Interview with Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Language of Music: Andy Ross, Literary Agent, Talks with Lisa Lenard-Cook, author of Dissonance

 

by Andy Ross

Lisa3 Lisa Lenard-Cook’s PEN-shortlisted novel Dissonance, originally published by UNM Press, has just been re-issued in paperback and e-editions by Santa Fe Writers’ Project. She’s also the author of New Mexico Penwomen Zia Prize-shortlisted novel Coyote Morning (UNM Press), and the writing guides The Mind of Your Story (Writer’s Digest Books) and (with Lynn C. Miller) Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press), as well as numerous trade nonfiction books. Her short fiction has appeared in Southwest Review, Rosebud, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Lisa is a faculty member at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, and was recently a featured writer at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Ogden. Lisa is a co-founder of ABQ Writers Co-op (abqwriterscoop.com), bosque (the magazine), and the Bosque Fiction Prize, and holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Andy Ross: Today, I am going to interview Lisa Lenard-Cook, whose novel, Dissonance, has just been reissued by Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP). The novel is about a Los Alamos piano teacher whose inheritance of journals and music scores from a woman she doesn’t know sends her on a journey of self-discovery. Before we jump into a discussion of Dissonance, let’s talk about the reissue. What brought about this second life for your novel?

Lisa Lenard-Cook: What a great place to start! I had been receiving the Santa Fe Writers’ Project newsletter for some time. In the summer of 2013, I clicked through to a story in The Washington Post Magazine about Andrew Gifford, SFWP founder and publisher. When I finished reading the story, my well-tuned intuitive guide system told me I had to send him Dissonance. The website described a number of projects that SFWP was engaged in —a contest, a journal, or general submissions. I selected the latter. Not five minutes later, Andrew emailed back: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” Yes, I told him. “Do you own the rights?” he asked. Yes, I said. Within days, Andrew was posting about his reading of Dissonance on Facebook. A number of friends told me I’d better friend this guy. I did more than that. I sold him the book.Dissonance cover

AR: Do you see the reissue of Dissonance with a smaller publisher as a commentary on the current state of commercial book publishing? Why did you jump from an academic press to an indie press? Why not take it to a big New York publisher?

LLC: Back in 2009 when I got the rights back to the book, I thought that perhaps I could sell it to a bigger house. But they are mostly looking for new titles, not reprints, and have become very commercial. At that time, the economy had melted down and everyone in New York publishing was getting laid off. Then I got the above-mentioned newsletter, and it all fell into place. SFWP is in a far better position to support a small literary novel than either a big commercial publisher or a university press whose primary focus is not fiction. And Andrew loves reprints, and loves the books he publishes. Agents and editors toss the word “love” around a lot—but Andrew makes sure SFWP lives that way.

AR: Do you have any thoughts about the commitment of the major commercial publishers to literary fiction in general?

LLC: They have become big business. Most of the majors are owned by multimedia conglomerates. If a book doesn’t emulate the last big thing, if it isn’t written by a big-name author or attached to a celebrity or a big news story, they simply won’t take the risk. I read Publisher’s Lunch daily, and see few exceptions to this new state of affairs.

The other side of this is that readers are simply not buying as many books. And the books they are buying are increasingly those that are heavily media-driven. In the brave new world of the Internet, people’s attention spans have gotten a lot shorter. Book lovers used to go to bookstores every week and spend hours browsing. They don’t do that so much anymore. And the world of good literature suffers accordingly.

Which came first, book buyers buying less, or commercial publishers no longer taking risks? Increasingly, I discover new books to read via the New York Times Book Review, literary journals, recommendations from friends and students and colleagues and family. My husband Bob likes thrillers—guy books, I call them—but ever since I bought him a Kindle (yeah, I know…), he downloads them via Overdrive from the library. Still, I find that the best way to discover new books is to browse the shelves of independent stores and talk to these booksellers who really have a passion for books. One of my favorite activities is going to Bookworks, my local independent store, and browsing.

readersI am certain that I am not the only avid reader seeking out books that have become difficult to find. I am not the only reader who adores Molly Giles as much as Margaret Atwood, Judith Freeman as much as Jennifer Egan. Where are the books smart readers want to read? Indie presses. Small presses. Or, like so many I myself have written, in closets and drawers.

AR: Let’s get back to Dissonance. How involved were you in the re-issue?

LLC: Andrew might say too involved!

I made the decision early-on not to change the original text but rather to honor who I was when I first wrote the book, in 1995, and edited it, in 2002. I had final say on the cover, and insisted on certain aspects of the interior design that were important to me—especially wider than usual line-breaks, which I think of as “rests” between sections.

AR: Dissonance deftly jumps from the big, open skies of New Mexico in the recent past with our narrator, Anna Kramer, to the Jewish experience in WWII. There’s a harmony in these stories, which run as parallel journeys of discovery as Anna works her way through the journals and music of concentration camp survivor Hana Weissova. New Mexico has long been your home, so that comes easy, I imagine. Could you talk about the character of Hana? What were your influences? How did you settle on that era?

Terezin gate smaller

The entrance to Terezin, which looks curiously like a piano keyboard

storyLLC: Once I sit down to write, my characters tell me their stories, but one of the seeds for Dissonance was the children’s book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which includes artwork created by children at the concentration camp Terezin. The idea of that particular camp, where writers, artists, and musicians were sent, haunted me. As it wasn’t far from Prague, that seemed a good home for Hana and her family before the war. As for Hana herself, she is unlike anyone I have ever known, and I admire her greatly for her courage and refusal to be beaten down.

AR: Did you have family involved in the Holocaust? In Los Alamos?

LLC: I have inherited several pictures of a family—I don’t know who they are, but my mother thinks they must be relatives—who disappear after the war. Like Terezin, their faces haunt me. And many of my friends’ parents, when I was growing up in Buffalo in the 1950s, were survivors. But except for one, they would not talk about it. No one would talk about it.

My husband’s stepfather worked at the Labs in Los Alamos, so he and Bob’s mother lived there until shortly before his death. It’s where we did Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other family get-togethers. It was one such Christmas when the third seed for Dissonance was planted.

AR: You’ve noted that an influence was All But My Life by Gerda Weissman. Could you talk a bit about that title and how you discovered it?

LLC: Mrs. Klein, my grade school friend Leslie’s mother, survived Auschwitz—she later married the American soldier who liberated her—and her book recounts the horrors she faced during WWII, including forced marches, grueling factory work, and the horrific deaths of family and friends. Reading this book had a profound effect on me, first, because no one else we knew who’d survived a concentration camp would talk about it, but perhaps even more profoundly because Mrs. Klein—a woman—wrote a book. I’d always known I wanted to be a writer, but I’d never known a woman could do it. When I spoke to Mrs. Klein shortly after Dissonance was first published, and heard her voice, I burst into tears. I hadn’t known it, but Hana’s voice—the voice I heard in my head—was Mrs. Klein’s.

AR: The story is built around music theory, which is unusual. There are lots of books about music and the creative process of musicians. Not so much about music theory. What in your life brought you to this as an organizing principle?

LLC: Music theory was the first seed for the novel. I’m an eclectic reader, and I’d picked up a number of books about music theory. I was struck by the terms and their meanings, how they worked metaphorically on a much larger scale. The other two seeds, the concentration camp Terezin and the Los Alamos lab, came later. There is a discussion of this in the readers’ guide on my website, www.lisalenardcook.com.

AR: Do readers need any special knowledge of music theory before they approach Dissonance?

theoryLLC: What a good question! While many musicians have told me they particularly like this aspect of the book, it wasn’t music theory itself that intrigued me but the language—words like rhythm, harmony, consonance, dissonance—and the metaphor it provides for what would otherwise be difficult to express. To me the best writing—be it prose or poetry—strives to express the inexpressible, and discovering the possibilities for doing so in other systems is part of what I love about the process.

AR: Talk about the idea of dissonance as a metaphor for the lives of the characters and as a theme for the history of the twentieth century.

LLC: Let me approach this from another angle. Everyone’s always talking about “dysfunctional” families. My question is, what is a “functional” family? It seems to me the illusion of normalcy has created an impossible standard, a Kodak moment that exists only in ads. So, if we work from the idea that the norm is a sort of controlled chaos, the horrors of the 20th century (and, unfortunately, the 21st) are part of the continuum of horror—with the difference that they were increased a hundred-fold. A few choice horrors: the Armenian genocide; WW I; WW II; Vietnam; Biafra. More sophisticated tools of destruction have indeed led to greater scales of destruction. That’s the dissonance of the 20th century. While a character in the book notes, “Even dissonance yearns toward consonance,” I myself have lately become less hopeful.

AR: Continuing with that idea of dissonance as metaphor, and the theme of history… Assuming the lives of our characters are symphonies, is there any difference between Hana’s journey from 1945 onward and Anna’s journey of discovery in the 1990s? Hana is very much a voice from the past, and a voice warning not to let the past conquer the present, or the future. What is the ultimate message coded into Hana’s music?

LLC: Anna has chosen to live a small life because she believes she is mediocre. Hana chooses to live an honest life because she has seen what lies can perpetrate. Anna learns from Hana to “remember and forgive/there is time for little else.” So I would say that Anna grows from what she learns of Hana’s life, and this growth would not have been possible without the opportunity to re-examine her past that Hana offered her. Hana never finishes her symphony—what matters is the effort toward understanding, and not giving up.

AR: Anna’s father worked on the bombs at Los Alamos, and he was the man who picked the targets – Hiroshima…NagasakiHow does Anna’s relationship to Los Alamos and her father’s decision fit in with the novel? This is something of a background hum to Anna’s journey, and the root of her struggle, but is only quietly dealt with. Why is such a huge element of the main character kept so quiet?

Los Alamos

Los Alamos, New Mexico

LLC: Los Alamos was the last seed to be planted before I began to write, and the dissonance of needing to “end a war that had already gone on too long” by dropping bombs on civilian populations was less questioned at the time than it has come to be. The dissonance of Los Alamos itself—it’s a stunningly beautiful place—high mountains, deep canyons, ancient Puebloan ruins—versus the work that is done there—continues to be striking. This leitmotif is carried throughout the novel. I just work it quietly.

AR: Quietly… Both the publisher’s description of the book and one of your blurbers describe your book as “quiet.” You’re a writer, a teacher, and a critic. Tell us about “quietness” in literary fiction.

LLC: As a “quiet” writer, it’s hard for me to talk about this without a dose of irony. That said, I think that the best writing connects with readers on a very personal level, those moments where a reader suddenly feels the writer has peered into his/her mind and articulated what the reader has been unable to say. Like poetry, “quiet” writing strives to articulate the ineffable. Its connections come not in explosions and car chases, not in wooden characters rushing to meet plot points, but rather in internal epiphanies that resonate with readers.

AR: Could you name a few other contemporary authors whom you see as “quiet” writers?

LLC: I love the work of Caryl Phillips, who writes of the African, African-American, and slave experience from numerous waterangles. I think Red Water, by Judith Freeman, whom I mentioned earlier in a different context, is one of the finest books I’ve ever read. I watch for new books by Jayne Anne Phillips, Kazuo Ishiguro, Daniel Mason, Maggie O’Farrell, Margaret Atwood, Marianne Wiggins, E. L. Doctorow—and of course, Alice Munro. I wish there could somehow be more from the late Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, and Katherine Anne Porter. And, while she seems “noisy,” the power of Kate Atkinson’s work lies in what’s beneath that surface maelstrom.

AR: In addition to writing novels, you are also an accomplished writing instructor. You’ve written guidebooks on writing fiction and memoir, and you also teach writing. What advice do you have for new authors? What advice do you have for writers in general?

LLC: It is extremely tempting to invoke the cliché, don’t quit your day job. In fact, I must do so, for the sake of those who imagine untold riches flying in the door soon after they type “The End.” But the advice I offer my students, my readers, and my writing friends, has, at its root, never varied. First, you write; then, you edit. Keep the two separate—and the longer between writedrafts, the better. Write because you love to, not for money or glory. If you love something you read, read it again to discover why. And if you hate something you read, read that again, too, for the same reason. Last, write in a genre you love to read, not one you hear is selling.

AR: How did your experience as an instructor influence the writing of Dissonance?

LLC: I had just started teaching at Fort Lewis College when I wrote the book, so it didn’t really influence the writing. It was in the revision that I practiced what I preach. I cut, I moved, I added, and then cut some more. The last thing I did before submitting the book to the Jim Sagel Prize (which it won, in manuscript) was to divide it into five sections. Actually, it seemed to fall into those sections. And then it felt finished.

AR: You co-authored a book about memoir writing [Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir, with Lynn C. Miller].What are your top three favorite memoirs? And why?

LLC: Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast is brilliant, gorgeous, and gut-wrenching. Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacaranda is a must for those who love her fiction, as it shows how her childhood continues to inform her work. And I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild—her voice is so honest and clear.

AR: Could you talk a little about the ABQ Writers Co-op, which you co-founded?

LLC: Back when Lynn and I began ABQ Writers Co-op, we had big plans. Classes! Salons! Conferences! A journal! Five years later, we’ve had several salons, cut back on the classes, and now mentor students individually. But our pride and joy is bosque (the magazine). We’re working on our fourth issue, due out in November, and, with no small credit due to our poetry editor, Hilda Raz, it is somehow even better than our extraordinary third, fabulous second, and stellar first issues.

AR: What are you currently working on?

LLC: I just finished a major revision of a novel I first wrote in 2004 (more practicing what I preach). It’s called Long Division, and explores the aftershocks of a synagogue bombing on one woman’s family and her long friendship with a Palestinian-American. I’m also working on a new novel, called Dear Lucia, about a young woman whose mother abandons her family in the early ’70s, then publishes a book that becomes a second wave feminist bible a year later. And I’m revising two short stories, and tweaking a memoir piece based on my father’s experiences after WWII.

AR: Lisa, thanks for this interview. It’s inspiring to know that authors are still writing smart books. Dissonance is certainly one of them.

LLC: Thanks, Andy!

Andy Ross is a literary agent in Oakland, California. He represents Lisa for her newest novel: Long Division.

(For more, please see his bio on the Contributors page.)

For More Information

Visit Lisa Lenard-Cook’s website.

For a copy of Dissonance, visit Santa Fe Writers Project.

Look up a Reader’s Guide.

Explore the literary journal bosque.

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