Jane Gleeson-White: Australian author and blogger

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Jane Gleeson-WhiteJane Gleeson-White is an Australian author and blogger. Her latest book is Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet, an exploration of the history of double-entry bookkeeping. She has also published two books about books – Classics in 2005 and Australian Classics in 2007. Jane also blogs at bookishgirl.com.au.

We caught up with Jane at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and spoke to her about her latest book, her research, what she thinks makes a classic book and what drove her to write a book about accounting!

Click play to listen to the audio interview.

Australian Classics Classics Double Entry

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle:
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I’m about to chat to Jane Gleeson-White. Her latest book, and this is a long title, is Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet.

Jane, tell us a bit about this book, it sounds fascinating.

Jane:
Thanks, Danielle. It’s probably best to start where I first started with it, which was at the Guggenheim in Venice. So, I was there living in Venice, the most beautiful city of art and culture, and I came back to Australia to do an economics degree with accounting, and the first thing my accounting lecturer mentioned in the first lecture was Venice, and I thought, ‘What on earth is Venice doing barging into an accounting lecture, the most boring and dull subject on earth?' And it stuck in my mind, it was such an extraordinary combination and coincidence, because I had just been in Venice, that I vowed one day to look into this connection. And when I did I found the most extraordinary story, which involved a Renaissance monk who published the first accounting treatise in 1494, and he turned out to be a great mathematician who taught Leonardo da Vinci mathematics, among many other things. So, I became fascinated in him, and he’s a much overlooked sort of Renaissance genius,

And then I became fascinated in how the story of this treatise that he published in 1494 influenced the course of history and possibly created the capitalist system, and certainly has impacts today, right up until the financial crisis of 2008. So the book sort of traces this very unlikely and extraordinary history.

Danielle:
Correct me if I’m wrong, this is on double entry bookkeeping, is that right?

Jane:
Yes.

Danielle:
How on earth do you make such a dry-sounding topic so fascinating?

Jane:
I don’t know if you’ve read Longitude, but that was about a clock, and that could be extensively a dry, boring subject. But it’s what the implications of a clock are, and it’s the same with this. So double entry bookkeeping – yes, it’s an incredibly dry subject, but what it made possible was merchants – so first of all it made possible a new category called capital, which was a new category of wealth, and it made possible the calculation of increases and decreases in capital, which we know as profits and losses. And so suddenly Europe from Italy, and gradually across Europe, from Germany to the UK, and eventually to America, was transformed by merchants all able to calculate profit and seeking profit. So their businesses worked only as profit-seeking businesses. So, you can imagine that from a feudal society, where the lords had serfs working their land to suddenly these merchants who are pursuing profit and transforming the world. And eventually this was adopted in Britain and it helped to facilitate the Industrial Revolution. Yes, double entry bookkeeping itself is quite dry and hard to understand because it’s counter-intuitive, but its powers and its implications are just phenomenal and extraordinary, and they continue to be of interest to people today because as my subtitle says, accountants may have the power to make or break the planet.

Danielle:
This is a bit of a departure for you, because your last two books are about books.

Jane”
Yeah.

Danielle:
Australian Classics and Classics. Tell me more about those, why have you chosen to write about other books?

Jane:
It’s very interesting because I definitely had the idea for Double Entry first, so even though sequentially that seems to be a departure, actually the other two were a departure, and they came about sort of quite organically.

They evolved out of a friendship. I knew Kathy Mossop, the editor of Good Reading magazine, and she asked me to write a 2,000-word essay about reading the classics, knowing that I read the classics, they were just the books I kept reading. ‘Why was I reading in them in the 21st century? How strange.' So I wrote this 2,000-word essay and it was so well received that I suggested to Jane Polferman, who I had been doing some editing for, my publisher, that somebody should write a book about the classics, because people clearly were looking for ways into this sort of arcane world that wasn’t really taught very much anymore. She said, ‘Ah, yes. What a great idea. Why don’t you write that book?'

And so I never even set out to write that book, it just sort of came to me in an indirect way. And it was the most fantastic opportunity to go back to all of my favourite books and write about them for the general reader, for a passionate reader like me, rather than any scholarly way, or any intellectual way. Just opening up the books again so that people would find ways into them, and also have a kind of compilation of the suite of the classics from Homer to Salman Rushdie, the first book was.

And then Australian Classics, my second book about books, happened similarly spontaneously when I was walking down Broadway in Sydney one day thinking, ‘Well, what can I give my French friend who’s moving to Australia who loves literature? If only there was a book about Australian literature in the way there are books about Australian art, just an overview that I could give her, rather than giving her Tim Winton'. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could write that book. That could be like the Australian version of Classics'. And so I suggested that to Jane, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, what a good idea'. So, that happened.

Danielle:
So, I’m not going to ask you the question, ‘What makes a classic', because that’s so…

Jane:
You can, if you like.

Danielle:
Well, OK. I mean if you think you can answer that… What makes a classic for you, then?

Jane:
What makes a classic for me, and it’s interesting because it came up at a session I was in yesterday. When we were trying to imagine what books we read today will be read in 100 years’ time, and I think all of us came down to the idea that obviously it’s an exceptional work, there’s something remarkable about it, it’s beautifully written, good characters… but it’s sort of more than that. As somebody said, you know, something like Midnight’s Children might not be the best novel you’ll ever read, or the one that you’ll most love, or whatever, but it says something about a particular moment in history that it will probably very likely be read in 100 years’ time, and I certainly included that in Classics.

So I feel that they have also something to say about their times, or about some significant thing, although, it’s also very interesting because a book like Moby Dick, which we now consider a classic, in its day was completely disregarded and Herman Melville died a bit mad and very penniless – if you can be a degree of penniless.

But, so I think it has to do with the actual quality of the work and then something that it says about the world of its time, or maybe about people, generally, that is timeless.

Danielle:
But I mean that criteria could apply to so many books.

Jane:
Yeah.

Danielle:
So what additional criteria did you have to apply when you were writing Classics and Australian Classics?

Jane:
Excellent question. The additional criteria of my own, because I was writing it from a personal and passionate point of view rather than an intellectual point of view, I chose the books that I most loved. I also added a bit of perversity and chose the ones that people might not necessarily have heard of, most associate with a writer. Like, everyone knows Pride and Prejudice with Jane Austen, a lot of people know Emma, so I chose Persuasion because it’s just the most beautiful book. So that was another way of introducing people to maybe a less well-known Jane Austen book. But also, I chose to invite other readers and writers to give their lists of their top 10 favourite classics, so I had them scattered through both books. So that adds another dimension, other points of view, because ultimately it’s a subjective, personal thing.

Danielle:
Are you tempted to write Classics II?

Jane:
I’m tempted to write Children’s Classics, but I also have three other things going on at the moment, so it keeps getting pushed further and further away. But, yeah, I could also write Classics II, especially as people feel so strongly about these things, so many people either at festivals or people I know or people contacting me through my blog who said, ‘How dare you not include Vanity Fair‘, or ‘How dare you not include…' something else… ‘…my favourite book'. ‘Justify it'. Or ‘Write another one and include it in that'. So I definitely think I could write another one, yeah.

Danielle:
Back to Double Entry, I mean you mentioned that you’ve got other projects on the go, I’m just interested in your process of researching, writing. Does it kind of cross over a bit? How much is researching, how much is writing and when do you know how to stop?

Jane:
That’s also a fantastic question. With Double Entry – well, happily I had to go Italy to do a lot of the research, in Venice, and Milan and Florence and Sansepolcro, a small town nearby. That was purely just research and reading, and taking notes and things.

And, then I had to go back about 9,000 years. It turns out that accountants invented writing, so the scope was massive, and I spent a lot of time in the library and I really had to – for that book, because it was such untraveled ground, you know, no one has ever written such a book about accounting, why would they? So, I had to do so much research across so many millennia that I possibly did the research for almost a year until I started writing, until I saw the shape of the book, because I didn’t realise also all of the connections that were going to be made, I only sort of thought, ‘Oh, it would be fascinating if Maynard Keynes kind of used the principles of double entry bookkeeping when he postulated his general theory', and it turned out that he did. You know?

So the book grew as I researched it, as I realised how big the scope was. And then I had to write like crazy, as well as still researching, because as you write, more questions arise and how do you stop? The best thing about writing that book was I had a contract and I had a deadline, and so I had to stop. Honestly, I could have written it for 10 years. I mean I’ve spoken to people since, accounting professors, who just said, ‘That is a lifetime’s work, how on earth did you fit it into two years?' And that’s why, it’s because I had a deadline and I had to. I must say I also worked seven days a week.

Danielle:
Right, now did you find the process of writing this book very different to writing the Classics?

Jane:
Yeah, absolutely. It was absolutely thrilling and fascinating, but the reading was often so tedious, whereas the other ones – because they were 1,000-word essays, pretty much each chapter was 1,000 words, it fitted into a day, I could read the book in one day, because I was re-reading and then write the next day, and it was a much more kind of gentle rhythmic process. And a much sweeter process because I was reading my favourite books and writing nice things about them, rather than reading dry, dusty – and literally dusty – accounting books that hadn’t been touched since 1940, you know? If at all. So, yeah, that was absolutely completely different, and the others were obviously a lot easier to write, because it’s also so much easier to finish the day with one whole chapter, rather than finish the day with a million new thoughts in your head. I mean the chaos of writing a whole narrative rather than just 1,000-word pieces.

Danielle:
What’s next? You mentioned that you’re working on three more projects.

Jane:
Well, I’m doing a PhD, so I now know how to give myself deadlines, and that involves a novel and a sort of critical work that I’m doing – I’m writing about Alexis Wright and Kim Scott, the fantastic Australian novelists.

And, then I’ve just been on a trip, a sort of accounting trip, to London and Paris and New York, where accountants hang out, happily for me. And I think I might have to write, sadly, another book on accounting because I had no idea, but when I published this book it just came at the crest of a wave. There is a revolution in accounting, which is really significant, hence the subtitle. Accountants could make or break the planet, because it’s seriously possible that they can, and they’re beginning to realise that themselves. And I’ve been talking to them on three continents, and I’m kind of excited by it. So, yeah, possibly another book on accounting.

Danielle:
You’ve made accounting sound so glamorous.

Jane:
Well, it sort of is, and because they’re so powerful they congregate in beautiful cities, so even just if it’s only about that, it’s glamorous in that sense.

Danielle:
I just have one final question, what’s your advice to writers embarking on history?

Jane:
Oh, history… oh, wow. History, in general? I mean, well, as far as the likelihood of getting published I would, if you can, find something that hasn’t been written about before. I mean, not that I went with that in mind, but it, of course, it hadn’t been written about before because it was too boring. But also I mean just follow your instincts, follow your heart, as far as subject goes, and as much as possible go to the places that your subject is taking place in, because the moment I saw Luca Pacioli’s town, he was born in a small town, Luca Pacioli being the Renaissance monk who published the treatise, and the moment I read his manuscript, the moment I held this enormous book from 1494 in my hands and went through the pages and attempted to read his Renaissance Italian with my mix of Latin and modern Italian, the whole thing just came alive. So absolutely immerse yourself in the landscape, in the locations of your history, would be my other piece of advice.

Danielle:
Excellent advice. Thanks so much, Jane.

Jane:
Pleasure.

Danielle:
Good luck with Double Entry, and good luck with your next project.

Jane:
Fantastic. Thanks so much, Danielle. It’s been nice to speak to you.

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