Angela Belcher Epps
(BA, English, ’78)
Q & A:
- What was your favorite class, who was your favorite professor, or what is your fondest memory of Hofstra?
The creative writing classes truly supported our development as writers. Sam Toperoff stands out as my favorite professor because he embodied the spirit of a writer. He encouraged me to explore my distinct perspective about my world and to stretch my vision to create more complex stories. His respect for our individuality made discussions about craft more relevant. Sam Toperoff, indeed, saw beyond our student status and allowed us to see ourselves as writers.
- What was your first job after graduating from Hofstra, and what was the most valuable thing learned in that position?
I worked as a television technician with AT&T in TriBeCa for 11 years. We collaborated with national and local networks to regionalize appropriate commercial content into television shows. It was a unionized, blue collar position. When I started, there were 110 men, and I was one of two women. A substantial number of these New York City men were Vietnam veterans. It was a round-the-clock operation. During snowstorms, we were required to sleep over. We spent holidays together, shared meals and details about our lives, played games and did the New York Times crossword puzzle as a group to pass the time. On weekends, we took trips upstate to ski, go whitewater rafting and camping. That sealed my love of nature and the outdoors. I made lifelong friends at that job and became acquainted with men from all cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and political persuasions. I learned about the hearts of men in ways I can’t imagine happening in other circumstances. That has helped me see beneath personas. It definitely allowed me to capture male voices and sentiments in my fiction.
- What is your field of specialty, and how did you come to work in the industry?
I write fiction and personal essays. I majored in English/Creative Writing at Hofstra and, a decade later, earned a master’s degree in the same at New York University. I have always written—mostly after my day job, although I wrote educational grants for the New York City Department of Education for 13 years. Writing competitive grants to bring resources to New York City’s most vulnerable populations increased my insights about creating opportunity, understanding barriers, and devising strategies to surmount them. Over time, those themes infiltrated my creative writing. This is the stage of life when I’m writing full time, and it’s all about creativity. This is what I’ve always wanted. And my intention is to commit the next seasons of my life to improving my craft and level of productivity.
- What advice would you give Hofstra students?
As you go about learning, being a student, and transitioning into full-fledged adulthood, keep an eye out for what you’re truly passionate about. You’re just starting out, and it’s wise to make a distinction between earning a living and building a life. The career for which an individual is trained won’t always meet the “passion” criteria. One’s passion can be anything from performing arts, to taking environmental responsibility, to horticulture, to delving into historical records. Even if one’s job doesn’t speak to that passion, remember to keep it on your radar as you grow. Your life will unfold in layers, and it’s likely you’ll attract opportunities to engage with that very personal aspect of yourself—if you maintain awareness of who you are beneath the façade that may be required to be a productive citizen.
- In one word, how would you describe Hofstra?
- What made you want to become an author?
From the start,I had a rich and rather unpredictable range of life experiences. I was raised in Brooklyn, but I also spent a lot of time in rural North Carolina. I’ve always been keenly aware of the characters that have populated the communities in which I’ve lived. Well-meaning old people, lousy young parents, blended families, sprawling unruly families, or square-peg personalities surrounded by round holes. Without any intention, I looked out windows and listened to conversations. I absorbed the unfolding sagas happening within my environments. As an adolescent, I constructed the equivalent of novellas in marble notebooks and passed them around. My peers thought it was very cool to read stories about teens just like them that they could totally relate to. That’s what drives my desire to write—capturing reality in ways that readers connect with and recognizing some pivotal truths about everyday life experiences.
- How do you believe your writing affects the community?
I celebrate the notion that each of us has a personal sphere of influence. In this era of communication on steroids, one can believe that big voices and grand gestures are needed in order to make an impact. However, change and improvements emanate from small actions that touch individual hearts and minds. My characters are lowbrow. They live on city blocks and in small towns. Their individual actions affect their own and other people’s circumstances for better or worse. It’s easy to go through life mindlessly wreaking havoc within our families, on our jobs, on the highways. My writing should move readers to become more reflective about how their behaviors and attitudes lead to consequences that extend beyond their intentions. Or how past events will bleed into and influence what happens in the future. When one observes aspects of oneself in a book or on a screen, one might make adjustments and become more purposeful.
- What skills from your 10-year role as a special education teacher and case manager did you draw upon to aid your writing?
Working with high school students with exceptional needs taught me the meaning of resilience. Each of my students had at least one qualifying trait that disempowered their potential to thrive. Some had multiple disabilities. Being part of their journeys to transition into adulthood deepened my sense that there are few excuses for failing in life. I preached to them incessantly that success will look different for each of us. My skill was in teaching them to find their strengths, to get off the bandwagons, and to cultivate trust that there were paths that were right for them. I followed many students for three or four years, tweaking their plans annually. I watched many grow more confident, master their tempers, compensate for academic shortcomings and navigate around them. They might take seven or eight tries to get a driver’s license. They’d brave grueling outdoor work in nurseries and garden centers during winter months, or work twice as hard as their peers without disabilities to pass every single course. Some came from families who had literally nothing to give them, and they motivated themselves to get and keep jobs. Being a part of their triumphs compounded my desire to create characters whose greatest capital is their figurative bootstraps.
- What inspired you to write Salt in the Sugar Bowl?
Salt in the Sugar Bowl is a novella that delves deeply into familial abandonment and issues related to loss. For decades, I dealt with these issues because of deaths and early separations. It took a lot of gut-wrenching work to get past apprehension and unfounded fears, and become more grounded, more intrinsically secure. I contend that abandonment issues are the maladies of our times. Death, divorce, adoption, single parenthood, foster care, and a host of other situations might alter the extent to which individuals trust themselves and others. Psychologically, we develop coping mechanisms, become vigilant, erect walls, and conjure up ways to protect ourselves from impending heartbreak. These often-subconscious devices skew our interactions and taint our expectations. In the first chapter of Salt in the Sugar Bowl, a mother of six leaves town with no intention of returning. The subsequent chapters examine how, years later, each of her adult children’s personalities were colored in specific ways by their abandonment wounds. I wanted my readers to see that what ails them (or others) just might be related to such dynamics.
- Who was the person who most influenced you, and how?
As corny as it sounds—even to me, it was my mother. She was fiercely independent and a matriarch in our family. She was a landlord, good with money, did things her way—with no reliance on the “peanut gallery” for approval. For a few decades, I didn’t like her that much, even though she made sure all my needs were met, and she didn’t hesitate to fork over tuition to Hofstra to ensure that I was very well educated. Once I matured, actually when I turned 40, I realized there was such a thing as an authentic person. Authenticity and integrity are the qualities I value most, and Mom embodied both of these. I don’t believe we are born with these qualities; they can be cultivated as a result of lessons learned along the way. My mom modeled for me that it’s possible to be both flawed and effective. That setbacks and seasons of hardship lay the foundation for incredible joy in simple pleasures. And lastly, she taught me that one can live a satisfying life if one is self-aware enough to create and live by a personal operators manual aligned with one’s unique needs.
Angela Belcher Epps has written since childhood but has worked as a television technician, a high school English teacher, a special education teacher, and an educational grant writer. Each life experience has influenced the themes addressed in her realistic fiction and creative nonfiction, which generally highlight strong women, hard-working men, and resilient children.
She is the author of a novella, Salt in the Sugar Bowl, and her stories and essays have been published by Workers Write! (Blue Cubicle Press); North Carolina Literary Review; Main Street Rag; moonShine Review; When Women Awaken; Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora; Gumbo for the Soul: The Recipe for Literacy in the Black Community; Essence magazine; and Ladies Home Journal, among others. She is a contributor to two anthologies: All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective (Blair, 2020) and Heartspace: Real Life Stories on Death and Dying (heart2heart, 2019).
Angela earned a BA in English from Hofstra University and an MA in Creative Writing from New York University. Because of a core belief that quite often people do perish for lack of knowledge, she took courses to become fully certified in both high school English and special education. While teaching, she wrote proposals to fund additional services for her students with disabilities. This led to her being recruited as the grant writer for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Citywide Special Education. Later, she wrote grants for Brooklyn School District 13, and for the New York City Department of Education ’s Office of School and Community Services. During these assignments, she used her creative skills to design innovative intervention programs in response to documented needs.
While conducting extensive research about child and adolescent risk factors to support her proposal development, Angela penned a parenting guide titled Trying to Make it Till the End of the Week: Everyday Solutions for Single Parents. She collaborated with community-based intervention programs to lead interactive parent workshops designed to break cycles of failure and build resilience.
After 15 years of professional grant writing, Angela created two guides to lead organizations through the grant-writing process—thereby building their internal capacity to write and win competitive grants. On occasion, she conducts both grant writing and creative writing workshops—providing strategies for participants to achieve their writing goals.
Angela now works on her creative projects full time. She has recently completed a novel and is compiling a collection of short stories.