Five Questions for Hannah Colby

Today is the US release date for A Place of Springs, the sweeping epic novel from author Hannah Colby. Published by Unicorn Publishing Group in the UK, the novel is now available for American readers, and is highly recommended as a masterpiece of “love, loss, and the transcendent power of music.” I am so enjoying this novel – the writing is first-rate and you are transported into the lives of Daniel and Irena. I do highly recommend it.

A Place of Springs

Q. Tell us a little about yourself. I was born in Norwich (about 100 miles northeast of London) during World War II. My parents divorced and my brother and I were brought up in London by our mother.  She was an artist, and taught me to paint and draw, a little easel set up beside her own. At 17, I went to Paris, first to a traditional “finishing school,” then to study French Civilization at the Sorbonne.

I’ve written this novel under the pen name Colby – my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. She was an American from Newton Center, Boston, who married a highlander from the Isle of Skye.

I married young, had four children, and continued to paint. My first husband and I set up a day center for young disabled adults, which I ran for seven years. My present husband and I lived in London and southwest France until we moved to Norwich. Six years ago I began to write the novel that has become A Place of Springs.

Q. What inspired you to write A Place of SpringsThe inspiration came from a lifetime of interests and experiences which seemed to demand expression. First, the horror and shame of the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 and all the appalling violence of the Balkan Wars. Then, a legacy of my London school, where I studied the piano and viola, my joy of classical music.

The story began to take shape when I was attending a creative writing course. From a collection of photographs, I picked up one of a young girl playing the violin. Without knowing anything about her, I decided she was Irena from Sarajevo, and wrote a short story for my homework. I continued to write about Irena and Daniel for the next six years.

Q. Can you tell us a little about the book? A Place of Springs follows the fortunes and misfortunes of concert pianist Daniel Danuczek, from the time he goes to teach at the Sarajevo Conservatory the year before the siege of that city in 1992. He lodges with Adam and Finola Vidaković and their young daughter, Irena. The tranquil opening chapters end when Daniel must return to London and the peace that Sarajevo has known is shattered.

Having had no news of his friends, Daniel returns to war-torn Bosnia. He learns that Adam and Finola are dead and Irena has disappeared.  Finding her becomes an obsession as he comes and goes between London and Sarajevo. His quest ends abruptly on his hotel balcony when he is shot by a sniper.

Daniel’s injuries force him to re-evaluate his career and change much about his playing if he is to return to the concert platform. His sister and his agent play important parts in his painful and emotional recovery. The main part of the book is written in three voices: the narrator’s, Irena’s, and that of Sam, one of Daniel’s pupils. During this time, Irena’s aunt writes from New York, where she is caring for Irena, now very changed after two years of brutal and abusive captivity.

This is, of course, a love story, but it is played out against a background of several elements. Music is a constant theme, as are ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and friendship.

To me, this book is about acceptance, forgiveness, courage, and the artist’s dedication to his art. But above all, its subject is healing.

Q. What genres do you like to read? I mainly read art history, ‘pop’ science and psychology, nineteenth and twentieth century novels, modern poetry, cookery, and travel books.

Q. Do you have a “Top Ten” or “Top Five” book list? This is difficult, but here are some that spring to mind:

  • Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  • Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)
  • Fortunes of War (Olivia Manning)
  • Alexandria Quartet (Laurence Durrell)
  • Short Stories (Katherine Mansfield)
  • My Mother’s House (Colette)
  • The Pursuit of Love (Nancy Mitford)
  • A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf)
  • The Glass Room (Simon Mawer)
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)
  • Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes)
  • The Color Purple (Alice Walker)  [note: my favorite!!]
  • The Jews (Roger Peyrefitte)
  • Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

You can purchase a copy of A Place of Springs here

Goodbye, old piano

We had a Janssen console piano in our house. My two sisters and I all took piano lessons, first from Mrs. Fanning, then from Mrs. Bowser. I lasted longer than my older sister, who had other interests. Imagine three girls all having to practice for at least thirty minutes each day! As much as I loved playing, and tried hard to memorize important pieces, someone was always better – Lili Morgan, Donna Leco. I chastised myself for not being good enough.

Similar to the one we had in our house

In college, I thought about majoring in music until I heard Rosemary Murray play “Rhapsody in Blue.” I almost cried, she was so good. And so much better than I was. I thought I could never be a music major next to Rose, so I switched to English (no regrets). When I discovered musical theatre, I jumped in (backstage), but had to wait for Tom Joaquin to graduate before I had a shot at being the rehearsal and performance pianist. I knew I had perhaps a fraction of the talent Tom possessed, and worked hard to be the best I could be. Senior year was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” After college, I stuck around, and played for “Working” and “Evita.” I had the old Janssen in my Benefit Street apartment, until I moved to Washington, DC, and sold it to Rhode Island College.

I didn’t have a piano for a long time after that; there was never enough money or space, or there were simply too many stairs. In 2000, my husband bought me a gorgeous baby grand piano, a little smaller than usual to fit in our already small house. But what a beautiful piano!

Similar to the one we had in our house

I played it when I could, usually when I was alone, so no one would hear all my mistakes. Five years later, we decided to sell the house and move to a condo. The first time our realtor stepped into the living room, she pointed to the piano and said, “That has to go. It’s too big, it dominates the room.” There was nowhere else to put it. So we called the place where we’d bought it and explained the situation. They offered to take it in trade and gave us a Baldwin Pianovelle (yes!), a digital piano.

the Baldwin Pianovelle

I’ll admit, I had a hard time adjusting to the “one-man-band” in this piano. I’ve played it, and it was fun to try certain pieces on the different instruments within the piano. And the accompaniments (Bossa Nova! Swing!) made for enjoyable rainy afternoons. But I don’t play it anymore. I just don’t have the time.

So, it’s for sale. I have no idea what it’s worth, and I can’t move it. If you want it, make me an offer. And bring a couple of strong young men to move it. Goodbye, old piano. xxx