The Merrill Diaries, the latest novel by writer and friend Susan Tepper published by PURE SLUSH BOOKS, tells of love and life and being in your twenties and all mixed up. Merrill is a feisty young woman whose yearning for love and adventure takes her around the world and in and out of several relationships before landing where she needs to land. After reading The Merrill Diaries, I had so many unanswered questions. I worried about Merrill. So Susan and I had a little chat…
Susan, what inspired this remarkable story? Tell us exactly where you were and what you were doing when the character of Merrill popped into your mind.
I first wrote Merrill as a middle-aged, multi-married woman for the Pure Slush anthology 'gorge'. I had to follow a pre-set narrative written in that group novel, use the setting of the novel, and follow after a story by Stephen Ramey. That Merrill became the genesis of this current book. This book The Merrill Diaries wasn't my idea. Matt Potter the publisher of Pure Slush and the 'gorge' book came to me with the idea of an all Merrill book. He came up with the title. It was winter, and I felt quite resistant. I wrote him back, "I can't live with that woman for an entire book." He was quite persistent. He thought she was a really funny and alive character in 'gorge' and he kind of wore me down. But I knew I had to write her 'differently' in order to be able to do this current book. I feel an author must have a strong relationship to the protagonist for a book to work. And I didn't want to write about a middle-aged woman and what that entails—I am a middle-aged woman, and wish I were still in my twenties. All my writing involves some kind of wish fulfillment. What I remember about the actual writing of The Merrill Diaries was that it began during the fall of 2012, then my computer crashed, and I finished it in my kitchen on my laptop. I think.
You open The Merrill Diaries with a reference to Merrill's mother and how she would steal little things. To what extent has Merrill embodied her mother's character as she grows into a grown woman?
Merrill's mother is like an ever-present ghost in the book. When the story begins, she has already passed along to the next life. But when alive, she was a strong, take-charge kind of person. And I think an intimidating mother to both Merrill and her younger sister, Nan. What the mother stole were other people's histories, and thus, in a way, she stole their lives. Kind of how some tribal cultures believe a photograph will steal the soul. Merrill picked up a lot of her mother's resiliency, plus her mother's love for the finer aspects of the material world. But at the same time, Merrill is a contradiction in that she is always fighting off her mother, the little 'messages' from her mother that come into her mind as she tramp-steams through her twenties.
I find your answer interesting, in that it seems Merrill spends a lot of her young adult life trying to make her own history. Is this largely a response to her mother's modus operandi?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s what all young people do. Want their lives to be their own. I think that’s what teenage rebellion is all about. A natural separation from the family and its value system. Merrill has a rebellious nature. Some people are born with that. I’m like that, so I guess I carried it over to her.
‘gorge’ was a lot of fun, to read and to write. I returned to the two Merrill chapters in that book and found Merrill remained the same in many ways—but also matured. What do you think Merrill learned from her madcap adventures across the world when she was younger?
I find it so interesting you saw a link between the young Merrill and the middle-aged Merrill. I don’t see it that much. As for what she learned as she roamed the world— probably nothing she didn’t already know. I think we travel and explore to confirm what is already etched on us like a map drawn at birth.
Of all her men, which, if any, did Merrill love?
I think she loved them all in different ways. And in different degrees of love. Teddy, her first husband, she loved the least. Merrill is a sexy gal, and Teddy fell short in the bedroom. Eddie, the guitarist, was her sexiest match. At one point she says that things might have worked out with Tom (her second husband) had the living situation been somewhat different.
Why does Merrill have such a difficult time committing to place—and person?
Merrill views the world as a huge, lavish smorgasbord: food, people, places, lovers, husbands, ideas. I’m like that. I have a voracious appetite for discovery which led me in many different directions and careers. I guess I carried it over to her in the story. I wanted her to have fun. I also wished to do all the things she was doing—when all I was doing was sitting on a heating pad typing her story most of the winter. Someone had to have some fun!!! As for commitment, that’s a hard question. I think the men she chose didn’t measure up after a while. As I mentioned, she might have stayed with Tom if she didn’t feel so isolated in the countryside. She liked him and respected him. She also might have stayed with Eddie, if (---) hadn’t happened. Circumstances intervened. Life can be that way. And Merrill loves adventure. Some people are just born to it.
I really want to talk about the ending, but without it being a spoiler for readers. So let me just ask you one question—is this the watershed moment in Merrill's life?
Well, how can I answer this? Hmm... let’s just say it ‘restored’ her in ways that needed restoring.
Let's discuss craft for a moment. This book enraptured me for so many reasons: the character of Merrill, the originality of this coming-of-age story, the settings. I laughed out loud in many places, and I cried in others. But most of all, the writing itself has an effortlessness about it, a transparency. You, the author, are never present. So I wonder: how many drafts or revisions did this story take you? Because the voice is spot-on.
It's a good question, Linda, because it covers more 'ground' than you would suspect. I started writing the book feeling moderately good, though I had taken a horse fall last year and that caused some back problems. Then, the day I was to travel to AWP in Boston, my back went completely 'out'. I was literally bent in half that morning screaming in pain. My husband threw a coat over my nightgown and carted me over to a chiropractor-friend. I did not make it to AWP. From March until now, my back has been in bad shape. I wrote the book in a haze of pain. I often thought I couldn't finish it, but my husband prodded me on, saying, "You can do this." So, in some ways I was not present. I wrote almost in a trance. I just wrote and wrote and at the end of a writing period, had no idea what the hell I had written. I just kept going.
There were places where I ‘mixed up’ things— such as the two Greek guys (the good guy and the bad guy!). I found it in revision, thank heavens! I just didn’t know what I was putting on the page and couldn’t remember my earlier chapters. I had to go back and re-read the book several times, and clean up any discrepancies. I kind of add and subtract on the ‘clean-up’ part in general, it’s my novel writing style.
Then at one point in the spring I quit for a few weeks to try and regain some strength. Then I went back at it. I think the reason you don't see the author anywhere in the writing is because the author (me) was somewhat missing in time and space. I did a kind of automatic writing. I have wondered if the book might have turned out differently had I been feeling good. I believe the parts of the book where the character is most vulnerable are points where I felt most vulnerable to the pain in my body. I kind of transferred my physical and emotional space over to Merrill. Let her take the hit for me. I don't know if it was cathartic, I just know it's how I wrote this book.
I think Matt Potter was worried at one point, because I had been sending him chapters, then I just stopped. But he never said anything to me, never asked. I think if he had pressured me, I might have totally caved and stopped writing. He's the kindest person and has a deep regard for the feelings of his writers. So, anyway, I picked up the writing again and started to send him more chapters. He wrote to me then, saying he'd been worried and was relieved to see the book moving forward. Just that. I'm really glad I wrote this book.
It also amazes me that I was able to infuse quite a bit of humor, considering my own circumstances. But my family is that way. We had some pretty dark times (as do all families) and yet we managed to poke fun at situations, and we have laughed like crazy afterward. I think this is a huge thing—being able to laugh off the pain of life. Merrill did that in many instances, and that kept her going. So in that regard, she and I are sisters in trauma. We're both survivors and we manage to keep our style thing going. When my dad died, I refused to cry at the funeral because I didn't want the cousins I don't like to see my tears. I cried buckets in private, but not at his funeral. Merrill would do that too, I believe. What the heck—life is a bitch. You have to be feisty and laugh off a lot of things to keep on going.
Yeah, life is a bitch. But life is what fuels us to write. Tell me—what's up next in your life, writing-wise and otherwise?
My greatest fear is that my back won’t totally heal. I really need everyone’s good vibes on that score. I’m still writing stories. I have a comic road novel completed that I’d like to see published. It has a male protagonist. An excerpt was published in the new Thrice Magazine (READ HEREè Squirrels). I also have another unpublished novel written about a woman who leaves her husband after a long marriage. But if the genie popped out of the bottle and granted just one wish—my body back to normal.
Susan, I will send you my best vibes for good health. Thank you so much for this frank and insightful chat on The Merrill Diaries and your writing process. Best of luck, and peace…
Susan Tepper is the author of The Merrill Diaries (a novel in stories) released this July by Pure Slush Books. She has also written two other published novels, a story collection, and a poetry chapbook. Her novel What May Have Been (co-authored with Gary Percesepe) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, 2010. Tepper has received 9 nominations for the Pushcart Prize. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC has been ongoing sporadically for six years. Tepper is a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the monthly author/interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com