by Susan Tepper and Gary Percesepe. 104 Pages
Cervena Barva Press, First Edition 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0984473281.
Review and Interview by Meg Tuite
This novel was mesmerizing in that voyeuristic way that lusty love letters are. I imagined I had come across a packet of letters tied together, yellow with age, that one might find in an attic. Letting the hours tick by I let the fantasy of these two lovers wash over me and the afternoon as it spilled into evening, leaving my world of writing and editing behind along with a pile of dishes and three hungry dogs. Don’t worry I fed the dogs and left the dishes, but Jackson and Dori stayed with me, two distinct shadows now living in the house with me as well.
If you’re looking for that book to steal you away into another place and time with the dunes and the sea as a backdrop for a formidable love affair between two strong, yet distinct characters, then this is the novel for you! Get your copy now through Cervena Barva Press and lose yourself in the bonfire of this all-consuming prose!
I am always intrigued by the connections we make online and the two of you found each other on Fictionaut. How did you both decide that you wanted to do a collaborative piece together, especially a novel?
Susan Tepper: If I strain my brain, I think it started because Gary posted a few stories on Fictionaut that took place in The Hamptons. I commented on them, and that led to an email exchange about the area, and how much we both loved it and spent a lot of time there over the years. Over email we discussed the artists from there, and of course Jackson Pollock, the most notorious. I once owned a home in Springs, close to the Pollock house. Gary spent many vacations out there. One of us said: Wouldn't it be something to write a novel about Jackson Pollock. And the other (probably Gary) said: Yeah, Jackson Pollock and a very young girl.
Gary Percesepe: That sounds about right. I spend a lot of time in Montauk, writing. I used to drink at the place where Pollock did. You can’t talk about Pollock apart from girls, apparently.
Tell me about your first meetings and how you planned this inimitable scheme that worked into a tour-de-force titled “What May Have Been?”
Susan: No first meetings. No meetings. Gary lives in Ohio and I live in the NY area. We made a solemn pact: we would not speak on the phone or meet in person until the book was done. Because what if we met or spoke and had bad chemistry? That would ruin the writing of the book.
Gary: Ha! Had we met there would never have been a book!
I love that you switched genders and came up with very distinct, believable voices. Did you make that decision on the spot or work the two characters until you decided the one that worked best with your writing style?
Susan: HA! Good one, Gary! Ok, the 64,000 dollar question! Here's how it went. I was of course planning on writing the girl. And Gary was going to write the voice of Jackson Pollock. We made it letters. At the moment of the first letter, at the most precipitous moment-- Gary said over email: You're Jackson. I think I shrieked aloud. I quickly wrote back to him: No, no, I'm Dori. Gary, being Gary, wrote back: No, you're Pollock, Go! Go! For a moment I totally froze in horror because I had been kind of assimilating that girl Dori into my unconscious. But I was like a little lap dog and I took his command and wrote the first letter in the book as Jackson Pollock. That was my conversion point.
Gary: I say go to a lot to people. It’s a thing of mine. To my friends. I like to watch ‘em go. I’m a sort of writer’s cheerleader. But look, I didn’t know as much about Pollock as Susan did, and having created the character Dori in my mind (she’s based on a girlfriend from my boyhood, a slender blonde) it just seemed right for me to write as Dori. Besides, it gave me a chance to finally—um—get into this character. And it upset some serious gender categories, which is always fun, and somewhat dangerous, as we soon found out. But then, with Foucault, I believe that everything is dangerous.
There’s a real voyeuristic feeling one gets from reading these letters. I couldn’t put the book down. It’s hard to believe that Dori G. isn’t out there, and I’m not so sure that she isn’t. What were you thinking when you came up with this character?
Susan: Dori is purely Gary's creation. I think I should turn this question entirely over to him. Well, Gary?
Gary: As far as I am concerned Dori IS real. I mean, she lives. She’s sexy as hell, which for me simply means she is alive! She seems more real to me than many people I know. She’s what we would build if we could people.
Love, love, lust exudes from these letters. Did you get lost in the fantasy of this love affair?
Susan: I got totally lost. I became Pollock. You see, I was a method actor long before becoming a writer, so I tend to go deep inside when I write. I've written plenty of male characters, but the Pollock thing was different for me. I adore Pollock's work, he is my favorite contemporary American painter. So to conjure up his thoughts and his moments, well, it was really something. I dug in and fell in love with Dori. Deeply. I did it the way I would do a role on the stage. He inhabited me, and I allowed it. For the course of the book.
Gary: The book is a LOVE story, and sets up what literary theorist Rene Girard calls “mimetic desire,” which is always a triangular relationship. We fought over Dori. I loved her more than Pollock. (As you can see, this whole book is fraught. It raises interesting questions about gender as performance. Rick Moody came up to me after a reading we gave in Greenwich Village, and we had an interesting chat about this. The novel, I think, complicates gender in interesting ways, and I always find that fascinating.)
How did you work together throughout this endeavor? Did you have a set schedule? You wrote that you never met face-to-face until it was over and yet it moves so smoothly, succinctly.
Susan: Meg, that's a pivotal question. It's what made the book work, what created the narrative tension. It's because of who I am and who Gary is. We were perfect to write this book together. I'm a compulsive writer, I wrote my letter then waited to hear from Dori. Gary, on the other hand, often took his sweet ole time getting back to Pollock. It was dreadful for Pollock. When I didn't hear, it set off a fire-storm of letters to Dori, which eventually came back in the form of usually just one letter. Which only increased Jackson's longing for her. If Gary and I had just gone back/forth and back/forth, I believe it would have been a very different book. A much less exciting book.
Gary: Well, there you go—Susan IS compulsive. But look, I was stuck in Montauk without internet connection a few times, and Susan/Pollock just went off the hook. It was amusing, in a way. Dori’s radio silence drove those two crazy. Of course, I didn’t mind. I had Dori all to myself.
Did you do an editing after you had the novel finished? Move letters around?
Susan: No. We didn't touch a thing. Every letter is in the order it was received. We did no editing of each other's work. Gary (Dori) hit me (Pollock) with some real zingers. I remember sitting there thinking: what the hell am I going to do with this??? And then it turned into a great exchange, one of the sexiest and most beautiful (I think) in the writing.
Gary: Yeah. There was an exchange, as I recall, (spoiler alert!) about drinking a cup of menstrual blood. I was gonna say you can’t make this stuff up, but we did.
How has this collaborative book changed you as writers?
Susan: This was my first collaboration ever. I don't want to sound corny, but I feel the muse was working in tandem the day it decided we were going to write this book. I felt we were both channeled to write it. I felt Pollock very close to me throughout the writing. As if he were standing over me so happy that someone was giving voice to him. He has been dead a long time. As for how it changed me personally, I would say it made me appreciate the other voice (Gary's) helping to move the book forward. Something I always carried alone in my previous novels.
Gary: That’s very kind of Susan to say—I don’t really know what to say. I am not by nature someone who collaborates on writing projects. I remember having dinner with a friend one night in the Village, and I explained to her how I had written this novel with someone I’d never met, and she was like—are you crazy? And I said to her: Well, yes.
How has this changed you as friends? I know you do readings together, but the intimacy of the love affair must have had an impact!
Susan: Gary can be crazy. But I won’t elaborate… Yes, it had a huge impact on me. I was scared shitless to meet him after the book was written. After all, we had written a lot of sex and love in the story. Anyway, we met for dinner at Pastis in Greenwich Village. I didn't know what to expect. In walks this guy with his swagger and big smile. Where is my little Dori? I was thinking. I felt very uncomfortable all through the meal. When I'm uncomfortable, I can act very challenging. So I asked Gary a lot of personal questions, which I'm sure he didn't appreciate. But he was very nice, and insisted we share a dessert. That made me even more nervous. I remember he ordered chocolate ice cream with two spoons. I took one bite and that was that. After dinner, we took a walk. It was a nice balmy spring night.
Gary: Well, Pastis is my regular place for dinner, and a short walk from where I usually stay on Jane Street. (Try the steak frites and sure, order chocolate ice cream, to die for.) But see, I think this is what Mary was talking about. There is a lot of projection that can happen with a writing project like this, and Susan’s comments get to the heart of that. For me, it was different. The book, for me, was always and only about Dori. I wrote the book in order to explore what I felt for her, how I saw her, what I imagined her to be. I was thinking about the “real” Dori (that was really her name) all those years ago. As a fairly dedicated narcissist, I was thinking about me—the me that I was when I was with Dori. I was imagining my “unlived life,” a la James Joyce—what might have happened to me had I wound up with Dori. And so my “process” in writing this book was simple: I would get a letter from Susan/Pollock. I would ignore it. And then I would channel my inner Dori and speak, wanting nothing more than to hear her voice, saying these things to me. It’s crowded in my head most of the time, but Dori was the best company I’d had in years. I sorta miss her. OK, strike “sorta.”
Anything else you’d like to add for our readers?
Susan: We love our book. We love it like it is a living thing. And it is, in a way, because it contains the heart and soul of each of us, that we allowed to come forth in this writing.
Gary: It IS a living thing. It will survive us. It has a life outside our own. That’s the wonderful thing about literature, to me—these characters exist on and off the page, but unlike us, they won’t die, as long as there are readers who wish to read their story.