Merrill, An Impossibility, and All Sorts of Energies: An Interview with Susan Tepper
Interviewed by Michelle Elvy
Susan, some have heard the story of how Merrill, from your novel The Merrill Diaries, came to be: you wrote a story for Pure Slush, and then the editor Matt Potter put it to you to chase Merrill down. Merrill is a restless soul, so I wonder: how hard was it to chase her down, to contain her on the page? How did her voice come to you, and how did it lead you from place to place? Did her travels unfold, for you the author, in a geographic sense, or did you pay closer attention to the rhythms of her heart and follow those as they impacted both spontaneity and flight?
This is a difficult question to put into perspective, but I’ll do my best. When I agreed to write the Merrill character, I was only certain of one thing: I had to write her ‘young’ for this book. So I started the book when she was 21 years of age, in 1976. That was also a very exciting time in my own life. I had been flying as a stewardess a few years for TWA and seeing a lot of the world. As I began to write Merrill’s story those places came back to me in a flood. I felt this tug to return to that time and those places I knew first as a young woman—just do the whole damn thing all over again. Of course in reality that’s an impossibility. But since nothing is impossible on the page, I gave it over to Merrill. Here, my soul was telling her, take this incredible journey. You see, both Merrill and I were born with the Wanderlust. It was easy to move her along in the story since she mirrors my own heart in many ways.
The book begins with spies, or at least the concept of spies, and Merrill’s deep dislike of these two particular people around her. Did you know from the get-go that this story would start the book? And in what way do you think this sets the tone for the rest of the book?
The word spies hit my brain as the first word in the book and who knows where it came from? Maybe I was watching a TV news show about spies or something. I write purely out of instinct, no pre-planning or anything. The first line of the book: “Spies have paid us a surprise visit” just came to me as I typed. It’s a line by line process that I follow when writing. I do think that particular first line sets the tone for the book in this manner: Merrill will attract nutty, quirky people all her life. For some of us, it’s like that. I have that (unfortunately), but I also draw good people (thank heavens!). It’s an energetic thing—certain energies attract certain energies. And because Merrill is an open person, she will draw in all sorts of energies, good and bad. Then it’s her job to navigate these energies so that they won’t suck the life force out of her. That’s the tricky part. Oftentimes bad energy disguises itself really well, and people can’t tell the difference. It’s Merrill’s path to get through darkness into light.
In the chapter called “The End of Innocence,” there is an opening line about Merrill being her own worst enemy. Is this really true for Merrill? Or is it true for all of us? Is Merrill, while being quite a specific character, an embodiment of us all in some way—only wearing her insecurities a little more out there on her sleeve? And is this part of that makes Merrill so compelling as a character (to write and to read)?
The chapter titled “The End of Innocence” begins like this: Some one of my husbands, or was it a boyfriend, said: Merrill you are your own worst enemy. Merrill then goes on to tell the reader: I don’t take that stuff to heart. Guys always bombard you when you’re about to leave.
I suspect she doesn’t care much what people think about her, or otherwise. She’s strong-willed and does what appeals to her. I don’t think she’s mean-spirited in any way, and she is sometimes sad and feels at sea regarding her life. Yes, I would say she pretty much wears her heart on her sleeve. But she’s not afraid of much, and when she is afraid, she manages to overcome.
As for whether she is an embodiment of others, I don’t know. Merrill is true to herself. I like that. I like that kind of strength in a woman. In men, too.
Similarly, Darnell comments that Merrill has perfect pitch, and she responds by noting it’s near perfect. Is this a moment where Merrill is being too hard on herself, or is this a moment of enlightenment?
Neither. She doesn’t have perfect pitch, her singing voice is near perfect pitch. Darnell is just throwing her a bone and she knows it and lobs it back at him. I think he’s conceited and wants to feel he has a perfect woman. And since he’s a musician of considerable talent, it plays out that he would want her perfect, too.
You’ve already mentioned your own travels and experiences. Can you comment more specifically on your own relationship to The Ritz? The Haight? London? And Pennsylvania (Merrill’s deadpan comment about PA—“a place I’d recommend as somewhere to die”—is typically acerbic and funny).
A lot of what I’ve seen in life has gone into this book. For instance, I have stayed at The Ritz Hotel in a room like the room described by Merrill. It’s the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in, so I decided Merrill should stay there. Why not?! It gave me a chance to re-visit The Ritz! But what went on during Merrill’s stay had no resemblance to my stay at The Ritz, aside from the room and descriptions of the lobby and the lobby tea.
I did live in London for a time, and also outside of London in a cottage that had the problems of Merrill’s cottage. The Haight district of San Francisco is familiar to me from my travels. It seemed a hip spot for the chapter on music. As for rural Pennsylvania, I know it from driving all over that state in my capacity as sales manager for an airline based in Philly. I saw it all and it all fascinated me. The old, run-down towns, the mills, the open flat countryside, the Poconos, long stretches of highway with strip mall after strip mall. As I started to move Merrill along on her path, I took her to places that popped into my brain.
In her blue period when Merrill meets the twins, some important things happen. This chapter ends with her discovery of what this friendship has meant to her, and what she has lost and gained. Is this a turning point in the book? And did you write it that way deliberately, or did Merrill stumble onto this realization herself?
Merrill was entranced by the twins. They made her feel happy, joyous, adored. They pulled her up from her doldrums which she calls her blue period. When she discovered some issues about the twins, it changed the whole relationship she had with them. It saddened her in a way she couldn’t quite explain. Except to say that it took some of the zest out of her life: her je ne sais quois.
I don’t see this as a turning point in the book, but more a deepening of the Merrill character. And, no, I didn’t write it deliberately. I never know what is going to happen on the page until it happens. But I am a novelist. And always in the back of my mind is the knowledge that I must keep the narrative moving or the book dies. The way to do that is to keep building up tension. It’s an ebb and flow sort of thing you have to do with a novel.
The tag line for the book is When I don’t know what to do, I generally run away—but are there other moments which, for you, give more depth to Merrill? Because she’s not exactly always running away, is she?
Merrill is a survivor in the truest sense. And you’re right—she’s not always running. She runs when there is nothing positive happening around her. She doesn’t run away from as much as run toward something else. Hopefully better. She doesn’t stick around to be abused or used. I admire that in her. In anyone, really.
The last chapter has a great title and is a great way to end the book—both with a very specific place and event(s) and yet without a tidy wrapper on the whole. Without giving much away, I’d like to ask you about this moment at the end. Did you know when you set out to write the book where Merrill would end up? And also, there is the pervasive theme of contrasting dreams and reality in all the episodes in this book, from the opening chapter to the final one. This is a strong theme, and I wonder if it’s a theme you explore in other writing as well. Tell us why this way of looking at the world is so fascinating to you as a writer of stories.
I had no idea how this book would end, what country she would be in, what state of mind. In fact, I didn’t know what she would ‘do’ in that final pivotal scene that takes place (you know what and where). And after she did what she did, I still didn’t know how the book would end. I don’t like tidy, wrapped up endings because they don’t exist in real life. The only ending is death (as we understand it). And I wasn’t about to kill her off—Merrill is way too much fun! So I think it ended well, and kind of philosophically. Which is how things generally do end in real life, whether it’s been good, bad, or indifferent.
As for contrasting themes and reality, Calderon said it all: La vida es sueño (Life is a dream).
A manuscript editor and writer based in New Zealand, Michelle Elvy edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook. Her poetry, short stories, flash and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and travel magazines. She is currently completing a collection of very short stories set across the historical landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. She posts poetry and flash at her blog and her views on writing and editing here.
Susan Tepper grew up on Long Island where two of her recent books take place. What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G is set in The Hamptons, home of the artist Jackson Pollock. In Tepper’s collection Deer & Other Stories, most of the stories are set on Long Island, or have a strong connection to The Island. Her third and most current published novel From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012) is a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked flash fiction. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize.Deer, the title story of her collection, was nominated for NPR Selected Shorts. Her novel WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.