the strong emotion she was having about this affair that was happening in the family. But really no, I didn’t have the plot. It was the characters, I suppose. I had Anton and Schosi there also quite clearly in my mind, and then I just kind of wrote myself into the novel and into the plot, which is why I think it took me so long to write.
Apparently it took you six years?
Six years to finish, which is a lot to do with me just drifting in. It was exciting but stressful to not know where I was going next. There were a lot of exciting moments of discovery where you feel like your mind has done something great without you controlling it, but it was a huge learning process. I’d read enough novels but I never knew what components a novel needed to be a successful from a writer’s point of view and I had to work it out as I went.
In my opinion, the novel is too dark to be considered a children’s novel, but there are themes of children and coming of age in the novel. Was that your intention?
Not consciously, but I realized that that would be what it was about. If you are 13 at the start of the novel and 15 by the end of it and in the meantime all that has happened to you during the novel that happens to Ursula… that is essentially is what is about. About someone losing their innocence but also gaining the strength to cope with the adult world. And gaining the strength to know her own mind and defend herself against threats, including her own brother.
Did you have in mind the kinder transport children then or not?
Yeah that was an interesting point in the review, but no, not really, I was very much immersing myself in the Austrian point of view, an Austrian child during that time and their experience, the novel infact doesn’t even deal with the holocaust, it doesn’t deal with the extermination of the Jews, it mentions it in passing really.
Did you consciously intend that?
I definitely grappled with that consciously when I was writing the book. How am I going to deal with all the issues that surround this very sensitive part of history and deal with it in a way that I could justify myself if the book was published? I thought, can you write a novel about that period of history and focus on something else? So it focuses on the treatment of disabled people under the Nazi regime, the treatment of women and girls at the hands of Russians occupying forces, the nature of complicity and culpability of the average citizen… themes I felt were less explored of that time. And I guess I felt that the holocaust wasn’t my story to tell. You know when you’re reading the book that that’s going on in tandem with that.
Yeah, that’s the first thing that people think when WW2 is mentioned.
Yeah so I assumed prior knowledge that they know the context and they know that the holocaust is happening alongside all of this stuff as well. One of my relatives was disabled and was very lucky to survive the SWW so I felt more confident depicting this as I had more connection to it.
So are any of the characters based on real people then? I assume Schosi is…
Schosi is the one that is actually based on a real family member of mine, my great uncle has similar learning disabilities and autistic traits, and is not mid 70s. He’s very gentle and calm and kind, loves animals, mischievous and lovely. It just hit me very hard that he was lucky to survive, because his own brothers supported the Nazi regime, which would advocate his own death. And the more I researched it, the more I realized it. I was trying to avoid telling the real story, the very grim story of the real Schosi, but I realized that there was an opportunity to tell that story and I needed to take it instead of avoid it.
Yeah it is quite obvious that this was written from quite a touching, personal place. So would you say that Schosi is your favourite character then?
Schosi, hands down. But close behind is Ursula.
Ursula is quite mature for her age, as a 13-year old. Even compared to some of the other girls in the novel, even her own sister, Dorli. Ursula is quite brave. What made you write such a strong female protagonist?
I wanted her to be flawed but I think she’s had quite a difficult time. She’s quite a serious little thing. There’s a lot of anxiety around to do with her family and position in village, or friendships, or lack of friendships. I suppose in some ways it feels like her family members are more capricious and less reliable than she is in some ways. More selfish and difficult, and she’s had to be an adult to cope with all the volatility in her family. I wanted to show how resourceful and strong a young person can be. There’s quite a lot of myself in her which I think is expected in a first novel, and because I was in a similar scenario but in a different way.
I should say though that I am really very much proudly a feminist. And I didn’t think that, ‘I’m going to write a story of women and make them strong’, but I also very instinctively and very passionately believe in writing female characters that don’t shy away from the reality. Women can be just as strong and complicated, and just as flawed and just as dark. I don’t want to read about diluted female characters that aren’t ambitious or erotic or cruel or the things that we all can be at times. She’s very young but I wanted to show that she’s sly and she’s got all these flaws and that’s what it is to be female just as much it is to be male and I just wanted to write someone with a lot of substance I suppose. Though she can be a bit of a wimp as well!
I love that. I couldn’t agree with you more! How was it to write some of the more difficult parts of the novel? Such as the scenes from Hartburg hospital and when the red army take over the village?
It was difficult. I would find it quite hard to sit down to write a lot of days. Because I knew how deeply I would have to go into what I was writing about and how I would have to engage my emotions as well as my brain. That I’d have to confront some of this material and the reality of it if I wanted to do it justice. The research was the hardest thing because it was listening to testimonies, real individuals who had lived through that. It was really quite unsettling and disturbing. I contacted an Austrian TV company who sent me these clips of little known films and documentaries of the killing clinics and I’d be sitting there watching these films of people telling their memories and the things they saw… which was difficult. A lot of the stories are taken from real stories.
Did you ever think that maybe I should tone down for the readers?
Writing the actual scenes was very draining but I was very immersed in it. It came very fast because I saw it so vividly and felt it so strongly. But I think I did at the editing stage. I didn’t water it down in that way, but I just reduced the amount of material in there. But I think I felt like people should see.
What are your favourite writers and influences?
I’ve got some favourite writers that I find massively inspiring. I don’t know if their style is really ever detectable in mine as I write quite differently to them but, absolutely love Margaret Atwood. She’s my favourite. Crazy about J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, that kind of thing. Really like Steinbeck, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami. Very different to what I’m writing but they’re someone to aspire to.
Would you say that music has a lot of influence to your writing?
It’s hard to know whether they influence each other as such but I think there’s something similar in my relationship to each of them. I go into a similar sort of imaginative state when I go into either of them.
I think a lot of what I love about writing is what I love about music which is that kind of slightly unconscious instinctive relationship you can have with words, the same you can with melody which is following the melody of language and following the rhythm in words. So for me one of the biggest pleasures is contracting a sentence which is beautiful to me. And that can be a bit of a downfall because it makes it more difficult to chop sections out if you’ve fallen in love with your sentences.
Do you think writer’s block exist? Do you struggle with it?
I don’t know. I’ve never really known what that means.
Is it a lazy phrase?
Perhaps it is, because it makes it sound like it’s a syndrome that writers suffer from. Like oh, you’ve got writer’s block, well, what can you do? Whereas I think it must be different for each writer, and I think it’s something to work on, something to solve, if you find yourself getting blocked. Whether it is blocked for ideas or blocked in terms of getting something down, or continuing with a project.
What do they call that? That inner critic, like you’re faking it. Imposter syndrome?
Yeah people feel fraudulent like they’re not the real thing, or they feel demotivated because there are so many good ideas out there already that they can’t possibly do it. And all this negative dialogue. And I think it’s about analysing what writing is to you. If you keep coming up against that sort of a block then, are you pinning too much of your self esteem to writing, and it’s so crucial that you can’t even begin? Like if I fail at this, then I can’t bear it so I’m going to never even start and I’m going to dismiss every idea before I even pursue it?
Yep that’s me.
And I’ve done that loads. And I think a lot of writers are very sensitive people. They may have struggled at times and writing kind of dovetails into that. And it’s a challenge to work out how to make it play in your favour. Once you’ve sussed out how you can stop yourself from sabotaging yourself and harness it in a more positive way. Like okay, I sort of need this self-expression because I can’t get it out any other way. And I’m going to learn to conquer this inner critic.
That’s a really good way of putting it. Kind of like talking back to the inner critic and saying no, I have to do this.
Yeah, I suppose it’s hard but, follow that buzz it gives you and let that be the reason that you write. That pleasure and it’s freedom and it’s exciting and all those things. But it depends on your mood doesn’t it? I had loads of days when I was disgusted and disappointed by what I had written but I’ve grown in confidence, especially after my Own Dear Brother.
Would you say that comes with experience then, and age?
Partly. I think it does from experience and affirmation of getting published. It is a confidence boost.
Would you recommend Creative Writing courses? To new writers? Wanna-be writers?
I think I would because my experience has been positive. I did a CW undergrad, then an MPhil course which I then converted into a CW PhD. I would recommend it because I think as long as your course is of a decent standard, you’ve got amazing role models, your tutors will generally be brilliant writers, poets, and they’ll know a lot of stuff that you need to know. It’s really exciting working with people like that. You get experience of testing your work live to a small readership, thickening your skin to criticism, understanding how beneficial criticism is, understanding what the reader wants from your work. You also meet people, other writers, become friends, network, also people in local area. Events and opportunities open up to you.
What’s your most favourite and least favourite thing about being a writer?
My most favourite is thinking up stories and being in another world. And developing that writer’s eye which, to me, is a state of heightened observance. Taking in detail and atmosphere, watching other people, thinking about stories and somehow seeing the stories in the world around you. It makes me feel very alive and connected. I love the relationship it makes me have with the world and with life, makes me feel like I’m getting the most out of things somehow.
The thing I hate most is I guess is that since being published… feeling unsure about myself. I was very happy in my own little world pre-publication, my novel was a means to an end. I didn’t think about how I’d feel after I’d arrived, I thought I would feel wonderful. But actually it’s like the horizon shifts again. And suddenly I’m a tiny fish in a huge pond. The parameters broaden and I think, ‘God, no one known who I am, I’m a complete newbie, will I ever write a well-received book?’ I’ve put all my eggs in one basket in a way and there’s a lot resting on it. Somehow success, has also pressed all my buttons, and has made me feel vulnerable in the long run. It makes me feel competitive, and it’s challenging me on a personal level.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I have to finish my PhD thesis now as soon as I can. I’m also writing an album for the band. We’re renaming the band, and we’re going to go in a bit of a different direction with our sound now. And I’m getting married in September so I’ve got a wedding to plan as well. So it’s going to be a busy summer and I’m of course going to be writing my next book.
Photo © Jonathan Ring.