LJ Talks with Michelle Moran | Historical Fiction Author of ‘Maria: A Novel of Maria von Trapp’

Michelle Moran, author of Maria: A Novel of Maria von Trapp, talks with LJ about research, the Broadway production of the musical, and Maria’s real-life persona.

Michelle Moran, author of historical fiction including Nefertiti, Cleopatra’s Daughter, and Rebel Queen, learned history and research skills in part through her work on archeological digs. Her newest book, Maria: A Novel of Maria von Trapp (Dell), marks a jump in time for her subject interests and goes far beyond The Sound of Music to portray its complicated subject. She talks with LJ about research, the Broadway production of the musical, and Maria’s real-life persona.

Your compelling new novel, Maria, is a shift from your prior antiquity-set novels. What inspired you to retell Maria’s life story?

If someone had told me 15 years ago, when I was writing about ancient Egypt, that I would eventually be writing a novel set against the backdrop of World War II, I honestly wouldn’t have believed them. But I grew up watching The Sound of Music every year at Christmas, and something about watching the film with my children prompted me to question what the real Maria von Trapp had been like. In the film, she’s portrayed as a carefree, fun-loving stepmom to all seven of Georg’s children. Was she really so easygoing? Had it really all been fun and games? And if she loved children so much, what had made her want to become a nun? I had so many questions, and finally, while watching the film during the pandemic, I decided I wanted to write about her.

This novel spans from Austria in 1913 to the United States in 1959. Tell us about your research and creative process. What methods or tactics did you use to convey the setting and historical moments throughout this time frame?

I always begin my research with books; source material when I can get my hands on it, and excellent biographies when I can’t. We’re lucky that Maria was such a prolific writer when she was alive, penning not one but two autobiographies (in 1949 and 1972). After reading as much as I could about both her and the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, I began speaking to people who’d been fortunate enough to have met her. Finally, I visited Austria to get a sense of what Maria’s life had been like while growing up. You can still visit Nonnberg Abbey, for example, where she nearly took her vows, or see the Villa Trapp with its buttercup-yellow walls peeking out from behind its high walls. I think my visit to Salzburg helped tremendously in trying to establish a sense of place in the book.

Many stories are intertwined in Maria, from those of the von Trapp family to the Rodgers and Hammerstein team. How did you decide on the narratives and which stories to include, exclude, or expand upon?

I really had to carefully plot which stories to include in this novel, given the rich and varied lives of the protagonists. This could easily have been a 600-page book, simply because there was so much material to work with. Ultimately, though, I decided to focus only on the last few months of the musical’s production on Broadway. It was in these months that Maria reached out to Hammerstein’s office about the accuracy of the play. But deciding what to exclude from Maria’s life as she narrated it to Hammerstein’s assistant was hard. She met so many wonderful characters on her tours throughout America. In the end, though, I decided to focus on her time in Austria, where she spent her most formative years.

What startled or surprised you the most during your research for this novel? How did you ensure that this book was an accurate portrayal of Maria’s lived experience, and what do you hope readers take away from this authentic retelling?

I was genuinely surprised by how difficult people found the real Maria. She was an absolute force of nature, and when she set her sights on something, she went after it with almost tunnel vision. I drew extensively on both her and her daughter’s autobiographies to write the book and tried to stay as close to those stories as possible. Of course, it’s impossible to know what the characters said to each other on a day-to-day basis, but that’s where educated guessing comes in, as with all historical fiction. I do hope that after reading the book, people will have a much deeper appreciation of the obstacles Maria was forced to overcome before finding herself the subject of such a successful play and film.

What’s next? Are you working on an upcoming novel or project, and if so, can you share any details about what readers may look forward to?

I am absolutely working on something new! Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it because I haven’t signed the contract yet, but I can tell you that it will be set in England in the years leading up to World War I.

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