Welcome, Susan Tepper! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I am eager to discuss your new flash collection, dear Petrov, launching February 2 by Pure Slush Books. Congratulations on the new release! I can’t shake these stories. They’re haunting and masterfully written.
The narrator in your book often writes to Petrov in a manner that depicts her reverence for the natural world and all its strange magnificence. Were there specific places that inspired these vivid descriptions?
ST: To my mind the natural world is a spectacle that is unsurpassed. I feel it in the everyday, and also when I see it in the great art of the museums. I’ve travelled extensively since I was a kid and I think the natural world, the varying countries, invaded me. There was no particular place for this writing. Other than what my mind perceives as old Russia.
In many ways, your narrator is as mysterious as Petrov himself; the complexity of their relationship steers the line toward larger, philosophical questions and examines the complexities of love and longing in a delicate but powerful way. I wonder how the concept of this book originated. Did you begin writing these stories with the narrator in mind, or with Petrov in mind?
ST: One day I sat down blank at the screen and Petrov emerged. Or, should I say the narrator who loves Petrov emerged first. The stories began after one of the worst personal times of my life. My mother who is elderly had an apartment fire. I moved in there, and lived with her under those conditions, putting the place back together and helping my mother get well. It was grueling. I never stopped working unless it was meal time or bed time. I went about the tasks without any conscious awareness of my own personal suffering. In a sense I became a soldier with a job to do. I had no help, no doors opened from adjoining apartments to lend a hand. Then a few days before I was to return home, I was assaulted in a Post Office by a deranged woman. Again, people heard my screams and no one came to my aid. Petrov, I believe, sprang from this feeling of intense aloneness. After those experiences, my unconscious mind decided to set the story in war time.
The individual stories in dear Petrov, as well as the collection as a whole, allow the reader a certain amount of freedom to attach meaning or expand on the narrator’s exploration. As a teacher, this struck me as the sort of text that would be good to teach because I imagine it evoking lively discussions in the classroom. Was this intentional?
ST: This is good to hear. But nothing was intentional. Each piece was written from the place in my brain that writes poetry. In fact, the collection has been termed cross-genre by some people, since segments have been published as both poetry and fiction.
Which piece was written first, and how did the larger story collection evolve?
ST: Dear Petrov was the very first story, and published by Cheryl Anne Gardner in her zine Apocrypha and Abstractions. Then I wrote Floods which Richard Peabody took for Gargoyle. The work seemed to flow out of me, nearly every day. It was an outpouring of the pain and emotions I kept hidden from my mother during the fire. I had to get her back on her feet so I couldn’t indulge myself. I often write things that have no basis in reality, but come from an emotional stem in my brain that holds things. (I wish I could release easier, it would make my life better!).
Thank you so much for indulging me, Susan. Now for the writing practice questions… What attracts you to the flash fiction form?
ST: Actually I’m attracted to all forms of writing. I love the long flow of novel, and have written several which are not yet published. Flash fiction is fun because you can get it all done in bite-sized pieces and it’s challenging. I love a good challenge.
Who and what inspires you to write?
ST: Jen, nobody inspires me to do anything. I’ve always been intensely stubborn and self-motivated. Plus I have a high interest level, a curiosity that doesn’t quit.
Do you ever get blocked creatively?
ST: Nope. I like to talk to people. I like hearing their stories. I like telling mine to them. Writing is an extension of that.
Do you ever use prompts?
ST: Only if someone presents them in a journal challenge that could lead to publication. But on my own, never.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (writing related or no)?
ST: A brilliant man once said the following to me: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose as long as you don’t quit.”
Thank you so much for taking the time to swing by. I would love to know what you’re working on currently, and where readers can find your work.
ST: I’ve written some short stories that have been picked up for the spring. One is coming out in Thrice Fiction Magazine, it’s pretty wild and entirely different from ‘dear Petrov’. I’m also going to start a revision on a novel that’s been pending for a few years. That should be fun, I’m really looking forward to re-working that one.
Susan Tepper is the author of five books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Awards include Second Place Winner in story/South Million Writers for 2014, and 7th place winner in the Zoetrope Contest for the Novel, 2006. She has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize, and once for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel ‘What May Have Been’ (co-authored with Gary Percesepe). Tepper writes the column ‘Let’s Talk’ at Black Heart Magazine where she also conducts author/book interviews. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is ongoing these past eight years.