Boston Book Club: The Passion of Tasha Darsky
Welcome to the first-ever meeting of Boston Book Club, in which we read works by local authors and discuss the tome with the writer. It’s just like your book club, except we actually talk about the novel instead of using it as a pretense to get together and gossip.
In this installment, we read The Passion of Tasha Darsky by Yael Goldstein Love. The Cambridge resident’s debut novel tells the story of Natasha Darsky, a violinist and aspiring composer who comes into her own at Harvard. We talked to Love about writing about music, her impressions of Harvard, and why the book was almost about mathematicians.
Boston Daily: Were you exposed to the classical music world before writing the book, or did you have to do a lot of research?
Yael Goldstein Love: Tons of research. When I first got the idea for the book, I was trying to decide what world it was going to be set in. If you can believe it, I was choosing between the world of mathematicians and the world of classical music. I wanted it to be some theater in which the practitioners believe that it’s really obvious who has it and who doesn’t. Some are the greats, and some are not.
Those were the two areas where it seemed most stark, where people really seemed to believe that fully. I knew more about mathematicians than I knew about classical musicians, but I thought classical music is something I’d actually like to know a little more about.
BD: How did you know about mathematicians?
YGL: My father’s a mathematician, so I grew up completely surrounded by them. I thought it would be a little more exciting to do it in the world of classical music. And, for me, a large part of the appeal of even being a novelist in the first place is being getting to lean about things I wouldn’t know about to begin with. So I really threw myself into the research for six months before I even started working on the book.
BD: How did you research it?
YGL: I started out by reading a lot of biographies, mostly of composers. I found the biographies of composers were more informative. A performer’s life, you can read one short article in Strings magazine and think you have a pretty good sense of what it’s like. But to be a composer, that seems like a totally different way of being.
I also have a bunch of friends who are musicians. One very good friend is a professional violinist, and she gave me years and years worth of Strings magazine, so I just read through all these back issues.
And then I just did a lot of listening. I’ve always listened to classical music, and my family took classical music very seriously, so I just did a lot more focused listening than I’d ever done before. I had this Music Theories for Dummies book and tried to teach myself music theory. It didn’t go so well, but thankfully the book never called on me to know it.
BD: Do you play any instruments?
YGL: Not really. I took piano lessons for years, but was actually really bad. I never even learned how to sight read. But I knew most of the basic terms, so that was helpful.
BD: Was it difficult to describe music in prose?
YGL: I actually think the fact that I’m not a musician made it easier for me. I think when a musician hears music, they have this well-developed musical sense and they experience it in this way that transcends the verbal. All I have is the verbal. As soon as I hear any music, I’m describing it to myself in my head in verbal terms. I actually think I had a leg up for being such a moron.
BD: Why did they change the title of the novel?
YGL: That was a strange thing. The original title was Overture, which I was never wedded to. My agent’s assistant came up with it, but I never felt like it was my title. They wanted the book to be big with book clubs and book groups, and they thought that title would scare away the book club ladies. The fear was that people would think that they needed to know about classical music to appreciate the book, which I would not want, so I was perfectly happy with the name change.
BD: When Tasha arrives at Harvard, she describes it as “a sanitarium for privileged loonies.” You also went to Harvard—was there a little bit of you in that statement?
YGL: It was certainly my first impression, but I don’t know I graduated thinking that. I came from a very different background than Tasha. I came from this very Orthodox Jewish enclave, so for me, everyone just seemed nuts. Everyone seemed so wild and free and quirky. But Tasha didn’t have any friends. She came from a very isolated background, so I had the feeling it would strike her as similarly loony. I think she had a much more negative reaction to Harvard than I did, so it was harder for her to acclimate than it was for me.
BD: What similarities do you see between the writing world and the classical musical world share?
YGL: I think there are ways in which the musical world seems more cutthroat. For instance, you have to actually win a spot somewhere to perform your art. That’s really tough. Here are these brilliant, passionate people, and if they don’t get a spot in an orchestra they can’t do what it is they want to do. Whereas any writer with a computer or a pen or a piece of chalk can do what they want to do.
But it also seems to me that in another way, the music world is not as competitive. This might be wrong, since I only saw a very small sliver of the classical music world, but maybe because once you get a position you’re a little more secure, it seems that people help each other out more. I’m always surprised by how little writers seem to want to help each other out. They just seem to act like there’s this very limited amount of success and you better hope those around you don’t get it because then you won’t get it.
BD: On your website, you have music inspired by the characters in your book. Do you have any plans to make The Passion of Tasha Darsky into a movie?
YGL: If only. Wouldn’t that be nice? I don’t have the wherewithal to make it into a movie, but should anyone who does comes my way, I’ll certainly be thrilled by that. I had this good friend in college who is a composer, and we’ve been talking about collaborating on something since our freshman year. When this book was coming out I thought it would be a great idea to get him to write some music to go with the book, and then I’d perform it at my readings. I mean, I didn’t perform it.
BD: So put the CD in, press play?
YGL: Actually, my friend who’s a violinist would travel around with me and she would play while I was reading. It almost felt like I was making music. It was fun.
BD: Did your musical friends help you make sure you had the musical culture right?
YGL: I would ask a lot, a lot of questions. I had them read the whole book and tell me if anything was off.
BD: It’s like your own built-in research team.
YGL: Exactly. My unpaid research team.