INTERVIEW with LENI ZUMAS
TH: There's a death that takes places early on in The Listeners; to say it's striking and unexpected is an understatement, but it's handled with such authority that a reader would never question it. I wonder how you came up with something so remarkable, and so disturbing.
LZ: When my father was six years old, his brother was shot to death next to him. They were asleep on a summer night in a small Utah town, and the tavern next door was robbed. In the exchange of gunfire, a bullet went through the boys’ open window and into my uncle’s head. The next morning, my grandmother came in to wake them up, but Uncle Tony wouldn’t wake up.
I have always wondered what it was like to be the child who didn’t die—who could so easily have died, if their places in bed had been reversed, but did not. What if my dad had insisted, the night before, on taking his favorite side? What if the brothers had, in fact, traded places before falling asleep? What would that kind of guilt feel like? My novel imagines a family in a different time and place from my father’s, but with the same tragedy at its center.
TH: Quinn's background as a member of a successful DC punk band plays a big part in the novel. Growing up in the area, what was your experience with the local music scene?
LZ: In high school I started going to punk shows and wearing Cleopatra eyeliner and chasing the dark knowledge that the kids at shows seemed to possess. I was also a nerdy, meek girl who liked school—it wasn’t until college that I mustered the courage to start playing in a band myself. High school was more about waiting in the audience. This was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when the DC music scene was at the tail end of its legendary heyday (Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, etc.). I was too young to see some of the bands that would become my favorites (like Rites of Spring) but I still got to see a lot of great shows. There was huge local pride and energy in that scene, and it was very political, politicizing.
The novel’s setting is Washington DC—but also isn’t. I never name the city. The more recognizable or storied a backdrop, the more associative freight readers will bring with them into the book. DC’s not as “known” a place as, say, New York City, but people still have associations. And I wanted The Listeners to occupy its own off-kilter, untethered little world.
TH: Several members of Quinn's family have synesthesia (in their case, letters and numbers and certain sounds are perceived as inherently colored). Do you feel that being a synesthete impacted the way the characters saw the world?
LZ: Absolutely! Quinn and her sister, both synesthetic, have opposite reactions to the condition: Quinn doesn’t like seeing colors—they irritate and scare her—whereas her sister loves them, because they make her powerful. In either case, the synesthetic experience positions these girls, as they grow, a little apart from other people. A little outside. Quinn learns to use the colors (for instance, they “show her where to sing,” they organize her understanding of musical notes) but she never enjoys them.
Many synesthetes have exceptionally good memories. Quinn’s sharp memory afflicts her, often keeps her from fully inhabiting the present moment.
Synesthesia is believed to result from “cross-activation” in the brain, whereby different sites of perception or cognition get triggered together. It’s a compelling example of what happens when the membrane between experiences is punctured—when there’s slippage, transversal, contamination. This happens all the time with the past and the present. I’m really interested in this leakage from one experience into another, across time and space—or, in the case of synesthetes, across the wrinkles of the brain itself.