In Conversation with Julia Fierro

Julia Fierro is everywhere. You can find her smart, and funny, often painfully honest essays on writing, on motherhood, or on juggling the two, in any number of magazines, blogs, news sites, and literary journals. You can find her at any number of literary events, book launches, and magazine fundraisers, all in service of a constant greater goal: being of real service to the literary community. You can also find her in any number of homes, small apartments, and bookstore basements, throughout New York City, by way of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which employs nearly fifty writers (including this one). She is its founder and director. But she’s also in the faces of fraught moms everywhere, on playgrounds, and smoke breaks, in coffee shops, and schoolyards, on busses and trains headed for home, tallying what more work awaits them, the moms who daily wrestle the often opposing responsibilities of home and career, of family and art, and the very real fear of failing at any one of them. Her first novel, Cutting Teeth, is about that fear. It’s also about writing, but mostly about motherhood. We talked about all of that – plus apocalyptic paranoia, and the pressures on women to always “appear likable, content, pleasant,” even when the world is ending. 

—Scott Cheshire 

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INTERVIEWER

On the opening page of Cutting Teeth we are introduced to parents “who name their children, without a second thought, after Greek goddesses and dead poets.” Then a familiar image from childhood, the ice-cream truck, except the “fumes the ice-cream truck idling on the corner scratched at [someone’s] throat.” The message is: be warned, this is not the book you think it is. The book  subverts so many of the comfortable expectations a reader might have.

FIERRO

One of my earliest inspirations for the book was a strong mood of danger. In fact, when the book went out to editors, the title was “The End Of The World As We Know It.” The lack of subtlety makes me chuckle now, but thank goodness for my editor who was pretty much like, Nope. I’m really happy we settled on Cutting Teeth because I think it is a more nuanced preparation (or warning) for the reader’s expectation. A promise that an edgy darkness is mixed into the comedy, mostly through the characters’ neurotic fantasies.

I knew I needed to create a world in which characters see danger in seemingly benign places—a playground, a beach vacation, even in a children’s nursery rhyme like Ring-Around-the-Rosie. Young parents fit that bill, particularly mothers, many of whom still feel emotionally fragile postpartum. Early parenthood, especially with your first child, is an extreme time. You feel everything in a heightened way—maybe from exhaustion, or maybe because it feels as if so much is at stake, or maybe the combination of both.

The larger truth is that the novel is a reflection of my perspective. Writing is the way in which I inform myself of what I think and feel, and the unique way in which I make sense of the world. I interpret my own experience through my characters’ interpretations of their experiences. It sounds a bit messy and confusing, but when I’m writing I’m not thinking any of this, it is only later, in retrospect, that I recognize hints of my own strengths, flaws and anxieties in all the characters, even the ones who are least like me.

This is also the reason Cutting Teeth’s mood has that whisper (sometimes, a roar) of urgency under the surface. I do see the world in that way, and I often describe myself as having a very thin “filter.”

I walk around believing that everyone feels emotion more intensely than they admit—the passengers on my subway train, the cashier at the convenience store, the moms pushing their kids on the swings at the park. It makes for great (but exhausting) surface vs. reality tension—great material. But it’s also, I’ve come to see, how I need to see the world. My own unique coping method. If everyone is emotionally vulnerable, everyone, even the most unlikable real-life and fictional characters, are redeemable. I walk around loving humanity most of the time, or at least forgiving them, and this has a lot to do with my childhood and the trauma I experienced as a result of abuse. This hyper-empathic, for lack of a better term, observation is also what makes me a strong character writer and a teacher of character-writing.

INTERVIEWER

I’m not a parent but this seems about as honest a novel on parenting can be. Here is the character Nicole on dropping her son Wyatt at preschool, karate, etc.: “Each interaction felt fraught with the possibility of conflict—with other mothers, between Wyatt and other children, and, of course, with Wyatt himself.” Did you have trouble being so honest?

FIERRO

Well, when I first started the book, I didn’t consciously think I’m writing a book about parenthood. If I had, who knows, I might have stopped. Because I was really writing about my own experience of motherhood, and what I witnessed in the parents around me. I worry a lot, like many mothers I know, about being a “good enough” mother, especially when I am trying to balance family with a demanding workload.

Like I said above, I write to inform myself of myself, in that safe guise of fiction. This is going to sound terribly naïve, but I didn’t fully realize what I’d written until I sat down for the first lunch with my editor.

Before we left, my editor asked me, in her generously thoughtful way, if I had any concerns about the book?

I thought for a second and answered, “That people won’t like it?”

When I went home, I thought some more and realized that I was worried, maybe even terrified, readers would judge me as a mother after reading my novel. Because I understand now that writing the novel, was an exercise in answering this question—What is a “good” mother? How does a woman, in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, “have it all”—the happy family, the professional ambition, the good marriage, the social status? And does wanting those things make me a “bad mom”?

Perhaps, the urgent need to write for many of us – definitely for me – is this private examination of our greatest fears, what we can’t face consciously, but can only face in the indirect examination fiction-writing allows?

I was extremely honest when I wrote Cutting Teeth and I can’t imagine a writer working on a second or third novel being able to be that honest. I hadn’t written full-time for years, so when I sat down to write Cutting Teeth, I was writing to see if I could finish a book. Of course, deep in my motivation was the desire to be published, but I don’t think I allowed myself to really believe that would happen. This freedom of sorts allowed me to be very emotionally honest, and it wasn’t until that meeting with my editor that I realized my most private insecurities and fears would soon be very public. And so it goes for writers in our now very public literary and publishing world. There is a direct connection between authors and readers online, and that is a wonderful thing, and it would be a terrible thing if we lost that ability to be honest, but it is something I’ll have to be aware of as I continue to write, and, hopefully, publish more books.

INTERVIEWER

This book was a long time coming, and long in the making. I imagine that was partly due to becoming a mom yourself.

FIERRO

Surprisingly, it was becoming a mother, and, as a result, having less time to write that gave me the discipline I’d been lacking for over a decade. It sounds pretty backwards but it wasn’t until I had less time to myself that I used the time I did have more productively. I’ve heard other writers who are parents describe it similarly. Ben Tanzer, at the last Pen Parentis reading, compared it to “trimming the fat.” When I committed myself to writing Cutting Teeth, which meant doubling my babysitter’s hours, asking my husband to watch our kids most of every weekend, and rejoining the Writers’ Space, I wrote a full draft of the novel in nine months. I am a fast writer when I’m committed, and the novels I’ve written, or tried to write, have all taken less than a year. With a lot of revision afterward, of course.

My first novel went out to editors in 2002, shortly after I graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it was rejected again and again, and my confidence just crumbled after that, and this is the real reason is took me over ten years to finish a second novel. I was only 25 when that first novel was rejected, which felt like an epic failure to me at the time. I was so naïve and my expectations were very unrealistic coming out of an MFA program where my work had been generously praised.

It took me years to recover enough confidence to start writing again, and by that time I was very busy with the success of Sackett Street, and then I had two children. But, in the end, it was a new confidence, a long lasting internally-sprung confidence, that got my butt back in the writing chair, and I have the Sackett Street writers to thank for that. They are incredible models, many of them working full-time jobs and finding time to write and read and participate in the literary community. I learned how to write by teaching back-to-back novel-writing workshops. When I started Cutting Teeth, writing felt as effortless as it can, meaning it was still damn hard but less so, and I knew I had grown up, as a writer and as a woman.

My children gave me a new confidence as well. They are so proud of me and hearing my son read the dedication—the book is dedicated to them and to my husband—is a kind of inspiration like no other. I can only hope they are young enough that they won’t remember all the hours their mom spent away from them working on what they call, sometimes with obvious resentment, “your book,” as in, “Now that you’re done with your book, Mommy, can you play with us more?” (That might be too terrible to print!)

INTERVIEWER

Well, the whole novel is saturated in fear, in near-paranoia, of everything from everyday germs to a possible “web bot” apocalyptic event, and the very real fear of losing a child. So this is something you have experience with? And please tell me all about the “web bots.”

FIERRO

When I first met my editor’s assistant, she said she loved the book, but that Nicole was “nuts.” I made a joke, something like, “Oh, Nicole’s based on me!” Which isn’t that much of a joke. Nicole is a hyper-real version of me at my most anxious. I’ve been obsessive-compulsive ever since I can remember, and I had a terrible time with anxiety during my pregnancies and post-partum. I was able to function in a day-to-day sense, but there were many days where I had difficulty interpreting life in a rational way. I went through an obsessive episode during the h1n1 pandemic, which I wrote about here. It was amazing to see the responses my essay received, many from women I’ve known for years who had never hinted at the debilitating anxiety and depression they experienced during and after pregnancy. That’s why I tried to be an honest as I could in Cutting Teeth. There is still such pressure for women, whether they are mothers or not, to appear likable, content, pleasant.

The web bots are real, or at least the panic over them was. I was visiting the online parenting message board youbemom.com one day in 2008, probably to ask some kind of fretful question about a virus my 6-month old son had, and the anonymous mothers were really worried about this web bot prediction. It was surreal in the most real way, a throbbing paranoid panic that covered the chat forum. Every other message was a mom freaking out about the web bots. And they were obviously intelligent women, and I was getting nervous just watching the wave of panic roll over my monitor. It was contagious. And too good not to borrow for my fiction.

INTERVIEWER

I love how varied the representation of family is in the book. We have a lesbian couple, a stay at home dad who takes real pride in being just another “mom,” at least two couples who had anonymous sperm donors, surrogates, and then Tenzin, a nanny and devout Tibetan Buddhist, who seems both taken for granted and immensely loved by this motley crew. And yet the representation never feels calculated.

FIERRO

Like most of my fiction, Cutting Teeth started out very autobiographically. But each character transformed as the book developed and the characters revealed themselves. Allie was initially based on my close friend, one half of a two-mom family, but as I came closer to understanding Allie’s unique stake in the novel, her story-line, she morphed into a unique person. In the end she reminded me more of a different friend in my life at the time—a male artist who has no children. Writing, particularly fiction, where the boundaries are so changeable, works in that mysterious way. And I think this is particularly true of novel writing. The novelist has to convince him or herself that she knows where she is going, or at least enough to keep writing, and that is the kind of balancing act we novelists play so we can have the confidence to keep writing, to keep venturing into that dark room, our hands out in front of us, fumbling for the light switch. We live for that moment when the light, finally, after so many hours, turns on and illuminates all our hard work, making it feel like real life.

The character closest to “real life” is Tenzin, the Tibetan nanny. She is based on my former babysitter, the person I trusted my young children to, after taking care of them on my own for so many years. She made it possible for me to return to writing. Without her love for my children, and her belief in me, I may have never written another book.

INTERVIEWER

There are these especially intimate moments that really make the characters come alive: Leigh thanking God that Chase wasn’t autistic, and yet also wishing he had been diagnosed with “something,” so they could better know what they were dealing with; Susanna admitting to herself the baby in her stomach had “destroyed her love affair with New York City”; Rip, the dad-mom, thinking how little the moms know about how “grateful” he is for their breasts, for the so many breasts around him. What say you?

FIERRO

I say, thank you, for noticing and appreciating those moments! Because it’s those details exposing a character’s flaws—his or her selfish needs or bitterness or envy—that are the risks a writer can almost convince herself not to take, especially if she is worrying about the character’s “likability.” I know there are writers who think the discussion of so-called “unlikable” characters, particularly women characters, has been played-out, I think it is terribly relevant. The issue of likability was in my awareness from the very start of Cutting Teeth. My strongest motivation for writing is the challenge of creating that fine balance of characterization—authentic characters, flaws and all, who the reader sympathizes with enough that they can’t be dismissed, no matter how much they want to. Those details that are intended to reveal a character’s darkest thoughts, the ones they wouldn’t dare share, like the moments you mention above, are important to me in the same way that I have to believe there is redemption in every stranger in that subway car, like I mentioned above. I hope those details both expose both the redeeming humanity of the characters, just as the expose what Sherwood Anderson called the “grotesque.”

INTERVIEWER

The book is peppered with updates from the urbanmama.com forum for parents. Can you talk some about that decision? I found them really funny but also totally intriguing, as a non-parent. Like everything else on the Internet, it offers tremendous help or possible hurt. And the “web bot” stream is driving poor Nicole up the wall.

FIERRO

The most significant aspect of the mom message boards (urbanmama.com is based on the real-life youbemom.com) is that they are anonymous. For many women, this is the only place they feel safe being truly transparent. They are honest about their feelings for their partners, their jobs, and even their children. The plus side is that this honesty is a release from the pressure I mentioned above—that women, specifically mothers, should be pleasant, accepting, nurturing, no matter what. The June Cleaver complex still exists today, despite all the change the generation of feminists before us accomplished.

But, sometimes, honest can be too honest. I don’t visit the mom message boards now, but I have seen sharply contrasted posts side by side—a tender and sincere post about a miscarriage, followed by a post from a woman confessing to sleeping with her best friend’s husband, to a 50 comment-long post of women arguing about circumcision vs. no-circumcision as if it was a holy war, which, for many mothers, especially religious families, it is. I have seen women call each other terrible things on these forums—the worst things—and I’ve alternated between feeling deep sympathy to community to revulsion from one post to another.

In short, it is, in some ways, a microcosm of the state of womanhood, albeit a privileged class of women. Women taking their anger and self-loathing out on other women. Women feeling they can only be honest when they are wearing a mask of anonymity.

Cutting Teeth is very much about the most current generation of parents, particularly the privileged class, raising children in the “information age,” with its constant stream of information. It used to be that only a woman’s mother and mother-in-law piled the dos and don’ts into a new mother’s lap, but now that info is everywhere—on the internet, in the stocked aisle of parenting books at the bookstore, on the mommy chat forums and message boards, and in ads that pop up in the margins of your emails. Protect your family from the flu! Vaccinate before it’s too late! That constant confrontation by information keeps a new parent on their toes, particularly parents that want to be the best parent they can be, and mothers who have stopped working to stay at home full-time and have no outlet for the perfectionism and work ethic they once channeled into their career.

INTERVIEWER

It should be said that all of this is not to say the book’s a downer, not at all. It’s sort of joyous the way it embraces all of it, the good and bad of parenting, the pills, the vomiting, yes, but they also love the hell out of their kids. How do you maintain a balance writing both sides?

FIERRO

This is a very good question. I can only hope that I was able to balance the good and bad, the anxiety and bliss, and the terror and elation that make up a parent’s early life. I tried to be as honest as I could be, and to treat with my characters with compassion, and I can only hope the sum of that effort turns out to be a complex, authentic and thought-provoking experience for the reader. And maybe a bit of comfort for an anxious woman who needs to know that she’s not alone.
A book blogger recently wrote a review of Cutting Teeth that really moved me. She said, in her own words, that she had never read a novel where she could like a character at one point in the book, and dislike him or her in other parts, and that it was this rich emotional experience that made her love the book and feel like a better reader. Nothing beats that.

 

Scott Cheshire earned his MFA from Hunter College, and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. His work has been published in SliceAGNIGuernica and the Picador anthology The Book of Men. His first novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is forthcoming from Henry Holt. He lives in New York City. 

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  1. Pingback: Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Morning Bites: James McBride on NYC, Maud Newton on “The Noble Hustle,” Norman Lock, Hilton Als and “All That Jazz,” and More

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