Deanne Sheldon-Collins talks about writing, passion and career change with barrister, musician and writer John Tesarsch following the publication of his second novel 'The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman' by Affirm Press.
Health, lifestyle, and career changes led you to writing, but was it an entirely unexpected path? Or had you previously dreamed of becoming a writer?
My first career was as a cellist, and until that was brought to an abrupt halt (by an allergy to cello rosin) it was all-consuming. That said, I had always been a voracious reader, but without any specific goal in mind of becoming a novelist. As a teenager, I harboured vague notions of writing poetry, having read far too much Wordsworth, Byron and Keats, but I never really applied myself to that task.
You’re a barrister as well as a writer, and your books draw on your professional experiences. When you started 'The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman', did you consciously set out to write a story with a legal focus? Or was it the incidental result of writing about what interested you?
Actually, I try to keep a safe distance from the law in my novels, because I have a (healthy!) scepticism that my work as a commercial barrister will be of little interest to readers. Also, writing provides me with a useful diversion from my legal work. I recognise, however, that there has been overlap. This is because the intersection between family and money, and the light that estate disputes can shed on the human condition, has long fascinated me. So yes, my novel does have a legal aspect, but this was intended to be secondary to the emotional journeys of the characters.
Your work is also informed by your experiences as a musician. What part does music play in 'Last Will and Testament'?
Henry Hoffman’s youngest daughter, Sarah, was a concert pianist who pursued her career to the point of obsession, and then to despair, before she gave up to become Henry’s full-time carer. His death causes her to reassess the reasons why she abandoned her career, and whether she should attempt to resurrect it. Certainly, I can associate with Sarah’s single-minded pursuit of her musical career, and the absence that she felt when it was over.
'The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman' straddles several genres. When describing the story to people, what do you frame it as—family saga, historical fiction, legal drama?
I must confess that I never thought about this issue until after the novel was published. There are a number of different narrative strands in the novel, because it unfolds from five different viewpoints, and each of the characters is motivated by his or her own unique desires, dreams, and fears. Perhaps the more dominant aspects of the book are that it is a mystery and a family saga, although it is difficult for me to judge. I would, however, prefer the novel not to fall within any one genre, but instead within a broader category of what perhaps might be called serious fiction.
What kind of research did you have to do in reconstructing the historical backdrops of twentieth-century Australia, Europe, and America?
I didn’t have to undertake detailed research, as many of the backdrops were very familiar to me. For instance, as a musician I lived in Vienna for nearly five years. And when I was there, I always had a deep fascination of that remarkable (albeit problematic) city and its citizens, which caused me to read extensively about its history long before I had the inspiration for this novel.
And lastly, any tips for aspiring novelists?
For what it’s worth, I suspect that the most important factor is the desire, the passion, to write. In the case of Henry Hoffman, the idea for the novel took hold of me around five years ago, and just would not let me go until I had written the manuscript. I suspect that it would be very, very difficult to have the motivation to finish something as all-consuming as a novel unless you care very deeply about it.
About John Tesarsch
John Tesarsch is a writer and barrister. He used to be a professional cellist based in Vienna, but had to give up music due to a debilitating allergy to the rosin used on cello bows. He returned to Melbourne to study Law and became a barrister, then was diagnosed with tongue cancer and spent a year undergoing extensive treatments. His first novel, 'The Philanthropist', was published by Affirm Press in 2010 and received much critical acclaim.
About Deanne Sheldon-Collins
Deanne Sheldon-Collins works as the Program Assistant with Writers Victoria. A Master of Arts (Writing, Editing, and Publishing) graduate and bookstore employee, she writes reviews for ‘Aurealis’ magazine and freelances as an editor.