Author draws on locals for inspiration

By Page H. Gifford

Author Susan Pepper Robbins loves writing so much she even has socks with a Jane Austin motif. A prolific writer of novels, short stories, and the trendy flash fiction, she teaches at Hampton-Sydney College and is married to novelist and playwright Roy Robbins.

Her newest books, titled “Nothing But The Weather” and “The Tin Can House” feature dramatic stories about the lives of ordinary people. She said that after growing up in Cumberland County and living in Fluvanna, she drew on the people around her for inspiration in creating her characters. Robbins writes her short stories as a series of vignettes featuring various families and townspeople, focusing on life’s emotional complexities.

“My characters are not real in the sense that they can be named or identified, but are impressions, even layered impressions of real people.  I have known people for four or more generations living in these areas, and I have heard many stories about them,” she said. “A story should be, as Jane Austen told her niece, a young writer, ‘about two or three country families.’  I’m no Jane Austen certainly, but I set these same limits because they are my natural ones.  I have friends who have lived in Paris, taught in India and Mexico, visited Ukraine and Russia. They have brought home wonderful stories which I envy.  However, I believe that there is also gold in ordinary lives, but no life is ordinary.”

Robbins makes an honest appraisal of the people she knew well. Her characters reflect these ordinary people, flaws and all. Individuals, like her character Lynn, who is bi-polar and half starts every career that ever was or a mother in denial about her son’s death. The families keep secrets, and love despite the distortion of those around them. She said that many of the centerpieces of her stories are actual experiences.

“I have experienced some of the same things my characters have. I have made potato salad for the meeting after which I was fired, I have joined the Cremation Society, and there is a tin can house on my nephews’ property, but  I did not have a friend who came home from the beach in a wheelchair.”

Short stories are making a comeback and often in a collection of stories in a book like Robbins. Flash Fiction is a new, trendy writing medium that younger writers are flirting with and one that Robbins herself uses in her collections. Flash Fictions isn’t new and is based on the age-old parable or fable. It can be 50 to 1,000 words in length.

“It has seemed to me that Flash Fiction suits the way many of us experience modern life–in sudden glimpses, jumps and starts,” she said. “Of course, these recorded moments can be found in long works like The Iliad and The Odyssey, War and Peace, and Moby Dick.”

Robbins also has a way of stringing words together by turning a mundane phrase into something more provocative. She is an intriguing storyteller using eclectic imagery to convey a deeper and sometimes darker meaning through symbolism. One example is the haunting “Tin Can House,” which was a hollow A-frame with broken windows, left decaying in the woods.

In each story, the raw realism is seen through the eyes of the narrator, peppered with stark and somber tones that pull the reader into the lives of her characters. Her view is a little bit of truth goes a long way in fiction.

Susan Pepper Robbins books can be found at and

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