An Interview with Julia Fierro

By Jill Dehnert
May 8th, 2014

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I was lucky enough to land a galley of Julia Fierro’s forthcoming debut novel, Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, May 13). The book is populated by complex characters and illustrates the challenges and benefits of being a parent in our contemporary moment. But it is much more than a mommy book. Fierro’s characters dive deep into their guilt, flaws, and neuroses in a way that will resonate with any reader. It is a page-turner for sure, and I’m not the only who thinks so: Cutting Teeth has appeared on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists from HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, and Marie Claire.

I was also lucky enough to talk to Julia about her debut. We first met three years ago when she came to observe a fiction-writing workshop that I was taking with Emma Straub—a workshop offered through The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which Fierro founded in 2002. What surprised me most when I met Julia after the workshop was how passionate she was about our writing. Surely, after offering hundreds of these workshops to thousands of people since 2002, the passion for sitting through yet another would wear off? But no. If there is one thing I learned about Julia Fierro through the course of our conversation, passion is one thing she does not lack.

Julia Fierro attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2000–2002. After moving from Iowa City to Brooklyn, she missed having a community of dedicated writers and readers. So she created one. Sackett Street is now a community to over 2,000 writers in New York City. And now, 12 years later, Fierro is publishing her first novel.

Blue Mesa Review: What has your trajectory been as a writer?

Julia Fierro: I grew up not really thinking about writing or believing that a person could be a writer. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer when I went to college at American University. I was like, wait, I love books. My parents were devastated that I was going to be an English major. And I’d been writing creatively but not taking it that seriously, because I didn’t grow up with that kind of confidence. But I loved being in school and knew I wouldn’t really make it as a literature academic, so I applied to MFA programs because I didn’t know what else to do. Then I got into Iowa, which was probably the most important shift in my life. For a person like me to get into Iowa, it was as if I finally had permission to be a writer, the permission for me to take my writing seriously.

 

BMR: Did you know at the time that Iowa was the place to go?

JF: Well, at the time, I hadn’t written that much. I actually called them to make sure that they hadn’t made a mistake. I was 22 and my future husband, who was a musician and getting his degree at Berklee College of Music, gave up all of his gigs to move to Iowa City with me while I went to writers’ camp, basically. I felt so guilty for bringing him there that I wrote eight hours a day. We went into Prairie Lights Books and there was a whole shelf of books about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I told Justin, I was like, look, this place is really special. People have written all these books about it. And all these writers that I had idolized went to Iowa. This was sort of before the Internet. I couldn’t really Google “Iowa Writers’ Workshop.” It was only the year 2000, but it sounds like 1930 or something. And so I was terrified to go there, but I was excited. I was so eager to be around all these amazing writers and to talk about books all day, and I really just loved every second of my time there. Being around people who were equally neurotic in the same way, it was the first time I felt not super strange. We were all interested in making sense of the world through writing.

And then I met an agent there and she was this up-and-coming agent and she loved this story that I’d written called “Roseland” and suggested I make it into a novel. So, of course, I immediately wrote it way too fast. I didn’t know how to shape a story or write a novel, and I sort of revised it, but not enough. Then the book slowly got rejected for a year by every editor in NYC. And that really sucked. I didn’t have much internal confidence as a writer, and my expectations for myself were so wild, because I had been so praised at Iowa. So I just crumbled in that rejection. I just crumbled. I was adjuncting and making so little money. By this time we were living in Brooklyn and it was so expensive and I was making $10,000 a year. And you know, looking back at it, I’m like, so your book didn’t sell. Pep up. You know? But at the time I was devastated.

I was depressed, not just with writing, but with life. I went to my adjuncting job and then came home. I stopped going to readings and participating in literary life. It was just such a blow.

 

BMR: Were you still writing?

JF: I was worrying about how I wasn’t writing. But I was really missing that community that I had at Iowa. So I put an ad on Craigslist for a workshop. Now I understand that I was seeking a community outside the publishing scene. I was subconsciously creating a community in my kitchen. I put an ad on Craigslist that said something like: Iowa grad teaching a workshop. I charged practically nothing and then this motley crew of writers of all skill levels came to my kitchen table. And that reinvigorated my passion. I made them work so hard reading each other’s work and responding to it in productive ways. That was how Sackett Street started. Suddenly I was teaching four nights a week in my home, and I quit my adjunct job. I was so excited. I was writing five-page critiques for them. We were so into that idea of reading with a writer’s perspective. It was really the first time that we were talking about “the reader.” And that just isn’t discussed in many workshops.

 

BMR: Do you think that is really important?

JF: Oh, absolutely. I just don’t understand that about workshop—why the “reader” and the “reader’s experience” would be left out of the discussion. I guess it’s because writers don’t want their art to be affected by an audience, because they feel like it’s “giving up” something, but for me, through those initial Sackett Street workshops when we talked about the reader’s ideal experience, what we were really talking about was our ideal experience.

So I didn’t write for years. I mean seriously. I started so many novels. I’m really good at beginning novels. Then my son was born, and I had to teach so much just to get by financially. So between running the workshop and taking care of a newborn, I just didn’t have time. No writing. But I was still taking time to punish myself for not writing. (Laughs.) Then my daughter was born and I stopped teaching. I give so much emotionally when I teach and I get so excited, plus I now had two children, I just knew I wouldn’t write. Something had to give.

 

BMR: Then you started writing?

JF: Well, I decided to give myself one last chance. I felt fraudulent, you know? I was running this workshop with all these great writers and I wasn’t published. The Sackett Writers were so successful, and going to practically every MFA program in the world, and I wasn’t writing. So I got a babysitter I really trusted. And that babysitter is the basis for the character Tenzin. She was my savior, because I felt really safe with her. Then I was able to join the writer’s space, and that’s when I wrote the book in nine months.

 

BMR: And that’s pretty much this version of the book?

JF: It really came out almost exactly like it is in terms of character and structural choices. When I revised, I had to take out a lot because I had written so much. What I realize now was that I gave myself a second chance to be a writer, and everyone—my husband and my children—sacrificed for me to write. In order to put my writing first, I had to force a lot of other things out of the way. And I felt, and still feel, a lot of guilt about that, but it was the only way.

 

BMR: In some ways that is what your book is about—these people raising young children in New York. Was that the impetus for writing it?

JF: Yes, you know, in a lot of ways writing this book was a very pure experience for me in that I sat there and just wrote it. And I didn’t think like: I’m writing a mommy book! Or: will it be published? I mean, of course, in the back of my mind I wanted it to be published, but I hadn’t written in so many years it was more like I wrote the book to write. It was a test for myself, you know. Can I write a book? Can I finish a book? In some ways I feel like I should treasure that experience because I know I can never write so purely again after being published.

 

BMR: Because now you feel a lot more pressure?

JF: Yes. Sometimes I ask myself: why did you write a book about mothers? I just feel like—and I don’t want to sound negative about it, but it’s just that when I started shopping it around and sending it to editors, I was hearing, “Oh, it’s a mommy book, it’s a mommy book.” I thought I was just writing about people, women. At this very intense phase of life, early parenthood, when it feels like you are never going to do anything else but try to get through each day. And each day you spend worrying about your children. Worrying. You feel like you’ll never live another life. It pushes you into the moment and you’re just doing, going, protecting. You don’t have time to think about the future, you don’t have time to think of the past. You can only be in the now. It’s bizarre. I think Cutting Teeth is about the same issues I will always write about: fear and searching for your identity in the world, and trying to love yourself and accept yourself. But at that point in my life when I wrote Cutting Teeth, those topics were going to be filtered through the early parenting experience because that’s what I was so entrenched in.

I really had no idea what genre it was or how the book would be marketed. When I went to meet with my agent, she told me that the book was both literary and commercial, which, she said, was rare, despite the fact that many, many books are marketed as such. I really had no idea that that was my writing style. In a lot of ways, selling the book was a moment of self-discovery. It made me realize that I want to have a lot of readers. And all different kinds of readers, you know? Which is interesting because I run such a literary writers’ workshop, and I went to Iowa. But you know, you go to your MFA program, ten years pass, and you finally settle on your own voice and style. Or that’s my story.

 

BMR: So now you feel like you’ve discovered your voice as a writer?

JF: I realize now that when I was at Iowa, and for many of the years after, I wasn’t writing as myself, but I was writing in a way that I thought I should be writing. More minimal, less emotional.

I wrote this essay for The Millions (A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer) about writing about sex, but for me the essay was more about the necessity of emotional reveal in literary writing. I worried for so many years about being unliterary because I was interested in writing about relationships and emotions. But when I sat down to write Cutting Teeth I was just so ready to write. Hopefully, I’m still a literary writer, whatever that means, but also, hopefully, I can appeal to readers who like all different genres.

When I turned 35, I finally felt like a writer who could write the way that made me feel good. My writing had narrowed into what you hear people, especially those who are anti-MFA, call a “workshop style,” the kind of prose that shuns emotion, sentimentality, melodrama. And, of course, I don’t want my work to be overly sentimental or melodramatic, but I am interested in playing with that boundary without falling over the edge. And that’s something that I have to watch out for. But all those years I thought I was a restrained minimalist writer. And I don’t think I am. I mean, obviously I’m not.

 

BMR: Is what happens in the book similar to your life experience?

JF: I mean, I was in a playgroup, but it wasn’t really similar to the book. No. Not nearly as dramatic. But it did spark some ideas for characters. So I had been writing about these characters for a couple of years, taking notes. I knew these characters really well, and when I sat down and wrote Cutting Teeth, it felt like spending time with old friends. Or characters I had dreamed about.

 

BMR: Did you already know that you wanted to use an alternating point of view?

JF: I’ve always loved the alternating point of view. I’m a big fan of Tom Perrotta and novels like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. There is something essential being said about the human experience where you show how four different people standing in the same room, watching the same event play out, each have a different interpretation of that event. I think that is what makes us so beautifully human, you know, the uniqueness of every perspective. But it also reinforces that tragic existential truth—we are all very alone and we don’t ever truly know how other people see the world. I think that when we fall in love, or choose partners, we hope that we are choosing people who see the world in the same way. I wanted to create an authentic tension in Cutting Teeth, with all these characters stuck in this small beach house, and the reader has the omniscient point of view, the privilege of seeing and feeling how each character experiences the events. There’s also a nice natural structural device in this point-of-view choice, in that the reader takes the varying interpretations and compares and contrasts them, which creates a layered meaning.

As a writer, if I had to pick a goal, it would be to write honestly about what goes through people’s thoughts. Parts of the characters in Cutting Teeth are reflections of my own flaws and unlikability, but also I love these characters so much. I see redemption in every single one, even those who commit the worst “crimes.” I can’t imagine ever writing for another reason.

 

BMR: Technology plays an interesting role in parenting in the book.

JF: If you had asked me three years ago, “Would you ever use cell phone texts in writing?” I would have been like: ew, how unliterary. I would have been such a snob about it. But then when I started writing this book, texts and online message boards were so organic to the book’s reality that I didn’t even question it. I had so much fun writing those sections that take place online, and I’m happy with how they came out.

Also, my initial inspiration for the novel was Nicole and her freaking out about the Web bots, much of which takes place online on the parenting message boards and chat forums. Which, actually, is real. That did happen in 2008. I had a day where I was worrying about this Web bot thing all the moms on youbemom.com, an online and anonymous forum, were chatting about. My son wasn’t even a year old, and I was still in that haze, struggling with postpartum anxiety, and I kept calling my husband and freaking out. And he really had to check me. But briefly, for an hour, I thought that the Web bots did exist because all these brilliant, smart women on the message boards were terrified. So I knew that I wanted to include that in Cutting Teeth. I mean, I had to include that. When I got the advance reader copy of the novel and gave it to my husband, he really appreciated what he called the experimentation with the Internet. And I think he’s right. It is an experiment, but it only feels like that now, after the fact.

 

BMR: Gender is a point of interest in the book. Can you talk about that?

JF: Well, it goes back to that playgroup. You know, we’re in New York City and you have all these really ambitious women in this very intense phase of life where your own life, any progression of your career, your hobbies, your creative interests, any sense of your identity outside being a mother, freezes. I was born in 1976, so I grew up and came of age during the economic boom, and women were taught that we could be anything and we could do anything. That was new. We were a privileged generation, pretty much the first generation that was truly benefiting from the feminist revolution. Everything that the generation before us had fought for. You grow up with that privileged, entitled perspective and then you expect things. You work really hard in college and grad school, and then in your career, and all of a sudden, if you choose to have children, your life freezes. You don’t really think: so I’m going to take a break for a few years and be in a house with small children. Which of course is an amazing experience in its own right, and I don’t think that any mother would say that she regretted it, but you still have to get through every single day of wiping noses, and potty training, after years of living a completely different, ambitious, and essentially self-focused life. It’s like going from 100 miles per hour self-focused to 100 miles per hour selfless. Or that’s what is expected of mothers, and what we expect from ourselves, to be selfless. When we feel resentful about that expectation, we not only feel guilty, we also feel like we’ve failed.

 

BMR: The “can women have it all” question?

JF: Right. I do think it is exciting that people are actually talking about women and ambition and the work-family balance. We’ve got the “lean in” debate, the “can women have it all?” debate, plus the discussion about women “opting out” of motherhood altogether. So there are a lot of extremes being portrayed in the media, because that’s what happens in the beginning of a conversation. But in reality, no mother—no woman—is an extreme. And there is, I think, so much that will never change. A lot of that has to do with biology, perhaps.

 

BMR: This may sound sort of obvious, but you’re saying that, fundamentally, men and women are different?

JF: Yes. Yes. I was raised to believe that men and women are the same, that they could do the same things. And that is a gift. My mother wasn’t raised that way. My grandmothers had practically no freedom of choice. But then you have a baby—or maybe you are a woman who decides not to have a baby—and you’re like, whoa, wait a second. How can men and women be the same? As people, as parents, as writers even? How can that be so when our life experiences are so different? And so, in Cutting Teeth, I wanted to focus on different kinds of experiences with parenthood. Like the character Allie not wanting to experience childbirth. And Rip, a father, being the one that wants another baby, not his wife. And you know, I feel very sympathetic to both Rip and his wife. Rip is a good father and just seeking a way of life, which is, in many ways, what all the characters are trying to do in the book.

It sounds so naïve, but until I went to Iowa I really thought there wasn’t that big of a difference between men and women. Maybe it is because my mom is a really strong, confident woman and handled much of the financial aspect of our family’s business—a gift shop in suburban Long Island. This was necessary because my father’s English wasn’t strong—he emigrated from Italy when he was thirty years old. But now I know that the dynamic of our home was more about their natures. My father is a homebody and loves to cook and clean. Plus, he had this respect for women that, I think, came from growing up so close to his own mother during and after World War II in southern Italy. So I didn’t grow up with those defined gender roles. When I went to Iowa, I remember guys in workshop saying things like, oh, you write for women. And I was like, what? But now I’m like, well, yeah. I do.

 

BMR: In Cutting Teeth, you get the sense that Rip, the one father in the group, is actually the best “mommy.”

JF: I think Rip is a great “mom.” But there is a difference.

 

BMR: So inherently there is a gender divide when it comes to parenting?

JF: It is just impossible to imagine parenthood before you experience it. Overnight, you’re like, wow, this experience is so complicated, and also for women who decide not to have children. Every woman must make that decision—a life-altering decision—and the act of choosing is, in itself, an incredibly complex experience. One that only women can experience. Not that men don’t have complex life experiences. They must make this same decision—to have a family or not—as well.

The black-and-white nature of the discussion of what it means to be a woman today is proof to me that women’s choices are still in danger, that many women feel they are secondary to men, and the kind of psychological complexity that arises from this experience is fascinating. Even though we’ve grown up in a culture where we have so much more opportunity—still, as far as motherhood goes, our experience hasn’t changed enough in significant ways. Or maybe we are struggling to find ways in which motherhood can adapt to fit into a changing world and a changing definition of what it means to be a woman? Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful. My experience of motherhood, and my experience as a woman, is vastly different from the women who came before me in my family. But I think sometimes we exaggerate how much has changed for women, and especially for mothers, and we aren’t able to admit that—or I wasn’t able to admit that personally until I had children.

 

BMR: This is your debut. Do you have any anxieties about the book?

JF: Like most writers, I write about my deepest fears as a way to inform myself of them. It is so private, you know, the act of writing. Then, if you are lucky enough to be published, suddenly it is the most public thing. Especially in today’s Internet-dominated world.

Also, and I know this sounds so general, but I really want people to love the characters. I intentionally made all the characters both likable and unlikable, because I believe everyone is flawed and redeemable, that good and bad lives in all of us, which is what I tell my kids, who are obsessed with “good guys” and “bad guys” in their superhero stories. Maybe it’s a little unfair of me to want people to feel sympathy for my characters, but I do.

Really, though, I feel like my expectations have already been met and more. Being able to finish the book was such a gift. Just finishing it. And feeling proud of it. That felt like such an accomplishment. And then to sell the book, and for the book to get such nice early attention. I really feel so grateful. Of course, I worry about people enjoying the book. But I will worry about that forever. I want my readers to be satisfied.

 

BMR: You’ve been on so many “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists. What are your most anticipated books of this season?

JF: Oh, I love that question. You know, right now I am staring at a wall of advance reader copies of forthcoming books. How lucky am I? I can tell you that there are so many great books coming out. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Bittersweet. It is going to be the summer read. It is so compulsively readable, beautifully written, great characters. Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. It’s a fun, smart, and super engaging novel. Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This, a novel about a boy who went missing for years and is returned to his family. People are going to go crazy about this novel. Literary writing with the pace of a thriller. Lastly, Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans. That one is going to be the book club book of the year. Mark my words.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, will be released by St. Martin’s Press on May 13. Cutting Teeth was recently included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, and Marie Claire. Julia’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poets & Writers, Glamour, and other publications, and she has been profiled in L Magazine, The Observer, and The Economist. In 2002, she founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has since grown into a creative home for over 2,000 writers. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches post-MFA workshops at Sackett Street. You can find her online at juliafierro.com.