Leni Zumas has written an affecting, sad, and undeniably original debut novel, The Listeners. Her narrator, Quinn, is a synesthete who struggles with life after the death of her sister via stray bullet and the breaking up of Quinn’s band. Zumas previously published the story collection Farewell Navigator, and her stories have appeared in Quarterly West, Salt Hill, New Orleans Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and New York Tyrant.
I recently sat down with Leni Zumas on a rare sunny day in Portland, Oregon and discussed The Listeners.
The Rumpus: In your acknowledgements you thank your father for telling his story, and in another interview you’ve mentioned how a traumatic moment from his childhood influenced your story. Could you talk about that, and the process of shaping real-life events into fiction in the context of The Listeners?
Leni Zumas: My dad’s brother was shot to death beside him one night when they were young. A stray bullet from a robbery next door came in through the window. The next morning his mother came to wake the boys up, I think for church, and his brother Tony wouldn’t wake up. My dad didn’t talk about this much but I wondered about it my whole life, because I worried about what it was like to be him—the surviving one. Would he feel lucky? Would he feel deserving or undeserving? I never thought I would write about it because it felt like my dad’s story. But eventually, about 7 or 8 years ago, I considered writing about a family to whom the same thing had happened, changing the characters and the time period and the location but keeping that central inciting event, and I did ask my father about it. It shaped him into who he was and impacted a lot of the deep sadness and kind of shut-down quality that he had, which in turn affected me. But he said, “Sure, write about it.” So I interviewed him and asked him to draw a map of where he’d been sleeping and where the bullet had come through the window and where it had been shot from. Not many of these actual details made it into the novel because clearly it’s more my imagining of the event than his reporting. I did take one direct detail, however—in his family they were never allowed to say the brother’s name. The same thing happens with the family in my book. The act of language or the act of denying language carries its own heaviness. The narrator feels that her sister was more powerful and better able to be happy than she was, and there’s a sense of “What am I doing with my life to make surviving worth it?”
This gets to the question of Quinn’s character because I felt sure about wanting to look at a person’s life that had been limited or damaged, but not necessarily ennobled, by loss. So often we think of a wound or a loss as making a person feel more deeply, become a better person. But I don’t think that always happens. I think it can constrict people’s lives, especially if they don’t push beyond it.
Rumpus: The jump from short stories to novels has to be one of the most difficult, and you’ve accomplished it admirably. A short story may lend itself more to the workshop experience, with its chance for concision and tight prose, its experimentation in some sense constrained by its brevity. But the themes in a novel resonate across hundreds of pages, and each aesthetic choice may recur countless times. To what extent would you say your short story writing prepared you for writing The Listeners and to what extent did you build yourself an entirely different craft to navigate its waters?
Zumas: I wanted my novel to behave as short stories behave, to have the concision, compression, and urgency of short stories. Of those elements, compression is going to operate very differently over three hundred pages than it does over fifteen pages. The biggest challenge was to import those elements I really love about short stories, including things like parataxis, leaps from one sentence to another without the connective tissue or from one event to another without what Virginia Woolf called “this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” Novels more often tell us what’s going on back at the ranch. I was really interested, in this book, in excising all the little transitions or time explanations and simply leading the reader to connect those dots herself.
Another interesting thing to me was how to deal with recursion. I took a mathematical approach in The Listeners, whether to characters or an object or an image. I made a chart of all the objects or images or people that ran through the book and I would just look at the intervals. Whether it’s the year or the five or ten years it takes to write, we just keep dumping stuff in there, and that helped me to track it.
The writing process was very different from short stories—longer, less wieldy, more uncertain. I changed angles several times, from what vantage point was the story being told, who was telling the story. This book took a total of seven years from first idea to delivery. I started in the fall of 2004 and then in early 2011 I had a draft I felt really good about—that’s when Tin House bought it.
In revision, I also axed major storylines. And I made more radical changes than I ever would to a short story. It was frustrating because it took so much longer to feel even provisionally finished, but it also felt liberating to have characters I’d worked with for all those hours just gone, cut—I haven’t done that as much with a short story. Even while I was working on the novel I would also write short stories as relief, just to be in a wieldier world that could negotiated more easily and more quickly. In the novel, I even changed the narrator from a man to a woman.
Rumpus: And what effect did this gender switch have on the novel and Quinn’s character?
Zumas: When Quinn was a mid-thirties guy who played a lot of video games, drank a lot, and held onto these ghostly vestiges of early fame, I thought, wow—that’s a dime a dozen. But then I made that same person female and it was really different. It felt more grotesque in a way and also more appalling, like she should have a family at this point, or take better care of herself, whereas with guys it’s so much more of a type we’re accustomed to seeing. In the body of a woman it becomes more pathetic—I wanted to go there a little bit and see what would happen. There’s a moment early on where Quinn is at her brother Riley’s apartment and she says, “It was so clean I wanted to take a dump on the floor.” And even when I wrote that it seemed revolting. In one of the early drafts Quinn had, not necessarily a love interest, but a sex-and-companion interest. I thought that was becoming too familiar to me—that the guy really wanted a relationship and she was resisting but by the end she was more into him—and that felt very standard procedure. It wasn’t the 19th-century marriage plot but the romantic trajectory felt familiar.
Rumpus: You could forgive Quinn’s language and behavior if her romance panned out.
Zumas: Right, if someone finds her attractive romantically and sexually then she’s okay. So I thought, if we take away that interest, she will still be sexual and who knows what will happen. That uncertainty is true for a lot of people’s lives. Why not bring it in? Obviously this isn’t the only book that does that, but I question the way plots satisfy our expectations of someone’s life turning out a certain way—a combination of social and narrative expectation.
Rumpus: Was this your first novel manuscript?
Zumas: No, I wrote one as my thesis in graduate school. At first it had this horrible title borrowed from a Clash song, “Lose This Skin.” I did get an agent for that novel, and she tried to shop it around for about a year, and didn’t manage to sell it. Actually, and I say this in all honesty, I’m glad that it wasn’t published. As a novel, it didn’t work. I hadn’t really learned how to use autobiographical elements discerningly and it wasn’t indebted enough to intentional structure. It was the book that taught me how to write a book. The only place it exists is on a dusty library shelf in Massachusetts, thank god.
Rumpus: There’s a certain aura of an author’s first novel and you often wonder, Is this really their first novel?
Zumas: Right, it’s often their debut novel but not necessarily their first. Was this your first novel—the one you’re writing right now?
Rumpus: It’s my second stab at it. I wrote one in the years between finishing my undergrad and starting my MFA.
Zumas: So you’re not going to try and get that published?
Rumpus: Only one person has read it, and that’s probably fine. If I did anything with it, I think it could become a graphic novel. But at least I finished it and felt like I’d taught myself how to better write a novel.
Zumas: Part of being a writer is feeling that constant dissatisfaction, thinking about what else you could do, and also knowing when it’s time to leave a project. There’s always something else to work on and different solutions to these problems in the next thing. We each have a certain set of obsessions which we each cycle through.
Rumpus: Absolutely. I’m wondering how you use your own instincts to inform your reading of others’ fiction and how you know when to turn it off and encourage different types of writing? I think I first thought about this years ago in a writing workshop with writers of genre fiction. A certain mentality wants to coach people out of writing genre, but people also read mysteries and science fiction.
Zumas: In my writing classes, I don’t outlaw any genre writing. In this undergraduate workshop I just taught we had a zombie novel and a fantasy thing and some sci-fi. Partly that is to challenge myself to be the reader who can actually read those texts and find out what’s interesting about them and what’s working well on the level of language and character and structure. The piece actually might be great if I set aside my own prejudices. In general, teaching writing makes me a far better reader because there’s so many ways to write a good sentence or a good story, and as a teacher I’m obliged to consider them all, rather than staying in the safety of my own tendencies. When I watch students make particular decisions about language, structure, and form, it sharpens my own thinking and my own development as a writer. Again, it’s one of the best things about teaching because I have to pay attention to what someone is trying to do rather than what I think we should generally all do. What helped especially, when I was younger, was reading all different types of writing. I started reading contemporary fiction in college or right after college. It wasn’t as if I was steeped in experimental minimalism when I was twelve or something. I was reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
In undergraduate classes, I often see writers who are still simply imitating. I mean, we all imitate—that’s how we learn to speak or write in the first place—but they’re writing a Dean Koontz novel or something. That’s what I find the hardest. I don’t know whose sensibility I’m responding to. Until someone starts pushing against what they’ve inherited and starts making their own decisions about language, it’s difficult.
Rumpus: In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he mentions the 180-degree rule. If a character is expected to do something, then they should do something else, rather than following that predictable instinct.
Zumas: Right, and it doesn’t have to be 180 degrees different but maybe 40 degrees different.
Rumpus: And that also reminded me of a recent New Yorker article on the prison system. The author made the point that we are more interested, in general, in things not working. So if things work as we expect them to in fiction, they may be less interesting.
Zumas: That’s a nice précis of defamiliarization. This betrayal of expectation can restore the reader’s attention and make them lean forward. That’s when it’s going to be successful, no matter how you’re getting that done. And there’s a whole range of approaches. Even in so-called realist or conventional writing there can be defamiliarization. That’s another obligation that I have as a teacher is to make available to students a range of options and devices and approaches, rather than saying “well here’s one way to do it and that’s the only way that’s good.” I think some people have just arrived at their particular vision of what works for them—that’s not how I read anyway, so I wouldn’t pass that on to students.
Rumpus: Which has me thinking about the short chapters in your novel. You’d mentioned that this was partly an editorial layout choice from the publisher. What do you think short chapters can do (or not do) for a narrative and how do you think they function here in The Listeners? Personally, I think it jumps into a defamiliarized or surprising place through parataxis. I saw three axes of place, time, and character consciousness, which triangulate and orient the reader to Quinn’s point-of-view, even with the possibility of dislocations.
Zumas: Absolutely. And giving the reader the space to move around and be active, and encourage their active response is important to me. That will connect the reader more to the text. Just so long as it’s not so disorienting that the reader says, “Fuck this, I’m not gonna read this anymore.” That would not be my preferred outcome. It is true to the logic of how Quinn thinks, these moments in time that are constantly interrupted by the recent past or long ago past, or an entry from her journal—these shards and fragments are how she experiences things. I wanted to enact this on the page. When I was writing, I would separate these by extra white space and then we chose to lay it out as separate chapters. Actually, I don’t know if it was the publisher or just a late-stage revision.
There’s relief in white space for the reader. Two writers I love—Thomas Bernhard and W. G. Sebald—have swaths of dense text, and that’s another kind of immersion and attachment to the experience. But in this case, I thought it would create some comfort within the potential discomfort of not knowing what time it is—is this dinner happening now, or twenty years ago? It can give a little breathing room.
Rumpus: Because the sentiments and sentences are so clear, the reader is provided a lot of toe-holds and hand-holds. The writing is never ambiguous.
Zumas: Thanks, that’s an interesting way to put it. And speaking of this dislocation, I learned recently that when Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury, he wanted all the different time registers to be printed in different colors of ink, so that the reader would read them consecutively or contiguously but the color would alert them. I guess that was too wild and crazy for the publishers in 1929. I think in this day and age it would kind of ghettoize the book.
Rumpus: One interesting aspect of your narrator, Quinn, is that she’s synesthetic. She experiences the world cross-sensually and even uses her synesthesia to hit notes as a rock singer. When did you begin playing with this as a part of her consciousness and how did it change and develop as an element of Quinn’s point-of-view as you wrote the novel? Were there any real-life connections to synesthesia with your family or other people you’ve known?
Zumas: Synesthesia has interested me for a long time, both as a literary device and as a puncturing of the membranes that organize how the world comes into someone’s head. I have what I came to find in my research is a mild form of synesthesia, though I never would have labeled it as such. It’s how I think about numbers and letters. They all have inherent genders. For me, the genders are an essential element of numbers and letters, not something that could be removed from them. If a synesthetic person says the letter a is green, it can’t ever be anything but green.
I was interested by a character who has this particular way of experiencing the world, and Quinn also shares this with her sister. Her father has it too, but he says not to talk about it because others will think it’s weird. It’s just an odd interest of mine. Nabokov had it, and various well-known composers.
Rumpus: As did Marilyn Monroe and Vincent Van Gogh, who was kicked out of piano lessons for saying he saw colors associated with the notes.
Zumas: It just fascinates me, those private mechanisms that we use to make sense of the world—whether they have to do with the five senses or not. I think literature is one of the only kinds of art that truly lets us into that—in movies it’s hard to make it the perspective of just one character. I’m always interested in encountering people who are synesthetic and seeing how they experience things. Even knowing the names for what they experience, does it make the loneliness any better? Not that it’s just loneliness, but a difference. I find myself writing protagonists who do feel pretty cut off from others but who want to make connections and aren’t very good at it.
Rumpus: As a reader I felt conflicted with Quinn. I wanted her to get her shit together and “succeed” in the real world, though I didn’t want her to change herself and lose the idiosyncrasies which individuated her voice. In one of the final pages there is a non-synesthetic description of a landscape. It’s a beautiful description—“Giant hills ridden by giant trees; long spaces of water”—but it also represents a micro-shift in the character. Were you picturing this type of conflict in your readers, or did you just follow the current of Quinn’s inner conflict and see where it took you?
Zumas: Whether consciously or unconsciously, I felt myself drawn to writing a female character who was pretty flawed and not very virtuous or wonderful or attractive in these ways that throughout literary history we’ve come to expect female characters to be. Now, of course, we see more deconstruction and breakdown of this expectation, but think about the influence of 19th-century female protagonists. They’re so pure and have so much integrity—they’re steadfast. They eventually get the man, or the position, or the money, and I really wanted to intervene against that. Not necessarily to create a character who was totally unlikeable or unredeemable, but rather someone who was having a hard time being in the world, and to show her making small changes rather than these big noble flurries of change. I am fascinated by tiny, incremental changes, almost imperceptible shifts in how people orient themselves in the world, because those are in some ways the most hopeful. By the end of this book, you see Quinn starting to make some changes but it’s still up in the air what will happen.
In the final chapters there’s a softening—a surrendering to the love of her family and getting help from them. She sees that her brother Riley isn’t going to take her shit anymore. It’s also about how much Quinn, or any of us, is able to tolerate the present moment without always going back into the past, especially because there’s not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on in her present moment. Something about the little road trip at the end and her being able to go to the family dinner table—it has to do with taking care of the present moment and not simply listening passively to those memories and voices which channel her sister.
The tinnitus Quinn suffers from (as do many musicians) is a reminder of her past. I was once at a reading by Barry Hannah where he described his neurological condition as hearing the nerves dying inside his body. I just thought, “What the fuck?” I mean, he was joking to a degree, in his very Barry Hannah-esque way, but I thought the more important thing is how you deal with this, or how you metabolize a physical discomfort or trauma or memory. In my short stories there’s a lot of focus on people successfully and not successfully responding to those sorts of discomforts or instabilities. Again, with Quinn, it was someone who was dealing with things not in a hugely skillful or successful way but still making an effort. That’s more compelling to me than people who are so well-equipped socially or physically or emotionally that they fly right by. I cut hundreds of pages from this book because I felt myself being reiterative or redundant. Sometimes I wanted to leave just hints of things.
Rumpus: You mentioned how writing workshops are a way not only to develop one’s writing but also to develop a cadre of close readers. I also think that the voices of writing instructors and peers are internalized and carried with us as we write. Did you have some close readers for this novel or particular internalized voices that aided in the process?
Zumas: I started this book right after I finished graduate school. Two writers who were very influential there were Noy Holland and John Edgar Wideman, both of whom are brilliant writers and very different writers. Noy was my thesis advisor and I still hear her voice—she was a scrupulous editor and very careful about looking at sentences and their architecture. Wideman took more of a global look at what you’re putting pressure on and how deeply you’re tunneling down into something, versus staying on the surface. Something I got from him is the idea of horizontal versus vertical writing: when do you stay on that horizontal plane at that same level of pressure, and when do you stop and really plunge down into the moment through different levels of time or anxiety that the moment possesses?
Not many people read drafts of The Listeners. A good friend of mine, Eugene Lim—an editor at Ellipsis Press in New York and a great fiction writer himself—read it maybe in 2010. He helped me see a lot of what was superfluous, including entire characters and storylines because I was too attached to them or to the idea of them. He’s a pretty demanding and not-very-easily pleased reader, and that’s exactly what I needed. Sometimes you just feel like you could work forever on something and never know when it’s done.
Rumpus: Who would play Quinn in the Hollywood treatment?
Zumas: I have no answer for you, Devan. A lot has been left undramatized in my book—like stuff with the band or the reunion with the character Cam. I kept that understated to show the anticlimax of the old lover/enemy coming back to town, which wouldn’t be the main plot-driver. I was more interested in the interstitial moments between the major dramatic moments. As someone who played music and never got famous, and remembers little fragments of that, I don’t remember that life as a dramatic flamboyant thing. In this book, I was trying not to write about music because it’s something I have a lot of ambivalence toward writing about. I tried to come at it in oblique ways. Why, who do you think would play Quinn?
Rumpus: I didn’t really think you would answer, and I meant the question as sort of a red herring. But I did have Hedwig and the Angry Inch in my head while reading your novel.
Zumas: Great, I love that movie.
Rumpus: Or I’m Not There, about Bob Dylan, because Quinn’s self-deprecation makes her seem a little unreliable, like you’re getting her perception on how she looks rather than how she really looks.
Zumas: It’s one of the pleasures and constraints of first-person narrative that you can create that doubt or that shifting feeling. You have to work really hard to admit those other perspectives.
Rumpus: Who is the most underrated writer you’ve been reading lately, or someone whose influence recurs to you but might fly under the radar?
Zumas: I think of two people who aren’t underrated because they’ve won lots of prizes, but I don’t hear anyone talking about them. They’re both brilliant. One is Lore Segal who writes very strange and hilarious and beautiful fiction, reminding me a lot of Grace Paley. She’s Austrian but has lived here for many decades. Another one is a Scottish writer who is well known in Britain but not here—Janice Galloway. She is amazing—I wish more Americans would read her. She has a really visceral, dark, fragmented style. And the way she writes particularly about women’s lives and experiences resonates with me. I really admire her.
Rumpus: You’ve gone from publishing short stories to a first novel, from a variety of teaching gigs to tenure-track MFA faculty here in Portland. Where do you go from here and what’s the next step in your own writing?
Zumas: I’m very lucky and happy to be here. Portland is a pretty magnificent place to live. In terms of my next project, it’s a novel about a 21st-century witch trial. I’m doing research about 17th-century witch trials in Europe and America, specifically to create echoes of language and imagery. I started asking what it would look like for someone to be accused of witchcraft now. As usual, I’m writing it in first-person—my default mode—but also trying to stop myself.