When Joyce Hatto, the famous classical pianist, died in 2006 she was a respected and beloved figure. The obituaries were tender and loving. But then the suspicions and the accusations started to leak out, and only a few months after her death she was being portrayed as quite a different figure. Her recordings, the beautiful playing that earned her a devoted audience, were, in a sense, plagiarized. Those were other people playing the piano, dubbed in and stapled over the rougher genuine Hatto sections. It was a shocking scandal.

In Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s new novel Two-Part Inventions, classical pianist Suzanne dies unexpectedly, and it is slowly revealed that her husband has been modifying her sought-after recordings. But it’s not a Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines novel. It’s a thoughtful study of the pressures of performance, of the need for fame and respect, and the sometimes twisted insularity of a marriage.

I spoke with Schwartz about her classical background, the inspiration of the Hatto story, and how ambition can poison the pursuit of art.

I wanted to start out by talking about the Joyce Hatto story. I remember when she died and the information started to come together, the allegations and then people started to compare notes and suspicions. Were you familiar with Hatto's music before she died? Because I was not, but all of a sudden I was desperate to hear these recordings, and I was wondering if it was the same experience for you?

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I was fascinated by the Joyce Hatto story when I first heard about it, which may have been in the New York Times obituary. That was before the musical fraud perpetrated by her husband was brought to light (although there were some suspicions). The obit described her as an anomaly, a fine classical pianist who never performed in public but put out marvelous CDs. 

Then, when the news broke, of course there were more articles. Mark Singer’s 2007 New Yorker piece, in which he interviewed Hatto’s husband, William Barrington-Coupe, was invaluable, especially in his many details about the music production business and the online music world. I never heard any of her CDs; I was more fascinated by the story itself, and the mystery of whether, and how much, Hatto knew about her husband’s machinations. (He claimed she knew nothing about them.) 

I liked the ambiguity, and wanted to preserve that in my novel. I also wanted to explore artistic ambition and where it could lead. Looking at the story from the point of view of a writer, I wondered how I, for instance, could possibly feel any sense of fulfillment or gratification if I knew my reputation was based on false premises. 

Do you think her story would be as controversial now, only a few years after her death? With the rise of Auto-tune and sampling and all of these fixes, we're much more used to the idea that perfection is manipulation. Obviously the classical world is much different than the pop world, but perhaps the story wouldn't have been such a cross-over.

Oh yes, I think the story would be as startling today as it was when it broke some years ago. The Hatto recordings were not simply manipulated technically, but whole pieces played by famous pianists were issued under Hatto’s name. You can find lists of these online. Some of these involved entire orchestras (given false names) and made-up reviews. 

It was really quite an extraordinary feat, when you think about it. I didn’t go quite so far in my novel; I didn’t want to blur the central issue--the psychological drama taking place in my characters, Suzanne and Philip--by too many details. My characters--their background and personalities--are entirely made up. I don’t know a lot about Hatto and her husband; I wanted the freedom to invent.

There are a lot of great books about frauds and liars, but not many about figures like the husband, who is lying to the outside world to protect and in some ways to control his wife. I was wondering how he evolved as you were writing, from his motivations to the way he constructed this rather elaborate lie.

I was very glad to have this freedom to invent as I created the character of Philip. I tried to imagine what might lead a person to act as he did, and I gave him a sad past, with his parents and younger brother killed in a car crash, after which he goes to live with an aunt and uncle who are not very affectionate or responsive. He grows up with a powerful need to prove himself, and more and more is attracted by the pleasure of putting things over on people, using his power in a surreptitious way. He doesn’t have the need for fame and glory as Suzanne does; he simply wants to control his part of the world for his own satisfaction. And he does sincerely love his wife and want to help her, which in his mind justifies his actions. He feels cheated, in a sense, by the loss of his loving family, and doesn’t want Suzanne to be cheated out of the reputation he thinks she deserves.

What is your own connection to classical music? The way you write about the music itself is so interesting. And classical music still seems unique in the pressure put on performers like Suzanne, this rigid need for perfection. And this need to stay on top, when there is always a new hot prodigy just around the corner.

I played the piano and took lessons from a very early age, and was fairly good at it, though nowhere near professional level or as proficient as my character, Suzanne. But from my studies I became familiar with the classical music repertoire. In writing about Suzanne’s studies at Juilliard and her brief concert career, I got a great deal of help from a pianist and former Juilliard professor, who told me about the pressures performers are subject to, and about various kinds of musical careers. 

As far as the perfection required, this is more stringent in recording than in performance, oddly enough. Concert audiences know that performers may make an error here or there--they’re only human, after all. They’re judged by the overall effect of their playing, as well as by their technical expertise. But listeners do expect recordings to be perfect--thus the increase in technical manipulation, as you mentioned earlier. 

Suzanne has tremendous talent but when pressured to perform, she cracks. And certainly we're all captivated by the little girl gymnasts at the Olympics who nailed their dismounts a million times in practice but fall when it's time to compete. But how does one turn that experience into literature?

Suzanne doesn’t exactly choke when she performs; it’s more an enormous anxiety that makes her stiffen and tremble, and naturally interferes with her playing. Also, in her middle years she develops a neurological ailment that makes her tire easily and hampers her playing. She needs so much energy to control her body that she can’t focus on the emotional demands of the music. 

I learned from the Juilliard pianist and professor that many pianists are subject to anxiety--stage fright, in simple terms; some find ways of overcoming it while others don’t. Besides performing, there are many ways of living a satisfying and fulfilling life in music.  But Suzanne, unfortunately, doesn’t take any such path, and it’s her husband who encourages her ambitions and urges her on in a way that leads to her collapse. 

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.