Sight Reading

Behind-the-Book Q&A:

How did the idea for Sight Reading originate?

In 2003, I wrote a short story called “The Replacement.” It was told from the point of view of a conservatory student, about what happens when the school’s conductor is suddenly replaced by a new arrival.  I was recalling how one semester in college our conductor abruptly left and was replaced by a very different personality.

The characters in the short story quickly became quite different from the real-life ones, and I realized I needed to find out who they were; the next thing I knew, I was writing a story from the point of view of the new conductor—and then a story from the point of view of his wife.  But I already had a book of linked stories and wanted to do something new, so I told myself I would turn the stories into a novella instead.  The book continued to grow, though, until I had to admit to myself that I was writing a novel.

How long did it take you to write?

Six years total.  When I started it, I had already begun writing my first novel, Russian Winter, a big project that often felt overwhelming.  I told myself I could write the musician book “on the side” as a sort of relief from the Russian book—that this other one would be short and simple.  Whenever I hit a wall with Russian Winter, I’d return to Sight Reading; I thought that since it was set in Boston, where I lived, and contemporary rather than historical, it would be much easier than Russian Winter.  But of course no book is easy to write.  It wasn’t until in 2008 that I at last came to the end of the story—which allowed me to put the book aside and complete Russian Winter.  In 2011, I finally sat down to revise Sight Reading.

How did the experience of writing Sight Reading differ from the experience of writing Russian Winter?

The structure of this book made the writing more challenging, due to the large leaps in time.  Twice I skip forward ten years and have to swiftly fill the reader in without bogging down the narrative.  I chose this structure because I wanted to concentrate on key moments in these characters’ lives, rather than wading slowly through time (as do so many family sagas.)  But that structure can be briefly disorienting when the reader has to suddenly adjust to a new decade and reconfigured relationships among the characters.

Sight Reading is, on the one hand, about music and being a musician.  What drew you to that topic?

Music was very much a part of my life growing up and remains vital to me.  Music is also one of the most easily appreciated art forms; unlike novels and stories, music always elicits immediate, primal reactions, and in most cases the listener doesn’t have to work to engage with it.  So I’ve always envied musicians and people who live in that world.  Sight Reading was an excuse for me to spend more time in that realm, by reading about—and speaking with—musicians, conductors, and composers.

Did it require any special research or travel?

Yes.  Researching my first novel, Russian Winter, I learned a lot about the intense commitment and drive it takes to become a successful ballerina, so I had that intensity in mind when I approached the professional musicians in this book.  I had played viola growing up and throughout my college years and was always struck by the dedication and sacrifice necessary to transform what was, for someone like me, a hobby into a serious occupation.

I read memoirs by and biographies about various musicians and what it took for them to achieve greatness. I also thought back to when I was learning to play the violin and piano, and then the viola, and about the music teachers I’ve known, and allowed that experience to infuse my writing.

In addition, I read interviews with composers, articles about conductors, and spoke to a number of professionals in these disciplines. I’m lucky enough to have met a number of composers over the years, so I relied on them to help me with the Nicholas story-line, just as I needed to speak with an actual violinist in the BSO in order to make sure I had those elements generally correct.

Can you say something about the title?

Sight-reading in music refers to playing music on sight, for the first time, without the benefit of rehearsal.  When I used to audition for school orchestras, sight-reading was the part of the audition that scared everyone the most, because it was the one big unknown; you couldn’t know what music they would put in front of you.  Since life itself confronts us this way, I like the metaphor.  But I also like that it echoes the experience of the character Hazel, whose visions, or sightings, are mysterious but also reveal her own innate intuition.

Both Russian Winter and Sight Reading look at the lives of professional performers and at art as a liberating force.  What do you see as the main differences between the two books?

This novel is more subtle and character-driven than Russian Winter; I’m relying on personality, narration and thought process more than dramatic plot points.  The issues these characters deal with aren’t matters of life and death, as in my previous novel; they are questions about relationships, family, art, and truth.  Not that these are necessarily “smaller” issues than the political and wartime hardships of the characters in Russian Winter.  The issues here are quotidian but universal, often viewed as mundane. In fact, the working title was Symphonia Domestica.  I wanted to show that in fact ordinary lives are no less dramatic or distinctive than the ones we tend to view as extraordinary.