An interview with Donald Greig

Interview by Magdalena Ball

How did Time Will Tell come about?

They say that you should write about something you know and, as a performer and researcher of late-mediaeval music, I had a ready-made subject. It actually wasn’t my first novel (that remains unpublished – crime fiction set in Brixton in the 1950s and 1990s). Indeed, I wrote Time Will Tell as much as anything to keep me going while I fielded the rejections. And to make me laugh (it’s essentially a comic novel about serious things).

Some of the plot aligns neatly with the work you do as a lecturer and a performer. Talk to me about the parallels.

The novel revolves around a piece of music written in the fifteenth century, nothing more than a first draft really, something dictated to a scribe. In the present day, a music historian stumbles across it. Because the music may be by a famous composer, because it’s a piece on a grand scale, it’s potentially an extraordinary discovery, something which he, an ambitious man, sees as his way to a cushy post as a lecturer in some Ivy League university.

That such a manuscript might be discovered isn’t so far-fetched. In my time as a performer, I’ve been lucky enough to give the first modern-day performances of pieces discovered by musicologists in just such a fashion.

The second strand to the novel describes the life of modern performers, specifically a group which takes its punning name from another composer of the time, Loyset Compère. The group is led by a female conductor. The lifestyle of the itinerant performer – today Tokyo, tomorrow Paris, the next day London – is one with which I’m very familiar.

The third narrative strand is set in the fifteenth century, when composers like Compère, Josquin and Ockeghem lived. I knew a lot about them and the period, having already written academic articles about them, so, again, I had information at my fingertips (although I did a great deal of further research).

Talk to me about some of the key themes of the book.

I’m interested in the way that both academic writing and performance involve fantasy. No-one knows exactly how it was – how people thought, how they sang this music – so for all the claims about authenticity, we have to acknowledge that historical accurancy is always contingent.

I’m made very aware of this on a very local level. All groups, be they a bunch of office workers, a gang of friends, a performing group, create their own history through telling and retelling stories and anecdotes. And over the years I’ve observed these stories change. These days some people tell anecdotes about occasions at which they weren’t even present, yet somewhere along the line they say that they were! Such stories make sense of the past for us, just as history makes sense of the past, so I wanted to explore the various ways that narrative shapes our lives.

I was also interested in ambition and how destructive it can be, particularly to personal relationships. Andrew, the music historian, is quite blind to how his personal drive upsets his family. And Emma, the conductor, although not obviously ambitious, suffers a great deal from focusing on her work to the exclusion of her relationships. I echo that in the fifteenth century by making Josquin, one of the great composers, a rather nasty, self-centered man.

Tell me more about your two protagonists Andrew Eiger, who is a musicologist like you and Emma Mitchell, a conductor.  They’re quite unique in the world of literature aren’t they?

It’s true that there aren’t many novels about musicologists (although there are a couple of films – What’s Up Doc? for one), but there are plenty of bumbling academics, from Lucky Jim onwards through the novels of David Lodge. Emma, though, as a female conductor is certainly unique, not least in the real world. Now, there are a few female directors of early-music groups, but there was no-one quite like Emma in 1997 when the modern-day sections are set. It thus allowed me to make a few more political points about the male-dominated world, reflected very obviously in the medieval period when women weren’t allowed to sing in church choirs.

Talk to me about Jehan Ockeghem – where did your inspiration for him come from?

Ockeghem was a real person, a composer, a singer, a diplomat and the Treasurer of St Martin of Tours. By all accounts, he was a good guy and I made him a fairly avuncular figure. There’s actually no evidence to what he was really like in person, though there is a great deal of detail about the nitty-gritty of his life. While I was writing the book, I really enjoyed taking real events and weaving the story around them. Some might think that history sets a limit on what one can write; I really enjoyed the challenge. The other key figure here is Geoffroy Chiron, the writer of the fifteenth-century memoir that provides the (fictional) details of Ockeghem’s life in Time Will Tell. Again, he was a real person, but we know nothing about him.

Do you see a link, beyond the musical plotline of your novel, between music and writing?

The most obvious link between music and writing is rhythm. Indeed, the earliest form of church music – plainchant – derives its notation from poetry of the time. More broadly, the rhythm and cadence of sentences finds an obvious parallel in music itself, and many writers know that one learns a great deal about the flow of one’s prose if you read it out loud.

There are perhaps other parallels. As I’ve said, I took an existent history and made the novel fit within it. That approach is similar for musical composition, where the limits of instruments, harmony, counterpoint, etc. limit what one can do. Paradoxically, I found that quite stimulating. It forced me to invent. And when I was trying to fit things into virtually a 24-hour period in which the modern-day sections take place, it was really gratifying to tie up all the ends of international travel, with time zones, etc, into one neat package. One example: late in the writing process, I decided to make one of the singers a cricket fan, as much as anything to sketch an identity for a minor character. I discovered that on the exact day that the modern-day section was set, England were playing New Zealand in New Zealand and, miracle of miracles, it meant that I could show the character listening to his radio at key moments.

Talk to me about your multiple settings – Ohio, Tours, Florida…

It sounds like the typical itinerary of a singer or musician. I’ve visited all those places as a performer. Indeed, I’ve probably spent about two years on US soil, giving concerts. Tours is the home of Jehan Ockeghem, and also the venue for a conference to which Andrew and Emma are travelling (again, an actual event, held over three days in February 1997). I visited it to do some research. Important in all of this was how travel defines most musicians’ lives.

What’s next for you?

More writing. Quite simply, the more you write, the better you get, so there’s every reason to carry on. I’ve written a novel based in a choir school in the 1970s. It’s much darker than Time Will Tell, so it’s quite a change of direction. That’s currently doing the rounds of publishers, so in the meantime, in much the same way that Time Will Tell was a distraction from rejection, I’m working on another novel about a band in the 1980s.


Don’s novel, Time Will Tell, is now available in paperback from Amazon and other more reputable outlets. For more information, go to and blog:

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