Interview with Susanne Dunlap, the Author of Liszt’s Kiss

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.

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.

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