An Interview with Author Susanne Dunlap, author of 'Liszt's Kiss'

Posted: July 5, 2007 in Book Reviews

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When an author is very familiar with her subject matter, it shows. Author Susanne Dunlap’s life has been dedicated to music, and her passion for that comes through so clearly in her writing.

Liszt’s Kiss is a historical novel set in 19th century Paris, where art and music reigned supreme. It’s a world peopled by the rich and famous, at the same time that the city was gripped by a cholera epidemic. Anne de Barbier-Chouant is a young musical prodigy, a girl taught her love of the pianoforte by her own music-adoring mother. But once her mother falls prey to the deadly disease Anne must turn elsewhere for support in her musical endeavors, as her father doesn’t think it’s a proper occupation for a young lady.

Fortunately for Anne, her mother’s very good friend Marie d’Agoult takes it upon herself to continue her musical education. When Franz Liszt introduces himself to Marie she in turn leads him to Anne, the gifted prodigy. But it’s not Anne that has his eye, and an interestingly convoluted romantic plot ensues, involving misunderstood meanings.

Meanwhile, in the background, a family secret looms large, and Anne’s father struggles to keep that hidden, at any cost.

An Interview with Author Susanne Dunlap

1. What was it about Franz Liszt that captured your attention? What drew you to focus on him, and on this particular period of history?

Franz Liszt is one of the most colorful characters in music history. He truly was the original “rock star” of music. He was handsome, romantic, and he took risks in his life and his music. It was very easy for me to imagine how it might feel to be a young woman and be completely enchanted by him as a man and as an artist.

Musically, Liszt was a little bit of a late bloomer compared to Chopin and Schubert. So his early life, when he first came to Paris, is not as well documented as later on when he was touring heavily and then when he settled in Weimar to teach master classes. I always look for the cracks, for the potential of a “might have been,” when I’m writing my historical fiction, and this early part of Liszt’s life seemed ideal.

As to the time period, I’m a pianist myself, and there is no more wonderful era for the piano than the romantic one, which started roughly with Schubert in the 1820s and continued through the 19th century. I was able to play out (excuse the pun) a little of my own fantasy of being around when the composers who were my heroes were alive.

2. How much time did you spend researching the history in order to write this novel?

That’s always a difficult question. I spent eleven years in graduate school studying music history and writing about music in a more scholarly way. I have been able to rely on that background research for quite a bit of the material of my books.

But there’s such a difference between the research one does in a very particular field and the research one must do in order to recreate a period in history. Whatever I thought I knew, for instance, I was not really aware of the devastating cholera epidemic until I read more widely for the sake of the story.

3. The main female character, Anne de Barbier-Chouant, is a very spirited young lady. Was she based on an actual historical figure, or is she entirely fictional?

Anne is entirely fictional, but I hope true to the period. Her choices were limited. Yet as a member of the aristocracy she would have had a little more freedom and options than women in other classes. On the other hand, the strictures of society also placed expectations on her that a shopkeeper’s wife would not have had.

4. What authors do you feel have most influenced your writing? Which authors do you admire most?

Influence vs. admire. That’s an excellent question. I am a passionate devotee of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and all the Bloomsberries.

Then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Kennedy, Elizabeth Bowen—there are too many to list. But my writing is not like any of them.

It’s hard for me to identify any definite influences. Perhaps Anya Seton would be a good example. Problem is, I’d never read any Anya Seton before my first novel was published!

I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and am a huge mystery fan. I always love a book that keeps me turning the pages.

5. Do you keep a strict schedule in your writing? How difficult is it to balance writing and the rest of your life?

I do keep a strict schedule, which is based on the principle of writing whenever I have a spare minute. I set my alarm for 5:15 am and aim to be at my computer by 5:30. That gives me an hour and a half before I have to start getting ready for work.

Which answers in part the other question. I have a very demanding day-job, but in a peculiar sort of way, I think it helps to focus me.

That said, I always accomplish a lot over the weekend and when I go on vacation. I’m extremely fortunate to have a very understanding partner, who not only gives me the time and space I need rather than demand I pay attention to him, but also loves me to read aloud as I finish things. (It also helps that I’m an empty nester. I have tremendous admiration for the people who can write while they raise families AND work.)

6. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was there one defining moment when you made that decision?

It’s taken me a long time to find my vocation. I was a musician first. I made a few attempts at writing (which I always enjoyed doing) in my 20s, when I gave up the idea of a career as a pianist and started working in advertising.

Then I left advertising to go to grad school and I thought would have a career teaching music history at the college level.

I didn’t really discover that I had inadvertently groomed myself to write historical fiction based on musical subjects until I found out how difficult it would be to get a job I could actually take (meaning in the northeast), even with the credentials of a Yale PhD.

7. If you could no longer be a writer, what career would you choose to pursue?

Well, since I’ve been through so many careers to get to this point, I might just throw my hands up in the air. And in any case, the only thing that would ever prevent me from being a writer would be some mental incapacity—which would make me unfit for any other career anyway. I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing.

8. What other projects are you working on currently? What’s next for you after Liszt’s Kiss?

More musical subjects, of course! I have two novels simmering: one that takes place in the early 17th century in Florence and Paris, and another in the late 18th century in Vienna. The wonderful thing about music history is that I don’t think I’ll ever run out of stories.

9. As a public library employee myself, I have to ask if libraries played a significant role in your love of books and reading. Do you have any early memories of the influence libraries had on you?

I LOVE LIBRARIES. Did I say that loudly enough? Let me repeat myself. I LOVE LIBRARIES! If I could spend all day every day in a library, I’d be the happiest person on earth.

When I was little, almost one of the first things I was allowed to do by myself (with friends) was to go to the public library. I don’t remember all the books I used to take out, but one or two: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, practically everything Mary Stewart ever wrote. I still remember the local library in Kenmore, New York , right across Delaware Road from the junior high school. I remember the children’s library on the lower level, and the adult library on the main floor. I can still see myself wandering there, an armload of books ready to check out.

I developed a taste for rare books and manuscript archives when I was in graduate school. Days in the British Museum , leafing through Handel manuscripts, or in Vienna at the Staatsbibliothek with Mozart and Salieri’s works, and less well-known composers too.

I should stop now, before your readers start to think there’s something odd about me . . .

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Thanks so much to Susanne Dunlap, and to her publicist as well, for sending me a review copy of this book and arranging the author interview.

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