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oleuanna_profilepic_500pxSusan Tepper: Marcus, just recently I wrote to you on Facebook that I was a little afraid to read your story “Le Sucre Brun,” as I have a problem with violence at the level of genocide. Yet I did read it and was captivated.  What prompted you to write such a timely story?

Marcus Speh: I understand your hesitation because, frankly, I feel the same. A couple of months ago I took a wrong turn on my way home and ended up almost right in front of the former site of a concentration camp near Berlin, now an impressive memorial site, Sachsenhausen. I spent an entire morning walking around the site. When I came home, I had found a topic for a longer piece that I’ve been working on ever since, centering on a camp. The immediate prompt for this very short flash story was the photo by my friend Oleuanna from Scotland. It exudes a vulnerability and a strength that, in connection with the subject of camps, directly prompted me to write “Le Sucre Brun.” (Oleuanna also provided the title).

ST: Isn’t it interesting how the environment often factors into our decision to write a particular story, or from a certain perspective.  “Le Sucre Brun” takes place in a camp far from Berlin.  Your opening line:  “This is what I heard, okay?” sets up a personal tone that pulled me in immediately.  What made you open this way?

MS: You describe it well – “a personal tone.” I felt that the horror, both explicit and implicit in the story, needed a filter, a dampening of the fall into a cruel reality. At the same time, the narrator indirectly refers to the fact that many people’s reaction to deeds of evil are disbelief – probably as a matter of protecting themselves. By integrating this disbelief into the story, I help suspension of disbelief along, which I also need later in the story.

I strongly resonate with your remark on the environment – in this case, intuition led me to the site of the former camp exactly at the time when I was looking for a subject. But I’m equally comfortable with the more spiritual view that the field around us helped me find it so that the story could be brought to life. I relate to the view that others have held that the story finds us, not the other way around.

ST: Oh, yes, the story finds us!  I also love your two views about intuition leading you to a specific place, and your other point regarding the spiritual view of the “field around us.”  This is a beautiful phrasing: “the field around us.”  Would you talk more about that please?

MS: “The field” is actually an established concept in two disciplines that are dear to me: psychology  and physics. In physics, the theory of quantum fields, and in psychology, the Lewin’s field theory, constitute frameworks to pose difficult material or behavioral questions. Some systemic therapists and coaches (like myself) believe that there is another field, the so-called “Knowing Field“, which may or may not be rooted in quantum theory, which our unconscious accesses all the time to tap into memories or even facts. The idea is akin to Jung’s collective unconscious, which postulates that some “truths” or cultural facts, or memes (whatever name you prefer) exist between and not just inside people. I happen to believe that and when I’m dreaming lucidly or when I’m writing, I am usually aware of being in touch with more than just my sorry little brain. Some serious channeling going on there, I think, for all of us who create.

When Coleridge was upset about “the person from Porlock“, he was angry at the guy having severed Coleridge’s connection with the field, if you wish.

ST: Wonderful, these extra insights and facts.  To talk more about your story, what made you choose a “woman” as central?  You made your female character delicate.  Do you think a woman is more vulnerable to torture and insult to the spirit, the life-force, than say a man would be?  Are women more vulnerable to the insanity of the world?

MS: That is a question as delicate as its subject. Interestingly, the camp in my novella is an all-male affair – women are spectral, they’re almost unreal, a little like in the prison world of Jean Genet. I was surprised myself at making that choice since I like to write about female characters. The immediate choice to write about a woman came with the sentence “The camp hadn’t been built for women like her”, which was the first fully formed sentence of the piece from which all the rest flowed. I don’t think women are more vulnerable to torture or “insult to the spirit, the life-force” (well put!) than a man: if anything, I think the opposite. I think women come equipped with more of that magical life-force, they carry it. My heroine clearly shows, in the end, what powers she carries and will use when forced to. Men, if I may extend the thought, probably need to work harder for that kind of power. You can kind of see this in the works of the great male writers – and of the lesser ones (who don’t get there). I know I’m on slippery ground here – but I did see my wife bear a child, which comes closest to a first-hand experience of divinity. (And like in all divine acts, there’s light and darkness at once).

ST: Your ending comes as a shock.  I still don’t quite understand it, but I felt much better after reading the ending.   I found myself thinking:  well there is some justice, after all.  Even if only in stories.  The Darfur genocides go on, as do others.  Do you see an end to this violence as the world evolves?  Or do you think it’s the same play performed over and over and over into time?

MS: I can see that. It shocked me, too — I didn’t plan on it. But even before that fully formed sentence, the magical act at the end came to me right after waking up as a wordless image on the morning when I wrote the story. It was most certainly not inserted after the fact to make anyone feel better. Rather the other way around – the beginning is an excuse to celebrate the ending.

You’re asking the most serious of questions here. I don’t know if I’m the person to answer it. With Gardner, who has taken a lot of heat for this view, I do believe that fiction ought to be moral. Perhaps there’s no a priori reason why we carry this gift of writing but if we don’t throw our weight behind life, decency and humanity, we’re nothing but word clowns.

As for the future, I do believe that where there’s light there must be shadow. “Shadow” being another one of C G Jung’s favorite archetypical concepts: just like we cannot rid ourselves of our personal shadow (the part of ourselves that lies in the shade, that we don’t like and don’t enjoy looking at), I cannot conceive of a world without the political shadows — be they torture, war, racism or sexism, as much as I’d like to. Good and evil, hard to resist when facing wonderful or horrible deeds, really are too simple to describe all that’s going on between heaven and earth.

Having said that, I am someone who, by genetic condition, sees the glass as half-full no matter how full my eye says it is. This vision you mention, of a play being performed over and over, seems to underlie the work of the great minimalists and the artists of the absurd, like Beckett. And yet — the bleaker the picture they draw, the more they seem to write about hope, too. About the fullness of the human experience rather than about the struggle of good and evil. I guess that is my position: yes, the madness will go on and on forever, but there’s so much hope and we must give hope a strong voice – for example by writing about the shadow, too — even if it upsets the bigots.

Read “Le Sucre Brun” by Marcus Speh

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 and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.


  1. James Robison

    Must-read interview. The idea comes up, several times, that lines and stories “visit” the writer-in the sense of a visitation, a gift, or even an order. Marcus earns this conceit, I say. Illuminatin’!

  2. Jane Hammons

    Wonderful interview. I can imagine how the ending of this story might come as magic realism. Or even fairy tale–the burnt cookies: Hansel and Gretel–the witch’s house of cookies and cakes; gingerbread men fleeing. We need to both escape the story and stay with it. The frameworks of the “fields”–very interesting.

  3. susan

    Great interview here between two wonderful writers and friends. There is so much that a writer draws on for story and it’s always interesting to see how it builds.

  4. James Lloyd Davis

    Insightful interview, from the perspective of how a story comes about, how something so amorphous in origin becomes flesh and blood, mind and heart. I’ve always believed that even the most timoroous individual can become a tiger/tigress in just the proper place, or improper as the case may be. So it is with fiction, the idea that experience transcends the writer’s world.

    Wonderful questions, revealing responses. One more reason to love this place, if it is or can be called a place.

  5. Julie Innis

    Wonderful chat, much to digest – thank you both for such a hearty serving of much needed brain food for this stranded and tv-weary traveller.

  6. Robert Vaughan

    Great dialogue, wonderful insights exchanged, the brain stimulated and the story topping it all with bravado. Thanks so much for sending the link, ST and for, well, you, MS.

  7. susan tepper

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Talking with Marcus was expansive for me, in the same sense as reading his stories expands my mind and spirit.

  8. estelle bruno

    yes, so much to think about. A wonderful chat. Kudos to you both.

  9. Luisa

    I’ll second that, Susan. Talking with Marcus very seldom IS, less than expansive. The perfect word for that!

  10. GO

    Le Sucre Brun is a wondrous piece.

    In the interview reference to ‘the field’ and Jung reminds me both of Collective Psychosis (based on a psychology that finds nothing wrong with all of us having our own psychosis, or as one may consider, a love affair with shadows) and the tension that writers have between the need of a social network to provide an emotional environment of validation (where I would place a feeling of the moral worth, and publication) and the occasional necessity or thirst for isolation, or the getting to that vessel in ourselves where the story can find us. When we talk about writing as process I like to remember that it encompasses our time to get attuned to the field.

  11. Christopher

    A great discussion. Thanks, Susan and Marcus.

  12. Matt Potter

    Sachsenhausen … there is not much left, but enough. I visited it on a warm, humid, typical north German summer day with a friend, taking the S1 to Oranienburg and then the bus. I was struck by how provincial Oranienburg is, a country town on the outskirts of Berlin, a little scary in its conservatism and so unlike Berlin. And what I also remember is standing up to get off the bus and a number of locals said to us and to the Spanish or Italian couple sitting in front of us, No, this is too early. And I said, in my best Deutsch, “Ah, nächste Haltestelle?” and they smiled and noded and said “Ja”. And this seemed so at odds with what Sachsenhausen represents. How did you stumble across it? Though it is next to, but cordoned off from, buildings and worksites …

  13. Marcus Speh

    thanks everyone for joining our conversation, which susan tepper lead so expertly & which was fun despite the depth of our discourse. many good new thoughts in here & i feel grateful to be a part of this community. a good way to end 2010 and begin another writing year. cheers, mates.

  14. Michelle Elvy

    Wonderful to come to tonight. Have not had much time lately to check out things here, but how good to find this conversation. As you all say: nourishing, thought-provoking, leaving the reader with much to think on and enjoy. here’s to Susan and Marcus! Here’s to more and more of the good stuff in the Fictionaut community.

  15. Gloria Mindock

    This was a wonderful and insightful chat. It left me thinking.
    I love the whole thought process revolving around your story Marcus.
    You both were able to get so in depth.

    Thanks for this remarkable chat! I will be thinking about this for quite awhile-

  16. Gloria Mindock

    Marcus-

    I just reread “Le Sucre Brun” and found it so brutally honest.
    Like I said in my previous post here, I will be thinking about this for awhile.
    I write quite a bit on the atrocities in the world.
    I cannot get the image of her and what she went through out of my mind.

  17. Kathy Fish

    Fascinating, intelligent interview Marcus & Susan. Thank you. Agree, so much, with this:

    “Perhaps there’s no a priori reason why we carry this gift of writing but if we don’t throw our weight behind life, decency and humanity, we’re nothing but word clowns.”

  18. J. Mykell Collinz

    Thanks for the wonderful interview, Susan and Marcus. We must give a strong voice to hope and throw our weight behind life, decency and humanity, yes! The story finds us. I like that. You’re two of my favorite writers. Even though I’m behind on commenting, I do enjoy reading your work while attempting to learn from it.

  19. Mark Reep

    Dunno how I missed this one- Susan, thanks. And Marcus- this story alone makes you one of my literary heroes. Made me cry and go yeahhh in the same breath.

  20. Jules Archer

    I’m late getting around to this interview…but what a wonderful one it is. I could not miss Marcus Speh. Love getting into the background of this great story…great writer…covered some great territory, Susan.
    Marcus, loved it.

  21. susan tepper

    A continued thank you to all who’ve read and responded.

  22. Martha

    Interesting – illuminating – interview. I have been enjoying Marcus’s work for the last year or more and this piece is one of my favourites. I would love to hear Oleuanna’s voice in here as well, from reading her blog and chatting very breifly on the web, she seems such a driving force, so empowered. Will we be seeing more joint ventures?

  23. Martha

    Briefly! (Sorry, typo).

  24. Marcus Speh

    gosh, yes, what susan said – thank you so very much for the continued reading and commenting – this means a lot to me. @martha: oleuanna is quite a force indeed and she does inspire perhaps partly because we’re so very different. and then again, perhaps we aren’t. your question on “more joint ventures” gives me ideas…of course, “1000 shipwrecked penguins” (http://1000penguins.tk) itself is a joint venture with everyone who sends in a photo:please, readers, fictionauts, do – we’ve got to cover a lot of ground until 2030 given that it’s only 2011! thanks again, folks, good vibes for 2011!

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