The Merrill Diaries by Susan Tepper
It’s 1976, and the war in Viet Nam has ended. Twenty-one year old Merrill, living a mundane existence at the Jersey shore with her soldier husband, Teddy, is poised for change, too. She joins a rock band as their chick singer, and Teddy is soon replaced by sexy Eddie the guitarist. A house fire in Eddie’s beach rental brings things to a violent close and breaks up the band. Badly shaken, Merrill flees to London where she’s employed as a candy-seller at Fortnum. There she meets an eligible solicitor, Tom Spigot-Wheatley. Following a quick courtship they marry; he moves them to a cottage in Southampton. Unfortunately, infested with spiders. The spiders, loneliness, a miscarriage, and that marriage dissolves, too. Tom, a gentleman in all respects, hands Merrill a load of British pounds, and she’s off. First stop Athens. On the street she is picked up by the creepy Dimitri who takes her to some afternoon entertainment. Then while on a ferry tour to the Greek Islands, she meets Theo. Together they operate the ferry tours, living in Theo’s spacious flat overlooking the harbor. A fling with a Dutch guy on Hydra, during a naked swim, and Theo decides to part ways with her. Merrill goes on to Morocco where she has a short-lived affair with a painter. She returns to the States in an attempt to clean up her act, and interviews at a cloistered convent in rural Pennsylvania. When that doesn’t quite work out, she travels to San Francisco where she hooks up with a sax player of some repute named Darnell, who is also part of the Black Panther Movement. In San Francisco she meets Lena, a beautiful Chinese psychic who becomes a friend of sorts; operating as a kind of Greek chorus in the book: Merrill do this, Merrill do that. Advice which Merrill generally ignores, then worries over. Lena receives a death threat and she follows Merrill back to London, where they bunk at Jackie’s, a British friend of Merrill’s sister, Nan. Kind of housemaid and livery is how Lena describes their current set-up. But things in the flat prove less than harmonious and Jackie eventually kicks them out. Merrill moves on without Lena, to the swanky Ritz Hotel. She is at sea about her life. Depressed. On a Carnaby Street stroll, she meets a pair of Australian twins, Steven and Dexter, who charm her. Enamored of their friendship, Merrill begins to relax and have fun until she discovers Steven’s penchant for… well… Clearing out of London, she travels to Italy intent on finding love. Or at least sex. Lena advised her to go to Firenze and learn to cook. Fed up with Lena, she decides Lucca is her city. But in Italy the trains are on strike. Finally reaching Lucca she boards at the home of a middle-aged couple but things there fall apart quickly. And she returns to Firenze to discover she’s homeless for the night. A rabbi, taking pity on Merrill, offers her room and board in his synagogoue, in return for her cooking; as Lena predicted. It is there, in the synagogue basement-kitchen, cooking strange foods, that Merrill feels herself changing, growing, beginning to see things differently. Forever in search, eventually she packs up and leaves Firenze, returns to England again. Feeling like someone without a country. In London she befriends an elderly British man who owns the bookstall on Picadilly. It becomes their daily ritual, the tea and scones, the stories about his passing life. Now pushing thirty, Merrill realizes that the nagging dream plaguing her for almost a decade must be fulfilled. A small dream, but, still. Her dream. As she once heard an actor say during a Shakespeare play she and Tom saw: ‘Tis a poor thing but mine own.
Blurbs for The Merrill Diaries
“Susan Tepper’s hilarious The Merrill Diaries follows a quirky young woman running from a couple of doozy marriages but mainly from herself. Humor as well as pathos are discovered as our narrator opens up to the world, takes risks, and learns. The language is whip smart, the characters live and breathe on the page. A beautiful book.” (Bonnie ZoBell, author of The Whack-Job Girls and Other Stories)
“Raymond Carver meets Jennifer Egan in Susan Tepper’s new book, The Merrill Diaries, in which a restless young woman finds love and lust. The language is spare and intense getting quickly into the staccato rhythms of Merrill’s slap-dash life. Merrill is never long without a man and her patter about her adventures is fast-paced entertainment. From London to a Pennsylvania nunnery and onto Italy and points beyond, the reader never knows where she’s going next. I don’t think Merrill ever knows either. ‘When I don’t know what to do, I generally run away.’ Great fun, yet sad too.” (Gay Degani, author of Pomegranate Stories and staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly)
“The Merrill Diaries takes you on a wild ride you don’t want to exit. This novel in stories is the end of innocence and the start of “the broken tracks, the roads where the river has flooded over.” Merrill is one of the most interesting, inventive characters I’ve read in a long time. A delightful, extraordinary book giving us a look at one woman’s unique destiny.” (Gloria Mindock, editor of Červená Barva Press)
“A brilliant book.” (Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain)
Publisher Information & Purchase Links
Publisher: Pure Slush Books Price: $13.00 US Pages: 202 Physical Dimensions: 6″ x 9-1/4″ ISBN-13 978-0-9922778-2-6 On Sale Date: 07/27/2013
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Discussion Questions about The Merrill Diaries
1. What is the significance of the book’s title?
2. How did you feel when Merrill let her first marriage (to Teddy) decompose?
3. Food seems significant to Merrill’s existence on more than a physical plane, can you explain why?
4. A psychic named Lena comes into the story and they become friends, and roommates for a while. What impact does Lena have on Merrill’s existence?
5. Do you think Merrill’s desire to change locales frequently serves her or harms her?
Susan Tepper’s Recommended Readings
Glass Animals by Stephen V. Ramey
“Stephen V. Ramey’s Glass Animals offers an intimate look at a matador’s passion and pain, a bus driver’s brush with mortality, a jilted lover’s dilemma, a disfigured boy who “inhales” his salvation, and a young man hounded by glass animals in a pool. Ramey takes on the richness of his characters’ emotional and physical torment and delivers something morbidly fascinating and keen. A great first collection!” (Kristine Ong Muslim, author of We Bury the Landscape and Grim Series)
“‘Gravity was another rule on another sign he could not read,’ Malcolm, the protagonist in the title story from Steve Ramey’s wonderful collection thinks. In this gravity-defying display of mostly flash pieces, Ramey leaps and dances over the domestic and the surreal, the mundane and the magical. He seamlessly weaves a crazy-quilt of characters who – despite being a little lost and befuddled by the world – have moments of chandelier insight into their own human hearts. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s Little Things and Kim Chinquee’s Oh Baby, Glass Animals is a work of sparkling vision and compressed and surprising language – all put to work to reveal a world where everything’s at stake.” (Lori Jakiela, author of Miss New York Has Everything and Spot the Terrorist)
“In his collection Glass Animals, Stephen Ramey delivers a collection of short fiction that at once engages, bewilders, and elevates the form to a new space. Ramey gets under the skin of his characters to present the reader with a spectacular journey through the four quartets that make up the collection: Reflect, Refract, Reveal, Distort. Each story is the equivalent of looking at the world through a kaleidoscope and the shattered, glittering stories that make up this collection are exceptional. St. Peter’s Penis, has stayed with me since I first read it last year, and along with Sacred in this Light is one of the stand-out pieces of flash fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. Ramey weaves his stories with assuredness and assiduity, and is a voice to be reckoned with.” (James Claffey, author of Blood a Cold Blue)
Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands by Nathaniel Tower
“Most people probably think that marriage is surreal enough, but Nathaniel Tower takes the absurdity a step further in this imaginative collection. In examining characters who give birth to boots, find gorillas in their spare bedrooms, and cheat the Potato King out of a stolen ring, Tower delights the reader at the same time that he provides strangely tender and apt insight into how we live our lives together.” (David S. Atkinson, author of Bones Buried in the Dirt)
“Wildebeests and gorillas in the house, a woman giving birth to a boot, babies who grow up before their time, a woman in love with a blade of grass – welcome to the weird, surreal, fascinating world of Nate Tower where anything and everything goes. Brilliant, witty, and satirical – I haven’t had this much fun reading fiction since Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.” (Jeffrey Miller, author of Ice Cream Headache)
“Nathaniel Tower has an innate gift of making the implausible, the impossible, the insignificant spring to life as evidenced in his new story collection Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. What is utterly absurd becomes a form of (suspended) reality that this reader accepted and followed to its conclusion, with interest, and in some stories a pang of concern. Tower’s collection brings to mind the brain of Kafka.” (Susan Tepper, author of The Merrill Diaries)
What Came Before by Gay Degani
“A woman, who lost her Hollywood starlet mother to suicide when she was a small child, finds herself embroiled in the murder mystery of a half-sister she never knew she had. Determined to find answers and with her now motherless niece in her charge, she embarks on her own investigation and finds herself drawn ever deeper into danger. Fast-paced and sharply written, with unforgettable characters, this novel by Gay Degani will grab hold and not let go. A terrific read!” (Kathy Fish, author of Together We Can Bury It and Wild Life)
“Hollywood movie starlets. Murder. Arson. Half-sisters and half-truths. What Came Before is a fast-paced murder mystery set in the heart and spirit of L.A. Though issues of class, race and politics hover in the air, the book focuses on character and story. Gay Degani is a skillful storyteller, and her character Abbie is full of enough spunk and gumption to have you rooting for her from page one. At once humorous and heartfelt, What Came Before also keeps you turning pages, eager to uncover more of the story. Abbie is a character searching for the truth about her past and her family, but in digging deeper into that past, she discovers that family can be found in all sorts of surprising places, that what came before doesn’t have to dictate what comes after.” (Tara Laskowski, author of Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.)
“Like Abbie Palmer, the Twinkie-eating, Ativan-popping, bewildered protagonist, the reader is drawn into a swirling journey of unexpected deaths, unknown relatives, and old secrets. Degani’s absorbing debut novel unfolds hazy memories and reveals the buried facts of a generation where society-shocking truths were kept well-hidden.” (Stefanie Freele, author of Feeding Strays and Surrounded By Water)
“What Came Before is a remarkable achievement—a smart, fast-paced mystery that asks important questions about identity, family, and race. And, like the best of its genre, it’s loaded with puzzles: What really happened on the day Abbie Palmer’s mother killed herself? Who is the mysterious woman who shows up on Abbie’s doorstep, and why would anyone want her dead? What will it take to reconcile Abbie with her husband? Gay Degani’s prose is at all times lucid and compelling, and her exciting story will keep you glued to your chair.” (Clifford Garstang, author of In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction)
Gears by Alex M. Pruteanu
“Gears is an unforgettable collection that strikes a match, lighting up the shadows of Gogol and Vonnegut in more than a few raucous smokes together. Pruteanu is a master of language, character and submersion. Gears is deep waters. Get ready to go under.” (Meg Tuite, author of Domestic Apparition and Implosion)
“In his first collection, Pruteanu delivers a series of fictitious “cogs “ which grind together and move forward with the momentum and impact of a speeding freight train. Reminiscent of Kafka and Camus and even the great Russian novelists, Pruteanu displays that rarest ability to create believable and entertaining allegory, while at the same time deftly omitting crucial elements, allowing the reader to interpret his or her own meaning. The result is a series of machinations on love and death, oppression and adversity, identity and purpose; in effect, the machine strips away our options–and the world opens up.” (Pat Pujolas, author of Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World)
“Reading Pruteanu, you can’t help but imagine a big-hearted and wild-eyed writer on the end of the line, one of the rare few who gives a damn. His writing makes you feel less strange and less alone, not an easy trick to pull off.” (James A. Reeves, author of The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir)
“Reading Alex Pruteanu’s Gears is like taking refuge in a restroom in the Denver airport during a tornado warning, and meeting a weirdly enchanting exile who tells stories and word puzzles that remind you that the spinning vortices of life are inside as well as outside: sometimes they are on the scale of clouds and states, and other times they are the size and shape of the subtlest contradictions.” (Christopher Schaberg, author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight).
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a Novel in Stories. Tepper writes two regular columns about writers and writing: UNCOV/rd (author / book interviews) at Flash Fiction Chronicles, and Let’s Talk at Black Heart Magazine. Her reading series FIZZ has been running for more than six years now at KGB Bar in NYC. Tepper has been the Small Press Panel Moderator at Hunter College Writers’ Conference in NYC for five years straight. An award-winning writer, she is a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014, a winner in the Glass Woman Prize, and a 9-times Pushcart nominee. In 2010 she had a novel nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.