Today, we’re speaking with Susanne Dunlap, author of Liszt’s Kiss, a recently published novel that brings you back to 1832 Paris and the musical worlds of Franz Liszt and another central character, the Countess Anne de Barbier-Chouant.
DC: Before we begin, please tell us a little bit about who you are as a person, and who you are as a writer. What is your writing process like, and what about you as a person gets carried into your writing?
SD: First, thanks for inviting me to interview with you. As to who I am as a person and a writer—I guess I’d start by saying I’m very disciplined. It comes of being a late bloomer, writing-wise. So many stories, so little time. I’ve become a little absent to my long-suffering friends and family, but they’ve been fabulous and encouraging.
I have the incredible luxury of having had over ten years of time to do research—but I didn’t know it was for novels. I was a music historian, working on my PhD, and happily ensconced in libraries and reading sources about the composers and works I delved into in great detail. Along the way, I began to store up things that made me start to wonder what it was like to live in that musical world, especially to be a woman making music in that world. Really being able to see and hear my character through the music and the words is what gets me totally carried away in my writing. There’s nothing more exhilarating. I wish I could spend all day every day writing, but because I can’t, I set my alarm at 5:15 and get up to work early.
I suppose it’s an ability to concentrate and focus that has helped me succeed so far. I didn’t know how to write a novel when I started my first one (Emilie’s Voice) about five years ago. Since then I’ve read, written, practiced, thought, read some more, written and written—and been fortunate to have met with people who encouraged me.
DC: In your view, what makes Franz Liszt such a strong protagonist around which to build a story? And how much of the real Liszt are we getting here versus the imagined one?
SD: Liszt was an icon. He created himself, in a way. He truly was handsome, incredibly brilliant, and very generous. The legends about him playing to crowds of swooning ladies? True.
But the Liszt in Liszt’s Kiss predates the famously self-conscious Liszt of legend. He was not the early starter, the luminous childhood genius that Mozart or even Chopin was. It took him a while to find his voice, as it were. Most of what is known about him historically took place after he officially met Marie d’Agoult—which was actually in December of 1832, after the time of my book.
What I like to do is explore the might-have-beens. To start from what was, and broaden it out. After all, especially with someone like Liszt, what is deemed “history” has gone through many filters of interpretation, including his own.
Most of all, I wanted to create a young Liszt who was believably not there yet, believably gorgeous but a little inept. I guess it was an iconoclastic instinct in me.
DC: This is your second work of historical fiction and, more specifically, your second work set in France. What are the challenges of writing historical fiction, and what kind of research did you have to conduct to write Liszt’s Kiss?
SD: I’m inspired by the history, therefore many of the challenges are less daunting than they might be. But my scholarly training forces me to reality-check my story against the recorded facts all the time, to make sure I know what kind of carriage they drove in, what the gloves were made of, whether they would wear gloves indoors, etc. I already had the background knowledge of the music, but it’s been fascinating placing it all against a broader socio-political backdrop, too.
That’s the biggest area of research for me: just straight, what-happened-when history. Everything is always interrelated.
But of course, I really need to have a sense of place. I’ve been fortunate to travel in France, and have spent two all-too-brief periods in Paris as well. I’d go back there in a heartbeat, although I didn’t plan my books specifically to take place there. It just happened.
DC: Liszt’s Kiss is also a work that fits within the romance genre. Is there something about the genre (vis-a-vis others) that you find creatively liberating?
SD: Ah, I beg to differ. Liszt’s Kiss is NOT a romance. It certainly has romantic elements, but it does not obey most of the rules of the genre. Aside from having the eponymous kiss as a turning point, there are many other conventions of romance that I do not adhere to. (Romantic encounter with eventual “right” male within first 20 pages; acceleration of physical intimacy etc. etc.) The kiss is actually with the wrong guy—you can’t do that in Romance!
I’m truly not in the least inspired by adhering to such conventions, although all literature has its conventional elements. Those who write Romances well (and there are many) are passionate about them, and committed to the genre.
Might I counter with a question? If this book had been written by a man, would you have called it a Romance? I prefer to think of it as a coming-of-age story with a love story and a mystery woven in.
DC: Thanks for the clarification. Now for the next question. Stylistically, what authors (whether contemporary or not) are your influences, and whose work do you see shaping your own?
SD: This is always such a hard question to answer. I don’t consciously emulate anyone, but I read widely in many different genres and styles, both classics and contemporary literature. As far as historical fiction goes, I’m a huge admirer of the late Anya Seton. Her style is a little dated for now, but she brings her characters to life with an immediacy that is uncanny, and keeps you turning the pages through her long novels.
I also admire Philippa Gregory, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunant, and Sandra Gulland. They have all managed to transport me to their time periods and involve me in their characters so that I didn’t want to let them go. That’s truly a talent.
On the other hand, I think Ian McEwan is incredible, as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, Lynn Freed, Sigrid Nunez and many, many others. But I know my writing is very different from theirs and probably won’t ever be like it.
DC: Now to ask a question often posed by the famous French interviewer Bernard Pivot: What turns you on creatively? And what turns you off?
SD: I’m turned on by seeing connections, by being able to link something I imagine with something historical, by that “aha!” moment of realizing something you felt was true can be substantiated with something that is true. But oh, how hard it can be to fix that moment to the page!
I’m also turned on by the beauty of language, by reading authors who surprise me at every turn with a nuance of expression. I’m reading Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss now and am completely in love with the book for that very reason.
What turns me off is inelegant prose, and lack of respect for the expressiveness of language. Taking the easy way out with cliché and formulas. That doesn’t just go for writing, it’s true of life. Some people live clichés. Others bring a breath of originality and surprise to everything they do. Those are the people I’d invite to my hypothetical dinner party.
DC: Susanne, many thanks for your time. For readers who want to give Liszt’s Kiss a closer look, just click here.