Thursday, December 5, 2013

Susan Tepper on Making the Most of Insignificant Things

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Susan Tepper, author of The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush), talks about randomly organizing collections and refusing to see obstacles.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I get story ideas constantly, several a day, and often when I first wake up in the morning. Everything and anything. I have to push them away. It’s my belief that a writer can make a story out of the most insignificant things, such as a mud puddle.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
Never. I don’t like it when people say “Oh, this would make a good story.” My answer invariably is, “Yes, you should write that story.”

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I don’t really have an approach, I kind of follow my instincts. Though I did steal an idea from Billy Collins. He said he threw all his poems on the floor, then walked around randomly picking them up and making a pile. I did that for my first collection “Deer” and it worked really well, it had this organic unity for which I thank Billy Collins.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I wanted to write a story about a man who vacuum-packs his annoying wife in one of those blanket storage devices that suck the air out of the plastic bag and flatten the blanket. But I couldn’t get that story off the ground. But now that I think about it, maybe I should give it another go.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I tried to write a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice before others started doing it successfully. Mine was pretty sexy. I made Miss Lizzie into a contemporary character who wears red leather, a thong, and goes back in time in order to snag Mr. Darcy. I think it came out too clichéd. 

Where do you do most of your work?
On a teensy computer in a newly fixed up room in my house. It used to be a junk room but I recently transformed the space adding a red leather desk chair, an aqua cage-type metal thing to hold my books, and there are always fresh flowers on the desk. Also some very nice pictures on the walls which are painted a pale butter yellow. And there’s a Pier One candle to attract the muse.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
I write a lot of poetry, I’m about 50/50 with poetry and fiction. My first published book was a poetry chapbook called Blue Edge (Cervena Barva Press, 2006)

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
The best was: Writing is a business.
The worst was: Writing is hard—are you crazy?—you’ll never get published.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
I don’t see obstacles in anything. I’m wired not to see them. My mom is like that. She is a poet and essayist who got a piece on The New York Times Op-Ed page when she was 70 years old.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Micro-fictions I’ve written in five to ten minutes.

What's the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
I have stories I’ve been working on for over a decade. They kind of get lost. Then I’ll be poking around and find one, and start to re-work it. It’s good to do this, especially with very long stories. The span of time gives you a better perspective on what you’ve gotten down and what the story still needs.