Author Q&A: Leni Zumas

  • June 20, 2012

Author Leni Zumas speaks with Linda Morefield about debut novel The Listeners.

Leni Zumas will be speaking at Politics and Prose, Saturday June 23, at 6 PM

Q&A with Leni Zumas

Q. I keep thinking of your novel as one of the most unusual coming of age tales I’ve ever read. Perhaps only Cam (former band member and once lover of Quinn) achieves maturity, but the others, both biological family and band family stumble toward it, as far as their needs, addictions and neuroses allow. Do you think of this book as its own kind of coming of age tale?  Can you tell us more about your fascinating and flawed characters? Are they based on people you’ve known, bands that you’ve heard, families you’ve observed?

In a sense it’s a coming of age story—but maybe a “low-volume” one? The narrator, Quinn, is forced to confront things she’d prefer to ignore or forget; and in the process, she grows up. But her maturing has only just begun as we reach the end of the book. She’s still floundering. I’m fascinated by the tiny, incremental changes people make in their lives—they are often more interesting (and possibly braver) than the huge, sweeping ones.

The characters in The Listeners are based on bits of real people, as all characters, to some degree, must be; but very little of the novel is directly autobiographical. The family has two parents and three children, like my own, but is totally different from my actual family (although my brother and sister and I did play a game called The Nakedies!).

Q. One of the many fascinating things about Quinn is that she can be such a thoughtless and unpleasant person, someone I would avoid except that the marvels of first person narration give me access to her inner life (thoughts, pain, losses )–and I find myself wanting this deeply damaged person to succeed.  What a risk to have your narrator so deeply flawed and troubled.  Can you tell us about your decision to make this her story?

I wanted to write a female character who is, in some ways, unlikable. Unappealing. In the history of literature I believe there’s been far more leeway for male characters to be flawed—to make bad decisions, to cry out for salvation. Women characters tend to be more virtuous and solid. (Not all of them, of course—I don’t mean to be reductive—but generally speaking.) With Quinn’s character, I tried to examine what happens when a person is wounded by loss and doesn’t fully recover. This woman is emotionally stunted. She hasn’t quite figured out how to move on with her life. I think she’s starting to, with help from her family, but she’s still struggling.

Q. In your acknowledgments, you thank your father, Nick Zumas, for telling his story.  What is this story and how did it impact you and your shaping of this novel?

My dad’s older brother was hit by a stray bullet that came in through the window while he and my dad were sleeping. The tavern next door was being robbed, and in the exchange of gunfire, my uncle Tony was killed. He was twelve years old. My whole life I’ve wondered about this terrible loss and its impact on my father, who could so easily have been the one who died. I imagined a scenario in which the two boys had switched places in bed, the night before. And from this scenario came The Listeners. What would it be like to be the surviving sibling? How would it feel to carry around that guilt?

Q. Although not explicitly named, William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury hovers everywhere in this novel, which you implicitly let your readers know. Quinn laments that “the main character in the book we had to write a paper on was obsessed with his sister . . . “ That character, of course, is Faulkner’s Quentin, one of the three Compson brothers obsessed with their sister, Caddy. The Q’s in both novels (yours and Faulkner’s) are the oldest children, sensitive, and wildly neurotic. Your Quinn once had two other siblings, and she (who often thinks of herself as more masculine than feminine) is also obsessed with her dead sibling. Your novel more than answers the question that Quinn’s honors English teacher asks :“How does the sister’s absence act as a present?” But I would love for you to discuss the teacher’s other question, the one that Quinn dismisses as “retarded”:“How does the novel’s narrative structure engage questions of time and memory?”

I was definitely thinking of The Sound and the Fury when I mapped out the story. One of the brilliant things about Faulkner’s novel is how the sister’s absence is a huge and terrible and active force throughout. This violent intrusion of past into present is what I wanted to enact in The Listeners—the difficulty (or outright impossibility) of a “now” free from the ghosts of “then.” The fragmented, non-linear order of my novel, wherein consecutive chapters might take place ten or twenty years apart, represents the snarling-up of now and then. The book does have a forward motion in the present, but it keeps getting interrupted—punctured—by shards of the past. Long-ago past, recent past, present, and future are all in our heads, swirling and colliding, all the time; and the very short chapters perform this collision (at least I hope they do!).

Q. What other authors were of great influence?  (And the inevitable question from us intensely curious readers: Who are you reading now?)

Virginia Woolf has been a major influence. Her work inspires me to move across time and between outside and inside worlds; to make every word matter to its sentence; to pay attention to the sound and look and feel of each little knot of letters. How boldly Woolf moves and how carefully she pays attention keep dazzling me. And her refusal to write as others wrote—her deep commitment to being herself—keeps egging me on. A fine antidote for pricks of insecurity or writerly envy is Woolf’s diary entry about T. S. Eliot: “When Desmond praises East Coker, and I am jealous, I walk over the marsh saying, I am I: and must follow that furrow, not copy another.”

A more contemporary influence is Noy Holland. She was my teacher at the University of Massachusetts and she’s a stunning fiction writer. I still hear her voice, sometimes, when I’m looking at my own sentences.

Some writers I’ve been reading and enjoying lately are Tove Jansson, C.A. Conrad, and Betsy Wheeler. The next book I’m excited to read is Lance Olsen’s Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Fiction.

Q. Although there are many references to Washington D.C., you never name the city in which the story is set. Why this choice?  About the music, however, you do name names.  Ten Foot Talls, for example, and the band’s signature song, Dear Done For.  And the Purgastoria tour.  A real band? A real song? A real tour? When I mentioned to friends that I was reading a DC-based novel that was in part about the punk-band scene, the interest in your book became intense. So please, curious minds would love to hear about this music scene and your experience of it.

I grew up in D.C. and wanted to set the book there, but I didn’t want readers to bring too many associations to the story—hence the not-naming. Washington is a very recognizable and iconic place, and I wanted to defamiliarize the location just enough that readers could see it with fresh eyes.

My own experience in the D.C. punk scene of the late 80s and early 90s was chiefly that of audience member—a shy high schooler going to shows at d.c. space, the 9:30 Club, the BBQ Iguana, house parties. I loved a lot of Dischord bands (Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, Nation of Ulysses, Gray Matter, Embrace, Shudder to Think, Soulside) and I loved the scene itself, which had an energy—a magnetic strangeness—unlike anything I’d known before. When I went away to college, I started playing drums and was in a handful of bands; certain parts of The Listeners come from that experience.

As for the music references in my book: everything is made up. “Ten foot talls” is actually just Quinn’s term for a band who’s gotten big enough to warrant big posters, not the band name itself; and “Dear Done For” (the song title) is fictitious. For the album title Purgastoria, I’m indebted to the Canadian artist Michael Caines, who has a gorgeous series of screenprints by that name.

Q. The octopus is everywhere.  It’s on the book’s cover, tentacles curling, twisting, resting on the title.  It’s a stuffed animal given to Quinn. “Fod [father] said each arm had a different power, and it would be up to me [Quinn] to learn what all the powers were.”  The tentacles proliferate in Quinn’s hallucinations and ruminations, in the strips of skin she peels from her fingers, in the paper she tears into strips. A detached tentacle becomes the conveyor of sex.  Your novel opens with the clerk’s deformation, “two thumbs on his left hand . . . .A wise baby tentacle with powers of its own,” which is later surgically removed.  And when Quinn’s father listens but does not recognize her signature song, “the music coiled into a long, narrow tube.” Please tell us more about this powerful and tactile image, this octopus obsession.

The octopus imagery comes out of my own enduring enthrallment with sea creatures and the sea itself. I just really like oceany things, so I put some in the novel. The symbolism of the tentacles, and their relation to other elements in the novel, manifested later. Fiction often works like that—you love or fear or can’t stop thinking about something, so you start writing about it, and in the writing you unearth layers of meaning, of consequence.

Q. And finally, THE LISTENERS. Words? Music? Body language? With their synesthesia, both Quinn and her sister “listen” in a different fashion. As a reader, I “listened” intently.  Couldn’t put the book down. Some of your characters talk at each other without listening.  Others hear all too well. Who is listening and to what?

Synesthesia is a condition in which one type of sensory stimulation evokes the automatic, involuntary experience of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color. It is believed to result from “cross-activation” in the brain, whereby different sites of perception or cognition get triggered together. It’s a compelling example of what happens when the membrane between experiences is punctured—when there’s slippage, transversal, contamination. I’m really interested in this leakage from one experience into another, across time and space—or, in the case of synesthetes, across the wrinkles of the brain itself.

In my novel, Quinn and her sister are both synesthetic but have opposite reactions to the condition: Quinn doesn’t like seeing colors from sound—they irritate and scare her—whereas her sister loves them, because they make her feel powerful. In either case, the synesthetic experience positions these girls, as they grow, a little apart from other people. A little outside. Quinn learns to use the colors (for instance, they organize her understanding of musical notes) but she never enjoys them.

Q. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and elaborate on your fascinating book.  Your curious readers would love to know, what are you working on next?

Thank you for interviewing me!

My next book is a novel about a 21st-century witch trial. I’m currently researching 17th-century witch trials in Europe and America, to gather language and imagery for the contemporary court case in my novel. Lately, my favorite thing to research has been animal trials. In Europe, from the 13th through the 18th centuries, people would accuse animals of criminal conduct and “try” them in actual courts of law! Usually domestic animals like pigs or donkeys, but also bees and rats and wolves. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Interviewer: Linda Morefield

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