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Leni Zumas’s debut book, the collection Farewell Navigator, earned acclaim from the likes of Joy Williams and Miranda July; it split the difference between wrenching realism and surreal moments of clarity. Here was an artist equally comfortable achieving emotional truths and spending time in post-punk bands. Her first novel, The Listeners, released in May on Tin House, takes up the promise of that collection and turns it into something even more stunning. It follows Quinn, a onetime musician now living on the economic fringes of the city in which she grew up. She encounters family members and former bandmates, a series of traumas lurking in their shared history. It’s a fantastic novel, sometimes sharply observed and at others wrenchingly horrific (and sometimes both). I checked in with Zumas via email to learn more about how The Listeners — and some of its most striking aspects — came to be.

Throughout The Listeners, Quinn’s language with her siblings and her bandmates each has its own syntax, its own private vocabulary. How much of that came up intuitively, and how much of it had you figured out ahead of time?

I’m fascinated by the private codes of siblings—those secret words, signals, short-hands that many brothers and sisters use with each other. Because sibling relationships are central to The Listeners, tweaking the characters’ language felt necessary. But I didn’t plan it out beforehand; I sort of stumbled upon it as I went along. Same with the lingo that surfaces among the bandmates: I wrote my way into it, messily. A few of the words in the novel (e.g., “spark”) derive from antiquated British or American slang; but others, like “glimmie,” showed up from who knows where. In general, lingo and slang and skewed diction attract me as ingredients for fiction—they’re codes that can build a world, even in the space of a few pages.

The Listeners includes elements that border on the Gothic (including Quinn’s bloodworm visions and the reason for Cam’s estrangement from his bandmates), but constantly encloses them in a deeply realistic style. How did you go about finding this balance?

It’s a balance I’m always pursuing—sometimes in vain. I want my fiction to inhabit that unnerving space between the familiar and the strange, the stable and the tilted. The bloodworm does have a tinge of the Gothic, but it’s also meant to be literal, at least as literal as an imagined presence can be. What I mean is, Quinn truly and violently experiences the worm, even though it’s not physically manifest. A person’s interior experience is just as real as the objects she can touch. Key to the balance between “realistic” and “fantastic” is the language itself—renaming, not naming, distorting a usual name. And I often return to this quote from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn: “The astonishing monsters that we know to be properly part of the natural world leave us with a suspicion that even the most fantastical beasts might not be mere inventions.”

What prompted the inclusion of synesthesia in the novel?

Synesthesia as a literary device has always been interesting to me, for the same reason any kind of metaphorical impulse is interesting—you replace one thing with another (one object for another, one sense for another) and thereby change the first thing while at the same time keeping it alive. A weird process, and it’s what all of writing is: we’re replacing, substituting, symbolizing the world with language, but the language itself is an entity too, with its own acoustics and texture and weight, not merely a vehicle of representation. Another compelling aspect of synesthesia, as a neurological condition, is that it can be experienced as a burden or hindrance rather than a gift. Quinn, the novel’s narrator, is bothered by the fact that her brain interleaves color into sound and vice versa; whereas her sister loves this twining puncture, considers it a strength. I wanted Quinn to have an unusual ability that was also an affliction.

There are a few moments in the novel when Quinn will talk about another character, and then book will shift from her first-person perspective to a third-person view of what that character is doing. Did you intend for these to be actual shifts in perspective, or a kind of speculative third person from Quinn’s perspective?

Much more like a speculative third. Quinn is picturing these moments—of her brother’s life, for instance, or of her friend Geck’s—without getting too ponderous with the “I would guess he is doing this” or “I think he’s probably doing that.” It felt more organic to establish that she was imagining something then go unapologetically into a quasi-third, a first-aping-third point of view. I was hoping such moments would establish Quinn’s empathy, wrench her out of the self-indulgence she sometimes finds herself trapped in.

The novel features a number of groups, from the band that inspires Quinn and Cam to make music to their own band to the bands devoted to them, and yet we don’t know much of what they sound like. When you were writing the novel, could you hear specific riffs, chords, and songs?

I wasn’t thinking of particular songs or melodies so much as an atmosphere, a sensibility. I consciously stopped myself from drawing on existing bands because I didn’t want the music scene in The Listeners to be recognizable; I preferred it to be incomplete, full of gaps the reader could fill in herself. As someone who played in bands for many years, I have an aversion to writing about music; it seems so potentially cheesy or lame. Yet this band of Quinn’s kept showing up in the early drafts of the novel. I couldn’t stop writing about it, much as I cringed. At some point I just accepted that this was a part of my book, this bygone world of basement shows and tour vans that the narrator both scorns and longs for. Most writers have topics or themes we avoid—out of shame, fear, pain, insecurity, etc.—yet these evasions can sometimes direct us to sources of great heat and energy. I encourage my students to identify what they fiercely don’t want to write about, and see what happens when they do.

The city in which Quinn lives is never named in the novel, but there are enough details given about it that readers can figure out the setting fairly easily. Was that done in part so that the bands described wouldn’t be tied (in the reader’s mind) to any particular scene?

Absolutely, yes. I wanted to strip away connotations. The novel is set in a city that closely resembles my hometown of Washington D.C., but it’s not exactly Washington D.C. Even though D.C. isn’t as iconic as New York or Los Angeles, it’s a place that most people have strong associations with—and assumptions about—and I didn’t want those to cloud the reading experience. Nor was I interested in writing an accurate portrait of the D.C. punk scene in the 80s and 90s, even though that scene (pockets of it, at least) was in my mind while I wrote the novel.

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