Last April, I attended a poetry reading at KGB, “a Soviet-era themed bar in the East Village of New York City, which once served as a speakeasy for Ukrainian socialists.” The reading’s host was Susan Tepper. Eamon Grennan, Gretl Claggett, and Steve Griffiths were the featured poets. The crowd was older and serious about their poetry. I strode in and parked myself by the bar and ordered a shot of rye
whiskey. I figured I’d listen to some great poetry, get a little buzz, and then head back to my NJ lair before anyone I knew could spot me in the crowd. Susan Tepper spotted me. Easily. My social anxiety kicked in, but like all professional introverts, I was good at hiding that little demon. I carried on as if meeting writers was the most natural thing in the world to me. Susan’s tenacious attitude and quick-witted humor impressed me. Her warmth and carefree informality soothed my little demon. It was a good meeting and I was glad I attended. Later that month, I read her novel, From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012). Susan’s unique, literary style and the book’s audacious form and clarity held me spellbound.
Before immersing herself in literature, Susan worked as an actor, flight attendant, marketing manager, tour guide, singer, television producer, interior decorator, rescue worker and more. Hundreds of her stories, poems, essays and interviews appear worldwide in print journals and online venues. Susan is host of the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in New York City. She’s received nine Pushcart Prize nominations. As well as From the Umberplatzen, she is the author of Deer & Other Stories (Wilderness House Press, 2009), of which the title story was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts. Her novel WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (Červená Barva Press, 2011), co-authored with Gary Percesepe, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
You can find Susan Tepper online at www.susantepper.com.
When did you start writing and why?
Gessy, you started with the universal existential question: when and why? When, was 20 years ago. That part is easy. Why is less simple. In my real world, I started to write a few years after a devastating plane crash at Northwest Airlines (where I worked as a Marketing Manager in NYC). A team of us were sent to Detroit to assist in the crash aftermath. We literally got in the trenches (the bodies were held in a make-shift morgue in an airplane hangar), and there we assisted the docs and dentists in attempting to ID the victims through dental records, family information, insurance information, that sort of thing. There was no DNA to work with back then. We also gave care to the grieving family members. That went on for a couple of weeks until all the victims were accounted for. I then went back to NY where I spent hours aimlessly hitting a tennis ball against the cement wall in the park at 92nd street. It was a rough time. Sometime after, I began hearing a voice in my head saying: write that story. It was a persistent voice. It annoyed me and I pushed it away for a couple of years. Finally, one hot August, I wrote a (long) short story that had nothing to do with the plane crash. Took it to a workshop in NY. I was hooked.
Looking back now, why do you think you chose fiction over nonfiction as a form of expression?
Oh, wow, nonfiction scares the hell out of me. I have written a few pieces of nonfiction, mostly humor stuff (How a New Refrigerator Has Changed Me as a Writer), and I’m OK with that. But do I want to dig around in the ‘truth’ of my life? Hardly. I will never write memoir. I don’t even like reading it. Half the time, I think the memoirs are juiced-up to make the person’s life more exciting than it actually was, but that’s just my opinion. Lots of people really love memoir reading. I guess it’s the same as reality TV, which I abhor. I’m writing a novel in flash right now that is the closest I will ever come to memoir, in that there are ‘kernels’ from my life in this book, but the details have been stretched, blown up, colorized and changed to make it into the fiction that it is. I also feel there is a narcissistic element to memoir, and that bothers me. Unless a person is Albert Schweitzer, or the like, do we really need to know about them in excruciating detail? Not I. Give me fiction any day.
This is your second novel written in flash form. What are some of the challenges you face when writing in this form? What are some of the advantages?
I find flash so easy. To my mind it’s conversational so it flows easily on the page. Before these two flash novels, I wrote three full length traditional form novels. They each took many years to complete with the revisions, etc. Both the long and short forms interest me. I don’t ever feel challenged when writing. I just do it. I don’t mean that to sound obnoxious or conceited, but it’s something that I’m able to do in a natural way, without pre-thought or outlines or any of that. Other people can paint spontaneously (I can’t paint) and do other creative things out of their free will. This is my niche. If it were hard or challenging, I probably wouldn’t do it because it would take the joy out of it. Writing for me is a pure act of joy. A total release from the pressures of life.
You’re not conceited, but I suspect you are a person who has lived more than one lifetime. Your work is intense, empathetic and full of compassion. These traits are beautifully integrated in the sharp and economic use of details in your sentences. Let’s switch gears now and talk about your short story Distance, which was published in Thrice Fiction No. 7. Distance, is told from the point of view of a Vietnam vet working as a security guard in a large museum (presumably modeled after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). How did this story come about?
Gessy, I also suspect I’ve lived more than one lifetime. As for my story Distance, it does take place in a large museum like the Met in NYC. I’m a frequent museum-goer. One day, in a large museum, I noticed one guard in particular. He was around late-middle age, dark, and appeared erratic. He must have been having some sort of emotional crisis or nervous breakdown because he started to walk the perimeter of a large room in Modern Art, with his hand trailing the walls. He just kept doing this. I stood there watching him. The idea that he might turn violent crossed my mind. Though my being from NY, well it wasn’t something that terrifying to contemplate. At the height of lunch hour one day, on Madison Avenue at Tourneau Corner, everyone on the street was commanded through bullhorns to ‘hit the ground.’ Then came a shoot-out between the cops and bad guys. Seriously. So, anyway, the museum guard kept doing his wall thing, and if I were alone there, I probably would’ve watched much longer but my husband wanted to move along. That guard stayed in my mind. Somehow I felt he would come to life in a story and one day he did. I had to justify him, flesh him out. I made him into a Vietnam Vet with “issues” which justified a lot of his actions in the story. At least I think it justified them. I got very engrossed in him which is how I work my characters. I can picture them, what they’re doing and how they move along quite clearly. This, to me, is the really fun part of writing. You become the director, actor, producer, set designer, costume and lighting designer– you get to do it all.
You get to be God. Yet, the strength of this story, at least as I see it, is in how you negotiate between this character’s interior life and the outside world. One last question, what are you working on?
I’ve completed another novel and I’m doing revisions now. It’s about a woman’s life– messy and complicated. The book is literary fiction, and told in linked stories. Gessy, I really enjoyed talking with you!
Thank you, Susan!