Thursday, February 15, 2018

Susan Tepper Interviews author Alex M. Pruteanu

Susan Tepper Interviews author Alex M. Pruteanu

Susan Tepper:  Every book of note that I’ve ever read has one line that cements the heart of the story.  In your new novel The Sun Eaters it is this line:
Everything that was alive was hungry, always.

Alex M. Pruteanu:  I can certainly speak to that. Hunger gives a certain kind of clarity and awareness of everything around you. The senses, all of them, are almost working overtime. You’re ultra-aware of your biology and how it’s changed, of your digestive system in particular.

To get back to this idea that everything that was alive was hungry, always. If you look around at whatever is left of nature, you’ll see that every animal is engaged actively and aggressively in finding food. Everything about an animal’s life from the time it opens its eyes involves hunting/gathering/scavenging for food. It’s daily warfare. Finding food is what they all do every day of their lives.

ST:  And, conversely, warfare brings hunger to those who manage to stay alive.

In the narrative you wrote:

Our hunger was chronic… Every spring we would forage for dandelions and nettles. Dandelions were bitter in the summer and autumn, but if we plucked them while they were young, in the spring, they had a sweeter taste… We ate everything from the flower all the way down to the root… Nettles were tricky… Their leaves bit back…

AP:  I thought about the immense difficulty a person has to face if he or she is engaged in the never-ending battle of finding food on a daily basis. Food that doesn’t exist or isn’t much available. Imagine living a life like that. Being in competition with not just your fellow humans, but every living thing around you, every animal, to merely find food for the day.

ST:  I’ve read tidbits about your own life, from time to time, in other interviews.  I know you were born in Romania and emigrated to the states at some point.  Can you tell us how your origins helped craft The Sun Eaters.

AP:  I was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1969. My mom defected to the States in 1979 and after close to a year of working to obtain our passports, my father and I were let out of the country to come join my mom here as political refugees. I arrived in the States in late January, 1980.

ST:  You were eleven years old.  How did it feel to leave your homeland?   Was it easy for a boy just entering puberty to connect with American kids?

AP:  It felt wrong to leave, initially, and beyond. I was basically told that we were leaving, not asked. And I was kept in the dark about the plan of my mother's defection, so it came suddenly for me. As I knew it, she had taken a trip to the United States as part of an economic delegation, and she never returned. In Romania, I had social connections and a lot of friends that I was told I'd have to leave behind. Plus, from the time my father applied to have our passports released and get permission to leave the country for good, I became sort of a cancer. People didn't much feel like being associated with both my father and I.  Everyone was being watched/monitored by the secret police, so being associated with someone who was applying to leave for good and join a person who had defected— which officially meant that treason was committed by the defector— was not in the best interest of those staying behind.

ST:  It must have been terribly strange and stressful for a child.

AP:  When it became official that my father and I were trying to leave the country, my friends backed off. It was a strange period. At one point, I didn't even have to go to school. As I remember it, I went anyway, but I wasn't really part of the class anymore. I wasn't given tests or projects to complete. I didn't get any more grades on anything. I would just go and sit in class. It was all surreal.

ST:  Extremely.  There are points in The Sun Eaters that are also quite surreal.  The two brothers live with their mother in a decimated Eastern European village populated by women doing the labors of men.   The men, including their Da, have gone to war and not come back.  An exchange between the older brother, Vladi, and their mother begins:

“I dreamed of bird-fish, Ma. They howled and wailed and whistled hot flames from their lips. There were so many it got dark. I couldn’t see.”

“Those are airplanes, Vladi. Don’t be scared. Come to me.”

This dialogue, I believe, is unconsciously lifted, part and parcel, from your own uncertain path as a child who was forced to leave home and country.

AP:  Probably.  I recall vividly the times I spent (vacations/holidays) at my paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes, which were both in villages in the countryside, although my maternal grandfather had a country house, but just on the outskirts of Ploesti—a town that was bombed by the Allies in WWII due to its several working oilfields (for some time during WWII Romania was allied with Germany).

ST:  Perhaps that is what stirred up the section of the book that concerns their visit to the enigmatic and mysterious Uncle Miki who does have food and other luxuries. 

Your narrator tells us:

Because of its oil fields and refineries, Uncle Miki’s city was under siege nearly the entire duration of the war… bombed from above by bird-fish every day, so Uncle became part of an invisible force of resistance… Vladi said he was a resistance administrator… he would shuttle very important papers sewn in the lining of his coat…

Secret agents, another dark unfolding in the plight of humankind.

AP:  A lot of material in the novel is written from recollections of “adventures” I had as a young boy with friends I had made during my times spent in the countryside. As I recall, one of the toughest inconveniences was having to use an outhouse quite some ways away from the house, and in winter. Winters in Romania are notoriously tough; the country lies on the same parallel as Montreal, Canada. But having to get up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse in the dead of winter was particularly brutal. We also didn’t have running water, so bathing was not a pleasant experience, even though the water—brought in large pails from the well by my grandparents—was boiled on the wood stove first, before being dumped into a wooden tub.  Other events in the book I simply made up.  Some parts are influenced by stories I’ve heard from village friends, and some are re-imagined and re-told from stories my father recounted about his own life with his brother in the village of Blagesti, in northeastern Romania. It’s all spun into fiction.

ST:  The Sun Eaters is a brilliant and intensely readable novel that deals with hardship and extreme resiliency when faced with the devastating realities of life after war.  Whether or not deliberate on the part of its author, this story stretches well beyond, sifting into the political environment of hunger and deprivations the world is facing now.

******Susan Tepper is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry. Her latest title 'Monte Carlo Days & Nights' (Rain Mountain Press, NYC) is a novella set on the French Riviera.  More at


  1. Thanks again for a great conversation.

  2. Great interview. Too little is known, said, written about that time and place (or at least I am not aware of it). "Resilience" is also what we need in this time and age...Going to get the book.