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.