Q & A
I grew up with a mother who took her art very seriously. Though there's no question that she was a loving and attentive mother, I was always vaguely aware as a child that time she spent with me was a source of mild guilt to her, because it was time when she wasn't writing. I remember wondering from a very early age how much of one's creative potential one should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of other people. In adolescence I was drawn to books and movies that explored the tension between one's duty to art and other goals, such as one's own happiness or the happiness of those one loves. I was obsessed with the movie “Amadeus” and most books by Thomas Mann. But I also thought that in focusing on male artists these explorations, brilliant as they were, missed out on some of the most delicious subtleties of the issue because women tend to feel obligations toward other people more sharply and deeply than do men. In college I had the idea of writing a book that explored what it might mean to be a woman who takes her art just as seriously as any Thomas Mann hero (which, to my mind, is probably a little too seriously), but who is also a mother, and a really excellent mother at that.
I started the book the summer after I graduated college; I was 22-years-old, and very much not a mother, so in writing the book I drew a lot on my observations of my mother's experience raising my sister and me, though I also drew on my own feelings about motherhood, and, of course, on imagination. The main character is a far cry from my mother – Tasha Darsky differs from my mother in pretty much every aspect of personality, bearing, and history, and, of course, she's a musician rather than a writer – but the book was my chance, nonetheless, to explore what it is I think my mother finally achieved brilliantly: somehow being a better mother for being an artist, and a better artist for being a mother. It's the thing I most hope to achieve myself.
As for our relationship -- no, it's nothing like Tasha and Alex's. We have a boringly untroubled relationship. I think the last time there was any tension between us was during a shopping expedition when I was 12. I threw a fit about something typically adolescent and then saw myself from the outside and was ashamed. Since then I don't think we've ever fought. It's sort of disgusting, really, how well we get along.
I should start by saying I love all my characters. I don't think I can spend that long thinking about what it's like to be someone and not find something to love about them. It would be interesting to test that by writing about someone truly hateful, actually. But certainly I love all the characters in Overture, including the ones who aren't overtly likeable such as Aleksander Pasek and Abe Darsky. I'm mad about Jean Paul. I think I fell in love with him while writing, and he broke my heart. But Tasha is the one I love most, just because she's the one I really became as I wrote. I still sometimes wake up missing her. I liked being around her. Toward Alex I felt very protective, very tender, but my loyalties, when push came to shove, were always with Tasha. I knew her the best. We'd been through a lot together.
I spent five years working on the book, writing I don't know how many drafts. The first draft only took me eight months. I thought it would be a quick project at that point!
Before I began to write I spent about six months trying to get a sense of what the life of a violin soloist would be like, and familiarizing myself with some of the musical knowledge that would be second nature to Tasha. I read a lot of biographies of famous composers and of famous performers, I read a lot of back issues of the magazines Strings and The Strad, and I listened incessantly to violin concertos. I continued to do research as I wrote, though more pointed research to answer specific questions. Usually for that I bothered friends who were professional musicians or academics in the field.
Since two significant portions of the book take place in cities I've either never visited (Krakow) or visited only as a child (Vienna) I spent several days holed up with travel guides before writing about those places. In the middle of writing the first draft of Overture I also spent two weeks researching the history of Polish film for the character of Aleksander Pasek.
At the time I was living with a boyfriend who used to get a real kick out of making fun of the fact that I did so much research for my fiction. He used to say, "It's all made up anyway!" Obviously anyone who reads fiction understands why writers do a lot of research (if they're not following the 'write what you know' dictum, that is), and I did eventually convince him that even when you're making stuff up it has to feel real. But what I never told him was that research is probably my favorite part of the process. I think I partly became a novelist just so I could have an excuse to spend months reading about whatever it is I've decided to be most interested in at the moment. For the past year that's been the history and (for lack of a better term) sociology of West Virginia.
I'm working on a new novel, tentatively titled 'Sweet William.' It weaves together two love stories, separated by 200 years and four generations of misunderstanding. As the stories unfold side by side, they become increasingly intertwined, bound not only by blood and identity but also by also by their shared sense of doomed (or seemingly doomed) connections: between lovers, between our desire to know and the truth, between our good intentions and their often disastrous results, and between opposing cultures trying to participate in a single flailing nation. (Yes, the red state-blue state stuff and its most salient historical analogy.)