When I think of love, I think of stories of love, stories that capture the heartbeat of relationship. No writer does love better than Susan Tepper: writer, editor, actress, and community-builder. With her latest book, Susan proves the best things in life do come in small packages.
In FROM THE UMBERPLATZEN, a collection of linked micro-fictions, Tepper tells of love tender and ruthless, fulfilled and denied, between Kitty, an American who has left her unhappy marriage, and M, a German physicist obsessed with silk kites. They meet in the park where the Umberplatzen trees grow, where M's kites tangle. Told in flashback after Kitty returns to the States, each story features a letter or gift M mails her daily, a gift emblematic of a shared instant.
In this book and in many of her other stories, Susan Tepper understands the romance of love--and the way love can hurt. She writes of the small moments of a relationship, the quirky ones, and the quiet ones. The moments that matter. This little tome will make you chortle, will make you get misty, will make you nod your head, knowing, but most of all it will surprise you.
I had a chance to chat with Susan about the creating of FROM THE UMBERPLATZEN. In her own words...
Susan, how did the concept of From the Umberplatzen first come to you?
Linda, I wish I could say I was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and visualized the book unfolding, or even parts of it. But that's not the case. Because I never know what is going to come out of me and onto the page. I sat down, as I am doing now, and started typing. These words appeared: "From Germany he sends me leaves from the Umberplatzen tree." It became the first sentence of what grew into a piece of flash fiction.
I had no idea what an Umberplatzen tree was, or if one existed and I'd somehow stored it in my unconscious memory. But I did know Germany, somewhat, having spent a lot of time touring that country as a tour guide for an airline. That was two decades ago. I saw a lot of the world during that period, doing mostly stringer-type jobs I picked up at four different airlines, while I struggled with an acting career that wasn't winning me the Academy Award.
After the first story, which I titled "Leaves," I wrote another and called it "Crash Landing in the Umberplatzen." So I had those two little pieces of flash that tied together. Two characters I'd named M and Kitty Kat. Lovers. And I instantly got hooked by them and their dilemma.
You have dedicated your book to Marcus Speh, a wonderful and generous writer, and of course, your male protagonist goes by 'M'. What role or influence did Marcus have on this book's conception? Did he play the role of muse or editor? And what does he think of your story? (of course, I may go ask him myself!)
Marcus is a dear and generous friend. He took both stories for his kaffe in katmandu. I sent them to him because of the setting being Germany, and because I love his whole concept of the kaffe and what it represents to writers. Just seeing those rucksack bags full of spices always makes me heady. I wasn't conscious of Marcus when I made the decision to call my male character M. Of course it could have been an unconscious choice.
In the course of interviewing Robert Olen Butler for The Nervous Breakdown, he offered to read the manuscript of "From the Umberplatzen" and he ultimately blurbed the book. Robert told me that I'm an "intuitive writer." But I kind of knew that. I am a tad psychic--remember I am Madame Tishka! As for Marcus, no, he didn't edit the book. Was he a muse? Perhaps. I sent him stories along the way as I wrote the book and he offered his encouragement. And I "lifted" certain things from him, such as objects at the kaffe in katmandu, placing them in some of the stories (chapters). Marcus has a particular reverence for the Irish poets and that theme does come up in this book. But, I do draw from everywhere. Be careful, Linda, or you may appear in my next book!
I would be honored to show up in one of your books, even a cameo role! So as a writer I am, of course, curious about the process surrounding the writing of this book. How long did it take you to get the first draft? How did you approach revisions? Did the stories change much from initially conceived to final product?
Stories # 1 and # 2 came out pretty fast. Remember, each is a one page flash. They are snapshots of memory, Kitty Kat's memories, of their time spent together in Germany. It all gets filtered through her. When the book opens, M is left behind in Germany and she has returned home to the states. Once I got hooked, I pretty much wrote a story a day. Forty-eight stories that mesh into one complete tale of love and passion and conflict and disruption. All the things that make up a love relationship. I didn't do much editing, they came out mostly as they are now. I may have fixed some typos but it was a stream of consciousness type of writing. Kind of a blur, or what they used to call "flow." Yes, it was a flow state and all a little blurry when I look back on the actual writing process.
Ah... flow. The brass ring. So close at times, but so elusive. So many of your stories, these included, have a delicious tension to them. For instance, in most of the forty-eight gems in From the Umberplatzen, there is a line about what M mails to the narrator, a token that symbolizes the event or interaction they shared. In the 1 or 2 stories without the mention of a mailed item, I was left almost aching--I felt the foreboding, the tension, due to the lack of that connection between the characters via the mail. As well, the placement of the mailed item in the body of each story is telling. Did you manipulate this convention purposefully, or did it just bubble out of your subconscious?
No, I didn't manipulate the stories in any way. Some had gifts or items he sends her through the mail while other days she gets nothing from him. Perhaps it's M doing the manipulating on his end. He wants her back in Germany desperately. I suppose I made the gift choices out of items that appeal to me, since I was writing the voice of Kitty Kat and she was getting the presents. So in a sense I also got pleasure when these wonderful gifts arrived--like the purple feather boa and the box of lace trimmed panties and a satin garter the color of melting ice. I do like very much what she received, for the most part.
Occasionally M would get the upper hand and send something less appealing--like nails. He sends her nails in one story. But that was integral to a particular memory she had. I can't really distinguish between the gift and the memory--because it did all bubble out in a burst for me, as you said. It was an emotional writing time. This was written during a hot summer of violent unpredictible weather. That, too, may account for some of my choices for these characters. I'm very affected by weather. But aren't we all?
Yes I am affected by weather. I also am affected by these stories. Published by Wilderness House Press and available now, just in time for The Day of Love looming around the bend.
Susan Tepper lives and writes from New Jersey but considere New York home. She has published well over 100 stories, poems, essays and interviews in journals worldwide. She writes a bi-monthly interview column called MONDAY CHAT on the Fictionaut blog, as well as the advice column "Madame Tishka Advises on Love & Other Storms" at Thunderclap Press. Tepper curates the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in New York City, and has received six nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Deer, the title story of her collection, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts.
You deserve some love, don't you? Treat yourself--and a loved one--to a collection of stories as sweet and complex as a high-end box of chocolates. Peace...