Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Susan Tepper: A writer with one foot in New York City and the other in Somerville, Mass.

Susan Tepper

By Doug Holder

I have known Susan Tepper for a number of years now, and she has not slowed down an iota. She is a consummate New Yorker--she moves fast, talks fast and thinks on her feet. I have read for her at the KGB FIZZ series in the lower east side of NYC, have been on a small press panel she organized for a literary festival at Hunter College and I have published her poetry in The Somerville Times and the Ibbetson Street magazine. Tepper will be in Somerville, Monday June 16 7PM, to read from her latest book The Merrill Diaries, which is a novel told in stories that link one to the next. She will be reading in Gloria Mindock's Cervena Barva Press Art Space located in the Somerville Arts Armory building. It's a gathering of writers and poets published by the Cervena Barva Press and the MadHat Press.

Hundreds of Tepper's stories, poems, essays and interviews appear worldwide in print journals and online venues. Her bi-monthly MONDAY CHAT Interview column ran on the Fictionaut blog for more than a year and is archived on that site. Tepper is host of the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in New York City. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Deer, the title story of her collection, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts. Her novel WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Doug Holder: Can you give me a brief history of your experience in Somerville? 

Susan Tepper:  My first experience of Somerville was several years ago when my collection ‘Deer & Other Stories’ came out from Wilderness House Press which is located in northern MA.  I had been invited to do a TV spot in Somerville with a certain Doug Holder(!)  I found Somerville to be diverse and charming.  After the TV interview, a small group of us had a lovely dinner outdoors (I believe you had the salmon, Doug).  I always remember what people eat.  It’s bizarre.  I also remember it was a balmy night in early fall.  My 3 city MA book tour.  You try and cram in as much as possible since you are paying for hotel nights.  I also taught a fiction workshop at Grub Street in Boston which was delightful, and I read at Four Stories Reading Series in Cambridge.  It was a whirlwind few days in MA!

DH: How did your life journey lead to writing?

ST: Becoming a writer was not in my game plan.  I’d been an actress since I was seventeen, and that was my primary focus.  To make money I sang with the bands, any gig I could land.  Six sets a night was standard.  Hard times require hard measures (or some such thing).  I was young and that made all the difference.  I didn’t start to write until I hit forty.  I wrote a story, took it to The New School and watched it get massacred.  Then the teacher told me it was a good story and that I should keep writing.  Green light!  I was waiting for something new and there it was.  That class was life-changing.  I became a writer.

DH: Can you describe your involvement with Gloria Mindock’s Cervena Barva Press? 

ST: Gloria published my poetry chapbook Blue Edge, as well as a novel I co-wrote with Gary Percesepe called What May Have Been, which traces a fictional account of a love affair between the surrealist painter Jackson Pollock and a made-up young woman.  Gloria and I became great friends and I was her assistant editor at the Istanbul Literary Review for a few years.

As for my current book The Merrill Diaries, which I’ll be reading from, that was published by Pure Slush Books http://pureslush.webs.com/atasteofmerrill.htm  out of Australia.  The novel begins in 1976, at the end of the Vietnam War.  I grew up during those years, and the time period, though tumultuous, was also one of great personal expansion and change for many.  It fascinates me to think back on those days.  The Merrill Diaries spans ten years and follows the main character, Merrill, over two continents, two marriages, and quite a few quirky relationships.  Merrill, like me, is a traveler.  Life for her is about seeing and acquiring new adventures. 

DH: Is there a recurrent theme in your work?

ST: A recurrent theme in my work is the search for love.  I find love to be mostly elusive.  Not just romantic love, but familial love, friend love, all of it is transitory in my experience.  It’s around for a while then it can do all sorts of unpredictable things.  It can hide like a bear in a cave, or take a long walk off a short pier.  In essence, love is not a static thing.  Love cannot be depended upon to bring you happiness.  You have to get that on your own.  And so it comes into my prose and poetry with regularity.  I examine love as if I was a scientist and it was a smear on a slide. 

DH: Do you think women writers still get the shaft in the literary world?

ST;  There is a lot of controversy over male vs female writers, who gets which prizes, which gender is favored over which.  I don’t buy into that.  If you write a really good story or book that takes risks, you will get it published and possibly even win a prize.  Or at least be nominated for one.  A lot of women writers feel the men are being favored.  I don’t agree.  I conduct author/book interviews and I will be dead on honest here when I say that I have a hard time finding really good novels written by contemporary women authors.  The ‘mommy books’ that are popular amongst the 40-something readers leave me cold.  I end up mostly interviewing women about their story collections or poetry books (I can feel the rotten tomatoes being hurled).  But, seriously, there is a reason certain books get prizes and nominations.  Women need to break out of traditional themes and go where the men go.  Risk Risk Risk.  An example of a fabulous woman novelist is the late Susan Fromberg Schaeffer who wrote the Vietnam book ‘Buffalo Afternoon’.  Now there was a woman who understood risk in writing.  I think it’s the best book ever written about the Vietnam War.  And by a woman who never served as a soldier!

For more information about the reading go to:Cervena Barva Press


  1. I always learn new things and am constantly inspired by Susan. Great interview.

  2. Jayne Martin I appreciate that. I try and tell it straight, all the time, which gets me into frequent trouble. But as the writer Bill Lantry said to me recently: You can't please everyone so don't beat up on yourself. Bill's advice was sound and I keep it close to me.

  3. Always truthful, always balls out, always forging ahead with no fear...this is Susan! And I love her.

    1. Thank you, (S) wine for noticing and commenting on my balls which are very dear to me. lol... Life is short. No time for blame or self pity. & thanks for the love.