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INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN TEPPER

GIVE A BIO ABOUT YOURSELF

I came to writing through the back doors of acting and music. In my early teens I began devouring the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, just blown away by what those guys had to say. I was growing up on Long Island, sandwiched between New York City and a farm. Close to our house there was a working dairy farm where I spent a lot of my free time with cows, feeding them potatoes, learning to hand-milk. So here was this suburban kid hanging at the farm, who went home for supper then read "The Great God Brown" before bedtime. Mixing things up a bit, I think, but ultimately in a good way. Then somewhere down the line I made up my mind to become an actress, and hit the city running, earning a scholarship at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop and becoming part of that repertory company. I've probably studied just about every acting method with all the great actor/teachers. In the eighties I did a stint at Actors Studio. Music came into the mix. I was the proverbial "girl singer" in a slew of bands, doing country, folk and rock music. So for many years it was "other people's words" that consumed me.

DESCRIBE THE ROOM YOU WRITE IN

Fiction I mostly write in a cramped upstairs room of my house, though I can begin a story just about anywhere. Piles of writing are scattered throughout the house. Poems I write on the porch, the dining room table, wherever. I've made my writing room look kind of French, sort of La Boheme but pretty. The ceiling slopes and the walls have been papered a soft blue-gray with all these tiny roses bunched together. Two narrow windows have awning-striped valances above distressed window shutters. Several paintings I love hang in that room. One is by a deceased relative, the artist Marjorie Kuhr. It was painted in Denmark during World War II, from the inside of her dining room, and shows a river viewed through her window, and the German gunboat that patrolled every day while she lived there waiting out the war. Another painting, by the expressionist artist Marco Celotti, is of a room not unlike my writing room, but more dreamlike. I like things old, or at least to look old. A threadbare Persian rug someone once gave me covers most of the floor, it's very beautiful, the rug, and getting more worn out where my writing chair rolls back and forth.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

Because I write full-time now, both fiction and poetry nearly every day, I guess it's fair to say I'm working on both. There's this story I'm doing about a country doctor, and I try to write a poem a day. When the poem is finished, I send it by e-mail to my close friend and mentor, the incredible poet Simon Perchik. He's very gentle. He'll say things like: you could lose the "and" in line 8; or why not lose line 8 altogether, it slows down the poem. Small stuff like that. Getting to know Simon, having him as my friend - well there are simply no words to convey what this means to me. I believe him to be the most talented lyric poet working in the English language today. And yet Si is one of the most regular guys you could ever meet! My husband, Miles, a burgeoning poet, has also become a great pal of Si's.

YOU WRITE BOTH FICTION AND POETRY, DID YOU START BOTH AT THE SAME TIME?

About twenty years ago, on the Garden State Parkway, I pulled onto the shoulder of the road, stopped the car and wrote my first poem. It was just banging in my head to come out! I still like that poem, it's called Gypsies. After that, I didn't write another poem for a decade. About twelve years ago a little voice began to whisper in my head: write that story. What story? What story? I kept asking the voice all that long hot summer. Toward the end of that August, I wrote my first short story. The poems started coming a few years later.

TALK ABOUT THE NOVEL YOU ARE WRITING

I've completed two novels and around seventy short stories. I just did a big revision on one of the novels, it just went back to the publisher. I hope they like the changes. It would be nice to see one of my novels in print before I'm a very old woman! The two books are quite different in setting and scope, though thematically, well, perhaps there are similarities. The first book is set at the Jersey shore, post-Vietnam circa 1976, and is the story of a family reduced by painful circumstance (the Vietnam war) from four to three, yet the missing person (the husband/father) is still very much alive, his haunting presence felt right to the story's end. I wrote the second novel approximately five years after the first. It's about fraternal twins, and identity; how a violent action creates loss, and how one twin must cope with the loss of the other; that whole twin thing that can run very deep. Loss. Definitely one of my themes. It's been said that we write our themes over and over. I also write "triangle relationships", of which I was unaware. The poet Michael Graves pointed that out, after I'd read a number of stories in his Phoenix Reading Series. Was I ever surprised!

HOW DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION FOR WRITING?

I don't like "thinking" about my work, I believe if you start thinking while you're writing you will kill off intuition. When I'm done with a piece, I don't analyze it or look for the metaphors. Either the story works or it doesn't. I tell my writing students not to think while they write, just take it moment to moment the way stage actors do. I'm a totally intuitive writer, have never outlined a novel or story, just go by the seat of my pants. I work my fiction the way I do poetry, allowing the images to come forth and create a story. That's where the thrill lies! Writing has to be thrilling, the actual process of doing it. Otherwise, why bother? Beyond the process there can be so much frustration and disappointment in trying to place the work. I tell this to my students, too. The true writers get it, they understand instinctively, don't need to be told. The others just think I'm full of it, but that's okay too.


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