I recently interviewed Susanne Dunlap, the author of Liszt’s Kiss, about her writing process and the book in general. Susanne also wrote a novel titled Emilie’s Voice, and both this novel and her new novel ae published by Simon & Schuster.
JH: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Susanne. I really enjoyed your book, having been a fan of both music fiction and historical fiction for quite some time.
SD: Thank you for asking me. You’re just the kind of person I want to enjoy the book. And I never thought of “music fiction” as a little subgenre before, so thank you for that, too!
JH: Liszt’s Kiss paints a vivid portrait of 1830s Paris, with cholera raging through the population and touching the lives of most city dwellers. What sort of research did you do to capture the essence of early 19th century Paris?
SD: Of course, I’ve been to Paris a few times. But Paris was substantially rebuilt after the revolution of 1848 by Baron Haussmann, so the tiny lanes where the poor lifted the cobbles to set up barricades have more or less disappeared. A lot of the feeling of pre-1850 Paris has to come from contemporary accounts, early maps and paintings. Street names have changed too, although many got their modern names during the Napoleonic era and so 1830s Paris is not quite as different as the Paris of my first book, Emilie’s Voice, in 1675.
The cholera itself spawned a great deal of conjecture and writing, and has been studied by several scholars. I relied heavily on an excellent book by Catherine Kudlick, Cholera in Post-Revolutionary Paris: a Cultural History. She really examined the mythology and emotional impact of cholera.
JH: Your depictions of piano lessons really jump off the page. Did you base these scenes upon personal experience as a pianist, and did you have a mentor figure in your life that resembled (even slightly) the relationship between Anne and Liszt?
SD: Thank you for that. I loved writing them, I loved taking myself back to the days when I had lessons and then trying to imagine how it would have been at an earlier time, when piano technique itself was changing daily because of technical developments in the instruments. But I did not have a Liszt character in my life. I had piano teachers whom I revered, and I remember many specific lessons even now. It’s an extraordinary relationship, and intensely personal if you really care about music. And although I never had a relationship with a piano teacher, all of them have remained vivid in my memory, and on some level, perhaps I fell in love with them all, male or female—or at least was infatuated.
JH: Did you base your characterization of Liszt on historical documents of the time, or did you base his character on the emotions portrayed within his music?
SD: My Liszt hadn’t yet composed the music for which he is most famous today. He was young and still inexperienced, struggling to make his mark. I based him on historical accounts, but I had to go beyond them and search in my own imagination for what someone like Liszt as a young man might have been like. The historical documents, especially those that were written in his lifetime when he was a venerable teacher in Weimar, I think tend to distort reality and indulge in mythmaking. So I felt free to try to bring him to life as a believable young man.
JH: Liszt comes off as a larger-than-life character in your novel, with grand schemes and adventures. At the same time, he must deal with the mundane and petty problems that face musicians today. Do you think that things have changed much for musicians in the intervening years?
SD: I dare say much is as it always has been, as it always has been for writers, too. You have to believe in yourself, which means clinging to hope when all hope is gone, and continuing in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Earning real money as a musician has always been a challenge, too, and having to teach to make ends meet is still a necessity for most of the musicians I know today, except the very internationally famous ones—and then they’re in demand as teachers anyway!
JH: As an author, what are some challenges you encounter within a historical fiction context that may not exists in other literary contexts? Is it a challenge to create a compelling story while still remaining true to the conventions of the time period?
SD: It is certainly a challenge to balance the demands of the story with the demands of historical accuracy. I was a historian before I was a writer, so giving myself permission to let the story take primary importance was a vital step. I write historical fiction, not fictionalized history. And let’s face it, even history involves an act of interpretation.
But I think the hardest part is dialogue. The rhythms of speech from that time might well have been very different, certainly the conventions of greeting people and conversation in polite society were. Yet the same, basic human concerns threaded their lives. A story that takes place among non-English-speaking people is perhaps a little easier. It’s important to me, though, to avoid anachronistic turns of phrase. Doing that without sounding stilted or artificial is the hardest thing.
Thanks so much for giving me an opportunity to answer your questions, Jason!