Susan Tepper is co-author of the novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe), the collection Deer & Other Stories and a poetry chapbook Blue Edge. She conducts the Monday Chat Interview on the Fictionaut blog, and writes a satirical advice column, “Madame Tishka on Love & Other Storms” at Thunderclap! Press. FIZZ, her series at KGB Bar in NYC, is a popular reading venue.
From the Umberplatzen is a collection of 48 linked flash chapters that submerge us in the visuals, the smells, the colored vibrancy of love in all its facets. Kitty Kat and M had a love affair in Germany. This slim and evocative novel is told in flashback, a journey that takes us through their memories and intimate snapshots, relived through the letters and gifts that M sends Kitty Kat through the mail.
Tepper brings the heat of their unrestrained potency to life with her masterful language, into the apartments, cafés, and passionate moments under the Umberplatzen trees, where silk kites are launched and wine is drunk, and bunched satin roses are “delicate as tiny bombs.” The desire and respect these two characters have for each other, in this rich landscape of mystery and grace, unfolds like a letter out of its envelope, slowly, and full of promise.
From the Umberplatzen is a novel to get your hands on. It is one I was hoping would never end. Tepper’s is an authentic voice full of depth and fervor that reverberates from under the branches of the Umberplatzen trees. —MT
MEG TUITE: Susan, I am always blown away by how close to the bone you write your stories and your novels. Tell me, what was your inspiration for your latest book?
SUSAN TEPPER: Well, from the time I was in my early teens I trained as a method actor. What they drilled into us was this: “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” I think it became a part of my overall existence, because I tend toward blunt truth even when it’s inconvenient to do so. From time to time it’s gotten me into a fair amount of trouble! At any rate, when I quit acting in 1994 and transitioned to writing, that actors’ “credo” slid into the creation of text. And I believe it should be integrated into all art forms including painting, dance, music, sculpture, whatever. The artist has to bring an essential truth to his or her medium. In acting they used to say if you are faking it on stage, the audience will see and be uncomfortable. It’s the same with writing fiction. Fakery (is there such a word?) seems to scream out across the page. So when you say I write close to the bone, well, Meg, I have my acting teachers to thank for it. Most especially John Strasberg, who was my last acting teacher, who dragged out the living truth, me screaming and kicking all the way.
As for where the stories come from— that’s more complicated because I’m not exactly sure what sparks the creation of a particular work. If I had to analyze, I would say writers choose their material out of an essential need in their own lives. We fill in what is missing. Sometimes it’s so deep it never becomes obvious to the writer. In my case I must have needed an Umberplatzen— a word that burst spontaneously onto the page in the first sentence of the first little story. A made up word. It sounded Germanic to me. And since I had placed the story in Germany from the first sentence, and talked about leaves, it makes sense that I would need a German name for the tree in that sentence. Not knowing any German tree names, my mind automatically constructed Umberplatzen. I like the sound of it, very soothing.
I love that above all it is necessary to write something that translates your truth, in whatever medium you work in! From the Umberplatzen (and I love that word also) takes us on a journey through Germany as well as these intimate scenes between Kitty Kat and M. I admire the juxtaposition of place and the deep relationship that unfurls in this novel. Can you talk a bit about place in your work and how important it is to your process?
Meg, for me place is everything. I see each scene clearly as I write, as if I were actually inhabiting that place. The Umberplatzen starts off as a type of tree but quickly becomes their favorite park. When they want to go there, they will say, “Let’s go to the Umberplatzen.” As Kitty Kat describes it: “The park off the avenue and close to the river. The more congested but more beautiful park. The one with the bird aviary and bronze statue of a man on horseback.” Place is crucial to their story because the Umberplatzen turns yet again, becoming a state of mind for them. Which is also a place.
I did spend a lot of time in Germany about two decades ago, and that country stayed with me. It’s very beautiful and has such a conflicted history. The people I met there were like people anywhere. Some good, some not. But the country presented itself to this writing and so I naturally went along. There is a reason certain things come up and I don’t believe we should squelch them.
This book is dedicated to the amazing Marcus Speh. And your main character, M, lives in Germany and is quite philosophical, as we know Marcus to be. Was Marcus one of the inspirations for this book?
Marcus is always an inspiration, for everything, everyone. His is a joyous giving spirit. He does live in Germany. I dedicated this book to him almost accidentally. I had chosen to use an initial for my male character which is something I generally don’t do. I usually write out a full name for my characters. But M appeared as just M. It felt mysterious and somehow correct. It was nice when paired with M’s nickname (Kitty Kat) for the woman he loved. So, anyway, I wrote the first story “Leaves” and sent it to Marcus Speh and he published it at his kaffe in katmandu. He also published my second story, “Crash Landing in the Umberplatzen.” Up till that point I simply had two stories. No idea they would become a book. But then I got hooked on the characters and started writing them on a daily basis, a story a day. Some of Marcus’ images at kaffe in katmandu ended up as integral parts of certain stories.
For instance in the chapter called Picture, I pulled from an image he used to illustrate a poem of mine that he published. A gorgeous image with luscious colors that totally knocked me out. In the chapter called Picture, M tells Kitty Kat they must travel together to the Kunsthalle Hamburg to see the picture that changed the course of his life. When she asks what the picture looks like, he tells her: “A young man poised at the edge of the world. All of nature cascading before him.” So that image became central to that chapter. I’ve been called an intuitive writer, I sort of pull in stuff from everywhere. Only the first two stories were sent out for publication. To Marcus, who took them both. His confidence in them inspired the writing of this book. It was fated. This book is for him. It’s only natural.
That you work intuitively comes across in your books. In the chapter “Grafted,” Kitty Kat is sent the key to his apartment. She writes: “They say it’s all chemical. In our case maybe more so. Some sort of cross pollination.” She’s talking about the Umberplatzen here. Then she says: “It had a kind of force field that drew us together. Like a shared skin. M grafted to me and me onto him.”
So much heat in these lines. Can you speak about the relationship between these two characters? And the distinct voices between the two? That is sometimes very difficult for a writer to finesse, but you pull it off and M and Kitty Kat are two very distinct individuals.
It is a strange dichotomy because I see them as distinctly different, too, but then again almost as twins. They seem to share a cord ( kite or symbolic-umbilical)? Because his favorite hobby is to build and fly silk kites— in the Umberplatzen, of course! Or perhaps M and Kitty Kat knew each other in a past life. The book tells that she has left a bad marriage (in America) and moved to Germany. Though it’s not spelled out, I suspect it was a job transfer (perhaps requested by her). At one point I mention her leaving work late, and in another I have her carrying a briefcase. So she is some type of professional working woman. That information has no relevancy to their story but was used to give some ballast to Kitty (Kat). Her real name is Kitty (I suspect Katherine) but he has affectionately nick-named her Kitty Kat. M is a physicist with a clearly brilliant and probing mind. He’s an investigator of life. A dreamer. Someone who sees possibility in all that exists, and a few things that don’t. Kitty Kat says he believes he was once Dylan Thomas! M wants desperately to marry her. When she reminds him that she’s already married, he tells her, “But not in Germany.” I think if she were willing to live a double-life, he would marry her right there in a heart-beat. They are lovers, symbolic twin brother and sister, best friends. Their bond is one that I envy. I truly doubt its existence anywhere outside of literature.
All the gifts she receives: confetti, a snail shell, string, a feather boa and so many more exquisite mementos of their time together. They add so much to the treasure that these two share. I was wondering if you came up with that idea after writing a few of the chapters or if you had that in mind from the start?
As soon as M sends her leaves in the very first story, I think my brain was setting up a pattern that he would be sending things. That can be a form of power and manipulation— sending gifts to someone when they have left you and you’re trying to get them back. It’s also deeply sad. For both parties. I did choose gifts for her that were mostly appealing to me. It’s the girly-girl part of me that is Kitty Kat. Though I feel I’m in both characters. Which, as writers, their creators, we are. We’re part of our best characters and our most heinous ones. I feel that both M and Kitty Kat are decent and conflicted people who share this great abiding love. And no matter what the geography, their love remains. It’s more of an old-fashioned concept of love. The kind that didn’t exist without distance and suffering. For instance, the kind of love that propelled Graham Greene’s “End of the Affair”— that type of love is what I see between M and Kitty Kat. When people just are and there is no finger pointing. As for the gifts and items he sends her almost daily through the mail, some arrive in the beginning of the chapter (story), some at mid-point, but most come at the end. A kind of summing up.
Do you think Kitty Kat will ever return to M in Germany, or will he eventually come to her? Can you see these possibilities?
I can “see” these possibilities. I’ve seen stranger things than that go on in real life—dead loves reawakened and twice-divorced people marrying each other for a third time. All sorts of possibilities do exist. With M and Kitty Kat the love in the book is tangible (not my word but the comments of readers and reviewers). And when there is a love of that strength, I think it has a durability that can bypass conventional logic and behavior. But because I’m a writer whose brain stops-short at the point where the story ends, this is a difficult question. I believe Kitty Kat would practically give up her soul to see him again. M, too—and maybe even his kites (an extension of his being). I also think Kitty Kat has deep reasons why she can’t go back to him but I don’t quite understand those reasons. It may have to do with what went down in a chapter called “Baby’s Breath.” They are at the Umberplatzen on a perfect spring day. They stop at the flower stand, and Kitty Kat bends to smell some baby’s breath, commenting on its loveliness. M agrees, saying: “It’s sweet and innocent. They put it in bouquets with live flowers to reduce the impact.” When she questions this remark, saying she doesn’t quite understand, M’s reply is that it can become too overwhelming.
For more information on Susan Tepper, please visit www.susantepper.com.