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!

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