History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 July 2007

Welcome, Susanne Dunlap

Liszt’s Kiss
by Susanne Dunlap
Available Now!

Set in Paris in 1832 during a deadly cholera outbreak, Dunlap's novel revolves around young Anne de Barbier-Chouant, who has just lost her mother to the disease. Living in solitude with her stern father, Anne is a gifted pianist who longs to make her way in the musical world her mother was so enchanted by. Opportunity knocks in the form of the elegant Marie d'Agoult, a friend of her mother's who chaperones Anne to her first concert. There Anne first lays eyes on the handsome, impassioned Franz Liszt and falls under his spell. Liszt, who has decided to pursue the married Marie, offers to teach Anne and hone her skills. Forced to work around Anne's exacting father, Marie enlists the help of a handsome young doctor who is taken with Anne to find out the secrets the girl's father is keeping. Dunlap immerses readers in the sights, smells, and feel of Romantic-era Paris, making her engrossing novel perfect escapist fare.

--Kristine Huntley, Booklist

Liszt's Kiss
is set in Paris, 1832. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I was mostly interested in the time period because I am/was a pianist, and some of the greatest music ever written for the piano was composed during that time, when Chopin and Liszt were both in Paris. And it’s also a politically interesting era, after the revolution of 1830 and when Louis-Philippe was on the throne. Half the world was still in a royalist frame of mind, people were resentful because the dreams of revolutionary reform seemed to have disappeared, and the world was changing economically, too, with industrialization and urbanization.

It’s even an interesting period in terms of fashions. The Regency, Empire look was giving way to more structured and fanciful clothing again, and it wasn’t terribly flattering to the women: high-ish waistlines, huge puffy sleeves, coiffures that stuck out on either side of the head. Rarely do you see portraits with these styles in them (the gown on my cover is more appropriate to a decade or so later, but there was a lot of fluidity just then in styles, with some women still sometimes wearing gowns that looked borderline regency as well). By the end of the 1830s, styles were settling into what would be come the look we associate with the civil war period.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

The politics were very complex, and getting things right for characters of different social classes is always a challenge in any historical period. What we tend to hear about, and what information exists about, is the upper classes, the ones who had the power—except in periods of civil unrest. The subtle differences between the way Pierre and Anne would have behaved, because of their classes, were something I always had to keep in mind.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

I think what sparked the book was the idea of what it would have been like to study piano with Franz Liszt as a young man. The relationship with a teacher, a one-on-one teacher like a music instructor, can be very intense no matter what. Add rock-star good looks and an exotic, Hungarian accent, and the combination could be positively volatile. But I always wanted my Liszt character to be a little unformed, naïve, not quite having invented himself yet.

Did you have to do any major research for his book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

I truly stumbled across the cholera epidemic. My historical research has always concentrated on the cultural and social aspects because I am a music historian. Politics and other factors impinged on my consciousness mainly only as they had an impact on what was going on in music. Because the epidemic only lasted a few months, I had only a vague, background knowledge of it, and when I started reading about it and exploring further, it really sparked my imagination about what it must have been like to live through that. More exactly, to be a sensitive artist and live through it.

What/Who do you like to read?

Of course, I return to the classics again and again (Austen, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Woolf etc.), but there are also many wonderful writers today. Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and lots of others. I also love Lynn Freed, Sigrid Nunez, Margot Livesey. I read a lot of general fiction because anything that’s well-written can be a learning experience for a writer. In historical, I definitely read Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Sandra Gulland, and am just discovering the amazing historical novels of Anya Seton. The list goes on and on. I read as much as I can because I’ve always loved to read, and there are “so many books, so little time.”

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I start by thinking vaguely of a story or a character in a particular music-historical setting, then start doing some research (usually I have some research “in the bank,” so to speak, from my years of academic research, so I’m not starting completely from scratch). Before long I bubble over with ideas, and even if I write a short synopsis of what I think might happen, I just start writing, start thinking about what that event is that will begin the story, and take off from there. I use timelines to keep myself oriented in history, but as far as plot goes, I find that the process of writing makes the story take on a life of its own. It’s very exciting and scary. Once it’s down, then I go back and try to make sense of it, bring it into some kind of shape and order. If I start with a strict outline, I never stick to it. Characters sometimes do surprising things and you just have to follow them!

What are you planning to work on next?

I have a couple of ideas and am working an a few things. One that takes place in the early 17th century in Florence and Paris, one in late 18th-century Vienna. I don’t know how these will pan out yet, so I’m reluctant to talk too much about them.

Anything you’d like to add?

First, I want to thank you for giving me an opportunity to answer your questions. I always find I learn a little more about myself and my writing when I have to think about explaining something. I learned so much when I was teaching music history for the same reason.

I guess what I want to leave your readers with is the thought that women and music had a fascinating relationship historically. I think the performance aspects, the sensuality of making music always gave society a bit of a quandary: the angelic purity of a woman as a vessel for music vs. the dangerous depths of emotion that would bubble to the surface if one allowed that kind of expression. Women could make music, but in certain prescribed ways and in certain settings. Like actresses, women who performed music in public were often morally suspect.

And then, think how few women composers there actually were, and not just because of the fact that the institutions that fostered music composition—cathedrals, courts etc.—were closed to them. Unless they wrote music for themselves to perform, like piano music or chamber music, few women had ties that would give them access to an orchestra or an opera company. Just as the novel was at first derided as an inferior art form and “lady novelists” sneered at, women in the 19th century who did compose were usually written off as composing “parlor music.” There were exceptions, of course, including Clara Schumann. But she stopped composing and became entirely an interpreter of music once she married.

That all said, women made a rich and varied contribution to the history of music, and that’s what I try to bring to life in my novels.


Blogger Keira Soleore said...

What an intricate interlinked story!

Susanne said, "Just as the novel was at first derided as an inferior art form and 'lady novelists' sneered at..."

Not much has changed over the years, has it? Now writers of romance and historical are the ones being reviled.

If you could go back in the past and study under any piano master of any period, who would it be?

11:09 PM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Oh, Keira, what a question! I think I'd want to have been Clara Schumann's student. She really pioneered modern piano technique, and was pretty much the one who invented the modern piano recital, where a pianist (or any instrumentalist) performed solo. Before then, a soloist was only one attraction, with other performers and an orchestra.

4:06 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always been interested in Clara Shumann as well, ever since I saw the movie with Katherine Hepburn as Clara from the 1940's. Think of what it must have been like to have a husband who was a genius but then had a breakdown, all those children, and trying to find a way to support them all.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Yes, and Clara gave up composing her own music and devoted her life after his death to promoting his. She was an excellent composer in her own right. (By the way, if Amanda Elyot is out there, greetings! We sat next to each other at the HNS conference book signing.)

6:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I tracked this book down over the weekend, and it's going in my TBR pile for the flight to New Zealand (13 hours, both ways; I'm going to need a lot of books!).

It's a period and a group of people I've been in love with since seeing Impromptu and Children of the Century.

My historical research has always concentrated on the cultural and social aspects because I am a music historian. Politics and other factors impinged on my consciousness mainly only as they had an impact on what was going on in music.

I love this. LOL! I’m a costume historian, and most things first enter the fog of my brain via their influence on the clothing of the era. I’m so glad to know I’m not alone in how my research seems to happen.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I loved Impromptu. It's one of my favorite movies, particularly Emma Thompson. I thought Hugh Grant actually made a credible Chopin. And who doesn't love Judy Davis? The scene where she lies under the piano as Chopin plays. Sigh! I'm going to have to rent that movie again.

I've always been more interested in the people who create history, than battles and such. I used to tune out that part in my history classes. I actually had a history teacher who skipped the entire Civil War during American History because she didn't want to get into the battles.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview and the book sounds fabulous! I've always thought that late-romantic Paris would make a great seting (partly because I too love the movie "Impromptu" :-). And I'm so intrigued by an historical novel with music at its core. I spend a lot time around opera (I'm on the board of the Merola Opera Program, an opera training program) and I try love to work opera references into my books, but I've never written one that focsed on singers or composers.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wonderful story, Susanne.

And you have a beautiful cover.

I will definately pick up a copy of Liszt's Kiss!

Thanks for stopping by.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Tracy, I know Merola opera, from my Connecticut Opera days (used to be director of development there-- tough job, but wonderful). And it's actually considered early romantic. Late romantic would be Wagner and late Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Really Chopin and Schumann were the pioneers, taking off from Schubert's beginnings.

As to writing about music-- it's hard. It was hard to do as a scholar, and still challenging in fiction.

I'm very happy with the cover, which I think is beautiful. That's a real plus for an author.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks, Suzanne -- I would think getting the reader to "hear" or understand the music of the period is one of the big challenges of a music centered story. My background in music history is poor so I think I might listen to some of Liszt's work before I read your book. Any suggestions?

12:23 PM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Mary, my Liszt is young, before he composed most of the pieces he's famous for. And you don't really need to have advance knowledge to appreciate the book--I hope! But something to listen to is his La Campanella, which is an early work that he revised over and over throughout his life, but you'll get the general gist of the kind of virtuoso piano writing he was into at that time.

And on Thursday, I have a little history snippet that will be posted on this blog and it will give you some suggested listening for Chopin-- in particular the Etude Anne studies with Liszt, and which features in a crucial scene.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Susanne said...

Just wanted to say thanks so much for having me--before I go off to bed for the night!

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool that you worked for Connecticutt Opera, Susanne! I'm Chair of the Development Committee, so I know just how challenging--and rewarding--development work can be. It's funny, when I said "late romatnic" I was thinking literature more than music. In literature I think of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, etc... as "early" so the 1830s seem late. But it definitely would be early muscially. (Though I always think of Beethoven as a forerunner in so many ways). The more I hear about your book, the more interesting it sounds!

7:14 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

At least Clara Schumann had an adoring Johannes Brahms at her keyboard (bedside?)
There's another delicious romance.

10:18 AM  

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