On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Keith Jacobsen talks about his memoir, Tickling The Ivories, and the experiences that inspired him to write it.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Keith Jacobsen about his life and career, what inspires him, and the creative work that went into his new book, Tickling The Ivories.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am a ‘scouser’, born in Liverpool in 1948. My father was a teacher, his father a Norwegian master mariner. My mother was a hairdresser, the youngest of a large family of Irish origin. I was brought up a Catholic and attended St Mary’s College, Crosby.
I read French and German at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. I joined the Home Civil Service in 1971, working in the Department of Social Security and later in the Department of Health. I joined the administrative ‘fast stream’ in 1973, becoming a branch head in 1988. I worked in a variety of posts, specialising in international health relations. In 1999 I took early retirement to concentrate on music and writing.
My website (www.keithjacobsen.co.uk) describes my post-retirement experience as musician and author. I gained a piano performance diploma from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2002 and a diploma in Music Teaching in Professional Practice from the University of Reading in2007. More interesting than the dry fact about my diplomas is that that they were obtained relatively late in life, in my fifties, after a twenty-seven-year career in the Civil Service.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
As far back as I can remember, though I did not have the time or mental space until after I had retired from the Civil Service.
When did you take a step to start writing?
About a year after I had retired.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
About seven to eight years. I was trying out many different approaches, including some characters then dropping them, using different perspectives and plot devices. I was learning the craft by doing it, without any expectation that I would eventually come up with a finished product. After I had completed it and had it published, I found writing subsequent novels to be a much easier and quicker process.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Tickling The Ivories?
After years of novel writing, this was a very different project, my first non-fiction book. I had reached an age where I thought it was time to take stock, look back and gather memories before they faded, reflect on my life experiences, especially the musical ones, and hopefully pass on ideas which those following a comparable path might find helpful.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Tickling The Ivories?
The interludes dealing with piano technique were fairly straightforward. I had already written most of them in response to a commission from a friend, who wanted to produce a book comparing techniques of piano playing with those of swimming.
That project did not materialize but I soon found a new context for what I had written, an autobiography focusing on my musical experiences. But in developing that new project I found I could not separate those experiences from my own life story. This meant facing up to many painful family memories from my childhood and beyond. The main challenge was to be honest about myself and others who are an essential part of the story, and not flinch from those memories.
What was your research process for Tickling The Ivories?
It was mostly an exercise in memory. I had already researched some family history from documents such as birth certificates, and through contact with surviving relatives, though at that stage I had not been planning a book in which they would feature.
How did you plan the structure of Tickling The Ivories?
I decided to tell a straight-line narrative spanning over one hundred years beginning with the background of my parents’ families and going through to the present. Along the way I would take into account not only my personal and family story but the developing background of the great port city of Liverpool, including the notorious slum clearances of the 1960s, the vibrant multicultural musical scenes and the ethnic diversity of the many immigrant communities and how they forged a common Liverpool identity.
In later chapters, I would cover my experiences as an adopted Londoner, my contacts with its rich musical life, the many musical and other friendships developed during my civil service career, my time after retirement in gaining wider musical experience and my professional qualifications. The narrative chapters were then interleaved with interludes about learning basic piano techniques.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Tickling The Ivories need?
My dedicatee, Professor David Crystal, made some helpful suggestions, as did Kirsty Jackson, my publisher. As the book tells my own story I did of course have to take personal responsibility for its content and effective presentation so in the event it did not need much editing.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Not at present. I have found that writing about real events and people makes it harder to return to creating fictional characters and events.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I hope so. If anybody finds it helpful and inspiring, then it will have been worth it.
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