Holly Müller is a writer and musician with the band Hail! The Planes. Her debut novel, My Own Dear Brother (Bloomsbury Circus, £14.99), tells the story of Ursula, a young girl living in Austria during the Third Reich, and her relationship with her brother Anton, a supporter of the Nazi regime, and her disabled friend Schosi. Müller is half Austrian and drew on her own family’s history to write the book.
Do you see your musicianship and writing as a continuation of the same thing and how does music shape your writing?
They are not the same thing, but they are symbiotic. I find that making music inspires me to write, and that writing inspires me to make music. They seem to be outlets for a similar kind of exhilaration at being alive, mixed with a reflective melancholy that I often need to get out of my system. I like to tell stories in the lyrics I write, and I suppose I also play characters when I sing, because I often adopt an invented person’s point of view – even if that is just an invented version of me, at times. Music is there in my writing, in the rhythm and the melodious sounds of words, strung together into sentences. I hear the language as if spoken aloud, as a kind of music. That is what I find so intensely pleasurable about writing and music making – I am following a feeling, an instinct that is quicker than thought, that is not laboured or inhibited at all. I can express something very private and powerful about my existence while escaping from any reticence or self-consciousness. It’s addictive.
You researched your own family history to write My Own Dear Brother. What did you discover and how did it inform the book?
Well, I certainly had some in-depth conversations with my dad, who is Austrian. I asked him all about his childhood, which was in the 1950s in postwar, Allied-occupied Austria. I discovered many details that helped me build a clearer picture of him and his life back then: he wore no shoes; his hair was cut around the edges of a bowl; his house was bare and austere; and his eyelids froze together on the walk to school. It helped me feel closer to him and definitely informed the book. I could make it feel authentic, I could write with confidence about this grimly exotic place.
Did any of your discoveries come as a shock?
I learned that my great uncle, who has a learning disability, is lucky to have survived the Nazi era. Thousands of disabled people were killed in institutions in a Nazi program called T4, which was designed to rid the Reich of “life unworthy of life” – extremely disturbing stuff. I was working with disabled adults in the UK at the time as well, so it did affect me quite a lot. I really love my great uncle, who is kind and playful and gentle, and I felt very uneasy when I considered that his brother, my Austrian granddad, eagerly supported the regime that advocated his death. My granddad was a keen member of the Hitler Youth and joined the German army as soon as he could. How do you deal with that, other than to talk to people about it – and write about it!
The book includes scenes in a Nazi killing clinic. Did you do any research for them?
The Hartsburg Clinic in My Own Dear Brother is based on Am Spiegelgrund, a children’s clinic in Vienna. I watched some little-known documentaries about Am Spiegelgrund and they included testimonies from survivors, which were more horrifying than I could have imagined. Snippets of their experiences are woven into the book. It was just so harrowing, investigating the Nazi killing clinics. Many individuals who were disabled, autistic, had a mental health problem, or were considered ‘asocial’ were incarcerated and murdered in these institutions. The footage of the empty corridors and dormitories with high barred windows was very eerie and unsettling. It is sometimes too much, to confront just how dark human nature can be. But I believe we must occasionally look closely, no matter how hard it is to do, and then stand guard against it happening again.
What research was necessary to write a disabled character?
No research, as such. I drew upon my relationship with my Austrian great uncle and also some people I got to know when I was working as a support worker. Schosi was my favourite character to write about – he’s lovable and has a very distinct voice. He has a learning disability and autistic traits. He adores animals and is obsessive about radios, wristwatches and God. He is innocent, yes, but no angel – no more than anyone else. Schosi contains a lot of the affection I feel for my great uncle.
When you were younger, you spent time being treated for anorexia in an in-patient facility in London. Did your experiences there inform the clinic scenes?
That was an extremely intense time of change and growth – terrifying, nurturing, challenging, and utterly necessary. I was incredibly lucky to get such amazing help, all on the NHS. Many people never recover. It means I have some insight then into the fear and isolation of living in an institution, far from home, sleeping on a ward in a strange bed with a curtain around it, eating meals with strangers and being surrounded by nurses and strict rules. I wasn’t allowed out of my room un-chaperoned for two weeks, then I was only allowed to wander the ward for another two, then the hospital grounds, and finally I could go with a nurse to the nearby shops. In my case, this was an intervention for my own good. But when I wrote about the children locked in the killing clinics I felt the gargantuan gulf between what I had been given and what had been taken from them. I would probably have ended up in a killing clinic myself if I had been born in those harsh times. I suppose my experience influenced the way I wrote about the Nazi clinics, in that I feel very passionately that we mustn’t abandon the broken or vulnerable – kindness from other people can save a life.
Ursula is not always likeable. How did you make sure she was always compelling?
I think that a character can be pretty horrible and still compelling. Ursula is a product of her times to some extent, but quite an ordinary teenager, too: a little self-absorbed; prone to sneaking and subterfuge. I think a good character must always be facing a problem or dilemma – and, crucially, they must want something desperately. I mean, we all do – we are ever-yearning creatures. And we are always hiding something.