Tash Hearts Tolstoy author on writing an asexual protagonist
Kathryn Ormsbee’s second novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy centers on a teenage girl who loves Leo Tolstoy — to the point of adapting his book Anna Karenina into a web series. The eponymous protagonist also happens to be asexual.
This is a big step forward in terms of LGBTQIA representation in young adult fiction, especially because there are so few characters who identify as such. (The “A” in LGBTQIA actually stands for “Asexual,” though people commonly mistake it for “Ally.”) As Tash explains in the book, people who identify as asexual do not experience sexual attraction or desire for sex, though they can still develop romantic feelings for others.
In the novel, Tash must deal with the sudden popularity of “Unhappy Families,” the web series she and her best friend Jack created, while also navigating what it means to be asexual (and coming out as such).
EW spoke to Orsmbee about approaching the subject — which is rare for not just YA fiction, but most fiction in general — and delving into a medium more and more web viewers are familiar with.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the big themes in the book is Tash’s devotion to her web series. What made you decide to have it be an adaptation of Anna Karenina instead of one of Tolstoy’s other books?
KATHERYN ORMSBEE: The fact that War and Peace would be too ambitious. Ha! No, really, I decided on Anna Karenina simply because it’s one of my favorite novels, and I was surprised to not see it show up in the wave of literary-inspired web series that followed the success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Good drama is good drama, regardless of how long ago it took place or how many complicated Russian names are involved. I thought there was so much great material in Anna Karenina for Tash to work with and for viewers to fangirl over. And for War and Peace lovers, there’s always the magnificent Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
For that matter, how did you decide that Tolstoy would be Tash’s favorite author?
Like Tash, I discovered Tolstoy when I was in high school. I picked up Anna Karenina at sixteen and fell in love with the story from line one. I took that book with me from college visits to poolsides to Governor’s Scholars Camp, because I was (cough, am) an unabashed nerd, and because I was entranced by Tolstoy’s powers of storytelling. I will say, unlike Tash, I prefer Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, both on a literary and biographical level. Leo? He’s somewhere between Solzhenitsyn and Chekov on my Official Russian Author Ranking.
The other big aspect of the book is Tash coming out to different people she knows. At what point in the writing process did you know she was asexual?
From the very beginning. She’s one of the few characters who came to me fully formed, from her appearance to personality to sexual identity. And that initial inspiration didn’t change throughout my drafting [process]. Tash’s character remained implacably true to herself — which was so very like her. Tash’s asexuality didn’t come out of a vacuum, either. Throughout high school, I wasn’t interested in sex, and that was an oftentimes isolating experience — especially when there were no popular books or television shows that normalized the way I felt. Though I don’t personally identify like Tash does, I needed a story like hers when I was a teen, and I think there are teen readers who need her story now.
In the book, you’re very careful to not equate asexuality with being aromantic (i.e. experiencing little or no romantic feelings for others), because Tash does have crushes on people. What were some of the other things you had to consider in depicting a protagonist who is asexual?
There are so many misconceptions about what it means to be asexual. Some people assume that it isn’t possible to feel romantic attraction without sexual attraction. Still, others portray both aromantic and asexual individuals as cold, frigid, or lacking empathy. I was aware of these issues — and many others — when I sat down to write Tash Hearts Tolstoy. I wanted to do everything in my power to not only avoid perpetuating these wrong ideas but to actively combat them in the narrative. I drew on personal experience when writing Tash, but because I don’t identify as heteroromantic asexual like she does, I needed to take further steps to be sure I got the representation right.
I researched, I worked closely with a beta reader who identified like Tash, and I consulted several other members of the ace community [Ed. note: “Ace” is shorthand that many asexual people use to describe themselves]. The insight and support I received during that process was invaluable. Not every ace reader who picks up Tash Hearts Tolstoy will see themselves in Tash’s story, but it’s my hope that many will, and that the reading experience will be a source of confirmation and encouragement. I hope to see so much more ace/aro rep in the future — especially aromantic rep! This publishing process has impressed upon me just how great a need for it there is.
You’re not only tackling asexuality — you’re also writing about web production. What was some of the research you had to do in that field?
I created two seasons of a web series along with friend and fellow YA author Destiny Soria, which was my initial inspiration for Tash Hearts Tolstoy. Much like Tash’s Unhappy Families, Shakes was a literary adaptation filmed on a next-to-nothing budget with a bare bones crew and a cast of brilliant actors. Our first season was a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing. The second season was a storyline devoted entirely to the Weird Sisters from Macbeth. I was involved in every aspect of production, from writing to filming to sound recording to directing to editing to social media. It was an all-consuming and often anxiety-inducing experience, but it was also mind-blowingly fun to make and so rewarding to share a finished creation with our (very) few but loyal viewers. I wanted to capture that wild, niche experience on the page, so the web series aspect of Tash Hearts Tolstoy mirrors much of my own web series process — save for the whole going viral thing, of course.
What advice might you have for readers who might be trying to start their own creative projects or even figuring out their own sexuality?
For those considering creative projects: Just start. Create. Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Unless you are freaking Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, you are not going to get it right on the first try. That’s okay. Learn from the mistakes and create even better art next time. When Destiny and I were creating the web series, our motto was the tried and true “Fake it till you make it.” If you have talent, a solid idea, perseverance, and a stupid amount of confidence, you’re going to make something great. Maybe that something great will fall flat. Maybe nobody will watch or read or listen. Maybe it will just be a draft — the prelude to something really great. Regardless, you will have created something out of nothing, and that is a priceless achievement. But! You can’t get to that point unless you start.
For those figuring out their sexuality: You’re allowed to figure it out for as long as you need. You’re allowed to be confused. You’re allowed to grow older, to change, to evolve. And whatever you decide for yourself, whatever you discover— you are beautiful and infinitely valuable, and your experience is valid.
Tash Hearts Tolstoy is available now.