An Interview With Daphne Kalotay, author of Sight Reading

Kalotay by Gretje Ferguson

Photo credit: Gretje Ferguson

Building upon the success of her debut novel Russian Winter, Cambridge-based Daphne Kalotay’s new release, Sight Reading, explores the professional and personal lives of Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians over twenty years, from 1987 to 2007. A long-time Grub Street instructor and enthusiast, Daphne took time out to speak with Dead Darlings about her new project.

Dead Darlings: Both of your novels, Sight Reading and Russian Winter, are rooted in performing arts — music and ballet, respectively. Can you tell me what drives your fascination with the subject area, and what you think are special opportunities and challenges in working with this material?

Daphne Kalotay: I never consciously decided to write about this as a topic, but I’ve long been drawn to stories about artists. Mainly I think I’m curious about the combination of intense dedication and relaxed creativity necessary to create great art — but in the performing arts there is that added element of a viewing/listening public, and the action of performing lends itself more generously to drama on the page than a solitary vocation such as being a writer.

On the other hand, it’s a definite challenge to recreate movement (in the case of dance) and sound (in the case of music) through language alone. In writing about ballet, the challenge was to find a happy medium between the correct technical terms, which a ballerina would know but a layperson would not, and simply describing the choreography; I tried to explain what it would feel like for the dancers while also painting a visual picture for the reader. Similarly, in Sight Reading I wanted the reader to be able to follow the violinist’s experience without feeling lost or pandered to.

DD: You have a flair for capturing the psychology of performance, for example during Remy’s audition with Conrad Lesser in Sight Reading. “Remy’s heart dropped at how dismissively he spoke. It dropped again when she saw the sight-reading piece. E-minor – six flats! That dark congregation clustered together beside the clef. Remy felt a drop of sweat roll from her armpit down her side.” [p. 65] Can you describe the process of rendering a gripping scene like this one?

DK: I suppose I slow down in moments like this, when I want the reader to be experiencing what the character is experiencing. Really, at any point in a narrative, I try to be attuned to the character’s internal state; in the case of a nerve-wracking scene like an audition, I bring in the physical state as well, simply by imagining what such an interaction must feel like. And so we’re privy to the drop of sweat rolling down from Remy’s armpit.

DD: Sight Reading started as a short story, and evolved into a novella before taking its current shape as novel. Can you talk about the course your three main characters — Remy, Nicholas, and Hazel — took through these three narrative forms?

DK: Each character evolved quite slowly, over a period of many years. Even their names changed (except for Remy, who began life with that name.) And as the book expanded I was able to delve more deeply into the psychology of each character. First I had to crack open the brisk, concise prose of the linked-short-story-version, in order to breath space into the narrative and slow things down. Hazel was the person I saw most clearly at that point, and the challenge was to discover how she would evolve over the progress of the storyline. Remy was the last character to fully take form, and in her case, it was her relation to music that helped unlock her personality; by spending time with her in the rehearsal room and with her teachers, I was able to reveal her psyche at work.

In each case, it was not until I allowed myself to pause and stretch within the narrative — almost like stretching muscles before doing physical exercise — that I felt the book reach its rhythmic pace as a novel rather than novella.

51S5vSMLU1LDD: Building on this theme of character development, one major difference you’ve discussed before between your two novels is the crushing external pressure of Stalin-era Soviet Union in Russian Winter versus the more nuanced pressures — external and internal — facing the characters in Sight Reading. Can you talk about the way you approached goals and obstacles for Remy, Nicholas, and Hazel in Sight Reading?

DK: It was a challenge to be true to each of these characters — to the psychology of each character–while at times wishing I could make them behave differently. There’s a good deal of misbehaving in this book, and I sometimes disapproved of the decisions my characters were making. But their behavior absolutely had to derive from individual psychology in concert with external realities. This is really what all stories, real or fictional, are about: personality meets circumstance.

In terms of goals and obstacles, I generally knew what each character’s hopes and dreams were; but I kept the characters unaware of the subconscious desires guiding these more quantifiable goals. In a way, the plot relies on the teasing up of these buried desires–which are often the very things that get in our way–and the realization that what we think we need or want is not always what is best for us. Likewise, we ourselves are sometimes the greatest obstacles to our own evolution.

DD: This misbehaving in Sight Reading has real consequences, doesn’t it? Particularly in Part Two, I feel most protective of Hazel, who has been dealt a bad hand through Nicholas’ misbehavior. The scene in which Hazel spots her new love interest Hugh with another woman at the school concert is unbearably sad, yet gorgeously executed. Can you describe the process of writing that scene?

DK: Hazel is my favorite character, and I think that comes through on the page. I felt the weight of the school concert scene when I wrote it. On the one hand, it’s nearly comical, like something out of high school (even taking place in a school) inflicted on an adult, which perhaps adds to the pathos. At the same time, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back; Hazel has already experienced two other big disappointments in Part Two (the chestnut scene, and the morning after), and this third punch is what will, ultimately, allow her to discover what she needs to do to move on.

What I recall about writing that scene is being attentive to the awkwardness of the circumstances:  surrounded by the other parents at the concert — including her ex and the woman he ditched her for — Hazel feels she has to hide her disappointment, which makes the situation all the more uncomfortable. And in the following scene, when Hazel goes home and tries to make sense of what has happened, I tried to illustrate in very concrete ways (through the physical objects around her — from her car to her coat and shoes — and the removal of her makeup, and the pet frog) that she has come to a breaking point.

DD: Yes, I love the accumulation of detail in that scene at home, after the school concert. “She opened the closet and was suddenly too exhausted to pluck out a hanger. Instead she dropped her coat onto the wooden settee, where it lay like a hobo in a park. She kicked off her shoes with something close to anger; they fell onto their sides at an uncouth angle, lying there as if stunned.” The tone here is tender, concerned, with an ironic slant. “Close to anger.” Hazel is just too well-meaning to break out the baseball bat and smash her television set, isn’t she?

DK: Yes, exactly! Also, it goes back to what she says in the “Her hair about her ears” section: she thinks people who allow themselves to fall apart and express anger and madness are selfish.

DD: Turning to structure for a moment, you’ve organized Sight Reading into three parts separated by ten years each. These feel a bit like movements in a sonata, or a symphony. Did you intend that effect? Can you talk about your choice of structure more generally?

DK: I indeed intended for the three sections to feel like movements in a musical composition.  In fact, way back when I was still beginning this project, in 2004, I wanted the book to look more obviously like a symphony, so I had five sections, each with a title like “Allegro ma non troppo” and “Andante” and “Scherzo,” etc. But you can’t just impose a structure; you have to let it form organically.  When I finished that very early draft, I saw that the sections were a gimmick, not an inherently necessary structural order.

I saw too that the key moments in the book took place in three distinct time periods, each about ten years apart. So I decided to simply focus on the three points in time where the characters’ lives are about to change. This meant taking big leaps forward chronologically, which presented a new host of challenges — but I thought it was worth trying to make that structure work, since it was already present, in a way, in the draft.

DD: Where character development and structure seem to converge in both your novels is at the boundary between two universal themes in world literature, “art” and “love.” Can you talk about what may have been intended relationships between these two themes in Sight Reading, and what emerged as unintended consequences?

DK: The parallel people point out between both of these novels is that of the sacrifices artists make, often at the expense of their personal lives. But what I realized while working on Sight Reading — though aware that I was writing about love, marriage, and friendship — was that the issues that affect the way we negotiate our intimate relationships are probably the same ones affecting how we approach our art.

The shorthand version of this is when people say someone’s art is powerful because he or she has suffered. Well, okay. But more broadly I’m talking about the fact that, for instance, an actor who doesn’t feel empathy for others in her daily life probably can’t access the emotional insight necessary to break through to a higher level in her acting. Likewise, a writer who isn’t fully truthful about who he is as a person probably isn’t fully truthful in his writing. And it goes both ways. I can imagine that a breakthrough in one’s art might allow for discovery regarding one’s deepest desires or fears or love.

DD: On the surface, both of your novels inhabit a world of “high art” in the form of Bolshoi ballerinas and BSO musicians. One aspect that adds street-level texture to Russian Winter is the grinding hardships your characters endure in the Soviet Union. In Sight Reading, similarly, I’m interested in the appearance of Paula the Latin dance instructor — she seems to jog Nicholas’ thinking and open him up to new creative avenues. Can you share your thinking on “high art” versus “low art,” and how — or even whether — that distinction informs your work?

DK: I do have opinions on what is art and what is not, but it’s not a “high” vs. “low” distinction. There are those pop or rock songs as magnificent as a Beethoven quartet, and I was on a plane recently and saw an episode of “30 Rock” that had the brilliance of a Moliere comedy. Writing Sight Reading, it seemed completely plausible to me that for Nicholas the experience of Latin dance might nudge him into a new place artistically.

I was also trying to make the point that just because someone works in one of the “high” art forms, he or she is not artistically superior.  But not everyone who reads the book picks up on that.  A writer friend who read an earlier draft didn’t like Hazel’s chosen profession at the end; he wanted her to be a landscape architect, something “more artistic.” So I knew he’d missed the point. Oh well.

It’s funny, I wrote about a ballerina in Russian Winter and about a violinist in Sight Reading because dance and music are the two art forms I’m most drawn to and in which I already had a good basis of knowledge. Only afterwards, when the marketing folks start to speak of the relatively small audience for “high art” such as ballet or classical music do you realize that in America these entertainments are seen as difficult art forms not meant for the masses. I think that’s what I loved so much about my Russia research; there, classical music and ballet were mass entertainments and not assumed to be inaccessible to the general public.

DD: As someone who has studied literature in depth — you earned a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature, with Saul Bellow as your advisor — and who has built a successful career as a writer, I’m curious which bodies of literature you return to year in and year out for grounding and inspiration.

DK: I read Gina Berriault’s short stories whenever I need a reminder of what matters most — not just in fiction but in life. Empathy, honesty, depth of character. They are utterly free of superficiality or gimmickry, which makes them all the more powerful. I’m moved by their gritty beauty, and Berriault’s light, lyric touch.

Jane Gardam’s novels are completely delightful and full of insight into character and relationships. I read them when I crave really rigorous prose; her verbs especially are so precise and lively. I often look to British writers for this kind of verbal energy and specificity of language. Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Fitzgerald, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark. I’ve read Memento Mori so many times, and each time I’m newly awed.

DD:  So, what’s next?  

DK: I’m working on a novel set primarily in New York City in the early nineteen nineties, as well as in Boston — though I’m only halfway through, so who knows where it might go by the time I’ve finished.

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