Since discovering the joy of writing a decade ago, Anton Maurus has written an autobiography (in English) and two historical novels and a biography in German (his first language). He is interviewed here by his daughter Julia.
Curiously enough, Anton (Tony) Maurus has just finished writing the first draft of a manuscript about the mysterious death of Anton Maurus. But the story is not a morbid flight of fancy about the author’s own mortality; it is a historical drama about another Bavarian man of the same name who, in 1872, was shot dead in the forest.
The victim worked as a horse-and-cartman (or courier) and, going by the newspaper report from the time of the murder, everybody thought his death was the result of a highway robbery. A memorial stone was erected in the forest and remains there today.
However, rumour has it that over 50 years later an inhabitant of the town confessed on his deathbed that he shot Anton Maurus, that the victim had carted deer for poachers and died at their hands following a supposed betrayal.
‘But the case was never solved, and for me there is the added intrigue that he had the same name as me!’ says the writer and former teacher.
The cold case of all cold cases came to Maurus’ attention a couple of years ago, mentioned to him by a friend who played an important role in finding a publisher for Maurus’ historical novel Mit den Gendanken daheim (With Thoughts of Home, Maximilian Dietrich Verlag 2011). The two stories are set in the same region of Bavaria. At 60,000 words, his latest manuscript is roughly the same length as With Thoughts of Home and Maurus hopes to see the murder mystery published.
From writing about his own life to penning an imaginative account of the murder of his name-twin, Maurus has come a long way since he first started writing for pleasure a decade ago.
‘I started writing in the early 2000s,’ he recalls. ‘I thought I’d write a few stories about my own life so that my children could see where I come from and would know a bit more about their father. I handwrote these stories—I don’t think I had a computer then.’
During that process Maurus unexpectedly found himself exploring certain issues and topics, from which he developed a philosophical manuscript with a scientific bent. Entitled The Big Picture: A View of Humanity in the Universe, the manuscript deals with questions of God in the universe, spirits, the human individual and humanity as a whole.
Maurus had hoped to have The Big Picture selected for publication, but after receiving several rejections he concluded that he needed to review the manuscript and rethink his pitch.
‘I learnt that it’s extremely hard to get anything published. If you want to have something published, it has to be very well targeted; you have to approach the correct publishers. Although there is no clear separation between fields of thought, in my case I needed more research and I needed to approach philosophically inclined publishers rather than science-based publishers.’
After finishing The Big Picture, in 2006 he went to Germany to visit his family for two months (Maurus was born German but is now an Australian citizen). He explains the inception of his next writing project:
‘In 1996 my father and I went to Wisconsin to find traces of our old relatives who migrated there. We found out a lot about them and gathered a lot of information from people we met in the US. We had the original letters and the verbal accounts, so in 1996 the whole story came together, but I didn’t have time to write it.’
Maurus promised his father that he would write the story down and, in 2006, he spent six weeks bringing the project (which would later become With Thoughts of Home) to fruition.
‘I thought that if I wrote it just as a documentary account, it would have been boring because there wasn’t enough material to illustrate it. So I decided to write a novel based on the true story and include the original letters and contemporary history from my own research.
‘I knew the history of “mad” King Ludwig II in Bavaria, the harsh social hierarchy, the stiff attitudes of the people, especially in a small country town where the characters live, and I weaved in a romance between the son of a wealthy, high-class farmer [called Anton] and my great, great grand-aunt [called Walburga] who was a maid at the farm and came from a poor family.’
As it happened, when Anton and Walburga fell in love and she fell pregnant, a family fall-out ensued and Anton, rather than becoming mayor, was disinherited. A shamed Walburga, trying to hide her pregnancy from the community, bound herself so tightly about the stomach that their child was born with deformed hands and feet.
The young lovers decided to try to escape from poverty and social persecution and in 1882 they left Bavaria for the United States. The novel tells of their new lives in a place called Stetsonville in Wisconsin, which at that time was a pioneering outpost on the Wisconsin central railroad.
‘I was immersed in this fabulous story and I wrote it in a passion; it just flowed,’ says Maurus. ‘I did not originally think of publication.’
He gave the manuscript to his father, who was very happy. Before Maurus returned to Australia, they sent it to one publisher for consideration, and when it was rejected they decided to keep the story within the family. Then, in 2009, he gave the manuscript to a Bavarian friend in Australia, who was impressed with the depth of the story and told the author that he ‘should not just let it go’.
‘Then some friends in Germany took a vivid interest in the story and helped in selecting sample chapters and approaching publishers,’ Maurus explains. ‘We had a bit of luck there, because they had a more professional approach. When you approach a publisher you have to present the manuscript very professionally. If you present anything to a publisher in a scrappy way, you will reduce your chances.’
He received offers from two publishers and chose the southern Bavarian Maximilian Dietrich Verlag. The Maurus family paid a self-contribution to reduce the publisher’s risk, which saw the book over the line, and the first edition was set at 500 copies. Then the real work started.
Maurus winces as he remembers the revision stage.
‘I had all my dialogue too long, like somebody would be talking for half a page or a page and the publisher told me that that was not realistic. I had to loosen up the dialogue and create intermittences, such as “he stopped and scratched his chin and thought.”
‘I find it difficult when I’m told how I should change my style,’ he admits. ‘There are conventions to which we are expected to conform and I find rules a bit restraining to my creativity. In a way I feel that a writer should write the way he likes…but I learnt that you can’t just have people talk forever!’
Then the editing process took a surprisingly dramatic turn.
‘One of the descendants from that farm in Bavaria kicked up a stink because we told them the book was going to be published. They insisted the names be changed and I also had to make sure that the locality would not be disclosed, to prevent them being identified.
‘It’s amazing to think that in a small town, after 130 years, they were still worried about their family’s reputation, so I had to accommodate their concerns, and reframe the story so that nobody would be affected by it.’
Finally, the name of the book had to change as well. The manuscript started life as Heimweh, which means ‘homesickness’ in German and is simply far too common a title.
Now Maurus can hold the book proudly in his hand. He says it has been very well received and he has enjoyed lots of positive feedback. It seems that the power of the story captures everyone—particularly those with an interest in migration. As he observes, it is a story containing many social elements: the breaking down of class discrimination, the hardship of resettling and homesickness, the poisonous effect of the past. It is a personal drama, and the love story continues to the end of the novel.
Not long after its publication, Maurus decided to translate it to English in the hope of finding an English-language publisher in Australia or the United States.
In the meantime, there is an unsolved murder to stimulate his imagination.
Reflecting on his experience as a writer, he says, ‘I write for the joy of it. I think no matter what you write, passion is the key. If you have passion in the subject, you will write better, you can write anything you set your mind to.
‘My advice is: don’t write totally with a view to publication. You should always have some other motive for writing, because if publication doesn’t come about then you won’t be totally disappointed. Don’t worry about the outcome, just write, just let your heart and your mind flow.’
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Anton Maurus’ in The Australian Writer issue 376 (June–August 2012).