Last night I was at Powell’s to hear Leni Zumas give a reading from her debut novel The Listeners. This is the first time I’ve met an author whose work I reviewed.
I had been told to get there early as seats fill up quickly. I arrived at and found an empty room. By I was panicking for Ms. Zumas as there were only 3 people including myself. I knew at that point I could never be an author because I could not stand the humiliation of walking into an empty room to read my work. I also know that if I were in her shoes (a professor at
PSU) I would have promised every student who showed a
half point increase in their grade. Yes, I am that insecure.
Thankfully, we were dealing with students and hipsters who only feel validated when they stroll into events one minute after the start time. And have to sit on the concrete floor, so there.
Leni appeared and after thinking ‘I’m old enough to be her mother’ I settled down to listen to her reading. It was funny because I had read the book so closely I knew some of the sentences or phrases before she read them (“spruce girls” as a descriptive is still stuck in my head). Afterwards, there was Q&A which was, for the most part, fascinating. Even if I don’t love the work I am so enamored of anyone with the guts to put pen to paper that listening to the how and why of what they do is like listening to the Oracle at
Delphi. Maybe it will rub off on me.
I’ll try not to drag on but here are something of the fascinating tidbits from the creative mind, ala Leni Zumas.
v Began the book in 2004 but didn’t finish until 2010. Stopped and started, working on other projects in-between.
v Described her process as writing “fragments” and when she felt she had enough of these she spread them out on the floor to find affinities and connections.
v Ended up cutting out hundreds of pages that she felt were explaining what was already there.
v Now working on a book about a witch trial that takes place in contemporary times.
v Virginia Woolf is an influence because of “her insistence on mapping the interior”. She works against the desire to say exactly where everything is and what’s happening on the exterior. Also, Flannery O’Conner “the way she is funny and grotesque at the same time is masterful”. They’re more like North Stars.
v Protagonist started off as a man but began to feel like a bad cliché.
v Tracked the mention of motifs and images that were running through the book like threads, counted pages and came up with an arbitrary rule as to how often they could repeat- as chronology was not a factor in the book.
When I got my book signed I told Leni that I wrote a review for Portland Book Review and she smiled and said, “Really?!” in a way that was eminently satisfying. She was still signing so feeling properly emboldened I also admitted that the ending made me cry because it was so unexpected and yet hoped for. I told her it was hell on my objectivity as a reviewer but what I love as a reader. Again, she seemed pleased and said authors love hearing when their work impacts a person.
All in all, the perfect initial foray into the world of readings. At some point, though, I’m going to have to man up when I do a review and go as a professional - requesting an author interview and following through. Last night I was largely a reader and a fan.
If you think you might be interested in The Listeners my professional review is here. Personally, this is not a warm and fuzzy book. Much of it is intense and difficult because it is dealing with the inner workings of a troubled woman. There’s pain. Zumas’s writing is very stylized, almost stream of consciousness, which doesn’t work for some people. What mattered to me was that at some point, without my even realizing it, I cared about this character. I wanted her to find a way out of her pain. As a reader I became invested which, for me, is almost critical in fiction. If I don’t care about the characters or don’t find at least some aspect of them to be believable/relatable then the book won’t engage me. This one did and I’m so pleased.