Barrister turned novelist John Tesarsch reveals battle of wills

Balancing the setbacks: Author John Tesarsch. Photo: Joe ArmaoThe Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman by John Tesarsch.
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Balancing the setbacks: Author John Tesarsch. Photo: Joe Armao

Balancing the setbacks: Author John Tesarsch. Photo: Joe Armao

The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman by John Tesarsch.

Balancing the setbacks: Author John Tesarsch. Photo: Joe Armao

The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman by John Tesarsch.

The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman 

By John Tesarsch

Affirm Press, $24.99. Buy now on Booktopia

Conflict over an inheritance can bring out the worst in families, from the Rineharts to those with only their childhood home to fight over. “People are turned inside out by the hurt and pain, people who are otherwise reasonable lose all perspective,” says Melbourne barrister John Tesarsch.

As a barrister in Melbourne, Tesarsch has “come across some horrendous family disputes” and finds them draining, so he sticks mostly to commercial work. As a novelist, however, he is drawn to the tensions and moral challenges sparked by wealth, death, wills and secrets.

In 2010 his first novel, The Philanthropist, observed the fallout from a tycoon’s decision to leave his fortune to charity, and brought Tesarsch to attention as a impressive late starter.

His new book, The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman, returns to the same territory with even greater nuance and human insight in a story told from five perspectives.

When Hoffman shoots himself dead rather than go into a nursing home, his three adult children must negotiate his unfair will, and another secret will that leaves everything to a stranger, while grappling with their own work, love and financial problems.

“Issues of jealousy and resentment can be bubbling under the surface and when you put people under pressure they come out,” Tesarsch says, adding that he tries to be sympathetic to all his flawed characters.

“I started the novel five or six years ago, with the image of old Henry as a fellow burdened by the past and unable to relate to his kids. It was some kind of warning to myself of what not to become.”

At 47, Tesarsch has two young sons with his wife Dinusha​ but following a serious illness, he says, “Overnight I aged from 31 to 81 in terms of what mattered to me.”

He has had misfortune with his health. At school he began playing the cello, which “became the focus of my plans and my identity”. He won a scholarship at 18 to play in Vienna for a year, but his musical career ended at 22 when he developed a skin allergy to the rosin he rubbed on his bow.

“My whole life crashed into nothingness in the blink of an eye, and I had to rediscover myself,” he says. He had studied music and law at university “as something to fall back on” – and he did, working full-time as a lawyer until illnesss struck again.

In 1999 he developed tongue cancer and had surgery and chemotherapy, followed by reconstruction that turned his tongue sideways. He had to learn to talk again and while he was off work he read voraciously.

“All that reading kicked a lever in my head. I turned to writing to express my thoughts.”

He had written a few poems in his youth. Now law and writing are “a nice diversion from each other”, and though he often writes at night it energises rather than tires him.

He had three unpublished novels written before he was ready to go public, and now a couple of new ideas are competing for his attention.

Tesarsch grew up happily among the apple orchards of Doncaster in suburban Melbourne. His German father had come to Australia in 1950 and became a successful small businessman. But he lost his retirement savings in the 1990 collapse of the Pyramid Building Society and died at 64 from motor neuron disease. Tesarsch’s Australian-born mother – possibly related to a Dane who brought the first elephant to Gippsland – died of cancer at 74.

“It was very traumatic in both cases,” Tesarsch says. However, his parents’ straightforward wills caused no fights. Tesarsch is close to his older brother, who is also a lawyer, and he recalls, “The last thing my mother said to me in hospital when she passed away was, ‘You’ve been wonderful boys. I love you both the same.’ “