Who can forget the movie Shine, depicting the life of WA pianist David Helfgott?
Geoffrey Rush notably won an Oscar for his role as the endearing musician who after suffering a breakdown, was able to return to playing the piano with brilliance.
The 1996 movie led to the revival of David’s career. Even so, not everyone in his family was elated with the film’s depiction of the Helfgotts.
David’s sister, poet/ playwright/author Louise Helfgott, is hoping her recently released memoir Thistledown Seed will help provide new insight into her family..
Providing her perspective of life growing up in the Helfgott family, it also weaves in the tragic story of her Polish parent’s relatives sent to concentration camps during World War Two.
Thistledown Seed was shortlisted for this year’s Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.
Louise chats to The Starfish:
What prompted Thistledown Seed?
This is something I wanted to write, going back to my childhood. I’d always wanted to write a story about my family. Years ago, I wrote various versions of it: a play, The Chords That Bind Us, and I wrote different stories along the way suggestive of my family.
Then the movie Shine came out. And that virtually gagged me. Because after that there were three or four books that were written, and I just felt, ‘I can’t go into this foray’ at that time.
Then, in 2013 I went to Poland, which was so moving for me; confronting. I kept a diary. I felt this burning desire then, to encapsulate it.
So the diary about your trip to Poland led to the book in its current form?
The first draft was written at the end of 2013.
At first, it was the diary entries along with memories of my past, growing up. But I felt something was lacking. I also felt how tragic it was that my mum had lost her two sisters. They’d never even got to grow up. I wanted to include them somehow. That’s where the third narrative came in. That’s how the book evolved. It was something I felt I had to write. I just got very inspired to do it.
How challenging is it as a writer, to be juggling three narratives in the one book?
I’d started by writing the diary entries. When I got home from the trip, I started adding my memories. I then included the third narrative. From that point on, they interwove. I wrote all three at the same time.
So the order that they appear in the book was the order that you wrote them?
Very much so.
It must have been an emotional rollercoaster writing the book?
It was, definitely. Also, when you’re writing your story, it necessarily includes the people around you, the people who have been significant in your life, and your family. Knowing the impact Shine had on my family – which for a couple of my family members wasn’t positive – I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility. You’re writing a version of history, and when you’re doing that, you have to think it through. What am going to include and leave out? When I had completed the first draft, I showed it to family members.
What was the feedback like?
Mostly very positive. One of my brothers felt uncomfortable about a particular story I had put in the book. But it was something really significant to me. So that created a dilemma. I didn’t want to leave it out altogether, so I compressed it and minimised it.
Treading on a tightrope there.
But it has to be an authentic story.
Yes. That was the dilemma for me; there were some things I had to leave out. I made changes, but didn’t significantly alter the narrative I was presenting about my family.
My eldest sister Maggie had written her own book, Out of Tune, as a reaction to Shine. So she had her view of things but my view of things was a bit different. We grew up in different time frames as well. She was the eldest. I was the youngest. By the time I came along my Dad was quite, I think, embittered perhaps, by life experiences to a great extent. I wanted to write a balanced account. To me it was important, not just to present the good or the bad. In a way, Shine presented more of the bad than the good. I wanted to write a balanced account, to do justice to my perspective and my memories of my family.
Could you explain what it was like for your siblings after Shine came out in 1998?
It created a mixture of emotions for me. I thought it was absolutely wonderful for David. He still talks about it as his favourite film of all time, of course!
It gave David back the career that illness took away from him. My dad had already passed away. But I think, even though he wasn’t depicted in a completely balanced way, that my dad would have still advocated for the film. He would have wanted David to be able to resume his career. So I think my dad would have lived with the negative perspective in some ways of him, if it meant that it was good for David.
When the film came out, I felt ambivalent. I thought it was a great film. Geoffrey Rush was great; he did a wonderful job. I felt like I had two brothers for that period of time!
But I felt that the film didn’t do complete justice to my father, in its portrayal of my father. It also left out the story of my mum. I had a talk with the director at one time. I said to him, you needed to start earlier with the scene where my father’s father smashed my father’s violin in Poland.
The director said, ‘if I’d have had the budget, that’s where I would have started the film.’ He agreed that’s where it should have started, but they only had a six million dollar budget.
You wanted the violin scene, to help indicate the trauma that your dad had undergone as a young man, which might have influenced how he was towards his own child?
Yes and also dad was such an interesting, brilliant character himself. I felt the film didn’t do justice to that side of him. And also to the kindness he showed to so many people when he was living in Melbourne, to a lot of people coming out pre-war and during and after the war. He was there to help, a lot. I felt the film didn’t do justice to the complexity of my father. I don’t know that we can ever do justice, really, when I think about it, to the complexity of most people! Because most people are very complex.
The film was still a good thing but it created a mix of emotions. And I felt once again, that my perspective had been shut down, gagged, dissolved.
How was it for you, after Shine came out, being known as the sister of David Helfgott?
It was hard, growing up, when I was trying to establish my own identity. And had my own needs which I didn’t always feel were met as a result.
David wasn’t a strong part of my life in those significant years growing up because he was away in England. So I had those memories prior to him leaving and then when he came back, and he was a different kind of person then.
How’s David doing now?
He lost his wife Gillian last year. So that’s had huge impact on him. He’s obviously been very sad and upset about that. But he’s doing ok. He’s being looked after by Gillian’s two children, who had always said they would take that role when their mum passed.
Does David still play the piano a lot?
All the time. He gave a concert recently and he’s about to give another. These are the first concerts since Gillian passed. In September he’ll be giving concerts in Switzerland and Germany. He’s still playing beautifully, which is wonderful.
Is this book one of the works you’re most proud of?
Yes, I think so. And this one also brings me that feeling of completion. For me, it was something that had to be written, that had to be done. So there’s that feeling, of, I’m glad I did it. Otherwise I think I would have always regretted not writing it. Now that it’s done, it was so cathartic.
When you wrote the diary during your travels in 2013, did you have a book in mind back then?
No, I wasn’t sure I was going to write a book. I wrote the diary because I wanted to remember every bit of it. It was only when I came back, and I had written a lot of my feelings in there, I thought about it, and it started to evolve from there.
By 2017 it was close to the format of today. Then it was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (a national award for unpublished manuscripts) in 2018.
Then, it was a hunt around to find the right publisher. And I didn’t give up. Eventually I got hold of a literary consultant and it went from there; last year it was published by Brandl & Schlesinger. It has been out since last July.
Congrats again on making it to the Premier’s Book Awards shortlist!
Thanks, I was thrilled.
What do you think readers will get out of this book, other than a greater insight into the Helfgott family beyond David?
It gives more background to my mum’s role in the family and to the dynamics within the family. On a broader level, the whole issue about being Jewish in an anti-Semetic world. Not here, I don’t feel that now, but for my family, that was obviously a huge issue. And the impact of genius within family and on other family members.
Searching for one’s own identity, getting one’s own needs met, it can be very difficult when a lot of energy is channelled into one family member. So lots of different things, hopefully.
How have you been promoting the book?
I’ve given talks at a lot of libraries around WA about the book.
I’ve also given a talk through the Holocaust Institute of WA, in the Jewish community. That was amazing.
Thistledown Seed is available at all good bookshops.