Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An interview with Anna Goldsworthy

An interview with Anna Goldsworthy, author of the new release memoir Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons is a memoir about growing up, following your passion, teaching and learning, music, ambition, family and much, much more. Is there one central theme or idea that captures the essence of your story?

I thought I was writing a memoir of vocation, in which I explore my relationship with music through my relationship with my teacher, Eleonora Sivan. But I’ve had a range of responses from its early readers, each of whom feels it is about something different: anxiety and obsessiveness; the lacerating nature of artistic pursuit; growing up with a writer for a father…

Do readers need to have an understanding of classical music to enjoy Piano Lessons?

At the start of the book, I have no understanding of classical music, so that provides an entry point for a reader with no musical background. I also hope it might be of interest to members of the music-loving public who wonder what goes through a musician’s mind on stage.

What made you want to write Piano Lessons?

I had always planned to write a book about Eleonora, but I always imagined this might be a project for my twilight years. Then a couple of years ago I received an email from Chris Feik, the publisher at Black Inc, asking if I might like to write a memoir about the ‘piano-playing life’. At first I thought a memoir - how presumptuous! – I’d been studying the piano for twenty-five years but still felt I was only beginning…. but gradually I came around to the idea. It occurred to me that writing such a book might clarify my own thoughts about music, and might also be a way of honouring Eleonora. But the book went beyond this to incorporate many of the themes you mention above.

Did you find it difficult to write about yourself and your family?

I enjoyed writing about childhood but the writing became more problematic for me as I grew up. I didn’t think I could still be embarrassed by my adolescence – surely a statute of limitations applies in such cases – but reliving those years was still painful: writing about my teenage anxieties seemed to resurrect them. And while I loved writing about my family, I wondered afterwards if I had said too much.

What has been the reaction from your family after reading the book?

My sister was the first to read it. She’s a trainee psychiatrist and had been counselling me through my anxieties about the manuscript before I showed it to her. And while she was very reassuring I could tell she was a little concerned (what has she written about us this time? Can it really be that bad?). So when she called me up to say she loved it, I felt tremendously relieved. My mother was equally gracious, as was my father, who provided me with good editorial feedback (he also suggested that I spice up his dialogue with the occasional witty Latin one-liner, but that didn’t seem fair). And although my grandfather fretted that he seemed ‘even more pedantic than I admit to’, he was generous enough to proof-read the manuscript meticulously, discovering any number of rogue commas and grammatical errors.

How did you choose which parts of your life to include and exclude from the book?

Mostly the material chose itself. There were certain formative events that needed to be there: key triumphs and disappointments, my first audition for Eleonora. I did find I was more drawn to stories of failure than of success, so that by the time I finished the first draft I had completed a catalogue of disasters: the memoir of a failed musician. I’m not sure why this fixation on disaster – self-deprecation gone rampant? An unwillingness to appear ‘up myself’? But there’s also a relief in admitting to failure. The construction of a c.v. and of a career is all about focusing on successes, while failures contain more comedy, certainly – but also better lessons


To read more about Piano Lessons, head over here. The second and third parts of this interview will be posted on this blog throughout October.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Hirst on his new book The Shortest History of Europe

When I turned my lectures on European history into a book, The Shortest History of Europe, I was told that they could not be called lectures. Lectures are boring. So they are called chapters. But my lectures were not boring—they were interesting, varied and arresting. Since the scope of the course was so broad—from classical times to the French Revolution— I wanted very specific, memorable things to happen in the lectures to anchor the broad concepts and give them meaning.

I paid actors to stage a debate from the Assembly in classical Athens as recorded by Thucydides. I showed the early scenes from films of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, the first to show how aristocrats lived and feuded in Italian towns, the second to show how German kings divided up their kingdoms among their children as Charlemagne did with his. I did lots of readings—the rape of Lucretia from Livy’s History of Rome, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I demonstrated how clever the Greeks were by doing a geometrical proof on the blackboard.

At the end of the lecture on political history I paired off the students in the aisles and had them demonstrate the mode of salutation to rulers through the ages: in Rome from the republican salute (similar to the fascist salute) to prone on the floor before the later emperors; kneeling before a feudal monarch while he grasped your hands and then rising to kiss as equals; kissing the hand of absolute monarchs while kneeling; and finally the reappearance of the republican salute in revolutionary France. Learning by doing!

How much of this could survive in a printed book? A good deal. It doesn’t look like a normal history book. There are many readings, a geometrical proof, a Newtonian law, a good deal of what I put on the blackboard —summaries, time lines and short cuts. The whole history of Europe is reduced to a one-page diagram.

My talk has been tidied up but I wanted to keep the feel of a spoken lecture. In lectures scholars have the licence to be bolder than on the printed page. Except I am not a scholar of Europe. My expertise is in Australian history. Only a non-specialist could take the leaps I do.