Now, way back when this little blog began, I used to do loads and loads of author interviews, and I loved it. As well as supporting people doing similar things to me it was also cool for me to listen to how other people wrote and interesting to see what they were writing about and I like to think that it made at least a little difference to people’s sales and introduced people to stuff they might not have otherwise found. That was back when I had more time and energy and before my commitments became, well, big. That was also back when I had the time to read as much as I liked, and to write as much as I could too. Times change and we adapt. (I’ve actually had a pretty good writing week – two stories and a poem, so far – and all that along with short story edits I do (five acceptances of those over the past few days, get in!), slightly bigger edits and reports (just finished a 40k word one), workshops and teaching (four in three days last week).) Yeah, I’ve been doing stuff.
But a couple of months ago I decided that I wanted to get back into the interviews. It was time. Work and home have settled a little (I’m still typing and editing and dashing about like a madman looking like, and I quote, an under-nourished Johnny Cash, I’m just managing it better) so I’m able to do that, and do it properly. I should mention now then, I guess, that if anyone would like to come here and to talk about their work then drop me a line.
So, hot on the heels of the lovely Aliya Whiteley talking about her new book (which you can read here, and you should) I give you: Susan Tepper
The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius
Some of us, like myself, remember this ‘dawn’ vividly. We were there, in the thick of it, in some capacity, enlightened or hoping at least for a spark. Sadly, like other sacred movements and moments of pure white light, it burned itself out. The candle does have an end point. Deaths occurred. Two countries changed irrevocably. A lot of people from many countries died in a tiny country over what were conflicting points of view that got stirred up by corrupt politicians for economic gains. Why this ancient history? you are probably thinking.
I wasn’t a writer back then. I was an air hostess who flew several times with the US troops in planes called MACS and MATS (Military Air Transport Service). My company was TWA and we were flying troop ships during that war. Flying young men in and out of Viet Nam. This created general and specific confusions for me. Was I an air hostess and patriot, or was I a hippie against the war? I certainly felt connected to the soldiers. They were sweet and considerate on the way in, helping us serve the meal trays. Mostly tired, or manic, stoned or depressed on the way out. Or, of those in the forward part of the aircraft, accompanied by a medic, badly injured.
Once I ran into a young man from my neighborhood, while serving cans of soda in the back galley of a 707. Robert. Bob we called him. At the tender age of 12 we had shared a coming of age experience with a group of other neighbor kids. When I brought that memory up, he had no recollection of it. He had just spent a year fighting a war. What was still important to me had become a superfluous thing that his mind simply didn’t retain.
I believe it was my strong internal conflict (was I an air hostess or was I a hippie war protestor?) that eventually brought me into the writing arena a decade later.
Conflict. The meat of creative writing. You gotta have conflict. You also need other things, too. But you can dress that baby to the nines, and if there’s no conflict, there’s no art. You have written the stuff of greeting cards.
When I started to write fiction and poetry (one poem then a decade later one story), when I started that, it was obviously slow going. And that was good, in fact it was very good. Everything submitted went via snail mail and so you could pop it in the letter box and basically forget about it. For at least 3 months. Possibly a few years. Things moved at a crawl. So lucky for the fledgling writer. Because while my submission lay festering, I could write other things.
In my beginning years I wrote two novels. I had no idea how to write a novel. I sat down to write a story and it just kept going. I liked the characters, and I guess I was a little lonely, so every day I let them out to play with me. And play we did. We had love and betrayal and sadness and jubilation. We had people collide and separate, then come back together again. It was a writing experience of great joy and vitality. I never thought about what would happen when it was done, because it never seemed to be done. Even when I hit page 425, the revisions started. That novel was probably reworked 30 or more times. By then I had taught myself how to write a novel. I tried getting into a class about writing novels, but my excerpt from this book was rejected by the instructor. Lucky me! I learned on the job instead.
That novel was subsequently entered in the Zoetrope contest and won 7th place out of 10 winners. I got a little bit of money. There was recognition. I was able to pick up the phone and speak to the owner of one of New York’s top literary agencies. She assigned an agent to my book. It was all very heady and wonderful. Until that agent left the agency and the book was left to die.
This is not a piece about death, though you might be thinking that it is— because of how it’s unfolding. You see, I’m writing this as though you and I were seated across a café table. It’s nearly 3pm and so we would have the cream tea, perhaps. I would forego the jam but pile on the clotted cream. Dead book, or no dead book, we need to enjoy what life offers in the moment.
So eventually I secured another agent. The experience was even more terrible because this agent was a jealous type. She fought on her phone continually with her authors, while I sat across from her at a lunch she had planned. She was sending my book around, but she wasn’t fighting for it, or really advocating for it. She wasn’t saying: If this or that doesn’t work, Susan is willing to make adjustments.
I moved into online publishing of short stories and poems. A burgeoning new market for the writer! Some of it was spectacular and you did reach a much larger audience. But how many actually read the online work? Hard to say. I was still publishing in any concrete print anthology that accepted my work. I like holding a book. It’s tangible evidence that you’ve been there, your fingerprints, your DNA, your tears on the page, a drop of blood from that mosquito bite you kept picking during the saddest moments in the story.
Life is a fluid thing and I can’t begin to imagine what the next five years will hold for the writer. In Europe there is a huge resurgence of print books vs the e-book. That is very encouraging. In the US there is a huge resurgence in buying the latest cell phone which is less encouraging. Some people refuse the gift of a book. That’s very discouraging.
But art has endured worse. It’s been buried under the ravages at Pompeii, and dug up all over the world. Maybe someone will discover our crumbling abandoned books a century from now, all wrapped up in the Amazon box, just waiting for the word-archeologists to do their interpretative thing.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title “The Merrill Diaries” (Pure Slush Books) is a novel told in flash chapters that begin following the Viet Nam War, and continue for nearly a decade over two continents. Tepper is Second Place Winner of ‘story/South Million Writers Award’ for this year, and the recipient of 9 Pushcart Nominations. Her novel Snug Harbor took 7th place on the longlist in a book contest sponsored by Zoetrope. Tepper pens a monthly column about all things writerly at Black Heart Magazine. In early 2016 her new novel will be out by Big Table Publishing.