Working with Words: Ed Ayres

Ed Ayres is a writer, music teacher and broadcaster. His latest book Whole Notes is an ode to music and its power to heal, restore and guide us to self-knowledge. We spoke to him about the cadence and rhythm of his twin passions: writing and music.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

It was actually my first book! It was called Cadence and was the story of my bike ride from England to Hong Kong. I had no idea how to write a book, so I sat down with lots of A4 pieces of paper, stuck them together with sticky tape, drew a big circle and planned out the journey of my book. I haven’t taken a writing course, I don’t have a degree, I had no idea what I was doing, but that book became a national best seller.

What’s the best part of your job? 

Well it depends which job you’re talking about. I teach children to play the cello so the best part is when we play music together. I work on ABC classic, and the best part of that is receiving messages from the listeners to say how much the music means to them. I also write books and articles. The best part of that is when I find just the right combination of words to describe something. It’s a rare moment.

What’s the worst part of your job? 

For teaching, it’s when I see a student not caring about music. My job then as a teacher is to find out what is happening in their life that has brought them to such a desperate point. Working at the ABC, I can’t think of anything bad about that job – I love it! And writing – it’s always a joy to actually do the writing, and I also enjoy the editing process. There are some bad things but I guess it’s best not to focus on them.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far? 

I was asked to write an essay about the artist William Robinson, to go with an exhibition of his works at the Gold Coast. I was able to interview William and spend quite a lot of time with him, which seems to me to be a huge privilege with such an important artist.

Górecki, the composer, told his students that if they couldn’t live without music for a day then they would be better off spending time in the pub. I think a little bit of writing, a little bit of music, and quite a lot of beer is a pretty good mix.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

The best advice I have ever received about writing is to write the book you would want to read. That way, if you are badly criticised, you can at least hold your head up high and say, ‘well I would’ve liked to read it.’

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

Well, I was certainly very surprised when a publisher said that she was going to enter me for the Stella prize. After many years transitioning from female to male, I certainly didn’t think I was eligible!

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead? 

Teaching even more small children how to play the cello.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view? 

I think it depends on the person. My only qualification for writing is an O level in English, which I took when I was 15. The most important thing for me about writing is the cadence and the rhythm, which I think is something that grows in you as you go on through life.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer? 

Just do it. Górecki, the composer, told his students that if they couldn’t live without music for a day then they would be better off spending time in the pub. I think a little bit of writing, a little bit of music, and quite a lot of beer is a pretty good mix.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both? 

Both. If it’s a book I’m reading just to get some very quick facts, then I’ll buy it online. But if it’s a book I want to keep and pore over I’ll buy a physical copy, either from Avid Reader or Riverbend here in Brisbane.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

It would have to be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. To be able to talk to them about their experiences through the centuries would be, to say the least, illuminating.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. I read this when I was about 20 and it showed me how everything is connected. Through that book I’ve gone on to explore that idea with music, with writing and with my own Vipassana meditation.

Portrait of Ed Ayres

Ed Ayres is a writer, music teacher and broadcaster. He was born on the White Cliffs of Dover and began playing music when he was six years old. He studied music in Manchester, Berlin and London, played professionally in the UK and Hong Kong and moved to Australia in 2003. Ed is the presenter of ABC Classic’s Weekend Breakfast.

Ed has written four books - Cadence, about his journey by bicycle from England to Hong Kong with only a violin for company, Danger Music, describing his year teaching music in Afghanistan, Sonam and the Silence, a children’s book about the importance of music, and his most recent, Whole Notes - Life Lessons in Music. Ed’s books have been shortlisted for several prestigious awards, including the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. 

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