An Interview with Yannick Murphy
Author of Signed, Mata Hari
MF: What inspired you to select Mata Hari as a subject for a novel?
YM: My own curiosity. I read a short article about her in Smithsonian and I realized from reading it how little I knew about her. As I started researching her life, the more fascinating she became, and the more I kept saying to myself, I have to write a book about her.
MF: What sort of research did you do for the novel?
YM: I read whatever non-fiction books I could find about her. I also researched on-line and found a wealth of information, all of it seemed to feed my imagination. Strangely enough, the less reliable the source appeared, the more I imagined Mata Hari reading the source’s descriptions about herself and scoffing at the inaccuracies, and this in turn helped me develop her voice.
MF: Who was Claire Benedict, otherwise known as agent AF44?
YM: From what I read about her, I understand she was a British woman who was a German spy living in Spain during WWI. At one point during Mata Hari’s life, the British thought that Claire Benedict and Mata Hari were one and the same. I’ve also seen her referred to as Clara Benedix.
MF: SIGNED, MATA HARI remains vague on the subject of Mata Hari’s guilt. What prompted you to make this creative decision?
YM: The more I researched Mata Hari, the more I realized that her tumultuous life, her failed marriage and her sad motherhood most likely affected her ability to make clear decisions. I think that there are cases where the human psyche doesn’t recognize absolute guilt or innocence. Mata Hari may not have considered herself entirely guilty or entirely innocent. The degree to which she was involved in espionage was probably vague even in her own mind, so naturally, considering the book is written at times from her perspective, there are no definitive answers.
MF: My grandmother believed that Mata Hari was killed because “men kill women they can’t control.” What are your thoughts on the idea that Mata Hari’s sexuality helped condemn her?
YM: I would imagine that Mata Hari did shoulder resentment from the men who tried and convicted her, simply because she was a woman who was comfortable with her own sexuality. The fact that she was an exotic dancer who easily traded her company and sexuality for money and other benefits, which some believe included military secrets, made her the consummate evil woman who had taken advantage of what was then considered men’s one major weakness – their love for women.
MF: There’s a quote at the end of the novel:
Would you explain that quote for us?
YM: The Smithsonian article that I read about Mata Hari was published to coincide with the anniversary of her death. It was that article that propelled my thoughts into motion and made me interested in her life. At night, before sleep, I would write chapters in my head that were from her point of view. Most of these chapters were never included in the book because they had nothing to do with the details of her life. What I was doing was finding her voice. I imagined Mata Hari in my home, doing what I did all day, and I imagined how she would describe, for example, how she played with her children, or how she cleaned her house. I would fall asleep with her voice in my head, and at times, the voice would carry into my dreams.
MF: Some sources state that Mata Hari’s son died of complications from syphilis. How do you feel about that?
YM: I don’t think how her son died would have changed how she felt about the loss, which is what I think ultimately made her a more desperate character and all the more interesting to write about.
MF: Does anyone know what happened to Vadime Masloff or Anna Lintjens?
YM: I don’t know if anyone knows what happened to them. I’d be curious to find out.
MF: In the course of your research, what conclusion did you come to about Mata Hari’s trial?
YM: I came to the conclusion that the decision to condemn her to death was most likely an intentional message that warned other would-be traitors not to engage in espionage, especially women who thought their sexuality could in anyway aid them or serve as a tool. Was Mata Hari really working for the Germans? Maybe, at one point, but her involvement was probably so brief, her cognizance of its importance so sketchy, and its effects so minimal, that her punishment, the death sentence, could be viewed as extreme.
MF: Historical novels present additional challenges for their authors. Harvard professor of English Daniel Aaron states: “Good writers write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write. Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music, so to speak, changed into forms akin to opera or theatrical productions.” Any thoughts on that as it relates to SIGNED, MATA HARI?
YM: When I first had the idea to write SIGNED, MATA HARI I was so excited, because I knew that no one else had written or would ever write the kind of novel I would write. I’m not a historian, so I knew that what was not known about Mata Hari’s life would be the spring board for my creativity. The inter-weaving of her imprisonment and trial in third person, her first person accounts of her life, and the use of her timeless observations in the second person, were all elements that allowed me to show a side of her the history books couldn’t possibly tell. I’ve never believed that the work of a fiction writer is to provide facts and answers. Fiction writers can only point to questions, it is for this reason that SIGNED, MATA HARI does not read like a history book and the only answers a reader comes away with are the answers the reader came to after reading a work that presented a kaleidoscope of images the reader could draw from, mix with their own perceptions, and thereby call their own. I think that kind of reading experience is ultimately more rewarding, and the reader comes away with a more lasting impression of the story, simply because the reader, in a way, was an active participant in how the story evolved.
MF: When you’re not writing, what are you reading?
YM: Mostly I’m reading fiction, because after reading a good book, I’m always inspired to do my own writing. Right now I’m reading an earlier novel of Denis Johnson’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man.
MF: Any new projects on the horizon?
YM: Yes, a novel about a young woman during the Mexican Revolution.
MF: Sounds interesting! I look forward to reading it.
Read the review of SIGNED, MATA HARI at MostlyFiction.com