Leni Zumas is the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator (Open City) and the novel The Listeners, recently out from Tin House in 2012. Her fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Open City, Salt Hill, New Orleans Review, New York Tyrant, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and other magazines. She is an assistant professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Portland State University.
Tin House says of her new novel: “Leni Zumas portrays a world twisted on its axis by loss, in all its grotesque beauty. From the first line the prose is glorious: pricklingly honest and hallucinatory, a lucid dream world realized. The Listeners marks the debut of a major American writer.”
Check out the haunting book trailer by artist Luca Dipierro.
This interview was conducted through email.
Genevieve Hudson: The Listeners is filled with examples of renaming, not naming, and unusual descriptions. One example that comes to mind is a boy you describe as “a calamity-haired baby spark.” Do you think of ways to defamiliarize as you write? How does it play a part in your process?
Leni Zumas: My debt to Viktor Shklovsky is huge. Reading his essay “Art as Technique” years ago broke wide open, for me, the idea of strangeness in fiction. In Shklovsky’s view, “estrangement” is crucial to sensation: the reader must experience something as slightly off-kilter, off-expectation, in order to see/hear/feel it as if for the first time (and thereby to be moved by it). The things we’ve already seen—or believe we already know—lose their ability to move us. So as I wrote The Listeners, I was always trying to avoid terms so familiar they’ve grown dead, or at least deadening.