Susan Tepper:  Robert, what I find so intriguing about your story Shades of Gray are all the details that are left out.  Nothing tells us very much.  Yet it’s like a bomb about to detonate.  Or a reduction sauce heated down to its most basic elements.  Tell us how the story evolved in this manner.

Robert Vaughan: I saw Evita on Broadway when I was 19. Patti Lupone starred as Eva Peron, and threw Peron’s mistress out in Act One. Actress Jane Ohringer sang a brilliantly simple song called “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” I can’t fathom how much this song spoke to me then, and it haunts me still: it felt like it was written for me. That lingering lyric, “Where am I going to?” The unanswerable questions.

Susan: Evita! Loved it!  I saw it with Elaine Paige.  “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a fabulous lingering image.  God, it’s just tearing, when you look closely at it.  It screams of pain and emptiness which is what your story does.  And we don’t know whether your narrator is male or female.  Only that the person who does the “leaving” is a he.  Was that an intentional choice, to leave the narrator’s gender up to the reader?

Robert: I had no clue what gender the narrator is/was. Still don’t, and I’m not sure it matters. I often write from this premise, leave gender determination to the reader, or in some cases hint just casually, certainly less than “he” or “she” to give suggestion. In this story, I wanted that ambivalence, the unanswerable question of gender to be as haunting as the story itself.

Susan: And it works perfectly.  It allows us all entry into the story.  Because we’ve all been there, at one time or another.  You write: “I watch him put his clothes on.  After he leaves, I feel numb.  Another stranger takes off before midnight.”  This is economical and gorgeous prose.  Without embellishing, you invite us to step into the suffering.

Well, Robert, we started off with Evita, but this also recalls to me the Woody Allen film Interiors.  You know that one?

Robert: Do I know Interiors? I’m a New Yorker, that’s like asking me if I know Woody Allen plays clarinet! Of course, and because of the movie’s release (around the time I saw Evita) perhaps the two are somehow archived in my brain together. Certainly, in Interiors, the falling apart of a family, or lives spinning out of control, or simply “feeling numb” or deserted, all render themselves to heightened tension and conflict. On another level, I do feel like the majority of this flash is interior, on the inside, potentially unknown.

Susan: Does Woody play the clarinet?  Ha ha!  (I forgot you are a fellow-NYer, Robert, please forgive my momentary lapse!)  Now you got me laughing!

But the story, yes, the majority of this flash is interior: the room, mind, body, the heart/soul connection.  When the “leaving character” departs the story, when he leaves before midnight, there is this terribly cloistered feeling.  You write:  “I feel miniscule.  Shades of gray, patterns on the wallpaper.”   These patterns- what do they look like?

Robert: It wouldn’t be the same as usual if laughter was not included here!

Yes, after the “butthead” leaves (ha! ha!), the narrator has these feelings of insignificance or transience which carry through to the next section. I wonder how a space can choke, or cage a character, like a prison or a well. (Of course the transpired events might also be working on the psyche here, we can only surmise). Originally I wrote this as one night, it all happened that same evening. But I felt as if it needed the jump in time in order to strip away even more, dig deeper into the physical and emotional bearings.

Susan: Yeah, I like it a lot that you segued into the next day.  The horrible next day- after a night like that.  But I really need to know what the patterns in the wallpaper looked like to the character.  Please tell me!

Robert: Isn’t it great how much I avoid answering? The wallpaper patterns are some horrible middle-class “Hitchcockian meets Interiors meets Looking for Mr. Goodbar” bedroom wallpaper: perhaps bluish-gray with a velvety raised pattern, like hearts or better yet, swirls that are unending.

Susan: I will admit you’ve perfected the avoidance technique to New York proportions.  Bet you don’t look anyone in the eye on the subway, right?

Well.  Now this is some answer you gave.  I knew your avoidance contained crucial information to this story.  Because we really don’t know exactly how the furniture (wallpaper, furnishings, etc) got there.  Were they chosen by the narrator, or is it a rented flat (whoops I just jumped the pond), or is our trusty narrator perhaps house-sitting in the outer boroughs?  It’s all very NY.  Oblique, the way NYers can live.  Rent, sub-let, skip out on the last payment, mysteriously lose the furniture.  I love this answer!  It sounds so repulsive and totally unlike what I expected for him.  I had thought perhaps the patterns were hallucinations (being a former interior decorator, I just gotta know these things!)

You write:  “Pale white sheets bury me in the bed.”  Robert, is this story perhaps all about the “little deaths” in each life?

Robert: I do believe as much in “little deaths” as one might in “re-births.” With those pale white sheets (appealing oh so much to your former interior decorator needs), I think I am fascinated by how one can become bedridden. Or disabled, or movement impaired. What leads up to this, how does it happen? Also, yes, those New York horrors of “the in-betweens” of living spaces: whose furniture is this? We don’t know. It “seems random, rather unpredictable.” Then again, what isn’t in life? That the narrator wonders “Did I live here?” is not unlike most transitory people, those folks who seem to be just passing through.  Impermanence.  Stayed on your couch while you vacationed and watched your turtles.

Read  Shades of Gray by Robert Vaughan

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Christopher

    Great interview, guys. So much NYC in this interview. It makes me homesick.

  2. Foster Trecost

    Very enjoyable chat! Robert, it’s great to get such a candid insight into your writing. Susan, as always, you asked just the right questions in just the right ways. Thanks, both of you.

  3. estelle bruno

    This interview and about so much sadness in new york, was a wonderful read.
    Congratulations to you both.

  4. susan tepper

    Thanks you guys (And Estelle!). Yes, this is a very NYC cool story (I hear the new word for cool is fresh– is that right?) Well Robert knows his cool/fresh and he knows Woody plays clarinet and he knows how to write a damned good story!

  5. Jeanette Cheezum

    Robert and Susan,

    This was an interesting interview/chat with a gifted writer. I think that Robert is an excellent writer that takes the time to make it work for all of us.

  6. fran metzman

    This interview hit me emotionally! The isolation and loneliness were so strong it gave me a feeling of despair. The interviewer and author combined to hit a bullseye. Wonderful.

  7. Julie

    This NYer thanks you both. An incredibly insightful interview.

  8. J. Mykell Collinz

    Just passing through, yes, and would like to hang around for a while, pain free if possible. It’s such a groovy impermanence. Thanks for the chat, Susan and Robert, a fun say on Monday. Beyond cool, it’s fresh.

  9. susan tepper

    Jeanette, Yep, Robert gives BIG to the writing community. I’m happy to give back to him in this small way.

    Fran, so glad you felt the piece strongly. It’s a strong piece.

    Julie, this Nyer thanks you back!

    JM, pain free is the best way to handle this groovy/cool/fresh impermanence called life. Always happy when you stop by!

  10. Darryl Price

    I love Robert,and I love Susan,so this was a big win for me! How could one not be engaged in such delightful company and conversation? It’s a welcome relief from the mundane conversation one is constantly being hit with throughout the bordered days. Keep’em coming because not only do they work but they inspire.And the humor,oh my, I needed that…thanks!

  11. Robert Vaughan

    I try to give as BIG as I’ve been given, that much is for sure. Including this gift, thanks Susan. We had a blast.
    Why was I so anxious prior to it? Good question, that one.
    Thanks also to everyone for your wonderful comments. I appreciate this Fictionaut community so very much.

  12. Pam Parker

    Thanks Robert and Susan — great interview and great piece!

  13. sheldon lee compton

    Insightful as always. I always enjoy these interviews.

  14. Don

    A great interview, and I have loved reading Robert’s stories, both at Fictionaut and at his blog, One Writer’s Life. Great to track his progress and I always enjoy his insights about his work. Nice job, Susan!

  15. susan tepper

    Robert I had no idea you were anxious beforehand. You coulda fooled me! You were so groovy/cool/fresh with your zing ’em back responses. Very suave-o. I hardly had time to sweep the deck, put on make-up, do my usual in-between thingys while I wait for the answers. Because I am never anxious. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER. Does that make you feel anxious Robert? Huh? Huh? Huh? Well it SHOULD! It should make you bite your fingernails off. (and tonight I’m feeling playful)

  16. susan tepper

    Pam, Sheldon, Don, so glad you enjoyed the chat! I don’t normally torture my chat-ees in the comments area, but Robert wouldn’t expect any less..

  17. susan tepper

    Darryl, you just popped in as I was telling Robert he should be biting his fingernails off. You just popped in and said such nice things, and now you will be sorry, you will think I have wasted nice things on HER, and she is a crazy person, and and and…
    Thanks DP! So glad you liked and it gave you a few laughs! We love you back (well I do). Robert only loves his fingernails and they are lost now.

  18. Robert Vaughan

    I love way more than my fingernails, you silly Tishka! Thanks so much to all these wonderful folks. I love you too, D.P.!!

  19. James Lloyd Davis

    Robert, Susan, excellent interview. Robert’s work gets better and better. It’s a treat to get an insight to his process.

    New York is alright I suppose … as long as it doesn’t spread any farther west.

  20. Linda Simoni-Wastila

    Fabulous interview. I loved the spareness of the story, the bleakness, and then the interview the opposite — rich and rollicking. Robert, so glad to get a peek into the mind (and heart) behind the story. Susan, per usual, you push all the right buttons. The best bed-time reading I’ve had in some time. peace…

  21. Marcus Speh

    great interview here, interiors indeed. a fine story, too, and you both managed to open it up in so many directions, this talk should forever be fused to the piece itself like another limb. i’ll get my clarinet out now.

  22. susan tepper

    @ Robert, you are totally correct in saying that Tishka is silly, in fact last night Tishka had a few loose screws when she posted here (as me!) How dare she! It was such a wild day– what with your chat, then Meg Tuite and her swami problems. Basically by sundown Tishka had flipped her lid!

    @ Jim Davis, we promise to Keep NYC within the boundaries of its current confines. Right, Robert?

    @ Linda, Yes, this chat with Robert is a bedtime treat. But did you mean something more than that???

    @Marcus, you play clarinet? Robert did you know that about Marcus?

  23. Robert Vaughan

    @ everyone: What Susan said! Thanks for reading, for your sweet comments and I want to hear recordings of your clarinet, Marcus. Maybe someday (after we retire?) we can get an act together- I play piano. Anyone else?

  24. susan tepper

    I play the castanets. But only in the nude.

  25. LindaSw

    I sing torch songs ;^)

    and play flutes.

    but retire? will we ever?

    and no, Susan — only sleeping! ;^)

    lotsa winking here. peace…

  26. Gloria Mindock

    What a wonderful, wonderful chat this was. Great questions and answers. There are not enough words in the vocabulary to say how much I enjoyed this chat! So insightful. This was really, really, good!
    You both are the best.

    PS-I play the guitar so add me to the list. My guitar playing is horrible.
    Hey I can sing though. Dark little songs. Hah!

  27. Marcus Speh

    i have an image (not a picture, alas) of you, susan, playing the castanets in the nude and it’s pretty and loud. i don’t play clarinet, strictly speaking, i do play something called “chalumeau”, which is much older and weirder. i like to think of myself as an older and weirder version of woody allen, too, with a similar desire to emulate bergman (except the depression). seriously though i play piano too so we’ll have to play four-handed side by side, robert, which sounds good too, doesn’t it.

  28. susan tepper

    In all fairness to Robert (this is HIS CHAT) we should really play some tunes in our band from Evita. How about this–
    “Evita in the Nude” A New off off off off Way the Hell off Broadway musical starring:
    Robert Vaughan as himself
    Linda Simoni-Wastila as herself
    Marcus Speh as someone
    Gloria Mindock as the girl who got away
    & DIRECTED BY Susan Tepper (who will remain clothed for the duration of the run)..

  29. James Lloyd Davis

    I have a beret!
    I can play Che!
    It’ll be fun.
    Then when we’re done …
    Wait a minute …. in the nude!?

    Never mind.

  30. susan tepper

    As the official Director, I will change your name to Jimmy Dee — for an-on-y-mity.
    Then you can play Che and it’ll be fun and when you’re done… A Tony nomination for Best Nude Male Actor in an off off off off wtf off Broadway Musical!

  31. James Lloyd Davis

    It’s tempting, but to quote my sainted grandmother, “How anonymous can anyone really be when they’re naked?”

  32. Andrew Stancek

    Fantastic interview, you two. My friend Josef Skvorecky taught me to play the bass saxophone. Can I play from the wings? Naked if need be? Perhaps just one short solo turn?

  33. susan tepper

    Jimmy Dee, you have a tough career decision ahead of you. Countless others have gulped and swallowed (so to speak), in order to get that coveted film part or stage role. Did you think they got it handed over on a silver platter???
    Well do you want to be FAMOUS or not?

  34. susan tepper

    As for Marcus Speh– alas I do not have the desired photo, either. But do have one of myself in a hula skirt from a role in South Pacific. Will send it C.O.D.

  35. susan tepper

    Sure, Andrew, we could always use a bass sax and naked from the wings will work out very nicely.
    Good to hear you are not “prudish” like some other people who will go un-named but have the initials J.D.
    & most of all– GLAD YOU LIKED THE CHAT!!!

  36. LindaSw

    We DO want an audience, so the naked aspect of the performance will be an issue ;^) peace…

  37. Meg Tuite

    Excellent interview Susan and Robert!! I loved the questions and the answers and felt I got a deeper insight into Robert’s incredible process!!! And I saw you two hanging out at a cafe somewhere laughing and having a blast! It was very intimate, NYC kind of fun!!! I am a fan of both of yours!!! Thank you for sharing, Hugs to both of you!!!!! From the biker chick!!!

  38. Robert Vaughan

    How can we fit a biker chick into this cast of characters from Evita? Hmm…any ideas Che? Or Ray? or musical members like the double handed piano playing ivory tinkerers?

  39. susan tepper

    The biker chick (Ms. Meg Tuite) will be cast as Peron’s mistress.
    As I am the DIRECTOR (if you will keep that in mind!),
    I had some (ahem) difficulties with the original actress I planned on casting. She kept snorting and wiping her nose while singing “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
    That will not do. A snorting/wiping actress will not do the song justice.
    Ms. Meg Tuite will sing the song then ride away on her Harley Davidson. It will be very effective. All in the nude, of course.

  40. susan tepper

    @ Linda, who is worried about the audience vs. the nudity aspect.
    Have you been to Broadway lately? Nude is all the rage.
    We will be a Huge Hit!
    Another suitcase in another hall.. tra la…

  41. Robert Vaughan

    Dear Director (Susan): This is really coming together for an off off off off wtf off Broadway production of Evita in the Newd (As writer I have to have free license to change some text here and there). For those wanting to have some parts less exposed, we do offer bird cages, and wallpaper shirts and tops: think Carol Burnett playing Scarlett O’Hara. Also in this version, since I play me, and Linda plays her, I think we should employ flying and swimming somehow into the piece. And I like the biker chic idea: those lights passing in the bedroom walls would then be a given. So, if JD is Che, then who, in God’s name is our Evita, our little Saint? Auditions to immediately follow reading? Help, Director, help!

  42. susan tepper

    Hmmm… and hmmm… again. Writers. Always poking their noses into stage and screen business.
    Listen here, Mister Writer, you just write your words (newd or otherwise) and the DIRECTOR/PRODUCER will handle the gritty details.
    OK? OK? OK?
    Flying monkeys and dancing sharks will not cut it!
    Don’t piss me off. Writers are a dime-a-dozen.
    I’ve seen writers get booted off more sets than you have eaten bananas.
    The Evita part has been cast! And will be revealed when the DIRECTOR/PRODUCER is good and ready.
    You got that, Mister Writer? Are we clear on that???

  43. Meg Tuite

    Thank you, Susan, for your casting!!!! I’m working on my voice right now and a bit worried about the Harley ride since I’m just a Honda girl, but nude, yes I can do that!!! And Peron’s mistress! Excellent! I’m all over it!!! And in a good way!!!

  44. susan tepper

    Oh… Oh… A Honda girl? Well that changes everything. I’m sorry but we can’t use you. These things happen in show biz. Try for a commercial, dear. Something in the dog food line or kitchen products. Good Luck!

  45. Doug Bond

    whoa, off the charts late on this but wanted to chime in, see if you need a trombone player…may take awhile to get the “chops” back but the clothing optional bit….no problem. Never is for trombone players. And re: the chat. Terrific rapport between Susan and Robert…you hit all the right notes in this duet and love the last line Robert….best last line of a monday chat, evah! “Stayed on your couch while you vacationed and watched your turtles.”

  46. Robert Vaughan

    Why, Doug, I am very happy that we hit the notes to sing your tune! And a trombone is always a happy addition to any cast orchestra! As you know there is rarely room for a baritone or tuba. So, we will rely on you to take the lower register, so to speak. Of course, I have to let the director chime in here, or surely she will kick my ass. The nudity bit will help you get and keep the job, I imagine. Welcome to Evita in the Newd.

  47. susan tepper

    From the ass-kicking DIRECTOR/PRODUCER of “Evita In The Newd”:
    We welcome the horn of Doug (Beater Buzzer Bob) Bond. Just stick to the rules, BBB, and all will be well.
    Be on time!
    Know your cues!
    Watch the conductor cues!
    Don’t blow off key!
    Keep your mitts of Evita’s handlebars no matter how shiny and tempting they appear under the lights!
    We pay union scale.
    Commissary is included.

    Wasn’t that last turtle line from Robert Vaughan just amazing!

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