From Vienna, a train will take you to Tulln in less than forty minutes. From the station it will take you another twenty to find yourself in the striking presence of unique hands sculpted in bronze.

They are not just any hands. Your eye will undoubtedly have seen them, in the throes of the most irrepressible movements, in the world's most important, modern art galleries; they belong to the painter Egon Schiele and are part of the impressive sculpture dedicated to him in his hometown. Hidden by the Danube, the statue is the discreet guardian of the museum of the same name. The beginning or end of a journey in the artist's footsteps, which includes the Viennese rooms of the Osterreichische Galerie, the Albertina and above all, the Leopold Museum. Let us not forget, in fact, that collector Rudolf Leopold is responsible for the largest collection of Schiele's paintings, as well as the first monographic exhibition, dated 1955.

Angular skeletons covered in a thin layer of flesh move fearfully, nervously and seductively on canvases that contain nothing but nudity stripped to the bone, exposed to the viewer's gaze and to themselves, almost as if asking for complicity for their actions.

The power that Schiele is able to hold over the observer has remained unchanged for over a century. So strong, it seems to cancel out contours and nuances, almost as if to make us forget that those bodies existed in front of him, before being eternally transported onto his canvases. However, who were the women chosen to give voice to his visions? This is a question posed by the English author Sophie Haydock, who - in her recent book ‘The Flames’, published by Penguin Random House - has set out to give voice to four muses who have remained silent until today, trapped between the brushstrokes of an unsurpassed master. A historical rectification she analyses in our interview.

I know your interest in Egon Schiele started with a monographic exhibition. How did the idea for the book develop from there, in terms of research and discoveries?

In January 2015, I went to the Courtauld exhibition (‘Egon Schiele Radical Nude’), as a visiting friend invited me, and I am so thankful to them, because I still wonder where I would be today if I had not gone to that exhibition. I would probably have written another book, but I just wouldn’t know these women in this way. I feel so invested in their stories that they feel like family to me. It’s such an incredible experience when you dedicate yourself to a story, whether the characters are real or not. I had the original idea in the gallery, it was an instantaneous moment when I thought I would write about Edith Harms who became Schiele’s wife. That day, I realised she died when she was very young and six months-pregnant with her first child. That detail really struck me as it felt so tragic, I thought I could tell his story through her eyes, but very quickly I realised there were loads of other women around him, as he was prolific in his use of models, considering the amount of works he produced.

Very quickly, I identified three other women. I had just read a novel called Mrs Hemingway and it was narrated through the stories of his four wives. I thought it was very interesting, because your loyalty as a reader shifted as you discovered each woman, with lots of overlap and betrayal. I believed I could do something similar, even though it might seem ambitious for a first novel, but it actually took me five years to get a publishing deal. Then, it felt like a really long time, but looking back it doesn’t, as there was a lot of research as, in biographical fiction, you need to know your characters really well before you can start to imagine them in their world. Therefore, I read biographies and, as a journalist, I was confident in approaching people asking whether they were available for being interviewed, so I spoke to Schiele scholars and curators and they were all very generous with me. I think with biographical fiction you want to stay close to the facts, but you also get to a tipping point when you understand they are going to serve you in the sense that you have to use the essence of what you know, because if you slavishly follow them you end up with a very boring book, merely reagitating stuff people already know. I didn’t make anything up or treated these women disrespectfully, I simply tried to stay as true to the facts as possible based on what I could find out about them.

For example, we really don’t know whether Adele Harms was in love with her sister’s husband, but what we do know is that she posed for him and the look on her face in one particular artwork is so full of lust, longing and regret, so revealing… it is not a long leap to assume she might have had some feelings for the artist.

I also took a lot of care at the author’s notes, at the back of the book, to say what I made up and what I felt was true and what has been massaged to make a more enjoyable story. It was a very big learning curve as a debut author and I am so glad I have become involved in those women’s lives. It is such a privilege.

With your book, you rectify a historical injustice towards Schiele’s women, while reflecting the power he held on them. What is the opinion you have matured about him?

When I first went to the Schiele exhibition, I thought I knew a lot about the artist, but my assumptions about him were wrong. In the back of my head, I thought he had a very long and successful career and I was shocked to discover he died so tragically young, that he had made art for only ten years though creating thousands of drawings and hundreds of oil paintings. It was very shocking to me.

There is a shift of perspective when you realise that the artist was a very flawed human being, not immune to the difficulties of life, someone who made bad decisions and treated people badly, dying at the height of his success. For this reason, my opinion of him shifted in that gallery instantly and as I got to know him during my research, I understood it’s hard not to be charmed. However, I would not have wanted to be in his life as he treated the people that he loved in a terrible way. That made him a great artist, an interesting character, making it fantastic for a writer because of the terrible things he did, but my sympathy went to the women in his life, because he was very ruthless and selfish in pursuing his ambitions. As an author, I never wanted to defend him and leave the readers to make up their own mind. I never wanted to say he was a bad man or that his women were victims, because they were all strongminded and forging their own path in life. They did what they could with very little, financially or in terms of education and opportunities that were available to women. They all surprised me in their nuances and strengths.

Schiele is frequently referred to as ‘the artist’, through your pages. Was it intentional, in order to underline his importance?

He is still relevant one hundred years later and it was such a tragedy that two great artists in Vienna died the same year (Klimt also died in 1918). I think noticing the reference to him as ‘the’ artist is very astute of you, as not many people have noticed that, but I really think that was the core of who he was even as a child, sacrificing everything to achieve these goals, even if he paid a large price for that in terms of the relationship with his family and the people who loved him.

Is there a ‘muse’ that is particularly dear to your heart?

I think the vast majority of the book is about regret and the sense of chances that slip through your fingers. I was obsessed with Adele, because she was this wonderful character who had reached the age of 78, and I found these details by talking to one the Schiele’s scholars as I couldn’t find anything about what happened to her when she went out of Egon Schiele’s orbit. He told me she was penniless, living on the streets of Vienna and never married or had children. I thought about the extraordinary path her life had taken from being this beautiful young woman with the world at her feet, she could have been anyone and I am very reluctant to say marriage and children would have made her happy, the idea of her so alone captured my imagination and I wanted to explore it and this is where the novel came alive for me, thinking back to her life and how much she must have suffered having lived without her sister for so long or missed the artist who painted her and made her feel so alive. The way Adele’s life accumulated misfortunes was fascinating to me, her failure defining her struggle after the death of the people she loved. She was arrogant and proud as a young woman and that never left her and made her emerge as a character.

A curious fact is that I had had a postcard of one of Schiele’s works (depicting Adele) on my wall at university and looked at this woman every day for at least a year. I never thought about what her name was or what her relationship with the artist might have been; then I discovered she wasn’t his lover, but his wife’s sister, posing in her underwear, with that extraordinary look on her face.

May I ask you which future projects you are working on, at the moment?

My second book is about another artist and the women in his live, set in a slightly different period in time. It was wonderful to meet the women who made him one of the greatest figures of his century. Whatever artist you look at, there is an incredible story about the women who supported them, whose stories have rarely been told. I felt so passionate about telling these stories, even if you are not interested in art, I still wanted the reader to be able to enjoy the story of the trail, intrigue and passion that make somebody so dedicated to that way of life. They lived such interesting lives and you have to step into their shoes for a long time, in order to be able to understand them.