Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Liszt's Kiss by Susanne Dunlap

My first introduction to Franz Liszt was when I heard "Liebestraum." I was immediately captivated by the music. The composer himself was no less fascinating as well as the world he lived in.

Susanne Dunlap captures the drama of the Romantic period in Paris in her book "Liszt's Kiss" (Touchstone, April 2007). At the book's center is the story of Anne, a young aristocrat who loses her mother to the ravages of cholera which is sweeping the city. She drowns her sorrow in music and begins taking lessons from Liszt. While she works to develop her talent, intrigues surround her, threatening everything she knew about herself and potentially endangering her life.

Ms. Dunlap does a lovely job of bringing this romantic world to life. While the artists of the day live in a world of music, poetry and art, the streets of Paris reel from the constant death and horror of cholera. This contradiction is most visible in the character of Pierre Talon, a young medical student who sacrifices to immerse himself in the arts and yet must face death and disease on a daily basis. Liszt is larger than life, indulgig in daydreams and fantasies, enclosing himself in the passion of his music. In between these two is Anne, innocent of both the beauty and horrors of the outside world. Ms. Dunlap takes her heroine from a state of grief and naivete to an understanding of the world. Anne grows from a child into a woman, gaining strength from her experiences in the world, both good and bad. With a colorful cast of characters, Ms. Dunlap brings the world of 1830's Paris to life with romance and tragedy. Romance, intrigue and music make "Liszt's Kiss" a fascinating and fun read.

Ms. Dunlap has a PhD in Music History is the former Director of Development for the Connecticut Opera. She has spent much of her life teaching, writing, and working in the world of music and opera. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Northampton, Massachusetts. She is also the author of Emilie's Voice.

I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Dunlap about "Liszt's Kiss" and the challenges the faces in writing the historical novel:

From the tone of "Liszt's Kiss" it is obvious you have a passion for this era. What about this time period and place attracts you?

I think first and foremost is the music. As a pianist, I really consider the 19th century the golden era, especially in Paris with Liszt and Chopin around. I’m also a huge Francophile. That era, during the restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon, was a fascinating one. Full of contradictions. A very rich field to mine for fiction about music.

How difficult is it to write about real people and place them in a fictional story?

That’s I think the most difficult thing of all. You have to know a lot—as much as any historian or biographer if possible—and then try to find ways to look between the facts and the recorded history to see if you can get at some truth about your character that would only be revealed by daring to put yourself inside that real, historical person’s mind.

I don’t often dare that, which is why so far my really famous historical characters have been in supporting roles rather than the main heroes. I admire those writers—like Sandra Gulland with her Josephine Trilogy—who can do it successfully. I keep reminding myself that history, the scholarly discipline, is also a matter of interpretation.

You have so many different points of view in this story and they were all wildly different. Was it difficult writing them? Particularly as these characters have different motivations and dramas of their own to play out, it would seem quite challenging to be able to give each of them their own distinct voice.

I really love looking at a story from many different angles. It fascinates me that what one character sees in a given situation can be so completely different from another character’s experience of it. It is challenging, certainly, to keep each voice distinctive in itself, and something I take a lot of care over in the writing.

But I think it can be even more of a challenge to do the opposite of what I have done in Liszt, to limit oneself to only one character’s viewpoint. It’s hard to give other characters roundness and believability if you only allow yourself to see them through a main character’s eyes. I admire writers who do that enormously. That’s a real mixture of craft and imagination.

With music being so much a part of you, did you find it difficult to transcribe your feelings into words? I'm thinking of the scene between Liszt and Anne when she plays Chopin's etude and gamut of emotions she experiences. I found it very powerful and I felt how overwhelming this music was for her. Was it a difficult scene to write?

That scene was in my mind from the very beginning of the writing process. It was the crux of the relationship between Anne and Liszt, and knowing I would write it helped me choreograph everything that happened between them before and after that point.

As to putting the emotions in music into words, yes, it’s difficult. Writing about music at all is difficult, but I have thought so much about music and music history, and spent a lot of time actually trying to describe and explain music in my more scholarly endeavors, that those scenes where I write about it either as a performer or a listener are crucial to my novels.

One daunting aspect of writing a historical novel is the amount of research. "Liszt's Kiss" is filled with so many aspects of the time period, it seems like a difficult project Not only are you writing about musicians of the period and the manners and customs of the people of the time period, but you've also included a character who is a medical student. How did you handle the research necessary for such a large task? Do you have a system of organization?

I’m awfully disorganized, I’m afraid. I do keep a bibliography, however, and I’m always surrounded by books as I write so that I can look things up. For the larger history, the political changes and who is in power when, I keep a timeline.

The music history is sort of “there,” from when I spent 11 years as a graduate student. I don’t know everything, and constantly have to reread, re-research, look things up, but I find I have enough background knowledge to get the ball rolling and to see where the stories lurk.

Much harder is all the research about the little things. I spent some time buying and selling vintage clothing and textiles to help support my family during graduate school, so I’ve actually handled a lot of old clothes, seen their construction. Pictures are wonderful, and I rely on them, but there’s nothing like being able to examine the real thing.

Still, there are always details I’m hunting down. Values of money, social practices (when did ladies where gloves and hats, for instance), transportation—these are the details that offer me the most challenge. There’s a wonderful series of books that I rely on quite heavily: A History of Private Life. Invaluable for anyone writing historical fiction.

For the medical stuff, I had a fabulous book by Catherine Kudlick, “Cholera in Post-Revolutionary Paris: a Cultural History.” But the details of the operation, what they could do at that time, actually came from the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, from the late 18th century. There were incredibly detailed articles with pictures of surgical instruments. Utterly fascinating.

Unfortunately, a lot of the articles about medical history are housed in journals online that cost a lot of money to subscribe to. That’s always a problem for someone trying to do research while working in a full-time day job. The libraries that have the rare sources keep regular office hours, and local libraries usually don’t have the specialized materials one needs.

What's next? Will you revisit the same time period or will you move to something new? Liszt certainly made for a fun and engrossing character, have you thought about including him in another story?

Liszt could easily make a cameo appearance in another book, but it’s not something I’ve started yet. I will no doubt return to Paris, but I’m working on something that takes place in late-eighteenth-century Vienna at the moment, and have also started something from early 17th-century Florence and Paris. I look for the story in the music history, then I start researching the period and go from there. Fortunately for me, I love that process. I can’t imagine ever running out of things to write.

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Something to Look Forward To

I'm glad the weekend is over. I know most people don't feel that way, but they haven't had to be home with my husband and kids. Hubby was pretty miserable. He felt pretty good on Saturday and during the afternoon we did some furniture window shopping. My family room furniture is falling apart and we have decided we want a partners desk in the home office so we can both work in there. After an afternoon of traipsing through furniture stores with three whiny kids, he was pretty miserable. Sensing our weakness, the kids were particularly obnoxious and by Saturday night I was ready to explode. Sunday didn't start out too well either. Hubby was miserable and just wanted to rest and be left alone. My daughters were awful and he finally ended up locking himself in our bedroom. He was in pain most of the day and took a long nap. He didn't do anything yesterday and everything fell to me. I am so biting my tongue right now, I may choke on the blood. But I won't say anything. I was a bit cranky yesterday to say the least. He did manage to read the entire Potter book this weekend so I get to read it next. Today he seemed better. I really hope we are over a hump.

Now something to look forward to. I have a special guest tomorrow. Author Susanne Dunlap will be answering some questions about writing and about her book "Liszt's Kiss" which I had the good luck to read, so make sure you stop by.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Little Shameless Promotion

My RWA chapter is sponsoring a contest. East Valley Authors is holding its first annual query contest. I know many of you are preparing your query letters for agents so this might be a good opportunity for you. This contest is not restricted to romance. Genre is not a consideration, it simply needs to be fiction. First round will be judged by PRO & published writers. Yours truly is taking the lead on judging. The final round is being judged by Kevan Anne Lyon and Jill Marsal of the Sandra Dijkstra Agency. The entry fee is only $5 so it's not a bad deal. You can find details over at East Valley Authors website.

Other stuff....

My hubby had his wisdom teeth out this morning. It went fine but DH has be dreading this forever. The thought of being put under made him nervous. I was very impressed with the oral surgeon and his staff. They were wonderful and in fact called this afternoon to check on him. I'm hoping he heals well, I got dry socket when I had mine out and I was miserable for over a week. He seems to be doing better than I did however. My mom took the kids for the last couple of days so that has been helpful.

So is anyone else expecting a package from Amazon tomorrow?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thirteen Places I Love To Shop At

Some of these are brick and mortar, others are online.

1. Target. I love Target. My week isn't complete unless I've gone there at least once. I look for their ad on Sunday like some men look for their "Playboys."

2. Wal-Mart. Actually, I have a love/hate relationship with WallyWorld. I don't care for the store but I love their prices. Rarely do I go in there when I can't find something I need. My local Wal-Mart is awful. It feels like a halfway house...and that's just the employees.

3. 99 Cents Only. I'm the only person I know that actually spends enough there to use a credit card.

4. ABC Store. When I'm in Hawaii, I love shopping here. It has taken the place of Hilo Hatties in my heart. Another thing is you can find them on pretty much any street.

5. Big Lots. I find the damndest things here. They get these odd close outs on steak sauces that I love. Believe it or not, I've found a couple of decent wines here too.

6. Costco. Believe me, I do go through that much toilet paper.

7. Bevmo. Do I really need to explain?

8. Trader Joes. They have very cool food stuff plus great wine prices. I do a lot of shopping here around the holidays.

9. Sprouts. This is a new store in my town and I love it. Great price on produce.

10. Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. I blame this entirely on Gypsy. They've got great perfume oils. Last year's Pumpkin Patch was to die for. Feeds my inner goth girl.

11. Amazon.com. Duh! Even worse now that I'm Prime.

12. iTunes. I'm connected via PayPal. With just one little click I can have the single "How Bizarre" by OMC with little guilt.

13. Barnes and Noble. Both brick and mortar and online. Great bookstore, nice prices.

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Getting Back Into The Swing

Well, my BIAW I did last week didn't do much...at first. I wrote maybe half a page the entire week. Then yesterday, I wrote over 1000 words. Perhaps it was the realization that things are not going to change. There are always going to be kids in the house driving me crazy. There is always going to be a pile of laundry to fold. There will always be dishes in the sink to be washed. And there is always another chapter to complete. For most of us, there will never be a perfect time to write. We may get an hour or two without interruption, but quite often it is accomplished at the sacrifice of something else (yesterday Melissa talks about how her sacrifice affected her the next day). Sometimes it feels worth it, other times it doesn't.

However, my defibrillator moment occurred yesterday when I saw Nienke's blog. Go check it out. Something about it truly jarred me from my lackadascal attitude and got me writing. Sometimes its the little things.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kathleen Woodiwiss

Kathleen Woodiwiss died at the age of 68 yesterday. It was a little jarring to me, it meant the true end of an era.

The summer between 6th and 7th grade, my neighbor lady lent "Shanna" to my mom. My mother was never a romance reader so she tossed it aside. I found it and literally my life path changed. I was so enamored of that book, I cannot tell you how many times I've read it. But after reading it, I knew I wanted to be a writer. She brought such passion and vivid characterization to her novels, it blew me away.

Younger readers and writers are probably unable to appreciate how important she was to the romance industry. She and others like Shirlee Busbee, Rosemary Rogers and Jennifer Wilde put historical romance on the map.

People put these books down now, but that is truly unfair. There was far more than heaving bosoms and uber Alpha males running around. There was always adventure and passion on a grand scale. They were not politically correct, there was always an edge to the relationships. But they engrossed me, pulling me into another world so completely, I never wanted to leave.

Goodbye, Ms. Woodiwiss, your work meant more to me than even I realized.

Are any of you Woodiwiss fans? Which was your favorite?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Book In A Week

I've been a slacker in the writing department for awhile. I whine with excuses but really I'm just out of the groove. So I'm going to do a Book In A Week over at Villa in Tuscany starting tomorrow if you care to join me. The goal is simple, try to write as much as you can during the week. This isn't a time to beat yourself up, just a week where you can spend some extra attention on your WIP. Maybe push yourself to finish or give yourself the impetus to start.

I'll try to have some inspiration to keep you going everyday. Doesn't Gerard Butler look pensive here? I think he is contemplating all the wonderful things we are going to be writing this week.

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Big Rock

So last weekend hubby and I took off just the two of us for a road trip up the coast. Wow, what a great time we had. We haven't had a weekend alone since before Thing was born 4 1/2 years ago. It was so quiet.

First stop was Morro Bay. I love the rock. From there we headed up the road and stopped in Cambria, a little artsy community in a foresty area near the ocean. Then it was on to Monterey. We stayed the night in Monterey then got up early and headed for Napa Valley.

I did a little wine tasting. Well, I did a lot of wine tasting. We only hit 3 wineries (all we had time for) but one of them was Mumm so I got to taste some sparkling wine. Very much worth it.

The biggest plus, however, was spending time with hubby. With all the stresses of our lives, it is sometimes hard to remember what drew you to your spouse and why you are still married. I honestly feared we would have nothing to talk about but the kids. We hardly talked about them at all. In fact, we enjoyed the silence. Neither of us felt compelled to talk. Of course, conversation in a convertible going over 60 mph makes chatting difficult. But it was so pleasant and rejeuvenating.

Now, back to the grind. But at least I've had a chance to take a deep breath and have some great memories to think about.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Square Pegs

When I set out to write my last book, I didn't really think about it. I didn't think of the genre, the marketability, etc. In fact, it was probably my most thoughtless book to date. When I write historicals, certain elements guide me and the same goes for paranormals. But this book was different and therein lies the problem.

It blends 3 different genres pretty much equally. Therefore, it doesn't really fit anywhere. As I'm learning, commercial publishing is made up of round holes. And my book isn't out-there enough to be its own unique niche.

The feedback I've received on my book is good. They like my writing. But the book sits on too many fences to make it marketable. This is the problem with writing straight from the heart. While the publishers want fresh voices, they don't want something they have no idea how to market.

Knowing this, would I have written the book differently? I'm not sure. I enjoyed writing the book and I felt like it was a great writing experience. Will I write the next one differently? Oh yeah.

I'm not trying to write the great novel which expresses my pain and doubt at the human condition. I'm not trying to write a piece of brilliant fiction filled with the angst of my soul. I'm writing to entertain. I'm not trying to teach lessons or make a statement. So I'm flexible. I'm married, I have kids, I'm used to compromise. Now to get my butt in gear and get writing.

Monday, July 02, 2007


I really planned on blogging all week last week but it was an odd week.

I got bad news from my agent. My book is nearing the end of the line with editors and we had to make the decision about where to go next. We could take it to smaller publishers, but she didn't think that was a good idea. Based on her reasoning, I agree with her. Ergo, the book will soon retire to the ol' hard drive. It won't be alone and I have to say this book went further than any before it and who knows, it may eventually find its way to publication eventually. Why it was rejected and why we are letting it go is a blog post all on its own.

I'm not a big chocolate fan so I couldn't really bury my disappointment in a Cadbury bar. I did get a manicure and a pedicure. I also got my hair colored and bought a bunch of new clothes. I also went to a cocktail party with my hubby and Friday we took off for the weekend up the coast just the two of us.

While I'm disappointed, I'm not devistated. In the general scheme of things, not getting this book published is not all that tragic. I suppose that is what keeps me in perspective. As tough as rejection is, it is not the end of the world.

Now I have to get myself writing. I spent much of the weekend sorting through story ideas in my head. I have to admit, it is difficult mustering up a whole lot of enthusiasm right now. I feel like I'm walking on creative eggshells. My biggest problem is that I think too much and I'm not relying on the insticnt which has guided me all these years. So now I need to silence that little voice and go with the flow.

Now I'm back to playing catch up on the blogs. I've got a little jet lag and a bit of a hangover (wine tasting), so I might have to wait until tomorrow.