Kathryn Ormsbee discusses her novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy and how much of herself can be found in the asexual protagonist.
About ‘Tash Hearts Tolstoy’
After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka suddenly finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust in the limelight: She’s gone viral.
Her show is a modern adaption of Anna Karenina—written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the 40,000 new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr gifs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever.
And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with a fellow award nominee suddenly has the potential to become something IRL—if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual.
Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?
Kathryn Ormsbee on asexuality in YA
I’d dreaded this moment all summer camp long.
Don’t get me wrong, camp had been everything my 17-year-old heart desired. I’d spent the bulk of my time in drama club, mastered the art of the cafeteria cookie ice cream sandwich, and skillfully avoided most instances of group sports. And I had only used up two bottles of aloe vera on my toasted Irish skin in the process. Overall, this was a camp success.
But then there was the Thing. The threat of it followed me and my group of insta-camp-friends, a looming presence. It reared its head when my friends turned their fists into sirens and whirled them over their heads, shouting, “Whoo, whoo! Hot boy alert!” as they surveyed the cafeteria’s finest male diners. It popped up by the camp bonfire, in whispers about who was close to doing it with their summer crush.
Even when I thought I was safe, in the most innocuous of situations, like sanding a plywood set piece, a fellow drama club member would look my way, and the Thing would burst forth from their chest in a mess of blood and destruction, as they casually ranked a passing actor’s sexual prowess. I guess I fancied myself a Sigourney, and no matter how many friends this alien Thing picked off, I was not letting it punch its teeth into me.
So far, I’d dodged each threat of the Thing — “Would you ever make out with Derek S?”, “Who do you want to get it on with?” — with killer diversion tactics. Like, oh whoa, look at the 8-bit ringtone maker on my LG chocolate! (Yes, once upon a time, there was a line of cell phones called chocolates, and they were magnificent.) Or, cough, cough, I think I swallowed my soft serve the wrong way, won’t you excuse me, rainbow sprinkles are shooting up my nose! So far, these moves had saved me.
But that night, as my friend Amy and I walked across a muggy campground, on our way to final assembly, things changed. Amy was a musical enthusiast and member of the artsy crowd. She liked talking big ideas and stories, like me. But tonight, our conversation had somehow wandered into boy territory. Amy was gushing over her biggest crush of the summer and railing against the unfair Higher Power that had granted said crush such fine emo looks, complete with sorrowful eyes, cartilage piercings, and swishy black hair.
Then Amy gave me a weird look. “You never talk about guys like that.”
BLAM. The Thing burst from her chest, all blood and gore. I stood still, petrified.
“I’ve noticed,” Amy said. “Like, whenever we talk about the To Do list.”
First: The To Do list was exactly what you think it is. Second: In that moment, I gave up the will to resist. Sigourney might be disappointed, but this time, too exhausted to fight, I just blurted the truth:
“I don’t really think of anyone that way.”
Amy looked me over like I’d admitted affiliation with the KGB. “What way?”
“Like, I don’t want to date or . . . anything. For now.”
Amy got quiet, and I wondered if it would be socially acceptable for me shout, “Cheerio, guv’na!” in my killer Michael Caine voice and skedaddle off. Theatre kids like me did that, didn’t we? But then Amy spoke.
“Aw, Kathryn,” she said, “you’re cute.” Then she added the real zinger: “Don’t worry, you’ll grow up.”
I don’t tell that story because I’m still in need of high school catharsis. I’m not, it’s cool. I moved on with the help of Riot!-era Paramore and my senior year therapist. I tell that story because I suspect it’s not unique. In fact, ever since my YA novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy was announced, I’ve known it isn’t unique.
In the months leading up to Tash’s publication, I’ve opened emails and snail mail letters; I’ve received Twitter and Instagram DMs; I’ve spoken in person to teens and bloggers at book festivals, and they have all expressed variations of the same message: I’m so glad I’m not the only one. With friends, colleagues, and beta readers who ID on the ace spectrum, that sentiment slightly shifts: I wish I’d known I wasn’t the only one.
My authorial policy has always been to write the books I would’ve wanted to read as a kid and teen. But Tash Hearts Tolstoy was the first book I wrote that I seriously needed as a teen. Because for all of high school, I felt a little bit like a freak. I liked romance, and the idea of sex was fine, but the movies and TV shows I watched portrayed teens who were constantly thinking, talking, obsessing over, and having sex. And so many of the teens in my life — teens like Amy and my sexually active theatre buddies — seemed to feel the same. Meanwhile, I just wanted to nail my next theatrical performance.
And while I was completely happy focusing my energy on creative projects, people around me seemed to think I still needed to grow up. Physically, I wasn’t a late bloomer. So what was my problem? Why was sex just not a priority for me? There wasn’t a single Disney show, Lindsay Lohan movie, or teen novel out there that answered my question. I really wish there had been.
I’d like to say there’s a beautiful through-line from that summer camp experience to this moment now, as I anticipate the release of a novel I’ve written that features an asexual protagonist. There’s not. Life is messy, convoluted. Startling revelations you have at age 17 sometimes get quashed and repressed. Two dots can remain unconnected for months, even years. This summer camp dot didn’t make a connection until nine years later, in the dead of winter.
It was February and 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I held a boom mic over the heads of Channing and Alec, two (fabulous) actors in a lower-than-low-budget web series that my good friend Destiny and I were producing. We were filming a scene from season 2 of our Shakespearean-inspired series Shakes. Fiona, a modern-day necromancer, is coming out as pansexual to her poltergeist BFF Jack. Because guess what? It’s a web series, so modern day necromancers can come out to their poltergeist BFFs!
When I first watched the The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the deluge of literary-inspired projects that followed, I discovered the real beauty of the web series: If you had a camera and some talent, you could produce a show, taking artistic risks and featuring characters who weren’t featured in traditionally produced shows and movies. And that’s what Destiny and I intentionally chose to do with our series. We wrote a kleptomaniac Juliet and adrenaline junkie Romeo. We wrote Macbeth’s Weird Sisters as fully dimensional, ambitious women figuring out their romantic and sexual attractions. And no network executives were telling us “No, don’t do that.”
Still, I occasionally reflected on what a shame it was that stories like these couldn’t be the rule, rather than the exception. Sure, Destiny and I could publish an episode on YouTube that a handful of faithful subscribers would watch, but why couldn’t there be, say, an asexual protagonist in a traditionally published movie or show? And that was when it hit me, in near-freezing temperatures. The dot connected.
I’d been fortunate enough to publish the YA of my heart, Lucky Few, with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Why couldn’t I write another book of my heart? A book that I wished I could’ve found on bookshelves nine years earlier? So I wrote the book. My agent said yes. My editor said yes. Traditional publishing said yes to an on-the-page ace main character . . . who also happened to be filming a web series.
Here’s the deal: Unlike Natasha Zelenka, the narrator of Tash Hearts Tolstoy, I am not romantic asexual. Tash’s story was informed by many of my own teen experiences, but certainly not all of them. I write slivers of myself into my characters, but they always remain their own, distinct people. Their journeys aren’t my journey. I find this practice keeps me thick-skinned through the approximately two million revision rounds and nerve-wracking trade review circuits each of my books goes through.
So the weird thing is, even though I wrote Tash’s story, that story isn’t mine. Tash isn’t me. And her story won’t be the story of many people who identify on the ace spectrum. But it’s my hope that there will be teen readers who see themselves in Tash, who see their experiences normalized and affirmed. I hope there are readers who, emboldened by Tash’s story, can look their Amys in the eye and say, “I’m fine as I am.”
And for teens who don’t see themselves in Tash, let’s do everything we can to support a growing body of sexually diverse YA literature for them to explore because every teen deserves to see themselves on the page, to be reassured that they are not, in fact, a freak. My conversations with ace readers and writers all end in one conclusion: There’s a need for so much more ace rep in YA. More demisexual rep, aromantic rep, biromantic asexual rep — the list goes on for as long as the ace spectrum stretches.
In a way, summer camp Amy was right: At 17, I did have some growing up to do. I needed to learn self-confidence. I needed to discover and embrace my true self. I needed to hone my writing craft, find an agent, and get a book deal. So I did. I’ve grown up, and I feel the same way now about that summer camp To Do list as I did 10 years ago. And through stories like mine, I hope new waves of high school campers will know that’s a totally grown-up, okay feeling to have.
About the author
Kathryn Ormsbee grew up with a secret garden in her backyard and a spaceship in her basement. She is the author of The Water and the Wild and the YA novels Lucky Few and Tash Hearts Tolstoy. She’s lived in lots of fascinating cities, from Austin to Birmingham to London to Seville, but she currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.