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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Cutting Teeth: A Late Night Interview with Julia Fierro
Julia Fierro’s keenly observed debut novel, Cutting Teeth, follows the intertwining stories of a group of thirty-something Brooklyn parents over the course of one summer weekend. They’re packed into a beach house together, and close quarters force everything that’s been seething beneath the surface out into the light. Fierro takes on relationships and the gauntlet of parenthood with genuine compassion and honesty, going deep with her characters, turning over all the ugly bits. She was equally candid and thoughtful in our conversation about the book, which tackles many of the very issues that she and I are both mired in as mothers to young children. We conducted this interview via email, each of us squeezing it in late at night after our respective kids had gone to sleep.
Cari Luna: The book opens on a note of deep anxiety: anxiety of the new parent, anxiety of the information age. It’s most explicit in the character of Nicole, who’s struggled with it since childhood, but there’s an undercurrent of anxiety running through all of the characters. Can you talk about this both with regard to your own experience and to the community of parents you’ve created in Cutting Teeth?
Julia Fierro: The first scene I wrote in Cutting Teeth, which remained the first scene in the book, revealed to me the kind of story I needed to tell–a story that, as you mentioned, is very much about the anxiety unique to the “information age.”
We consume information in every waking moment. We are plugged in at all times. Part of me loves this kind of life, full of distractions that pull me away from my own thoughts, often a burden because of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am a true consumer–listening to audiobooks on my way to work, checking my iPhone every ten minutes, laptop always open, hooked into my computer to watch streaming TV at night when I can’t sleep. The white noise, so to speak, of all the information–the Internet, the iPhone, even the new TVs in NYC taxicabs (that used to be the quietest place for me)–lulls me, but it also keeps me in a constant state of awareness. Watch out. Beware. Pay attention. I think this creates a sense of heightened alertness, especially for parents, because what if you stopped paying attention for a second and missed an important piece of info–the info that would help you keep your family safe?
The opening scene at the playground was what I had to write first, because it created the hyper-real, and often hyper-anxious, tone of the novel. Of course, I wasn’t actually thinking any of this consciously when I started writing Cutting Teeth. It’s only in retrospect that I can make these kinds of interpretations. I write fast and in long stretches when I have the time, and I write to escape, so while I may have an outline of scenes, and a bunch of detailed character sketches at the start of a book, I don’t always know why I need to tell this particular story, or what the point is. I know what kind of experience I want to give the reader in the moment, and that, with my knowledge of the characters and the mood, is enough to keep me writing and moving forward.
The playground scene is also the purest moment in the book for me in an autobiographical sense. I was that woman on the playground mistaking mundane things as warning signs of impending doom, seeing danger everywhere, and I imagine that most readers, whether they are parents or not, experience moments of heightened anxiety, when it feels as if time both slows down and speeds up. For me, that most anxious time was in those early years after my first child was born, when I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety, when it felt as if I’d been handed a precious object without any operating instructions.
This by no means devalues the different kinds of pressures and anxieties and lack of support that our mothers and all the previous generations of women faced, and I do feel so incredibly fortunate to live in such a privileged time.
I know how easy I have it. But this is the point I think I was interested in exploring: even though many of our lives are quite comfortable, and we have so little to fear rationally, I think people, and maybe mothers especially (perhaps, a leap here, it is even biological), do fear so much. Log on to any chat room, message board, especially those that are anonymous where people feel safe in confessing their darkest worries, and you’ll see this wave of panic, sometimes subtle, and sometimes deafening. My grandmother gave birth to seven children in a dirt-floor house with no electricity or running water. She brought children into a war-ravaged world with an uncertain future. And yet I hear mothers, today, talking on the playgrounds of the most affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn (or posting links to articles about climate change on Facebook) about how they too have birthed children into an uncertain world. That fear is universal and spans generation after generation.
CL: Absolutely. There’s a feeling as a parent, particularly as a new parent, of “How do I keep a child safe in this world?” that can be terrifying. But as you point out, this isn’t unique to our generation. That we, in fact, have it much easier than our parents and grandparents in so many ways. But the incredible volume of information that comes at us can be overwhelming. As can be the pressure to “do it right,” to always be measuring yourself against other parents’ choices. Brooklyn is infamous for this, and perhaps unfairly. But the “Park Slope parenting culture” does have a certain reputation, and you play with that in this novel. What is it about that culture that led you to explore it in your work? And how does it relate to the realities of parenting outside New York City?
JF: I think the self-scrutinizing perfectionist parenting style, for lack of better terms, is more specific to a certain class of parents, particularly mothers, whether they live in Brooklyn or the wealthy Chicago suburbs or San Francisco. These are mothers who, before having children, worked very hard in their careers, which doubled as their identity. They are ambitious in a way that is manageable when you have only yourself, and maybe a partner, to care for. But some of that effort has to be sacrificed in those early years of parenting.
I completely understand why Meg Wolitzer titled her 2008 novel The Ten-Year Nap. Women who have ambition in their work and in their identity as a professional, no matter the field, are often forced to abandon careers they spent decades building because part-time work and adequate maternal leave is nonexistent. They are expected to pause their ambition and put their career on ice. Of course, there are infinite reasons to make this sacrifice for your children, and I’m sure most of these women would tell you the sacrifice of work for family is worth it–and for me, personally, it was– but it is a huge shift in their lives and focus and identity.
They were one version of themselves in life before children (which can mean life up to their forties since women can wait longer to have children now), and another version of life after. Their identity has to split–even if, like Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, the controversial book women all over the country are reading, they have childcare and financial support. Even if a woman has a wonderfully supportive partner who stays home to take care of the baby.
When I wrote Cutting Teeth, I was essentially examining the American mid-life crisis that occurs when our expectations for life don’t match up with the reality. Yes, these are privileged people, a specific group of Americans who are, on the surface, blessed. They should be happy, but they aren’t, and they are aware that they are not and that they should be, and this awareness makes them loathe themselves.
What also interests me is the judgment of women especially by other women. So much of America’s fascination with the celebrity of wealth is triple-sided–we adore the privileged, we envy them, we detest their inability to see and accept how fortunate they are. I think this is one of the reasons that reality shows, like Real Housewives of New York City, are so popular. I think this is why my father’s favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
It surprised me when I realized I was writing a novel about privileged parents, when my own parents raised me so differently. I was the first privileged generation of my family, my father having grown up in poverty in Italy during WWII and my mother having come from working class Irish-Americans. Now I live among the wealthy young parents of Brooklyn and live a privileged life, even if it is one we can barely afford.
My parents wanted me to grow up among the affluent and so they moved to a wealthy area on Long Island where I would absorb, almost as through osmosis, the habits, tastes, and awareness of a higher class. For this reason, I will always be drawn to writing about the American Dream (my father’s story), status hunger, and The Great Gatsby-esque revision of one’s story. Tiffany, the character in Cutting Teeth I love most in many ways, was an embodiment of that. She rewrote her story and rose from a rural working class to the elite urban class. Her need to feel accepted and to belong is what makes me feel so much sympathy for her, despite her actions in the novel.
All mothers, of all classes, have something to struggle with–guilt, disappointment, the consequences of bad choices—but women judge themselves and each other so harshly. Each woman’s experience as a mother, or a woman who chooses not to have children, is so unique to her own story, but yet we still feel compelled to type each other. Rich mom. Corporate mom. Bitchy mom. Crunchy mom. Sanctimommy. I can only think that this is because we are still at the beginning of a real conversation about women and the balance between family and ambition and work, and I can only hope that the conversation will grow more nuanced as our daughters become women, and become mothers if they choose that life.
Writing about motherhood is so rich and intense for me, since my feelings about the topic are always shifting, revealing new aspects about the experience to me even now that my children are 4 and 6. I worry so much about saying the wrong thing when I’m talking about women and motherhood, and I often feel as if there isn’t a place in the literary discussion for books and stories about motherhood. Maybe this is just my insecurity, or the fact that I know so many writers who’ve chosen not to have children (and I respect that decision greatly), but I do find myself holding back on talking about “mom stuff” when in a literary crowd.
CL: Wow. Yeah. Feeling as if writing about motherhood is less than literary, the tendency to hold back the “mom stuff” in a literary crowd. Yes. I run up against that myself. Pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing… this is the messy stuff of life, yeah? It’s a major part of most people’s life experience. And yet, it gets written off so often as chick lit, “women’s fiction” (ugh). It gets the pink cover. It’s treated as lesser than. Hell, let’s go there. You went to Iowa for your MFA. You founded and are the director of a hugely respected workshop program, Sackett Street Writers. You’re no slouch. While writing this novel, did you struggle with the awareness of the marketing aspects of your topic: How it would be sold, how it would be shelved, how it would be talked about? Was there ever a temptation to change the book’s focus for fear of losing your “literary street cred”?
JF: You said it.
I feel terrible when I hear myself downplaying the significance of my book, like when I want to submit Cutting Teeth for a “literary” award, but first I email my agent and ask her if the book is “literary enough.” She laughs and says, “Of course it is!” and I realize I’m “mommifying” (for lack of a better term) my book, acting as if the characters are less significance because they are mothers.
The focus of the book is on relationships, and I’m always surprised when women writers complain about their book being tagged by bookstores, book sites, and blogs with “relationships” and “women.” I understand the larger issue that’s upsetting them, and thank goodness we have the VIDA numbers to act as a neon sign broadcasting the truth about gender inequality in the literary world, but I am a woman, and I will always write about relationships. I am inspired by psychology and emotion, conflict and drama. The world is most significant to me as a web of relationships. If a story isn’t filtered through a psychological lens, you’ll have trouble keeping my attention. Humanity’s individual, and collective, fears and needs and desires are the only religion I’ve got and I am obsessively devoted. So I try to embrace the fact that I am a woman writer writing (mostly) about women, although the male characters in my work are often “liked” most by readers (even if they commit the worst crimes—how about that?). Recently, I even had a brief thought—maybe I am writing with women readers in mind? I am, after all, living a life that only another woman could truly understand. I am going through a phase of life—early motherhood—that is complex in a way that is unique to a woman’s experience. What I feel in my body, in my thoughts, and the ways I interpret the world uniquely, all stem from my experience as a woman. But I have to think more on that before I commit.
When I was writing Cutting Teeth, I was so immersed—sometimes, spending eight hours a day down under with the characters. I never thought about changing the tone or the style or the focus. I was having too much fun, and the writing just feel too right. I wrote the book from the purest intentions—it was what I had to write to make sense of the phase of life I had just experienced. So, no, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I enjoyed the writing, and I admire the person the book helped create—a real writer working her butt off to stay honest.
That said, when I finished the draft and sent the book to agents, I started hearing the phrase “mommy novel.” I was confused. I had never even read a novel that focused on parents, other than Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, which I loved and first read before I had children. But he is a man, and a book written by a woman is going to be marketed differently, plain and simple. I eventually signed with Tom’s agent, Maria Massie, and Cutting Teeth is being published by his editor, Elizabeth Beier, and having these brilliant women believe in Cutting Teeth, and in me, was so affirming.
Still, coming from Iowa, where I had written in a different style–spare and restrained– and having been part of the literary slice of the writing world through Sackett Street (most of our students write what would be marketed as literary fiction, not commercial), I do find myself, occasionally, doubting the book’s “literary” significance. But it doesn’t last long, because the feeling of having readers is so incredibly satisfying. It just washes everything else away. In my whole life, there’s no experience that has equaled reading. I feel more confident reading, thinking about reading, and talking about reading than anything else. Some of Cutting Teeth’s readers might call my book “literary” and others might call it “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” and that choice has more to do with what they enjoy reading, what they are used to reading, and that’s fine with me. It is their book now.
It upsets me when I hear women writers speaking disparagingly about other women writers who publish in more commercial (or lesser, their tone implies) genres. I sympathize with their criticisms about not wanting their book on the “women’s fiction” shelf—all writers want to have the prestige of awards and rave reviews from the most literary of literary critics, and I remember well, in my earliest workshops at my MFA program, men in my class saying I “wrote for women,” which shocked and insulted me (I want to chuckle about it now). But is it really other women we have to blame for those shelves and categories and what has been called the “ghettoization” of women writers? Wouldn’t it be smarter to recognize and support each other? Women criticizing women in the literary world reminds me of women criticizing women, competing with other women, judging other women, in all aspects of life. The harsh judgment among women, particular mothers in that vulnerable postpartum stage, was an inspiration for several of the relationships in Cutting Teeth.
So what do I do when I doubt the significance of my book? I ask myself this: Did Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenedies say to themselves, “Darn, I wish I wasn’t always writing books about relationships and feelings and stuff?” Did Tom Perrotta, when writing Little Children or The Leftovers, look at his draft and say, “Another book about parents? No one will take this seriously.” I think not. Then, I remind myself of a day, over a decade ago, when I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, terribly young and insecure, and Kurt Vonnegut was visiting town and gave a private talk in the rec room of a dorm hall, chain-smoking the entire time. He said, “Women are writing the most interesting fiction these days. Women are the future of American literature.”
CL: I love that Vonnegut anecdote. What kind of a response did it get?
JF: Vonnegut’s comment praising women just sort of flew into the room. And straight into my heart, of course. I don’t remember anyone responding, and we, the young writers, didn’t talk about it afterward. Recently, I connected with a fellow woman writer who was in that room with Vonnegut, and she, like me, said she was so impressed when he said that. I think I might have looked around the room, anticipating a reaction from one of the male writers, a kind of “Oh, man, someone’s going to get pissed,” anticipation in my gut. Because it felt as if gender was a taboo topic in workshop at that time, and I think that is still an issue among literary writers. As if being a woman writer, writing about women, potentially writing for women, is a controversial conversation to be avoided. Perhaps, male writers are too frightened to bring up topics of gender for fear they’ll appear misogynistic. And women writers want their work to be seen as “serious” or “literary,” want so badly to be treated equally, so we avoid talking about the woman-ness of our work as well. As if, by doing so, we’ll be labeling our writing as less serious.
I had my own dreams of literary prestige, of course, back at Iowa, and I see now that I sacrificed some of my voice to fit in, writing in a more minimalist style and emotionally restrained tone (dare I say, a more masculine voice?) because I thought that was more “literary.” And it worked. When I wrote in that voice, I received the most praise. It would be another decade before I found my real voice, which is more psychologically complex, more emotionally revealing, and even a bit humorous. And such is the process of learning for young writers. It is so hard not to be impatient.
The shocking thing about the Vonnegut visit was that there weren’t that many students in attendance. I couldn’t believe it. I’m guessing that the MFA students felt Vonnegut was more of a commercial genre writer. I’d heard his visit dismissed by a lot of the students. When he spoke at the mega auditorium in Iowa City, it was sold out, but when he gave this private talk for the MFA students, the room was half-empty. I don’t blame those that missed out now, although they did miss out. We were all so young and terrified and unsure of what was the “right” way to write, and the program was competitive.
But I was thrilled to be so close to a writer who had impressed me from a young age. I still remember my brother and I reading Welcome to the Monkey House and Cat’s Cradle–we must have been in middle school–and feeling such awe. His work is a perfect blending of big ideas filtered seamlessly through character and world detail, and it is books like that which impressed me so much as a young person. But, then again, I came from a different background than many of the writers at Iowa. I hadn’t read half of what they’d read, maybe because I didn’t grow up among readers. I was shocked, and a bit terrified, when I arrived at the Workshop and realized how many Ivy League grads were there. I thought of them as “intellectuals” and worried they’d see through me. So Kurt Vonnegut was my kind of literature. Plus, he spoke about humanism and how there were too many “revenge stories” told in Hollywood, and I felt so simpatico with his beliefs on that. I was thinking very seriously at that time about having compassion for your characters by making them complex and nuanced, flawed but also sympathetic. Sitting in that room, in a cloud of his cigarette smoke, listening to him talk about the redemption of humanity through culture and literature, I felt like he was my hero.
CL: It’s interesting to me that you didn’t find your true voice until after you left your MFA program. Did you recognize when you were at Iowa that you weren’t writing in your authentic voice, or is that something you discovered with time and maturity? How did you find your true voice, and what were you writing when you struck on it and first recognized it for what it was?
JF: I had no idea what my true voice was at Iowa, and maybe that spare and restrained “literary” style was my true voice back then.
I’ve been thinking lately, about how helpful it would have been, and how helpful it would be for young writers today, to have a series or an anthology or a collection of interviews with established authors, where they discuss how their “voice” has changed with the various phases of their life. Many young writers, like myself not too long ago, think, “I have to find my voice!” as if it is a plateau you’ll reach and then hang out on for the rest of your life. I’d been studying literature for years before I went to Iowa, and I knew that Hemingway, for example, changed as a writer throughout his life. The style of his earliest stories was vastly different than the style of The Sun Also Rises, which was different from the denser prose and more revealing emotional implication in For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, I thought, this must have been written by a different writer. But he was just a different person then, writing at the end of his life.
I wish I’d been able to apply this to my own perspective of my identity as a writer–it would have saved me many years of beating myself up for not having “found my voice.”
So, yes, I think I’ll hang out with this current voice for a while. I felt comfortable writing Cutting Teeth. I enjoyed the process. I think I already mentioned this, but I really wrote Cutting Teeth to finish a book. Of course, I hoped it would be published, but my intention was to finish. So I was able to let go of most of my fears about whether what I was writing was the right thing to write, or publishable, or literary, or good, or bad. It was a refreshingly pure experience, and so I settled into what I consider my voice (for now) with ease. I already miss the process of writing Cutting Teeth, and can only hope the writing of my next novel will be half as fun.
I’m working on reminding myself, especially as I dig into my next book, which is written in first person point-of-view (I’m more experienced with third person pov), that it is okay for one novel to be nothing like the last, and that my voice and style and perspective should be ever-shifting, since I am, I hope, always growing as a person. It is similar to the development of a novel. As you move further into the crafting of the story, the world, and the characters’ stake in that world, the novel changes, adapting to all that you’ve learned in the process of writing the novel. At the very least, it gives a writer a few surprises to look forward to.
Julia Fierro is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, a creative home to more than 2500 writers since 2002. Her novel, Cutting Teeth, was included in Library Journal‘s “Spring 2014 Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014″ lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, she’s written for Guernica, Glamour, and other publications, and has been profiled in The L Magazine, The Observer, and The Economist. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children.
Cari Luna received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her debut novel, The Revolution of Every Day, was named one of the Top 10 Northwest Books of 2013 by The Oregonian. Her work has appeared in Salon, failbetter, Avery Anthology, PANK, and Novembre Magazine. New York-born, she now lives in Portland, OR.