Leni Zumas's writing crackles. Her books are sharp, bleak, funny, and possibly dangerous. When her collection of short stories, Farewell Navigator, came out, Karen Russell marveled, "Her language is a kind of sorcery," and Joy Williams added, "Leni Zumas's writing is fearless and swift, sassy and sensational." Her profoundly disquieting debut novel, The Listeners, portrays a world twisted on its axis by loss.
Quinn is a musician and a survivor of a fractured and eccentric childhood marred by the death of her younger sister. Now in her mid-30s, years after the disintegration of her band, Quinn is at loose ends. Her relationships with her family and her ex-bandmates have been shaped by tragedy and haunted by the past. Zumas's style is hypnotic, and Quinn is a hyper-alert, fascinating narrator. Kevin Sampsell calls The Listeners a "crushing, dazzling performance." We agree, and we're proud to have chosen it for Volume 33 of our Indiespensable series.
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Jill Owens: At the end of The Listeners, in the acknowledgements, you give special thanks to your dad for telling you his story. Did his story have an influence on the book?
Leni Zumas: It did. It was the germ of the entire story. When he was a little boy, he and his brother were asleep on a summer night in this little town that they lived in. The tavern next door got robbed. And the tavern owner started firing back. There were two guns, and there was an exchange of gunfire.In the exchange, one of the bullets went through the window where the boys were sleeping and killed my father's brother. The family didn't hear it in the night. So, the next morning, their mother came in and couldn't wake up my dad's brother.
I heard this story when I was little. My dad didn't talk about it very much, but it always stayed with me. It worried me a lot, because I kept wondering how he felt being the surviving brother, if he felt guilty or that it should have been him. I kept trying to imagine what it would be like not only to wake up and find your sibling dead next to you, but also to go on living and knowing that you were the one who wasn't killed.
I never really considered writing about it until about seven years ago when my imagining and anxiety got to the point where I wanted to use it somehow. I did ask my father for permission, because I really do feel that it's his story. He said, "Sure, write about it. That's fine." He has since passed away, and so he won't see the book. But he knew that I was working on it, and that was necessary for me.
Even though we writers constantly use our family stories and... To some extent his story became my story, because emotionally and psychologically his makeup was very impacted by this event and, therefore, mine was. But I still felt like I had to respect the fact that it had happened to him and not to me.
Jill: How old was he when it happened?
Zumas: And his brother was 12. That's the same age as the sister in The Listeners who dies, although the sibling who lives in the book is older. Most of the details about the family are completely different from my father's family, with the exception of the age. The other detail that I kept was the fact that after his brother died, my father and his siblings weren't allowed to say his name. No one in the family could say his name. That seemed so terrible to me, and terrifying. I kept that as an unspoken rule in the family of my novel.
Just in general, I'm interested in the power of naming. It harkens back to spell casting and more ancient rituals of healing or cursing, that you have to say the person's name and what happens when you're not allowed to.
Jill: That's interesting in light of the way Quinn uses nicknames for the other characters in the book. And you also have some invented slang for things.
Zumas: Originally the book actually had a lot more slang, that specialized slang that either I had made up or... One of the other names was "spark" or "sparkler," which is 17th- or 18th-century slang for a well-dressed person or a dandy. I thought it would work to apply to today's hipster, because I really didn't want to use the word "hipster." But I wanted to acknowledge that there is this category of person that has its own label. People speak of it and, by speaking of it, bring it into existence even more.
There was originally a lot more of that in the novel. But I was ambivalent about it, because I didn't want it to become this trick or this showy thing. I really respect books like A Clockwork Orange or Finnegans Wake that make up their own language and create these mash-ups. Finnegans Wake is old Norse and old Irish and all these existing languages mashed up together. But this was not the book to do that in, for me.
I just chose a few examples, trying to de-familiarize the late-20th- or early-21st-century slang that we already have, because the word "hipster," for example, is virtually dead from overuse. I did that a bit with the naming of the characters, too. For instance, Jonathan Geck. Geck is from archaic slang for thief or for pilferer or someone who gets things by untoward means. So, I just used that as his name. I wanted a lot of the names to be one syllable names, just for the punch of that. It reminded me of kids' books, of Spot and Dick and Jane. That's where the naming came from. But I'd love to do a novel in the future that used a lot more slang or neologistic invention.
Jill: How did you decide on the opening image with the cashier who has two thumbs on one hand? It connects in my head to the octopus, which is on the cover.
Zumas: Right. And it also connects to a character's missing fingers. The image originally came from a convenience store that I used to buy cigarettes at in college, where the guy who worked at the counter actually did have a little baby thumb on his regular thumb. That just stuck with me, because I used to try to imagine how he felt about the thumb. It was cute. It was technically a deformity or a defect, but it seemed powerful to me.
I never really intended to start with that. The way I write is extremely nonlinear and non-chronological. Who knows? In an original older draft, what I began with probably was not that. But it did seem a fitting thread to tie to a lot of things, as you're saying, including the octopus and the loss of fingers.
It's also the idea of having something that's different from what most other people have, which you could choose to see either as a blessing or a curse. Like synesthesia, which Quinn experiences almost as a burden. It makes her feel isolated from other people, whereas her sister experienced it as powerful. She loved being synesthetic and being able to see the colors of words or the colors of smells. So, something like having an extra finger might actually feel very powerful, depending on who you were.
Jill: How did you decide to make Quinn and her sister synesthetic? Are you?
Zumas: I'm not. Well, I didn't think that I was at all, but I discovered as I started researching synesthesia that I could maybe be said to have a very mild form of it. Ever since I learned numbers and letters I experience them as having genders. It's the same with months of the year and days of the week. The way they're organized in my mind is coded by gender. Which, again, is not exactly synesthetic, because it's not two different sensory perceptions. But it is a way of organizing information that feels inherent to the thing. It's not like, "Oh, I decided to make Tuesday a girl." I always just believed that that's what it was, and it couldn't be separated.
But most synesthetic people have a more pronounced mixing or a collapsing of the wall between color and sound or smell and sight. It's something I'm interested in as it surfaces in language, how we have a lot of ways of describing one sensation. We can only describe it with another sensory vein, such as smell.Most of our words for smell are actually related to the four other senses, because it's so hard to explain to someone what something smells like. We say something smells sharp or bitter or loud.
There was that interest, but I wanted the sisters, the remaining one and the lost one, to have shared this bond, this special way of being in the world. And synesthesia does run in families — their father has it and they have it, but the mother and brother don't have it.
It became another signal of or marker of Quinn's apartness, her difficulty in being in the world. One of the things that interested me about her character is that I wanted to write a relatively unsuccessful person as the main character and not have this heroic and triumphant woman going through her life. Often in literature, characters struggle, and that's part of their trajectory. But I feel like, particularly with female characters and maybe some male characters, there has to be this strength and virtue and cleverness that they've always had. And when circumstances go against them, they prevail using those traits.
But what if there's someone who isn't that virtuous and isn't a genius but is still trying to make changes in her life, however small? That was what I saw. Her synesthesia doesn't become some huge, powerful, wonderful thing. It's actually something difficult for her, but that still really shapes her way of seeing the world.
Jill: Just out of curiosity, is it a fairly even split between boys and girls for the days of the week and the months of the year, or is one more prevalent than the other?
Zumas: It's funny; there are more male numbers and more male months. It's four and three for the days of the week. Monday through Thursday are female. With letters, there are a few more male letters, but it's about half and half.
Zumas: I really came across that researching it, that people just know where to go musically based on what the color is, which is something that if you don't have that particular sensory channel you would have no idea what that meant. It's fascinating.
Jill: You were saying you don't write things in chronological order. I was interested because this novel is made up of these wonderful, short vignettes, and they jump around in time and perception to some degree. How did you decide how to put all the pieces together?
Zumas: When I started composing the book, I called it the constellation method as in a constellation of stars. There might be many other things to call it. I started with the events or images or anxieties that I identified as central to the book. For instance, the wreck of the van with Quinn's band, or the sister's death, or Quinn's sexual relationship with Cam, or the synesthesia. I had these motifs, events, and even objects, like the octopus, and for each of those things I wrote 25 different versions of them or angles on them. For the van wreck, I wrote 25 different perspectives on it from different characters, from right as it was happening to 10 years later to the day after. I made myself a list of, for example, Quinn's version the day after, Quinn's version during the accident.
I did that basically to learn more about the things themselves, to see them better, but what ended up happening is I came away with a lot of fragments for each thing and they took place in different time periods. Then I pieced them back together into some order, and it changed a lot. I kept rearranging the order, because I wanted to preserve this sense of the past being just as present as the present for this character, Quinn, without unduly confusing the reader or just being obscure for the sake of being obscure.
That's always the line that's most interesting to me to walk. I want to have enough mystery and gaps that the reader really can move in there and actively participate in the meaning of the story, but not to have so many gaps that the reader just gets alienated and walks away. That's an ongoing struggle for me to find that balance.
In earlier drafts of the book, I had pieced these things together and written the connective tissue between each little fragment. Then maybe I would take that apart again and say, "Screw this! It has to start at a different place." A lot of it really was piecework. It was just assembling and reassembling, being actually very mathematical about intervals between things.
For example, I wanted to mention this story the sister told about Lacustrina who lived in the lake. If I'm going to use three mentions of that story, they have to have even intervals between them and not all of them crowded at the beginning or the end. I would actually go through and count the number of pages between each mention of the sister's death, or the car crash, and try to even those out.
Jill: That's really cool. [Laughter]
Zumas: Yes, that's a really fun part of it. Not that I love math so dearly, but I do love recursion and repetition and accumulation. It's figuring out how to maximize the effects of those things. If you repeat things too close together, it feels like you're hammering it too insistently, but if it's too far apart, the reader's forgotten what the original thing was. To play around with intervals is really fun.
Jill: It works well. I've read some other things that have tried to do something close to what you're doing in terms of that style. A lot of them have come down on the side of being too obscure or just alienating, or maybe just not as interesting rhythmically. I was really impressed with that balance. I kept thinking, How is she doing this?
Zumas: There's a lot of counting, a lot of writing down page numbers, which is pleasurable, maybe because it's easier than the actual writing. [Laughter] I almost think of it as architecture after the fact, when you have an idea of the motion or the form of the book and a lot of the raw material. But then you have to impose scaffolding on it, rather than starting with the scaffolding. That wouldn't work for me, because it would seem too formulaic.
Jill: In an earlier interview about Farewell Navigator, you were talking about the value of putting restrictions or constraints on yourself formally. That sounds like what you were doing here, in a way.
Zumas: It is, yes! Because I would give myself rules, like, "Okay. You can't mention this more frequently than every 50 pages." Again, that would change. You make mistakes because you put stuff back in that you don't remember, etc. But, yes, I think constraints are incredibly generative. As a teacher, too, I like to work with them a lot and box people in and see how they worm their way out of the box, rather than saying, "Just start with the blank page and do anything," which is important, too, but a lot can happen with constraints. It doesn't have to be as draconian as, "You can't use the letter E." But still.
In one of the stories in that first collection, my constraint was that I had to start every sentence with either "he" or "I." It risked a lot of horribly repetitive consequences. But it corralled me into one space, of one person and another person, and maybe helped the story to be more intimate. At least, I hope so.
Jill: I think that's the remarkable thing that you do; you manage to move plot forward. You create dramatic plot even with all these interesting stylistic boundaries.
Zumas: Yes, plot is an endlessly difficult thing. It's certainly not my instinctive strength, even though I love the police procedurals and mystery shows. [Laughter] But in terms of invention and writing, that's not really how I operate.
Jill: Did you ever write poetry?
Zumas: I have along the way. I love poetry. I love to read poetry. But when I was much younger and I was starting to write, I always wrote stories, and I think that stained me for life. All fiction writers should have to write poetry and read poetry, because the attention to language that you get from that is so crucial. It's too easy to view fiction as though the language or the sentences are just there to carry on the story, but you have to pay equal attention to the sentences. The story itself can be great, but if the language isn't great, it's diminished. Poets have to practice compression and elision and concision and acoustics that we as fiction writers should practice, too.
Jill: I was going to ask, too, how you thought about your sentences. After I started your book, I emailed the Indiespensable team and said, "Her sentences are like fucking firecrackers!"
Zumas: Oh! Thank you. [Laughter]
It's definitely part of why I'm a slow writer, because it's hard to move out of a sentence if something feels loose about it or the rhythm of it is off. Sometimes when I'm composing a raw draft or a new work, I either have to turn off my screen or put a napkin over my screen so that I don't obsess about the sentence that I just wrote. It's good to obsess, but it also makes it very slow going.
I'd always paid attention to those things, but Noy Holland, one of the teachers I had in grad school, who's a brilliant writer, was someone who really drew my attention to how the sounds of individual words play off of each other and how every unit in a sentence has to do a certain kind of work. It can't simply be, "Oh, you have a good verb," and then everything else crowds around the verb. It has to be the interaction of every single piece of that sentence.
I learned a lot from her and from Gary Lutz, a contemporary writer who writes fiction and has also written some interesting essays about this. I don't know if you know him.
Jill: I know who he is. I haven't read him, but I've been meaning to.
Zumas: He writes really exciting sentences that are so scrupulously and mercilessly attuned to rhythm, cadence, assonance, and alliteration — how words bounce off one another and can flatten or enlarge each other. He's also another great person to read.
Jill: In both this book and in several of your short stories, family relationships, like the sibling relationship and the parent-child relationship, frequently seem to be at the heart of the story, even when the children are adult children. What interests you in that dynamic?
Zumas: I'm always circling around sibling relationships in one way or another in so much of my work. Part of that may come from the fact that I'm lucky enough to have a brother and sister who are really amazing, and all three of us get along really well. We're all pretty different, but even as adults we do this thing called sibling week. Once a year, we try even just for a few days, to visit together away from the parents or holidays. Because those relationships were so important to me my whole life, I'm interested in how siblings work together.
Especially in our case, our parents had a really fraught marriage and bad divorce. Then it was a solidarity that we had. For instance, I have a short story "Everything Hater," where there's a younger sister who tries to help her sad, hapless older brother get his life together. I feel like, sometimes, siblings do these things for each other that no one else can really do. Though, I also don't want to idealize the relationship either or romanticize it too much.
Speaking of constraints, actually, what's so compelling about family is that they are these closed systems, these boxes that people have to be in whether they like it or not. Even if they break away, they're still in the box. It's an encircled arena to write within, and to use that claustrophobia and suffocation, I think, can be really generative. Even if the suffocation comes from an absence or that you're not really getting much from one parent or the other, their absence feels like a presence, somehow.
One of my challenges or difficulties is writing about parents in an even-handed way, because it's too easy for me to either cast them aside as useless or make them too flat. That isn't actually about how I think about my own parents, but in my work they sometimes come to be types like that. Hopefully, in the future, they will get more complicated.
Jill: Riley, Quinn's brother, is such a great character. He's so endearing.
Zumas: I love Riley. The 30-year-old virgin. [Laughter]
I was imagining this sort of reverse gender in the two remaining siblings, where Quinn is a woman, but she drinks a lot of beer, plays video games, and isn't particularly choosy about who she has sex with. And Riley is this very shy, retiring, overly responsible person. His house is very well kept and clean. He cooks. Those things can be true, no matter what gender you are, but I wanted to work against type a little bit when it came to gender roles within a family, to have that contrast alongside the closeness. They're always butting heads. Quinn thinks Riley is this square, lame, little person, and Riley is horrified by Quinn smoking in the shower.
That relationship, to me, was at the heart of the book. Not in an especially dramatic or hugely triumphant way, but I felt that those characters change a little bit in relation to one another. Hopefully, it comes across that they help each other, even if it's in telling the parents not to serve wine at the table, even if it seems like annoying help. But, still, they care.
When I started writing the book, I was still more actively playing in bands and knew more people who were musicians but getting older, moving into our 30s and then 40s, and sometimes 50s. So, I was also interested in certain people choosing to maintain a certain teenage regressive way of living their lives, which sometimes included a lot of dependence on their parents. Financial dependence, whether it was living at home or taking money, or disliking their parents but having to call on them for help to pay bills. That was another thing I wanted to explore with Quinn.
Again, I wanted to show that in this sort of light — it's not a particularly noble thing, but it's not necessarily a damning thing either. It's just where people find themselves. But often it's accompanied by hypocrisy, because the person who is still living this countercultural life can say, "Oh, I'm so free and liberated," but, then, they are depending on people giving them money.
Jill: Quinn says early on that she wasn't a girly girl; her sister was the girly girl. She says at one point that if she could have chosen, she would have chosen a boy's body. There's that, and there's also the fact that she doesn't seem to think of herself as an adult even when she's in her mid-30s.
Zumas: Right, that constant ambivalence and in-between-ness. It's interesting, because a couple other people who've read the book have said, "Oh, is she bisexual or gay?" But, to me, her experience of her own body really doesn't have to do with her sexual orientation. It has to do with definition. She thinks, Okay, I have really small breasts. I was really skinny when I was young. I would probably be better off in a boy's body. I could run faster and get away from things, and I wouldn't have to deal with some of this stuff. It's more about that individual experience of the body.
It's funny. One review describes her as an anorexic self-cutter. I don't know where they got the cutting stuff from. I guess she tried to cut the ring out of her ear one night.
Jill: But that's not really an accurate description. She's not a cutter.
Zumas: Yes, it's very strange.And even with the anorexia... I wanted to explore someone who restricts their eating for a different reason than "I need to be skinny." Quinn just doesn't want to get her period. She doesn't want to bleed. But it's hard. We do have a lot of very-well-dug-out cultural narratives about girls and women and eating. To show someone who has an anxious relationship with food, but that that relationship has a different source, was important to me. Not that there's something wrong with writing about the usual reasons, but we already have a lot of those stories.
Jill: So, you've been in bands, over the course of your life...
Zumas: I have, yeah. I started playing drums when I was in college, and I joined my first band in college. Then, pretty much throughout my 20s I went on to play in various bands. Then, I took a hiatus from it, and in my early 30s I was in another band in New York for a while. I played drums for a fairly long time. It was a major focus in my life in my 20s. The world of being in an indie or punk band was something that was really alive in my imagination or my memory, but I was very reluctant to write about it in fiction.
For a long time I would consciously say to myself, "You're not going to write about that" or "God, what a stupid, cliché thing to write about being in a band." Most people who I know who are musicians who are in bands hate fiction that is about bands. It's like, "Ugh, come on. No one wants to read that." Maybe someone who has never been in a band or knows nothing about music would be more interested in reading about it. It's that horror of self-recognition or the loathing of one's own cultural moment as material for art. It's much easier to criticize for inaccuracy.
In this book, obviously there's the history of Quinn's having been in a band and all that that entailed. I didn't want to make it the focus of the book. But one thing I did want to write about was that the experience, for me at least, of being female and playing in these rock bands was such a particularly strange one in terms of being part of subcultures or a counterculture that was so much about freedom and radical departure from convention and the status quo and yet was so sexist. And I'm sure it continues to be.
Although, thank God, there are a lot more women playing in bands now than there were when I started out. But I just kept remembering how much focus there was on how women looked and how they looked on stage and their sexuality. And all these things that, again, I hope are being broken down much more now. I think they are, thanks to mostly female performers who have broken the mold of expectation. But I wanted to touch on that with Quinn and also have her be someone who wasn't known for her looks — she wasn't necessarily the pretty girl singing — but that she could try to do things with her voice that would still command attention.
Jill: But they still had to have another pretty girl in the band.
Zumas: Yes. The bass player, always! [Laughter]
Jill: I like what Quinn says about that.
Zumas: Right, that anybody can play three notes for three minutes. [Laughter] I had a lot of ambivalence about writing anything about music scenes, but it bled through anyway.
I think that's interesting for writers in general. A lot of the time when we don't want to write about something or we insist on not writing about something, it comes in through a side door into our work — or the thing that we think we want to write about isn't actually the thing that we end up writing about.
Jill: There's a book on poetry called The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo, which I love. And it's partly about that. You have your triggering subjects, but that isn't what your actual subject ever ends up being.
Zumas: That's interesting. I'm going to write that down. I bet it's really good for teaching, too.
Jill: What do you best like about teaching?
Zumas: I like watching and being a part of other people's invention processes, because everyone makes things in slightly different ways. You can talk about the "rules" of fiction or how to go about doing things, but everyone builds things differently. To me, it's really fascinating to watch those different strategies of making things and to contribute to them if I can, even if it's just by saying, "Read this, and open your mind to this way of doing it." Rarely is it because I have so much wisdom that is going to save their work. It's more of how can I intervene even in small, profitable ways to enlarge their sense of the possibilities, to help them achieve what they already are trying to do rather than change their agenda or change what they're trying to achieve.
I like the classroom part of it most of all, just the back and forth and the debate and the questioning of what we're doing. Because we're all doing the same thing, but in wildly different ways, so it's exciting.
Jill: What are you reading and listening to right now that you're impressed with or that you're enjoying? You don't have to be impressed with it.
Zumas: Oddly enough, I've recently been listening to, and really loving, a lot of early baroque music with the viola de gamba. Maybe that was before cello? I don't know. But it has a lot of string instruments and horn instruments.
Reading-wise, last term I reread Tristram Shandy for a class that I was teaching. I hadn't read it since college. I was so struck by its innovation and how it was predicting or anticipating a lot of the experimental moves that people ended up making in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And that was mid-18th century.
So much of what it does with digression and metanarrative and these self-conscious darts and barbs directed at the reader that we think of as very contemporary or modern, Laurence Sterne is doing that. That was before the novel even knew what it was, our modern conception of the novel. I was so impressed by the willingness of that text to depart from convention even before the conventions were really solidified yet.
Books mentioned in this post