Tepper also co-wrote, with Gary Percesepe, What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G., set in The Hamptons, home of the artist Jackson Pollock.
She has published well over 100 stories, poems, essays, and interviews in literary journals worldwide, and has received six nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Deer, the title story of her collection, Deer & Other Stories, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts.
Prior to pursuing the life of a writer, Tepper worked at a variety of jobs and professions, including acting, flight attendant, marketing manager, and tour guide, to name a few.
Derek Alger: You certainly traveled a winding path on the way to becoming the writer you are today.
Susan Tepper: Derek it was like The Wizard of Oz in some ways. I started traveling at age nine because my dad had to work wherever the government sent him. He was an aerospace engineer. When the contracts dried up, the government laid off all the engineers. So he worked in a lot of diverse places, including a stint in the South China Sea on an aircraft carrier (I didn't visit him there). One spring day my mom packed us three kids into the car and drove from our home on Long Island to Spokane, to spend a month with him. I cannot imagine driving across the country with a ten-year-old, an eight-year-old and a toddler. My mom has moxie. By the way, she's Estelle Bruno, a poet and humor writer whose work has been published quite a bit, including an essay of hers that appeared on the New York Times Op/Ed page.
DA: Sounds like you were exposed to a creative and artistic environment at early age.
ST: Interestingly I was exposed early to a lot of creativity, but was totally unaware. You see, we kids had a very physical, outdoor life. Horse farms and cow farms nearby, so we rode horses and milked cows, ice-skated the ponds, played tennis and softball and field hockey. Cut school to go to the beach. That was my norm. And because my dad was gone so much, I used to mow the big lawn and rake leaves. My mom was the writer. Nothing remotely connected to my life. Or, so I thought. My dad was also hugely creative. He went to Pratt and he could draw and draft, sing, ice skate like a pro, ski. He was also a champion baseball player who had a chance at a career, but his own mother squelched it because she wanted him to be stable economically. Ha! He came from a large Italian working class family. I think that in terms of creativity, people are born to it from inside themselves.
DA: You moved to Manhattan at the age of 17 to pursue an acting career and your father didn't talk to you for six months.
ST: Yes, we had a big falling out. He wanted me in a traditional college. So I left Long Island at 17 to pursue an acting career in NYC. I was fortunate to get into Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop on a scholarship from high school. My father wouldn't give me any money! Then I was awarded a full scholarship from the drama school. A great method acting school that had trained Bea Arthur, Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzara, Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach and many other fabulous actors and directors. Plus, I was getting college credit for the drama classes since the school was connected to The New School. The drama school also had a rep theatre, so I did a few plays there. It was working out OK. Except for food. I was on a strict budget and felt hungry most of the time. I can remember my exact food rationing: Breakfast was one English Muffin and tea at a Chock Full o' Nuts counter. Left there hungry to attend classes. Lunch was grilled cheese and a soda. Left there hungry to go to the Lincoln Center film library and see the films in the kiosks. Back to school for movement class. Hungrier. Dinner was only ample if I managed to get a dinner date (not that often). Otherwise, it was soup and a peanut butter sandwich. Strangely I still like peanut butter.
DA: You had many other jobs during that period.
ST: God I had a ton of jobs. At one point I worked during the day at General Telephone and Electronics as a receptionist to the chairman of the board. They were so nice to me up there! I sat at the 17th floor reception desk and answered the phone, watered the plants, and read plays, then did my drama school gig at night. I was always pretty poor in NYC. I finally landed some commercials which helped. I started to sing with bands at night so I could go back to school during the day. Finally it all seemed too overwhelming (I think it was the gnawing hunger). So I left drama school to become a flight attendant (stewardess) for TWA. It was a good time to make that break. They paid really well and I got to see the world on their dime. Plus, I ate like a pig! I gained fifteen pounds from eating all the first class food! It was nice for a young woman in her early twenties to see the world back then. I think it was my seed-time for the writing that came much later. Things I saw, places, people, have come back into my stories. Travel is a tremendous form of education. Possibly the best. I didn't actually get a degree until my mid-twenties.
DA: But you also continued acting.
ST: I did continue with the acting. I developed a "plan" where I flew for two weeks straight, back and forth across the Atlantic, then I had two weeks off. This went on for about four years. I went back to taking acting classes, but with different teachers. I swear I studied with every credible acting teacher in NY! When I auditioned to study with Robert (Bobby) Lewis, he read my resume and said to me: "You've had a checkered past." It was so funny! I loved Bobby. He was one of the original founders of the Actors Studio. He taught me to play the 'intention' rather than the emotion in a scene. I remember that every time I sit down to write a story. Each acting teacher gave me something invaluable to take away. My life was still a whirlwind but at least I wasn't starving and I got to live in better apartments.
DA: When you are an actor, it seems like you're always juggling, but as far as I know, you never were a waitress.
ST: I was never a waitress. In retrospect I should have been. Apparently the restaurants feed their employees! Well here's the thing. I have a high interest level. So I frequently changed paths. At one point I even studied Interior Design at the NY School of Interior Design. I was married to my first husband by then and had quit TWA. I went to design school for the three year program but only completed two years. At the two year point, I landed a design job at Sloane's. I liked it for a while in terms of the creativity. The people, however, were mostly ghastly to work with. I don't have a high tolerance level for insanity, and the people who hired me to do their houses were pretty weird. So that job only lasted a few years and I was back on the music track— doing vocals in rock bands, country music, folk, pop. Basically anything I could land. Plays, too. Whatever I could get. Acting and music are not about "choice" unless you are working at the highest levels, which I wasn't.
DA: You also did a stint in Philadelphia.
ST: Philadelphia. OK. I got divorced and moved to Philadelphia. A friend in the airline industry connected me to a sales job with Northwest Airlines. It was very handy for an actress/singer. I got a sales territory and accounts. You managed your own time. I drove all over the place in the mornings, checking with my accounts, then rehearsed for plays in the afternoons. It was good. I also had a terrific townhouse apartment with outdoor space for very cheap rent.
DA: I suppose the rejection and criticism concerning your acting toughened you for any rejection you could possibly receive as a writer.
ST: Derek, that is so true. Rejection. I was toughened by early rejection as an actress and singer. Stand onstage in front of a table of people and know they don't want you. Rejection on a slip of paper or via email doesn't affect me. I literally don't feel it.
DA: You also were a tour guide for a while.
ST: That was part of my job at Northwest Airlines. I worked for them in both Philly and NYC. We were required to escort about six groups a year to Asia and Europe. Mainly corporate travel managers who could throw business our way. I dragged them around Hong Kong a lot because I loved going to Hong Kong. So many great jewelry deals! I also spent close to a year in Seoul. All the major TV networks were on the West Side of NY, around Rock Center. That was my sales territory. So I got to know people at the networks. NBC was filming the '88 Seoul Olympics, and that Olympics became my account. I also got remarried that year. My husband and I hardly saw each other the first year of our marriage. He was working a case in Dallas and I was in Seoul mostly. When I did break to come home, he'd have to go back to Dallas! I used to say we criss-crossed in the air! It was a very strange first year of marriage.
DA: Tell us about your experience as a rescue worker when Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed after takeoff in August of 1987 near Detroit, killing 149 passengers and six crew members, with a four-year-old girl the sole survivor.
ST: Very hard to talk about. I was part of a NWA management team sent to Detroit to work with the families of the deceased, and assist the team of doctors and dentists in making the identifications. This was in 1987, prior to DNA. The medical examiner and his docs and dentists were working off old medical and dental records to determine who was who. The bodies were so severely damaged. By today's standards, it was all fairly primitive. This whole thing was set up in an airplane hangar. The families of the victims were of course devastated beyond words. We, the team, were devastated beyond words. It took a few weeks to sort out everyone for burial. Yet I cannot say I'm sorry I was chosen to be there. If this tragedy had to happen, as it apparently did, I feel it was my place to be able to help. I've never been part of anything quite like it. The whole thing became intensely spiritual. The families, my co-workers I'd known for years, people conducted themselves in ways that were simply beyond the realm of goodness and humanity. My dear friend and co-worker, Gay Melanie Koumjian, was part of the team. We will be friends for life. It's all I want to say on this subject.
DA: Your husband actually gave you a helpful nudge to move forward as a writer.
ST: Yes he did. He's a well educated Harvard grad married to a street brat! After the plane crash, I left Northwest in the early 90's. I was floundering. I still had the remnants of post traumatic stress disorder. I sort of wanted to have a baby. For a few years I hung out and played in the garden. One day I got bit. Not by a mosquito, by the writing bug. I wrote a story and took it to The New School. The class massacred it. The teacher told me I had the gift. Geez! I desperately needed something and here it was. So I wrote my ass off, studied with everyone who appealed to me at New School and NYU. I got a poem published early by New Millennium Writings (God bless you Don Williams!) That bit of early success just put me through the roof! Then one day my husband said (I paraphrase): "You're writing, writing, writing. But nobody really knows you as a writer. You have to get out there." So I phoned Open City magazine and signed on as a reader. I was out there! Went to all their KGB events. Got to know other writers and editors. Then I got a story into Green Mountains Review. All on my own. Tony Whedon was fiction editor then. He first rejected the story. He wrote on the rejection slip that it was too risky or somesuch word. The story is called "Blue Skies" and takes place in a summer house in The Hamptons shared by five gay men. Two years passed after that rejection, then one night in the early winter solstice, Tony Whedon phoned me out of the blue. Said he "wanted that story." I was stunned! I said: "You mean the gay story?" Tony had a really scratchy voice. "Yeah," he said. I had to sit down in a chair.
DA: Which came first for you, the poet or the fiction writer?
ST: Tricky. I wrote a poem called Gypsies which was the first thing I ever wrote. I was driving on the Garden State Parkway and pulled onto the shoulder and wrote it in one gasp. Then I basically ignored it. I was still in the rock music world. Then a decade later I started to write fiction. Then I got a poem published at New Millennium Writings (not Gypsies). I don't know what the order is. Gypsies came out in my chapbook Blue Edge published by Gloria Mindock's wonderful Cervena Barva Press in 2006. Simon Perchik put us together, and Gloria and I clicked from the start. We're close. I was her Assistant Editor on the Istanbul Literary Review for a couple of years. Our tastes in poetry and fiction are almost a mirror-image. Gloria and I have this strangely symbiotic life— she was also an actress and singer. I adore Gloria as a person and writer. I'll be reading on the Cervena Barva Press Panel at AWP in Boston! Please come to our panel!
DA: You were fortunate to study with several great writing teachers.
ST: Very fortunate. I started with Alexander (Sandy) Neubauer ,who gave me the green light, then Darcy Steinke, Jeanne McCullough (editor at Paris Review), Gerry Visco, and the fantabulous Jamie Cat Callan. I bounced between NYU and The New School until I was asked to join Jamie Cat Callan's private workshop in New Haven. Eight of us. The Stromboli 8. That name came as a result of writer/playwright Jami Brandli bringing homemade stromboli from her family's Italian restaurant to the workshop. Best I've ever eaten! See, I'm still food-obsessed!
DA: How did your novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock and Dori G come about?
ST: Sheer serendipity. Pollock is my favorite American contemporary painter. I literally sit in front of his "Autumn Rhythm" at the Met Museum and drink in that picture. I can see energy coming off it. So, anyhow, I wrote a short story about Pollock. I mentioned the story to Gary Percesepe over email. Gary lives in Ohio, and was editor for Mississippi Review at the time. He liked the story and we got to jabbering about Pollock over email. We came up with the idea of a book about Pollock and a very young girl. We decided to write it together since we both knew The Hamptons (where the book takes place) really well. Now keep in mind that Gary and I had not met. Nor had we ever spoken on the phone. The plan was for him to write Pollock's voice, and I was to write Dori, a fictional character who Pollock falls for in our novel. Well, at the precipitous moment, just as we are about to begin the first letter (the book is epistolary), Gary changes the game plan. "You're Pollock" he writes to me in email. I believe I screamed out loud. Gary was persistent. So I gave in and typed the first Pollock letter to Dori. That was the defining moment: I became Pollock. No turning back.
DA: Tell us more about this process.
ST: The book takes place in various spots in The Hamptons, post World War Two. It's very sexy and lush. It's about love and art. Art and love. I adored writing Pollock's voice. Gary did a spectacular job with Dori who is seventeen when the book opens, then she turns eighteen. We wrote back and forth via email until the book was completed. Gary wrote the opening and closing narrative sections. I think the book turned out really well. It was my first collaborative writing experience and a total joy. Everything about that writing time was perfect. Gary was an excellent writing partner who gave me so much to feed off. I will be reading some of the Pollock letters at AWP Boston, on the Cervena Barva Press Panel. Did I already say this? If so, sorry!
DA: Your debut story collection, Deer & Other Stories, received high praise.
ST: Oh, thank you Derek! Those stories span about 12 years. In fact, the Green Mountains Review story appears in this collection. I didn't intend for deer to factor in at all. It was my publisher, Steve Glines of Wilderness House Press, who alerted me to the deer in every story! I think deer are beautiful spiritual animals. Somehow they crept into all the stories, despite that the book has stories from other countries such as Italy and India, plus a metaphysical "Elvis" story. Steve suggested we use the story Deer as the lead-off, then title the collection Deer & Other Stories. Which we did. That story Deer has legs. It's been nominated for a Pushcart and for NPR's Selected Shorts, plus it was performed at Inter/Act Theatre in Philadelphia. The first line: "Monkey lets me drive the Colonel's convertible" has been quoted in several columns involving the writing process. I believe it's the character name Monkey that pulls people into this story right away. They don't say "your Deer story" they say: "your Monkey story."
DA: Your book From the Umberplatzen was published last year, also to high praise.
ST: Thank you again, Derek. From the Umberplatzen is a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash-fiction. Each time someone asks for a description of this book, this is the line I give them.
I spent a lot of time in Germany as a tour guide, and when I flew for TWA. I got to see quite a bit of that country. It has an overflowing natural beauty and many wonderful people, despite its conflicted history. I made friends there. It wove into the structure of my life. One day in the spring of 2011, I sat down and wrote the first flash story called "Leaves." It came out spontaneously which is the way I write. It was published by Marcus Speh in his kaffe in katmandu. I went on to write a second story, calling it Crash Landing in the Umberplatzen, which Marcus also published. I just kept writing them. Practically a story a day. The book had me in its grasp. It's the story of a young woman named Kitty who leaves her American husband and homeland behind, to settle in Germany for a period of two years. She meets and falls in love with the enigmatic "M" who is a brilliant physicist and obsessive kite builder. He affectionately dubs her "Kitty Kat." The book is told in flash-back, after Kitty's return to the States. Each story involves some gift or article that "M" sends her through the mail, in an effort to get her back to Germany. These gifts recall a memory of a specific time they spent together, which Kitty Kat, as narrator, relays to the reader. Umberplatzen is a made up word for a tree whose name she can't recall. But it becomes a much deeper word, with multiple meanings, and is the underlying metaphor of their story.
While I was writing this book, I was conducting an interview with Robert Olen Butler for The Nervous Breakdown. Bob asked what I was working on. I said something like: oh, this little book. He said something back like: let me see your little book. So, anyway, he liked it a lot and wrote me a gorgeous cover blurb. I was also sending Marcus some stories, here and there, and he was encouraging me, too. Hey, I had two terrific guys in my court! I am grateful.
DA: What's next on the agenda?
ST: I'm not sure. Possibly another book. New poems. I'm always writing.