Stephanie: Welcome to Layered Pages, Lindsay and thank you for chatting with me today. Please tell me about your story, ‘The Piano Player’s Son and the period it takes place in.
Lindsay: Thank you for the opportunity to be on Layered Pages, Stephanie.
‘The Piano Player’s Son’ is contemporary and tells the story of a family with four grown up children. At the beginning of the novel, the father, Henry, dies, and the mother tells one of her daughters, Isabel, a secret that has been kept for thirty-five years. She also makes her promise not to tell anyone. The novel largely revolves around the fallout from the secret, and the repercussions as it gradually emerges.
I am interested in secrets and their impact. It often appears that it is the secret itself rather than the truth behind it that does the damage, especially when the person has died and can’t be asked questions. As Isabel says ‘Finding out undermines all the certainties.’
The story also concerns inheritance and the difficulties it can cause within a family. I’m not so interested in the inheritance of money but less obviously valuable things. People have told me about cases such as two sisters not speaking to each other again because one got the father’s watch and the other didn’t. It seems to be about something much deeper than the disputed item – more to do with an individual’s place in the family, their worth, how much they were valued. The item in the novel – as the title suggests – is a piano!
Stephanie: What a fascinating premise and one many of us, if not all, have experience in family life or in relationships in general. Bonds in families can be either weak or strong. Could you please tell me a little bit about Isabel’s bond with her sister and two brothers?
Lindsay: My writing usually explores some aspect of human relationships, particularly in moments of crisis. I find the family a rich source of material as it tends to be an intense world with the dynamics constantly shifting. The family can provide strong, life-affirming relationships, but can also cause bitterness and pain more enduring than other hurts in life. Siblings seem to hold a unique power to wound each other.
Isabel’s relationship with her brothers is not ideal. Rick has always treated her very much as the younger sister, a situation made worse by their father’s death. When she tries to talk to him that night, he stonewalls her and ‘for a second Isabel was a little girl hovering at her big brother’s door: Do you want to play? Shove off! I’m busy.’
Isabel has always found George, her younger brother, edgy and unpredictable. She is wary of him, although longs to be closer following their father’s death. George, however, remains elusive. She also can’t help feeling jealous because, George, a brilliant pianist, was their father’s favourite as a result, while she plays the piano too, but doesn’t feel her talent is recognised.
Isabel has always been close to younger sister, Grace. But the death opens up a divide between them. Grace takes out her anger and hurt that she wasn’t there when her father died on Isabel. Isabel, already keyed up, wants to retaliate, until she remembers ‘This was Grace she was about to heap abuse on. Grace, the baby sister she’d adored from the moment she’d first seen the black curls, the dark eyes peeping out of the crocheted shawl. She’d helped change her nappy, pushed her pram, rattled her toys, and lifted her out of the cot each morning.’ Their relationship is not permanently damaged by the events following their father’s death, but it certainly takes a battering.
Stephanie: Does Isabel’s promise to her mother to stay silent about the kept secret that was revealed to her affect her relationship with her mother and how so?
Lindsay: Isabel’s relationship with her mother, Eva, is profoundly affected by the secret and being forced to keep it quiet. Eva extracts the promise from her under duress, saying it was her father who wanted the secret kept. The situation is made worse because after the initial revelation, Eva refuses to discuss it again. Here is one exchange between the two:
‘You might feel comfortable with a secret like that, Mum, but I feel as if I’ve got liar branded on my forehead.’
‘Forget about it, Isabel. There’s a good girl.’
‘I can’t. You shouldn’t have told me if you didn’t want me to know.’
‘You made me tell you.’
‘I did no such thing!’
Eva picked up the cup and drank the coffee in one go. ‘I thought I could trust you,’ she said, her voice cold. ‘My darling Henry was gone. I didn’t know what I was saying.’
The fact that her mother has only revealed part of the secret makes the situation worse, and Isabel’s relationship with her will never be the same again.
Stephanie: Please tell me about the flaws of Isabel and how it has affected her life.
Lindsay: Isabel is quite a needy person, with an idealised view of her parents’ marriage, an idyllic union she seeks from her own marriage. This leads her to marry Brian, someone who is totally unsuitable for her, and convince herself she can make it work. When Brian has an affair and leaves her (before the start of the novel), she is inconsolable and vows to get him back. As well as being needy, she also likes to be needed. Although she sometimes feels put-upon because her siblings live elsewhere, and she is the one who ‘looks after’ their parents, secretly, she is pleased to have the responsibility.
Stephanie: Writing about family life, secrets and the human condition can be quite a challenge and finding that person’s individual uniqueness is a wonderful journey, I find. Were you any challenges you faced in this aspect of the writing?
Lindsay: Creating the characters for all the key players – the parents and the four children – was a challenge in itself. I also wanted Henry, the father, to be a major force in the novel, even though he is dead. I tried to do that through memories, other’s people’s perceptions of him (including a very old friend from when he was a boy who emerges from the past), his actions, which others recall, his music and a letter. I chose to make three of the four children point of view characters, so had to manipulate that. Rick came to me almost fully-formed. I had to work a bit harder with Isabel, and Grace needed a lot of development, following the first draft. Her character was shadowy, and initially her story wasn’t powerful enough or integrated into the main plot sufficiently. I think with subsequent drafts, I resolved that.
Stephanie: What was the inspiration for your story?
Lindsay: I’d heard rumours in my own family about secrets and disputed claims to inherit someone’s war medals. This gave me the twinned ideas of secrets and inheritance, which I then had to develop into my story. While many novels begin with a thread of an idea from real life, I think the best fiction often emerges when that thread is forged into something completely different from the original stimulus.
Stephanie: What was your writing process like for this story?
Lindsay: I wrote the first draft fairly quickly. I’d been thinking about it for some time and had developed the characters I wanted to include, so that initial draft didn’t cause too many problems (other the one I’ve mentioned with Grace). My first novel ‘Unravelling’ had a structure which moved backwards and forwards in time, so I decided to have a straightforward chronological line in this one.
The three point of view characters also presented themselves early on in the process.
I submitted the manuscript to an agent who was very positive, but made several suggestions, which I worked on. After subsequent drafts, I sent it to a literary consultancy for a critique. Again, I received some interesting feedback. Both the agent and critique thought I needed a stronger ending, so I worked on that. When I had developed and honed it to within an inch of its life(!), I entered the first three chapters for the Cinnamon Press novel writing award. It was on a shortlist of five – great excitement – and then the whole novel had to be submitted. After still more polishing, I sent it off – and it WON. The prize was publication.
Stephanie: Who are your influences?
Lindsay: That’s a difficult question! In some ways, anybody I’ve ever read, and I’ve been reading since I was a small child. There are a number of current writers whose work I enjoy, and inevitably, I’m influenced by them. I’d include: Rose Tremain, Helen Dunmore, Maggie O’Farrell, William Trevor, and Sebastian Barry. I like reading thrillers, as the tightness of the plotting, the need for the reader to keep reading is something I like to include in my writing, even though I don’t write thrillers. I also enjoy reading poetry. I suppose I’d like to have something of the thriller writer in my plotting, and something of the poet in my use of language.
Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give your readers?
Lindsay: Secrets are dangerous: they can fester and worm their way to the surface years later. Think carefully before keeping one. Also, families can implode if relationships aren’t nurtured.
The book can be bought from Cinnamon Press
Or ordered through all good bookshops
Thank you, again, Stephanie for the opportunity to explore some aspects of ‘The Piano Player’s Son’. I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the novel.
Lindsay is not on Twitter, but SilverWood Books will be tweeting throughout the tour from @SivlerWoodBooks
After a career teaching English in further and higher education, Lindsay, now works as a writer and creative writing tutor. Her second novel The Piano Player’s Son was published in 2013 by Cinnamon Press after winning their novel writing award. Her first novel, Unravelling in 2010, has won several prizes including winner of the Chapter One Promotions Book Award and second prize in the International Rubery Book Award. Lindsay is working on her next novel, Phoenix. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction which have been published and successful in competitions, including Cinnamon Press, Fish Publishing, and the Asham Award.