Julia Fierro Talks 'Cutting Teeth,' Legos for Girls, and OCD
It's Labor Day weekend and the world may end — that is, if you ask Nicole, a mother who lives in Brooklyn with a young son and her husband.
So begins Cutting Teeth (St. Martin's), Julia Fierro's debut novel. Nicole's anxiety prompts her to plan a weekend away from the city with the parents and kids that make up her son's playgroup. The parents learn a lesson that they maybe will someday want to teach their kids: sometimes staying home is the best option. With the group of thirtysomethings in one place for the weekend, all the underlying parenting tension boils over: the criticism, the flirting, the judgment, and the anxiety are scalding, and friendships and marriages sizzle.
Fierro, the founder of Brooklyn's Sackett Street Writer's Workshop, is a confident and colorful puppet master in her pages. Or perhaps, as it were, a Lego master — Fierro, a parent of two, is quite invested in the badassness of her daughter's Lego creations, as she told me. We also discussed her reading habits, her obsessive habits, and how all new parents struggle. And we got the details on her next novel.
BUSTLE: Who are some of your favorite fictional parents?
JULIA FIERRO: I've been thinking about this, because I've been working on a list for HuffPost about famous dysfunctional parents. It's interesting, because the term "favorite" is relative. For me, my favorite parents are some of the most conflicted and interesting to watch — the most interesting characters to watch in a voyeuristic way and to have the opportunity to climb into their thoughts and their experiences.
My favorite parents are some of the most conflicted and interesting to watch in a voyeuristic way, to have the opportunity to climb into their thoughts and their experiences.
Tom Perotta's Little Children was a huge inspiration for me early on. Even before I knew that I was going to write a book like Cutting Teeth. Stylistically and structurally, with alternating points of view, it shows how when you're parenting, and you're surrounded by other parents, you sometimes feel claustrophobic. You're never lonely. And every parenting experience is different. And I was really inspired by Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Ten-Year Nap .
These were books that I read before I had children. I just read Jenny Offill's The Department of Speculation , and even though it just came out, it was a fascinating, episodically structured novel — almost like a series of vignettes. It's told from the perspective of this young mother and wife. I really admire her writing and honesty.
Someone — a young literary writer — recently asked me, "How come there're no novels out there about parents?" I said, "Well, there are!" I think often those books, because they're about parents, and especially when they're about mothers, because they're written in a literary style — you don't hear about them on the literary sites.
I loved this book Unless by Carol Shield. It's about a mother whose daughter is basically having a schizophrenic break and has left home. I thought this was really interesting.
Regarding the alternating points of view, which parent was the most challenging to write? Which was most fun?
I've taught a lot of novel-writing workshops for like a decade. That's what I was doing for a big chunk of time between when I graduated from the Iowa MFA program and when I wrote Cutting Teeth. And I also had some children. I was teaching a lot, often with the same group of people again and again. I'd get to see someone start a novel and then finish it within the course of a year or two.
I could see when people were struggling with certain characters before they came to know them. I could say, "It's obvious you're comfortable with this character. Eventually you'll get to know this other character and feel the same way." And one day it will click, and it will be almost like the character revealed themselves to him or her.
For me, I think in some ways Nicole was the easiest and the hardest to write, because I share a lot of traits with her. I'm neurotic and obsessive compulsive. I've never reached that point of losing the ability to function, but I have had obsessive episodes.
She was the first character I wrote. I wrote that first scene at the playground. As the book went on, it was hard for me not to control her neuroses, because I'm so familiar with it. This is common with a lot of writers: Sometimes with the characters you're most comfortable with, and the techniques you're most comfortable with, you have to watch out, because you might use them sort of as a crutch.
I feel like I felt comfortable with all of them, because each represents a form of my parenting confession or experience. Even Rip: There were times when my children were really small and I felt like, "Okay, I'm not writing; I'm barely getting by in doing work and taking care of the kids; maybe I should have another child, because that's who I am right now.
With Leigh, I went through a similar stage with my son, who's doing brilliantly now. He had a lot of delays as a baby and as a toddler and as a preschooler. All of the stuff that she's going through with her son — trying not to react too much to his behavior and worry about what people are thinking about him and her, and whether she's a good mom — I really relate to that.
Probably the character I relate to the least is Tiffany. She may be my favorite character. My father immigrated in his thirties and grew up very poor, and my mother grew up working class, or Nouveau-Riche Irish American Catholic. Sometimes living in brownstone Brooklyn and living with the other mothers who went to Ivy League schools, I feel a little out of place, even though I also feel that this is where I belong and feel comfortable. I still feel I'll always have a character in my novels who is the character recreating their story and revising their identity. So I love Tiffany because she's like the American dream gone a little sour, I guess.
I'll always have a character in my novels who is the character recreating their story and revising their identity.
I hope that not every one feels strong hate towards her. Because I care about my characters, and I try to make it so most readers can find some sort of redemption in her.
It was hard to write about obsessive compulsive disorder, because I suffer from it. I feel proud in the way I was able to write about it in a way that expresses what the experience is like to be in an episode, when you're really stuck. I really want to create a balance where the reader felt like Nicole was stuck in an obsessive episode, but she was also aware enough that she was being irrational and had to sort of hate herself for it. That's what I think is so hard about anxiety disorders. You can be totally aware that you're being ridiculous.
But you can't look outside yourself and tell yourself to stop.
Right. I wrote an essay for HuffPost Parents two weeks ago about how when I was pregnant with my second child, I went off the medication I had been on for OCD. It was during the swine flu epidemic or pandemic, and I became totally obsessed with it. I was worried about our son and me and my family and the baby. It was so unbearable.
That really was the biggest motivation for writing the book. I needed to write about how in this brief phase of life, when you're a parent to young children, it feels so full of the tediousness of every day. Like getting through the day with a toddler in the winter, and also the sudden intensity: All of the sudden they spike a 104-degree fever.
It's an intense time, but not like any other phase of life. The book was very personal. Even if I don't have a lot in common with some of the characters, the emotions that they experience, and the over-self-scrutinizing and the judging each others and themselves, and hearing what other people think of them. All of that's my specialty! I'm really good at all that.
I've been laughing at the entries on Parenting Confessional, the tumblr inspired by the book.
It's gotten so popular so fast! We put it up, which took nothing. I have other Tumblrs, for my knitting and my audiobook-ing. And I have another tumblr called Badass Lego Girls which is all about my daughter's Lego creations with girl heads. So I've got some tumblrs that have had a little attention, but this was just — two days after the site went up, I was asking my parenting friends to send me their confessions — forcing them.
And then all of a sudden I was getting hundreds and hundreds of submissions, because the U.K. Daily Mail covered it, and then it was in the Metro in a couple of cities.
It makes sense — as you capture in the book, parenting can be isolating, and now there's a space for people to anonymously dish it out.
Anonymity is everything! I've noticed there are other parenting confessionals, which I didn't realizing because I don't visit a lot of parenting blogs. But in those confessionals, people can vote — give a thumbs up or thumbs down, and I feel like the best part of the Cutting Teeth-inspired confessional is that not only is it anonymous, it's also just... here. It lives on its own, without judgment.
It's incredible, the pain that young mothers experience. It's been such an emotional experience reading all these confessions. I just want to hug them all and tell them, "It will be okay. Your life changes after you have children, but it doesn't end." It's that period when they're so little, and it feels never-ending. Even when there are many joyful moments.
Everyone, even if you're not a writer, can make sense of something by putting it down or putting it into words. I think there's a second of something valuable in typing out a feeling.
There's been a lot of hilarious posts, and then there are some that I'm unsure about posting, and then there are a lot that just express how difficult it is. Sometimes people will send in a confession, and they'll say, "Thanks; I feel better already, just for typing it out." Everyone, even if you're not a writer, can make sense of something by putting it down or putting it into words. I think there's a second of something valuable in typing out a feeling.
And then there's the benefit for people reading it. Either they're reading them and feeling like, At least I'm a better parent than that person! Or, they're reading them and saying, "Oh, I'm not alone! I thought I was a freak or an inadequate parent because I was feeling this." There's a benefit for the poster and the reader.
On a different note: the sex scenes in Cutting Teeth were so freakin' good.
They were the first ones I'd ever written! So I wrote the book, and there was one sex scene in the book my editor bought. When we were talking about edits, my editor said, "There's tension between these two characters; where's the sex scene?" And I said, "I avoided writing it."
Last year I wrote about writing about sex for The Millions. It got so much attention that people will come up to me and ask for advice about sex scenes they're writing! But I really have avoided sex scenes — and sex scenes that had emotion in them. When I was at Iowa, I wrote sex scenes that were spare and minimalist and were just not full of feeling.
I feel like I'm a little bit of a prude in real life.
In this book, because of the style is close to the characters' consciousnesses, I knew I wasn't going to be able to avoid it. I have to say, it just worked. I'm not exactly sure how. Maybe it was because I had written those scenes after I had come to know those characters so well, so they just made sense.
I feel like I'm a little bit of a prude in real life, and now I'm like, here I am!
What's the last book you read that made you cry?
I just read this memoir that's out in June by Nicole Kear called Now I See You . It's a memoir about basically her life as a woman, because when she was 18 she found out that she had a degenerative disease where she was slowly going blind. Now she's my age — 37 — and has three children, and she's pretty much blind. During the day, she can sort of get by.
It's this amazing memoir. There are moments when she is so incredibly funny, that I was crying from laughing. She's Italian, and her grandmother is this amazing character in her memoir. And then there was a point where I was so moved by her experience, especially as a mother. Knowing that it's inevitable that she won't be able to see her children and husband. I cried in the best ways: I was moved out of the sadness and tragedy, even though she's so fun and big-hearted. And also the humor was crazy.
The book before that that made me cry was Cathy Chung's Forgotten Country , which was just sad crying. I hadn't read a book in a while that just made me weep. I called my mom at the end and said, "I love you!" And she was like, "What's going on?"
And your last guilty pleasure read?
I like this question. I've always been an insomniac, even as a child, and now that I'm a grown-up I can stay up as late as I want. So I knit and listen to audiobooks. Most of the audiobooks I listen to are nonfiction books that could be sort of under a category of historical nonfiction, but also true crime. I have listened to a hundred true crime, serial killer dramas.
The last one I listened to — it was pretty well written, but it wasn't a book I was learning from. It was called Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen. It's about this true story in the early 1800s where this doctor was a proponent of this starving cure. And so she killed hundreds of people by starving them to death. I swear, it was so disturbing. I'm embarrassed.
Did you sleep alright after listening to that?
Oh yeah. I grew up with cop TV shows. I wonder if I will someday write a thriller. Maybe. I don't feel like I'm ready to do that, because maybe I'm more into the psychological realism. Probably two my favorite books in the last couple years were Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Broken Harbor by Tana French. They're both literary thrillers. They're well written (even though some uber readers and writers disagreed), they're challenging to read and had a thrilling story line and momentum and drama.
So you have a title for your next book.
Yes. The Gypsy Moth Summer. I feel nervous talking about it, but of course I shouldn't.
I grew up in Long Island, and it was an interesting place, class-wise. My parents sacrificed so that we could go to school there among more affluent children, among old-money, blue-blooded families. It was a little hard to fit in, because that's not how we were. I tried very hard and had an okay experience. It was harder for my brother and my parents.
I've wanted to write about class envy and tension in suburban Long Island, or any sort of suburb, for a long time. I've also always wanted to use this setting of a summer when I was a high school student in Long Island, and there was a gypsy moth plague. There was a record-number of these gypsy moths that had laid eggs. It was incredible; it almost felt apocalyptic. There were caterpillars everywhere and caterpillar shit everywhere. It was a very thickly wooded area, and you could hear them chewing the leaves. It was really intense. I feel like that's an incredible setting.
The story line of the novel is based in part on this shooting that happened in 2007 on Long Island where an African-American father, whose last name was White, shot a group of young white men — teenagers, who came to his house and threatened his son. They were on his property with baseball bats, and he shot one of them and killed him. When he went to trial, he was released.
Novelists are some of the most controlling people, and you have to let go of some of that control.
I wanted to write a not totally factual account of that, but I wanted to write about class and race and the fact that Long Island and the suburbs in many cities are very segregated still. I also wanted to write about being a young woman. The novel is told from the perspective of a woman in her late 30s looking back on that summer. She was responsible for some of the events that led to this outcome. There is a bit of a thriller — a lot is at stake for these people.
I was also inspired by Alice McDermott's That Night , one of my favorites. It's set in the '60s, and it's about a Long Island suburb and the shift in people's perspectives and how it affects their day-to-day life, and how they treat each other.
I have about 100 pages and a finished synopsis of what I think is going to happen. That changes, as you write more peoples. Novelists are some of the most controlling people, and you have to let go of some of that control.
I'm excited about it. It's going to be very different from Cutting Teeth, so I hope that's okay ... it's set in the '90s, and I loved using all the Internet references and message boards and texts in Cutting Teeth. After being this literary, non-Internet writer, it felt so authentic to use these things in my novel. Obviously, in the '90s — maybe a few of us had pagers.
Image: Natalie Brasington