I have chosen to begin this year’s series of interviews by introducing my visitors to Lisa Lenard-Cook. As is the case with other authors I intend to feature this year, Lisa writes fiction and non-fiction alike. She is a faculty member at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and has taught at many other conferences, including the Taos Summer Writing Conferences and NULC in Ogden. She also teaches private classes and takes, in her words, “particular joy in mentoring both beginning & more experienced writers… I love to hear from readers and writers, and cheerfully (mostly) respond to queries.”
I first encountered her work in 2010 when I read her book, The Mind of Your Story, published by Writers’ Digest Books, in which she explores how she synthesizes her experiences into something cohesive. In her book, she suggests that at least three, disparate, compelling ideas must come together before a story can congeal. In the example she gives, the first seed for one such tale involved her learning about two similar women who had developed Alzheimer’s disease and noticing the parallels in their lives. The second came while watching planes dropping slurry onto the fires near her home during a drought. When she read about wild horses starving on government land, that was the necessary final element. The three converged in “Wild Horses,” her account of a rancher whose wife develops Alzheimer’s. You will see how this theme repeats when we discuss her new novel.
The effort I refer to is a book entitled Dissonance. It has been attracting a great deal of attention as well as winning awards since its 2014 re-release. It won the Jim Sagel Prize for the novel while still in manuscript. And after its original publication by the University of New Mexico press in 2003, it was selected as a book of the year by the Tucson-Pima County Public Library, the Midland Library and the Cincinnati Public Library. In 2004, the book was both a NPR Performance Today Summer Reading Choice and the countywide reading selection for Durango-La Plata Reads and in 2005 it was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award.
Times-standard.com has this to say about her book: “‘Dissonance,’ by Lisa Lenard-Cook, is a touching novel that takes the reader from present-day New Mexico back to the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and then forward to the present again. It is beautifully written and emotionally charged. I especially enjoyed the way Lenard-Cook uses music as a means to explore sensitive themes. A haunting and lovely read, this one.”
Congratulations on the re-release of your novel, Dissonance. Can you tell us something about it?
Using the language of music theory as a leitmotif, Dissonance is the story of a Los Alamos piano teacher who receives a legacy from a woman she doesn’t think she knows, which leads her on a journey of self-discovery.
What caused you to write it and is there a story behind the story?
I’ve found that any fiction I write, be it short story or novel, requires three seeds, which quietly mix together until a certain moment when I am quite literally compelled to write. The first seed for Dissonance was likely planted when I was young, when I read an autobiography by my friend Leslie Klein’s mother, Gerda Weissman Klein, All But My Life, which introduced me to a world far less benign than I had previously imagined. I began to notice how many people—how many of my friends’ parents, in fact—had numbers stamped on their arms.
I never intended to write a book about the Holocaust; so many good books have already been written. Nor was I (or am I) someone who immersed herself in Holocaust literature. But then, in the mid 90s, when I was a graduate assistant at Vermont College(where I earned my MFA), Juan Felipe Herrera gave a talk about the writer’s political and social responsibility. It really struck me, that talk, and, while I didn’t know it at the time, it connected to that first seed, when my daughter Kaitlin Kushner brought home a library book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, about children’s art at the concentration camp Terezín.
Then, at Christmas (1994), we were in Los Alamos at my in-laws. I started thinking about Los Alamos, then and now—the Manhattan Project, SDI, the extraordinarily smart people who live there, and how many of them are musicians. This was the second seed.
Now I happened to be reading a great deal of music theory at the time, although I no longer remember why. One morning, I was reading about the mechanism of the piano when a line came into my head: “The piano is unique among instruments for its double stroke.” While I did not know who was speaking, I did know I had better take notes. From that first line, the first draft of Dissonance was written over a two-month period in the summer of 1995. It was finished coincidentally (or, perhaps, not coincidentally) on the 50th anniversary of the bomb at Hiroshima.
The holocaust is a difficult theme for many readers. So much has been written about it and this subject evokes so many strong emotions. Why do you think Dissonance is being so well-received?
Dissonance is a book about love and forgiveness. Perhaps it is this… hopefulness… that has kept the book alive all these years.
Why was it discontinued and what brought it back to life?
There are still a few hardcover copies out there—UNM Press never remainders books, but sells them until there are no copies left in the warehouse. At the same time, because the second hardcover edition hadn’t sold out, they didn’t bring out paperback or electronic editions.
I got the rights back to the book in 2008, right around the time the publishing industry (and so much else) imploded. It wasn’t until I learned about Santa Fe Writers Project publisher Andrew Gifford’s efforts to reissue books in 2013 that I knew I’d found the book a new home.
Is Dissonance changing the direction of your career?
It’s certainly wonderful to have received so many kudos for the book, but in the end, it’s the act of writing itself that matters. I recently came across this, from Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I keep it on my desk: “The more intently [the novelist] focuses on the page being written rather than the career that is developing or disintegrating out there somewhere, the better the work and the happier the… person.”
What are you working on now?
In addition to teaching, editing, and coaching other writers (my “day job”), and putting together bosque (the magazine) #4, I’m working on a new novel, Dear Lucia.
I know how busy you are and I want to thank you for dropping by to introduce us to your work.
Thank you, Raymond.
If you would like to learn more about Lisa or purchase her books, you may do so at the following:
Lisa’s website: lisalenardcook.com
Writers co-op website: abqwriterscoop.com