Wednesday, July 11, 2007

interview with author Susanne Dunlap

It's a great pleasure - and sort of a daunting challenge for me - to interview Susanne Dunlap, the author of the new novel Liszt's Kiss. That title sort of threw me at first, since I don't normally read romance novels. But as Ms. Dunlap notes, the book is more of a mystery, with romantic intrigue woven in.

I found the story exciting and suspenseful, told with a great deal of musical and historical insight. (Besides the prospect of learning some of the seductive secrets of the Hungarian piano virtuoso - apparently playing fast and loud helps, but what's essential is all in the touch!) The story centers on a young countess named Anne, a promising young pianist whose family troubles threaten her prospects, both musical and romantic - and possibly even her life.

Before I give away too much of the plot though, I should introduce Ms. Dunlap. First off, thank you for agreeing to participate in this, my own little debut performance as a literary interviewer!

SD: Thank you so much for asking me. It's a pleasure for me as well, and I hope the experience isn't too frightening for you (I don't bite-- least of all in cyberspace). And I must first say that Liszt's Kiss is not even vaguely a romance, in the true meaning of the genre. It has romantic elements-- as does just about any novel with a love story-- but it does not adhere to the very specific conventions of romance. For one thing, the heroine has her most intimate embrace with the wrong man!

Franz Liszt's first entrance is a scene right out of Don Giovanni - the painter Eugene Delacroix plays Leporello, hiding out as Franz tries to seduce some young princess (without success). Was it fun for you to re-imagine Liszt as a swashbuckling heartthrob? Or did it take much re-imagining - was he really like that?

It certainly was fun to create an (entirely fictitious) scene that I imagined a young, impetuous Liszt might find himself in. But I have no evidence he ever did such a thing as that-- although he had an affair with a young countess who was promptly married off and sent away. I believe he was very handsome, if the portraits are anything to go by, and the descriptions aren't hyperbolic. Most of them date from when he was a little older, though. I liked the challenge of imagining him before he'd quite made it, and was still a little young and naive.

Just like Don Giovanni, Liszt gets to stretch some of the boundaries and cultural norms of proper behavior here. Do you find it a challenge to introduce readers to the constraints and subtleties of an unfamiliar society - or do those constraints help you construct a plot and weave your characters through it?

The constraints and subtleties are what have always fascinated me about social/cultural history. The challenge is to make people understand their nuances at the same time as making them believe the motivations and feelings of the characters. Certainly the different expectations create possibilities for plot twists that wouldn't exist today. For one thing, people don't write letters to each other in the same way. Email is too instantaneous to count, and there isn't the delicious likelihood that the physical letter will get into the wrong hands, or be read by the wrong eyes.

I hope I won't give too much away by saying that your scenes of Liszt teaching - especially the final one - are some of the most thrilling and evocative descriptions of piano lessons I have read! How did those scenes take shape for you and - without incriminating anyone, I hope! - did you have any teachers in mind in your portrayal of Liszt's teaching style?

I was a serious pianist once upon a time. And a relationship with a revered teacher can be very intense. I never had an experience like the one I described (I hasten to add), but I could completely understand how it would be possible to be so much under that person's spell that you would let it happen, even want it to happen. There's something wordlessly intimate about creating music with someone else, either in a shared performance or in a mentor relationship—the obvious cliché comes to mind. But seriously, to be a real musician, you have to reach beneath the surface and look for feelings you didn't even know you had. I think because you don't have to put those feelings into words, they can be even more powerful than you realize.

As a writer, the challenge is quite different. I had to try to put words to the feelings that Anne has when she plays, to help the reader feel a little of the solace and escape she was able to derive from playing the piano. It's not easy to write about music, or about the experience of music. There's a very funny scene in E.M. Forster's Howard's End that takes place at a lecture about Beethoven, where the whole process of trying to describe what's happening in a piece of wordless music (Beethoven's Fifth in that case) is shown to be completely absurd.

Liszt's student, Anne, is in some ways the prototypical romantic heroine - almost every male character who sees her seems to fall in love - and yet her great infatuation, her first and most passion-inspiring unobtainable object, is not a person but a piano. Later, it's not quite clear what affects her more, Liszt's playing or his person. Is this part of Anne's appeal for you, this need to untangle her musical passions from her romantic ones?

Ah, well, there you have it. Music is a very willing vessel for as-yet-unnamed passions. But there's more to it than that. What has always fascinated me about music and women in history is the complex alchemy of girl-performing-music and man-watching-girl-performing-music. It was very different the other way around. I think most male performers at that time would generally play their own compositions, so listeners were witnessing both creation and performance at once. There was a certain power in that. But girls/women often simply interpreted the works of others. The marriageable young lady becomes a conduit for a man's creativity. The pleasure is more sensual than intellectual. I think that's one of the reasons (aside from opportunities for study and employment) that prevented women from being accepted as composers of so-called serious music. It's still a bit of an uphill struggle for female composers in the academic/classical realm. I think the same goes for female conductors. Having all that power over all those people is a little "unfeminine". Like the corporate world only more so! Do you know, there were actually instruments that girls were discouraged from playing, including most wind instruments. A flute was sort of OK because of it's high, delicate sound, but anything that required a woman to distort her facial expression was generally not encouraged. And the violin--the devil's instrument--women really weren't supposed to play that!

But I strayed from your question: as a performer, Anne is complicit in that bizarre relationship, and perhaps a little confused by it. That is a very appealing state of mind for a writer to work with. I hope that, by the end of the novel, the reader sees that Anne begins to realize where everything fits in her own life.

While it might be misshelved with romance novels, to me this book reads as suspense, full of intrigues and mysteries coming thrillingly disentangled. At one point even Anne's sickly cousin Armand hatches a plot, deciding he'll underfeed himself so as not to get well too quickly, so he can use his weakness as a foil to uncover everyone else's sinister intentions! My favorite has to be the masked performance of Don Giovanni, in which Liszt's romantic scheme actually succeeds for once - though not quite in the way he intends!

I already partly answered this question before, but I can't stress enough that my book is NOT romance! In fact, I'm shelved in the general fiction section of most bookstores. I think it's the word "kiss" in the title, or perhaps a bit of an assumption on some readers' parts that anything historical written by a woman must be a romance. Those who read and write romances have certain very clear expectations and conventions. I don't know what they all are, but I know that my ending wouldn't satisfy a romance reader, who would probably demand her money back if the book were sold as one!

I think, honestly, it's a little more of a mystery than a romance. I've read everything Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers ever wrote (I think), and love a good mystery/thriller. Interweaving plots and schemes is a favorite activity of mine. And I did enjoy the Don Giovanni scene, especially because it was a very subtle, oblique reference to a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann (known to most Americans as the author of The Nutcracker), called Don Juan. Mozart's opera took on a lot of significance during the romantic era. Something about it really caught the age's aesthetic.

Even with all the less familiar features of life in 1830s Paris, there was a lot here I could sympathize with - all these artists living in tiny, cheap apartments, playing to wild adulation one night then scrounging for money to pay the bar tab the next. (Not to get into too much autobiography here.) There are hassles with traffic and bureaucrats, nearly instant communications being nearly completely misinterpreted, and Liszt even has to schmooze with elderly patrons at a salon. Did it take any special effort to relate a historical story to contemporary concerns, or do you feel like musicians (and human nature!) haven't changed all that much?

Times change, people not so much, I think. The difficulties are only different in degree, or in the outer trappings. The bad traffic is from horse-drawn carriages on roads not wide enough for more than one at a time rather than five lanes on the freeway jammed with commuters. But the same feeling of frustration applies to both.

For musicians, the system of patronage is less overt today but nonetheless there—as in any career, really. One always has to try to say the right thing to the right person. And the romantic era was a time of transition for musicians, too. The system was still in a bit of a state of flux from one where most musical performances were private, with orchestras in the pay of an individual noble (think of Haydn and Prince Nicholas Esterhazy), and the rise of the bourgeoisie and the public concert. That kind of system, one where the public could vote with its feet, was crucial for the development of a character like Liszt, often called the first “rock star” of music. The breakdown of the old system was freeing, but it created the need for market-savviness and a willingness to pander to the wishes of a broader, perhaps blander public than otherwise.

That all said, a good historical novel isn't one in which the setting could be changed and the story would play out just the same, whether one is writing about the musical world or a famous naval battle. I don't think a reader gets the satisfaction of reliving an earlier time period if that is the case. The time period and its culture have to be primary conditions of the story to make it really effective, and to give it the kind of appeal only historicals have.

The setting of the novel definitely does impose strongly in the form of an epidemic of cholera. Your characters take different strategies to confronting the disease - denial, grief, plunging themselves into work, art, or other passions - but in every case it seems to intensify their actions and emotions. "If anything, it gave his quest more urgency. All around him was evidence that life was transitory, that death struck arbitrarily and with alarming haste," you write of the medical student Pierre (92). In portraying the cholera epidemic, do you see any parallels to modern problems? In times of peril and suffering, do you see music and musicians having a meaningful role?

I think all the arts are more valued when times are difficult. People turn to artists to help interpret their feelings, to give them relief from sadness and grief, to create a shared environment where everyone can give way to their feelings. But music is different now. Then, almost all music making was communal in some way. There were no MP3 players that would let you have your own private concert. If you wanted to hear music, you had to go to a public place or be able to make it yourself. And then, even if you were in the privacy of your own home, others could hear you. Music was less omnipresent, and therefore perhaps more special and valued. I'm a little nostalgic for that, but I like having my own music as well as the next person, certainly. I guess it’s mainly a shift of balance between public and private.

Thank you again for your novel and for taking the time to do this interview! I enjoyed your book a great deal, and knowing that I would be interviewing you about it added some intensity and urgency to my own life and reading these past few days! Also, my step-mom is deep in the plot twists herself, around Pierre's first burglary attempt I think, and my dad might read it too after she's done. I can't speak for them, but I would very much enjoy reading "Elgar's Embrace", "Smetana's Smackeroo", and "Hanky-panky with Humperdinck" in the future (just kidding!)

I'm truly glad you enjoyed it. And thank you again for taking the time to ask me such good questions. I love being forced to think and ponder about what I've written. So much of the process can be unconscious at the time.

As to the other titles-- I'll let you know!