Writing Sex, Watching TV, Hangin’ with Edith Wharton
A Q and A with Julia Fierro
Julia Fierro is the author of the novel Cutting Teeth, out July 7th in paperback. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, and it has since become a creative home to over 2,500 NYC writers. Julia has written for The Millions, Poets & Writers, Flavorwire, Glamour, and other publications, and she has been profiled in Brooklyn Magazine, The Observer and The Economist.
Name a childhood hero.
My childhood heroes were all characters I met in books or on TV. In books: Anne of Green Gables, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as the protagonists of books that shattered and then rearranged my perspective, like 1984, The Jungle, A Brave New World, Animal Farm and A Wrinkle in Time. Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula LeGuin were heroes because their books shook the ground under my feet.
On TV, the many crime-solvers in the shows my Mom watched (the TV was always on at my house since my parents thought it educational): Columbo, Cagney & Lacey, and Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as well as sly but charming TV lawyers Perry Mason and Matlock. No wonder I’m still a crime show addict.
Name a work you wished you’d written.
Five years ago, I’d have said Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Now, it is Broken Harbour by Irish novelist Tana French.
The older (and busier) I get, the more I find myself reaching for novels that play with genre. I read many literary novels, to review them or provide blurbs, or to give feedback to my Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop students, and in my free time, I want to escape into a story-driven book. My favorite reads are often “genre benders”—books that incorporate elements of different genres. They may fit in the category of crime novel or mystery, like Tana French’s Dublin series; or sci-fi, like Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, but the quality of the writing also challenges the reader and gives him or her a “literary” reading experience. I need more novels that possess both a riveting storyline that effortlessly engages the reader and thought-provoking prose that demands effort in the reader’s interpretive experience. They are hard to find.
If you had to order your work by how successfully you completed what you set out to accomplish, what would that list look like?
Cutting Teeth is definitely at the top. I wrote it in nine months after many years of not writing consistently because I was raising my kids and developing the Writers’ Workshop. I’m still amazed that I not only published a book, but that I finished a book I feel is successful—meaning it is a book I’d like to read myself.
Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.
This is a tough question for women writers since going back in time means leaving what I consider the best time to be a woman writer, or a woman in general. Looking back only a few decades reminds me how fortunate I am to be a woman writing now, with organizations like VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts working to bring attention to gender inequality in publishing, and the existence of so many public spaces (the Internet is the great equalizer) where a woman’s voice can be heard.
That said I’d love to hang out with Edith Wharton. Our styles and focus on the psychological and sociological aspects of what some call “domestic life,” and what I call “women’s lives,” is similar and, damn, she was gutsy and incredibly prolific. She was unstoppable, really, writing forty books in forty years at a time when a woman could easily be swayed, or forced, to stop short of fulfilling her ambitions. Her female characters are so authentically complex—so much that they feel almost contemporary—and I’d love to hear what she has to say about certain readers’ expectations that female characters should be “likable.” What fun it would be to sip tea in the gardens of The Mount, the home she designed herself in Lenox, MA, and talk about writing, point-of-view, novel structure, and the lives of women.
I also had an intense love affair with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s books in college, especially Crime and Punishment and Demons, but Edith comes first.
Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.
I was pleasantly surprised by the great reception of my essay on writing about sex—A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer, published at The Millions 2013. It was the first critical essay I’d published, so I was uncertain of how it would be read, but I received many grateful responses from literary writers who read the essay and felt ready to write about sex after many years of avoiding the topic. When I heard that the essay was being talked about at that year’s Romance Novel convention (crossing genre boundaries!), I knew it had been a success.
Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.
Readers have asked me if Cutting Teeth is satire. I can see, now, with some retrospective distance, how the novel could be perceived as such, especially since the point-of-view is very close to the characters’ thoughts, creating a hyper real collective neuroses. And there is a lot of humor in it, all natural to the often absurd occurrences in those early years of parenting small children. But I wrote Cutting Teeth with emotional authenticity—probably the purest I’ll ever feel, since I wrote the book with the goal of finishing a book, not necessarily believing it would be published.
The characters are complicated, messy, both lovable and unlikable, and, often, they make terrible choices that hurt those they love the most. There is a part of me in every character—even stay-at-home dad Rip and Tibetan nanny Tenzin—and I love them all despite their flaws. Maybe I love them because of their flaws. I am most interested, as a reader and a writer, in what some call “unlikable” characters, and what I call honest and realistic characters. There is no reading experience I treasure more than embodying a character who is, at once, detestable and sympathetic, beautifully and grotesquely vulnerable. Accepting a character I want to dismiss as flawed is a humanity-redeeming experience for me.
Name a trait you deplore in other writers.
I believe anyone can be a writer. Many writers believe they are one-of-a-kind, or even that they were born to write, and this bugs me. Maybe because I come from generations of working class people, so, clearly, I wasn’t “born” to write. But I do need to write. Writing is how I make sense of myself, the world, and my place in that world. A highly observant perspective, a need to write and a lot of hard work—that’s the combo needed to be a writer. I have watched many Sackett Street writers come into workshop as beginners and work their tails off, reading and writing and analyzing craft technique. Now those writers are published. Then again, I’ve always been a bit elitist about my anti-elitism.
Name your five desert island films.
I am a serious insomniac and my film of choice, lately, is horror of all kinds—psychological, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, etc. Surprisingly, the scarier the film, the more I’m able to relax. I think it is the complete distraction that allows me to escape the constant production of thoughts, and worries, and into a world that feels so other. My favorite is The Shining.
Mysteries, which keep the mind busy deducing, are another great distraction from real-life worries: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rebecca, and Rope.
We’ll need a few light films to balance out all that terror (especially if my kids are with me): The Sound of Music, Elf, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Wreck-It-Ralph.
I’m more a TV series watcher, especially when it comes to British cop shows, but that’s another story…
Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Solomon’s one-of-a-kind nonfiction book should be required reading in every high school and college nationwide. In hundreds of interviews with “exceptional” children and their parents, Solomon shows us, with great compassion, how it is our uniqueness that binds us. His study of families living with Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, deafness; with children conceived during rape, children who are prodigies and children who commit crime, makes Far from the Tree the most meaningful and important book I’ve read.
Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.
The Goldfinch. I’m a pretty patient reader and I stopped after almost 300 pages. But The Secret History is one of my favorite books.
If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.
The first novel I wrote was called Roseland and it took place at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC, now closed. I was a baby when I wrote it—only 23—and had no idea how to write a novel. But there are a few great scenes in there, particularly in the section of the novel that focuses on the ballroom in its heyday in the era of 1940s big band. I’ve been a fan of Big Band since I was a kid, and it was the only station the radio received clearly at the gift shop my parents’ owned when I was a kid, where I worked every day after school. My next novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, to be published in 2017, was a project I’d thought about for more than a decade, and I’d rewritten the first chapter ten times over that decade. Maybe I’ll similarly resurrect Roseland one day.
Then again, now that it has been two years since I finished the final draft of Cutting Teeth, there are definitely a few parts I’d edit, now that I have the distance. I think it is healthy for a writer to look at all their books this way. I’d be worried if I thought everything I wrote, or published, was perfect.
Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.
1. Point-of-view is everything. You’ll have to take one of my writing workshops for the full reveal.
2. Plot is necessary. I prefer to call it “story” or “narrative momentum,” but whatever you want to call “it,” it is going to be part of every novel or story or memoir, despite genre or style, despite a writer’s attempts to avoid it, because so-called plot is a natural part of the human experience. The course of a relationship—the first heart flutter, first fuck, first fight, and break-up, is plot. The fact that we are born, live and die is plot. Plot is second nature to all our stories—those we tell on the page, those we share in conversation over a glass of wine, even those stories that we tell while we sleep, our dreams. And plot is always informed by our characters’ wants, needs and fears.
Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.
That Night by Alice McDermott—one of the inspirations for my next novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer.
Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.
I have many reminders I give myself. I remind myself that the first draft is always a mess and that I should just Bash On! regardless. I remind myself that much of the purpose of writing the first draft is to inform myself of the novel’s story, characters, setting. Many pages will have to be cut, but that doesn’t mean the process of writing those pages wasn’t essential to the finished book.
When I’m stuck, I print out the pages in that particular section, open a new document on my computer, and retype line by line. This allows me to fall back into that “trance-like” state of fully embodying the characters and world. This is also the best revision technique when revising point-of-view. If a writer relies on cutting and pasting when revising point-of-view, there is a big risk of the tone of the book becoming inconsistent. It is a lot of work, but all I can say is, Trust me, it’s worth it.
Name a regret, literary or otherwise.
I regret forcing myself to finish all those books I didn’t want to finish. Now, if a book doesn’t grab me after 25-50 pages, I put it down. Life is too short and there are too many books to read.
Name your greatest struggle as a writer.
Self-doubt. Novel writing needs a dash of delusional confidence.
Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.
“How is your (published) book doing?” I find it is best to respond to both questions with an enthusiastic “Great!”
Name a question you wish you had been asked.
Julia, what, other than books, has influenced your novel writing? Me: TV! I learned how to structure a novel from watching TV series. Order of information, maintaining narrative momentum, revealing character and story line—it is all there. And, since you asked, my favorite TV series are: Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Low Winter Sun, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, True Detective (Season 1), The Shield, and Rome.