A Sidelong Glance at Leni Zumas

Leni Zumas photo
Leni Zumas is the author of The Listeners, a finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award, and Farewell Navigator, a collection of stories. Among all these things, Zumas is a generous professor of writing at Portland State University and was kind enough to meet with me for an interview.

Just around the corner from the headquarters of Portland’s darling independent publisher, Tin House, Leni Zumas and I sat down in a cafe earlier this month to discuss writing craft, her novel, teaching, and, of course, sexism in the publishing industry.

I had devoured her unflinching novel and found Zumas’s writing none-too-shy, sometimes steering the reader’s gaze directly into the wounds of her characters. You think that she won’t describe the wreckage—in one instance, a younger sister’s death by a stray bullet—but Zumas does that, and then traces the path of the bullet through the brilliant girl’s mind, and then shows a younger brother’s tragically humorous confusion over period blood and death blood.

I related to the narrator, Quinn, whom I have known many times over. I’ve dated her. I’ve been her. Some of my best friends are reincarnations of this narrator, who might be considered a bit dysfunctional: She smokes, she drinks, she lusts for attention, and she asks her family, even her younger brother, for money. She is all of us at our worst and most delicate, brilliant and buried by her gifts.

The contortions of Zumas’s imagination brought me great pleasure to read. She shows the reader just how brutal the mind can be. In my interview, I asked Zumas about the way that she deployed information in the novel. She told me that the published version of The Listeners differed greatly from the original.

“I wrote it without any sense of chronology or linearity. Basically, I focused on a few major worries or anxieties. Whether it was an internal one for Quinn, or the accident that the band has, or the sister’s death, I just wrote scenes from there. I circled those wounds, so to speak, from different perspectives and once I had a bunch of those, I stepped back and said, ‘Well, what do I have and how can I organize this?’”

“One of the challenges was that there’s three different time registers in the book: There’s around the time when the sister dies, there’s around the band, and then there’s the present moment, and so I had a really hard time figuring out how to weave those together without it being completely chaotic. One of my textual models was a very long poem by Anne Carson called ‘The Glass Essay.’ It’s not a strictly narrative poem, but there are three strands. . . And the way that she weaves these three strands together and allows them to inform each other and enrich each other really stayed with me. I think I read that poem in 2003 or something—it was before I started this book—but I wanted to do something like that in a book.”

Zumas called Carson’s “The Glass Essay” a “ghost book” for her book (to borrow a phrase from Maggie Nelson, whose work she taught this spring in a seminar to Portland State students), and that this model helped her to shuffle around the motifs in The Listeners in a way she described as being “very mathematical.”

“I identified different images or objects that were occurring frequently throughout the novel and I would do a search for those things. Say one of those things was the little octopus and it appears on page two and not again until page ninety and that felt weird so I had to make the intervals shorter. I wanted the reader to gain an accumulated sense of meaning from those objects and not have everything appear and be thoroughly introduced, you might just get a glimpse of it [the first time] and by the fourth glimpse, you’d start to understand the fabric of the book.”

I mentioned how much I enjoyed the short, intense bursts of scene, usually only a few pages long before a pause. Zumas said that her writing actually occurred in those short bursts:

“The composition process was extremely fragmentary and sort of modular, so that’s how I think about scenes. I don’t think of a long scene with fifteen characters all doing something in the same place, I think of a glimpse or a sidelong glance at something. It actually can be an impediment, too. I can be a little too brief with those glimpses sometimes and it’s something I’m trying to be mindful about in my practice: Why do I want to leave that moment so fast? Sometimes I think a moment should be left quickly before it loses it’s spark, so you don’t deaden the reader with detail upon detail, but there’s some kind of sweet spot that you can hit with that. I’m always looking for ways to not leave the scene too quickly. . .I did think about rhythm and cadence a lot when I was putting together the final version. Short or long. Intense or comic.”

“Assemblage or dissembling something is a really important part of the process that we don’t often talk about,” she added.

At the start of this year, Lauren and I took the same fiction workshop with Zumas at Portland State. I loved the variety of texts that we read in Zumas’s class—Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, and Grace Paley were a few favorites—and I felt influenced by those authors to try a more experimental approach with my own writing. I asked Zumas whether she would continue teaching.

“It’s that kind of limited resource thing: I have this much to give to teaching and this much to give to writing. I don’t know how it would feel if all I was doing was writing because even when I was in grad school, I was teaching. . .I think I will be teaching for a while. And I love it.”

Zumas continued: “One of the things it does is constantly reexamine why I believe what I believe certain things about writing. I can’t just decide ‘Oh, this is how it is,’ and blithely go forward because if I’m actually talking about this with our writers, I need to have something to stand behind and constantly be looking for new texts to bring in. Not necessarily new, as in contemporary—it could be something from 1904—but something that furthers the investigation. It keeps me honest. And also, I really like talking with other people about their work. I really like working one-on-one with thesis advisees because you can kind of see their work change over time. . .I love seeing that.”

When we took our writing class with Zumas, she had recently returned from maternity leave. I asked her how being a parent informed her writing, if at all.

“I feel that having a baby has made me more vulnerable to the world. It’s as if some of my skin has been ripped off. I feel very sensitive, which is a good thing for a writer, I think. Even though it’s a fragile or stressed-out or tired feeling, I also feel receptive to. . .I don’t know whether it’s emotion or suffering, I notice those details more. The flip side of that is that I’ve had very little time to write since my son was born. But this summer I will. I’ve already started writing in the mornings again. He takes a nap in the mornings now. That’s my time.”

We spoke about what Zumas called “the fraught question” of motherhood and parenting as an influence on a writer and I asked her about how she has felt as a woman writer in publishing industry. She spoke warmly of her women writer mentors—such as Noy Holland, her teacher from the University of Massachusetts—and also of her habit of scanning the table of contents in her copy of various literary journals for the gender of the writers.

Zumas said that she was curious to see more studies of the gender disparity among literary journals.

“The VIDA Count is a useful way in generating conversation about that.”

In the workshop setting, though, Zumas said that the conversation should always come down to “what is happening on the page.”

“A story’s character development or use of cliché is the useful thing to talk about,” she said. “Anyway we can kind of depersonalize stuff and get at what’s on the page. One thing that I regret about workshops is when the discussion gets too far off the page. I think that the answer to everything is to come back to the text.”

I asked her what summer writing plans she had and Zumas said that she wanted to keep it simple. “Really, I’m focusing on writing every morning. . .If that happens, I’ll be happy.”

You can pick up your copy of The Listeners or Farewell Navigator at your local bookstore, at Powells.com, and elsewhere, too. You can also browse more books from Portland-based publisher, Tin House, here.

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