Monday, August 07, 2017

LIVE at THE ALGONQUIN in NYC Susan Tepper Interviews Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie Dickinson--Left   Susan Tepper--Right

Susan Tepper Interviews Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm, then lived in Texas, Louisiana, and now New York City, a state unto itself.  Her novels are Half Girl, and Love Highway which is based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder.  Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg was released by New Michigan Press. Dickinson's work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries.  She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press.

Susan Tepper: Let me start by saying you are an incredibly prolific writer. I believe I’ve read all your books. There are plenty of writers out there churning out several titles a year, but few produce such a wide variety of subject matter, and penned in the most pristine manner of story telling.  Your two recent books, The Emily Fables and Flashlight Girls Run, couldn’t be more different one from the other.
You’ve called The Emily Fables a ‘hybrid’ while Flashlight Girls Run is a structured story collection in three parts. How do you do it? What makes Stephanie Emily Dickinson run?

Stephanie Emily Dickinson: In a letter to Maria Huxley, D.H. Lawrence writes:
 “I think myself it’s rather nice to be busy and practical on the outside—and daydreams, as you call it, inside. The things one care about are all inside, like seeds in the ground in winter. But one has to attend to the things one only half cares about. And so life passes away.”

The more structured stories in Flashlight Girls Run were written over a period of six years and perhaps reflect a more settled, less frantic time. While the flash fiction/prose poems that make up The Emily Fables were written recently and in a more compressed, chaotic period. Like others, I’ve experienced a furious speeding up of time, the breathlessness inherent in our multi-tasking, digital brave new world, so much coming in—the multitude of voices, the media clamor, the flood of words, and the tsunami of images. As a writer with one brain and one sadly fragmented attention span, I attempt to absorb what will be an evolutionary uphill battle.

I work a day-job marked by deadlines and although my work is routinized and low-status it is one of ever-increasing pressure. The working-world asks much of its wage laborers and longer days are de rigor. I know fellow employees who studied art and literature and dance but who no longer paint or write or dance. I find that tragic. It steels me in my determination to not give up “the things one cares about.”

Ps-- I was profoundly injured in a long ago violence and I want my survival to count for something beyond my daily bread. I am in love with literature; I love the written word.  To be a reader is to give a gift and to be read is to receive a gift. No matter the vagaries of recognition, no matter the dark politics of our divided America, I hope to stay open, to laugh, to shepherd spirit and energy, to explore, to be conscious of the miracle of life that pulses in me.

ST: In a back cover blurb on your book Flashlight Girls Run, author Susan O’Neill said: “Stephanie Dickinson writes with the beauty of a wounded angel.”
You mention you survived violence. I can feel that undertow in every story and book you write. There is always some thing, or person, or situation, that threatens the protagonist.
Most of your protagonists are women, but for a few, such as your male character Jamer in a story titled Between the Cold Hearts and the Blue Dudes. You have made Jamer a decent man, despite other men in your other stories ranging from mean, crazy, to downright psychopathic. What stimulated the creation of Jamer? Why did you cut him a break and make him quite decent and caring?

SED: For me it was more frightening and challenging to write in a softer tone than to write in an edgier, more fiercely intense one. I am still trying to work my way toward a more varicolored palate, which Jamer represents. I see “the undertow” you mention as a virtue but also a failing in my world view and my work—too easily casting characters in roles of prey and predator. I recognize that all humans are fraught with complexity and ambiguity, and even the most devilish among us have some angelic qualities. It’s the writer’s work to reveal those qualities.

Yes, Jamer represents a new direction in my work and the beginning of an exploration of the male psyche and point-of-view. I am naturally drawn to the traumatized young female in the midst of making one of those fatal decisions that lead to disaster. I needed to stretch and have been exploring various modes of thinking since. Currently, I’m working on a collection of hybrid flash fictions from the point of view of the Austrian Expressionistic poet Georg Trakl. (1887-1914). Considered one of most influential lyric poets of the early 20th century, he’s a tormented, androgynous figure who embraces the male and female or is neither, uncomfortable with both. His short life was marked by depression, drug use, and an incestuous attraction to his younger sister, Grete, the piano prodigy. In spite of it all he produced a poetry of genius.

ST:  I’m also very fond of writing male protagonists.  I believe it’s my way of trying to understand what makes men tick.

SED:  Jamer also represents my desire for readers. I hope to invite readers into my work, to a place they might find pleasure and delight in. Readers, who do take the plunge into my writings, often tell me they have to put the book down, and then pick it up again. They find the denseness of the prose and the intensity of the situation too concentrated. I’ve also heard the word “sadness” in relation to my books. That bothers me. Sadness is the mood we want to avoid at any cost. I grew up with an often cross mother who wanted to avoid sadness through the more active emotion of anger. I love dark literature and yet I met a book that challenged me. The book so brutally extreme that I couldn’t read for long stretches is Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Brilliant, even genius as The Guardian suggests, but hellish to read. Yet I’m glad I did read it and see the play based on the book—unforgettable, raw, lyrical.

ST: All the stories are incredibly powerful in this collection Flashlight Girls Run. I want to talk about the Honeylet stories, which you have bound together under the title The Papoose House. They deal with the true-life situation of children placed into ‘care homes’ which were actually orphanages, of dubious pedigree, and how devastating that turned out for most of the children, as history has recorded those events. This story opens in 1961 and flash forwards to 2010, repeatedly, back and forth, until its conclusion in 2010.
It’s a very interesting structure in that it created a lot of power and intimacy because it gave a lot of exposure to the reader for both time periods.

SED: I think we’re in an exciting literary period when an emphasis on multiculturalism has opened doors that hitherto have been closed. Now we have a world music alive in literature and narratives from all over the globe being published.  In America writing is no longer dominated by the white male* and much has been illuminated about the dark underside of our country’s history and presented by writers of color.  Once we get past the swagger about our exceptionalism we find the gut-wrenching stories.  I don’t want to be guilty of cultural appropriation but the need to give voice to the voiceless is too great, too pressing.  A new literature is being created and every writer’s work seeks importance.

I’ve long been aware that the Indian boarding schools of the late 19th century and 20th century were a blight, schools that lasted in this country until the 1970s. A few years ago I happened to read an article about the tearing down of a Native American boarding school in South Dakota.  A Lakota woman graduate/survivor had been interviewed and gave hair-raising witness to conditions: withholding of food, excessive physical labor, beatings, low teacher standards, little medical care, sexual abuse, and homicide.  I began to write The Papoose House.

I went to undergrad school at Southwest State University in Southwestern Minnesota, not far from the South Dakota border. At that time the Wounded Knee standoff was going on not that many miles distant and activist professors were organizing food and supply drop-offs. Students were smuggling themselves into Wounded Knee to join the struggle. 200 Lakota Sioux Native Americas, all AIM members, had taken hostages and occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  It stemmed from a protest over the devastating Pine Ridge conditions and BIA corruption. (I just checked the statistics and the Pine Ridge unemployment rate is 80-95% with mean income of $4,000. Can this be possible in a country that calls itself Land of the Free and Brave? Treatment past and present of Native Americans is so heartbreaking I find it difficult even to research. The Lakota are truly a forgotten people. The beaten, the colonized. And so Honeylet’s story of all that history and how its effects are inter-generation could best be served by breaking the narrative into two time sequences, two chronological streams that ultimately intersect.  I’ve gone on to write two more Honeylet stories that explore the culture of the boarding schools and of the Church that governs them.
In The Papoose House, Honeylet considers language. “Mamaroneck, Massapequa. Syllable after rich syllable, the true native speech. The first human voices this land knew. That land can not be owned. Dakota. Mississippi. Omaha, Winnebago. Biloxi. Iowa. Yankton. Wichita. The most beautiful sounds to hold in your mouth.”
There is a debt owed here.

ST:  There is a big debt owed.   I’d like to segue here into your other new book “The Emily Fables.”   Where did this title come from?

SED:  That book is dedicated to my grandmother, Emily Amelia Buresh, who mostly raised me.  She was a farm woman who came from what was then called Czechoslovakia. Growing up, she told me a lot about her early life on the farm.

ST:  Her farm life must have been extremely difficult, based on what you’ve written in this book, though the character doesn’t complain because it’s all the life she knows.  The linked stories begin in 1887 and continue through 1948.  It’s a whole life.  You open with a type of ‘fable’ regarding the main character Emily and her birth:

“1887. Someone left me in the orchard, my father said, and since it was January when they waded through the new snow beneath the apple tree, the one that had always favored us with red fruit, their boot prints iced solid.  My father was carrying water to the old ewes… it was below zero when my father spied a black-haired baby – such a full head of hair, coiled as if the fleece of a dark sheep.  I would have frozen, had not the old ewes crouched next to me, one on either side, their names Libbie and Esther, their pink eyes dimming as if cherries slowly sinking in cream.”

Quite an astounding opening.  Throughout Emily’s story, you pull up words and images that create a lush picture for the reader.

SED:  It’s a type of farm language I grew up hearing:  stony, anvil, hunyak (a lazy-bag person), forenoon (mid-morning), lye kettle, for example.  During the Depression they made their own soap in a black, cast-iron kettle using marrow, lard, water – boiled and stirred with sticks.  Then poured into metal containers called Wedding Cakes of Lye Soap, kept in the coolest, darkest room of the cellar.  A harsh soap, brown and tallowy. 

ST:  Fascinating.

SED:  There was no garbage pickup on the farm, just a compost of food scraps that we gave to the animals in winter and to the garden in summer. Our moody donkey, Jack, favored apple cores and bruised fruits while the chickens (three of whom roosted on his back in the coldest months) enjoyed potato peelings. The cans we collected in a burning barrel in the back pasture, where it was all burned then buried. 
ST:  People back then lived and acted according to necessity.  The second story, lush in descriptive language, as they all are, moves ahead to 1894.  That’s seven years later in Emily’s life, and is titled Emily and the Earthworm.   

“1894.  Knowing it was the day when my father would put down the plow and pick up his fishing pole, we entered the field, walking past the cow patties, thistle-thorned, grey and flaking, past the windmill and lye kettle where he dug with his three-pronged shovel.  Thrusting it into the ground, he forked up long segmented creatures.”

SED:  As a child I walked the fields and the land and got to know the horse chestnuts from the black walnuts, the bugs and the ditches, how quill feathers differed from pin feathers on a chicken.  My grandmother slaughtered and gutted chickens for our meals.  The feathers were used to fill pillows, and make pastry brushes.  During the slaughter, I recall seeing the magic life spirit lifting out of the animal. 

ST:  Most people don’t see that in their lifetime.

SED:  True.  The animation force is a sacred thing. It is amazing to see the moments before death and the moments immediately after. You experience the breath of life leaving the animal or person and, instantaneously, what is left seems little more than a carcass.  How I wish I could marvel more at the essence. Once again I return to D.H. Lawrence who certainly understood the magic life force. 

The things one care about are all inside, like seeds…”


Susan Tepper is the author of five published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry.  Monte Carlo Days & Nights, her new Novella, will be released in the fall.  Tepper has received multiple awards and honors for her writing.  She is the founder/host of FIZZ a reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, running sporadically these past 10 years.

1 comment:

  1. Intelligent and satisfying in every way. We get a glimpse into the mysterious writing process and the hard work and dedication it requires. All beautifully explored and presented. Loved it, and am thankful for it.