“I am being punished for writing a book about children.”
This is what Julia Fierro tells me as we’re sitting at dinner next to a group of parents and their children, who’re banging toys against the table with an ungodly clamor. The adults aren’t flinching. Fierro catches me nervously eyeing the recorder, sending a silent prayer into the air that the ambient noise isn’t going to screw up my transcription.
Fierro and I are at Watty & Meg in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, just a few doors down from her writing space on Court Street, and had been enjoying a placid dinner in the restaurant’s quiet back room until our table neighbors arrived. I’d invited the author out to talk about the release of her debut novel, Cutting Teeth, which is indeed about parents and children—or at least partly. At surface, Fierro’s novel stuffs a playgroup’s worth of Brooklyn families into one Long Island beach house over Labor Day weekend, and watches what transpires as tensions escalate between both the adults and kids. But running deep within is a cutting satire of urban privilege that feels almost uncomfortably honest.
Fierro’s novel has been a long time in the making—especially for someone who surrounds herself with writers every day. She’s the founder and director of the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop—a titan of New York City’s writing scene and which is taught by some of the city’s strongest fiction voices. She lives what she does; at the end of dinner, one of our waiters approaches us, telling us he is writer, too. “E-mail me directly,” Fierro tells him. “We’ll get you into the right workshop.”
I figured I’d allow a few minutes at dinner without the recorder before we dug in, but conversation about women’s place in the literary scene popped up almost immediately. Fierro started talking about her view that, compared to men, women seem less confident in their identities as writers. “I think you better start recording,” Fierro said. So here’s where we picked up.
The Rumpus: Did you find a noticeable difference between the male and the female writer’s psyches while you were at Iowa?
Julia Fierro: Well, that was interesting for me because of the home I grew up in. My father’s an Italian immigrant and a feminist. He did a lot of the cooking and cleaning, and he just has a very domestic love—he loves Martha Stewart magazine. And I really felt, growing up, that women and men were equal because my father did a lot of the domestic stuff, and because his English wasn’t great, my mom had to do a lot of the business stuff for the store that they owned. She’s really bossy and opinionated and confident in certain ways. I was able to convince myself that there wasn’t that big of a difference between men and women—and now I feel ridiculously naïve about that. It’s almost like a coping mechanism—like a protection. And most of my friends are male.
And then when I went to college, there was that difference between men and women…but it wasn’t until I went to Iowa that I noticed the intellectual difference, because we were very male-dominated. The only full-time female faculty member in fiction was Marilynne Robinson.
Rumpus: What was the make-up like in your graduating class?
Fierro: I don’t know. I feel like sometimes there’d be workshops where it’d be only men. I don’t know if that’s because there were male teachers, but all the teachers except for Marilynne Robinson were men. And the director was male—it was very male. It was also a time when it was very tough love in these outrageously intense workshops. Marilynne Robinson, too—she was not touchy-feely, and she was also very philosophical.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve been doing interviews and discussing women. When a story was about a woman, we didn’t talk about that fact. I wonder if it’s because the man instructors were sort of wary of bringing that up, or if the students wanted the prestige—
Rumpus: Of being treated as equals?
Fierro: Yeah. We’re literary. It doesn’t matter that we’re women, you know?
Rumpus: Was there almost a fear of feminism, maybe?
Fierro: It’s almost like it wasn’t even present. It wasn’t that as women we felt oppressed, but we were just young, and there wasn’t a woman on the faculty to sort of be like, “Well, let’s talk about the fact that this story is about women, god forbid.” So what happened was, I was writing these really dark, spare stories about troubled young women—it was my thing there. I was reading a lot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets and stories in which terrible things happened to young girls—
Rumpus: Sounds very Laura van den Berg.
Fierro: Yes! And I couldn’t believe everyone liked these stories, whereas now, people think my current style isn’t “literary enough.” It was like the emotion was really trapped in the surface. They were masculine stories in a way—strained emotionally. I remember someone in class, one of my friends, a guy, saying, “You know, you’re writing stories about women for women,” and it had never dawned on me. It was so insulting—and now I’m like, You know what? Maybe I am writing for women. Not just for women, but I am a woman! And the fact that that’s something that literary women writers don’t talk about…I find that a little confusing, and I wonder if that makes younger literary women writers feel like there’s something less valuable to that.
Rumpus: “Writing for women,” specifically?
Fierro: Yeah…I think that there’s a difference between being a woman writer and a male writer and it’s something that should be discussed. I had this one guy interview me recently and he said, “How did you write that male character?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he was like, “He just felt so real to me. How did you do that?” And I was like, “Um, you know, I just imagined what he’d be thinking…” And I feel like it’s not that I’m just a woman who can only write about women’s issues and women’s perspectives, but I just don’t want to feel like my work is less significant if a reader reads Cutting Teeth and they go, Oh, this is literary, and then another one tags it on Goodreads as “Women’s Fiction,” and another one tags it as “Chick Lit,” and another one tags it as “Family Reads.” In the end it really isn’t up to us—it’s really up to the reader.
Rumpus: Was there a point at which a label got slapped on you that you felt was disparaging?
Fierro: I think it’s really my own self-scrutiny. And I guess that’s part of what we were talking about earlier [over dinner], in terms of women judging other women in various parts of culture, whether it’s feminist blogging culture or magazines or publishing—we’re still judging ourselves with these old values of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a feminist, what it means to be an intellectual, what it means to be a serious woman writer versus a commercial woman writer. I think it’s really just me anticipating the judgment.
Rumpus: It’s hard because you’re working in two of the most inherently judgmental spaces—the literary space, and then being a woman, you’re either dodging or intercepting signals from the outside world constantly.
Fierro: I create a different environment in a Sackett Street Workshop that I run: we talk about someone’s fiction in a way that’s so craft-focused and about the reader’s experience that there aren’t any judgments, you know? It’s really a safe place, shockingly. I’d never been in a safe workshop until I started teaching my own where I made everyone think so hard about the reader’s experience. It’s about what they’re feeling and thinking rather than what the story represents in the larger sort of culture. What does this story represent? What’s it saying about feminist culture? I don’t know. All I know is what the reader is thinking and feeling as they’re reading it. For me, because I’m really a reader at heart, I don’t think of myself as an intellectual or a critic. I’ll never, ever, ever write a book review.
Fierro: If I was going to write a book review, it would be about my experience. I wouldn’t write a book review using the book in order to launch into my own sort of separate essay about whatever separate essay about whatever ideas I really wanted to be writing about.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s what book reviews inherently are?
Fierro: I think that’s what they’re supposed to be about, it seems. It’s not like a critique like in workshop. I talked to an art critic recently and we were talking about criticism and I was like, “I don’t understand why when someone’s writing a review they leave the work,” and she was like, “It’s because the critic is writing about themselves.”
It would also have to be about something I liked, because otherwise it would turn into a critique about how I think the writer could have made something fuller or been truer to the story I think the book is wanting to tell. But I’ve never seen a book review like that, have you?
Rumpus: Not quite. Is that what the experience in one of your workshops is like?
Fierro: Yeah! We figure out what the story wants to say, then you figure out how and what technical choices you make to make that happen. It’s so wonderful to sit down with writers in a workshop and say, “What do you want the story to do?” And for us to sit together and figure it out. It’s almost like fixing a clock. It’s all psychology—imagining how [to figure] out what a writer wants to say and figuring out how to shape the experience through technical choices. In workshop it’s not so much like we’re giving you a prescription, it’s that we’re practicing thinking about the how. The how is everything.
That wasn’t mentioned in that many workshops I was in before I started thinking about it as a teacher. We talked about the what—whether it was good or bad—and the why—like why we felt the story was what it was—but I don’t recall a teacher being like, “How did the writer do X or Y?”
Rumpus: Where did the jump from viewing a workshop as a student to a teacher happen?
Fierro: My second year in Iowa I was very, very lucky and I got a teaching fellowship for fiction writing. But I knew right away participating in workshops in Iowa…workshop for me was just starved for craft. So I immediately realized that I had this certain way of reading that was really craft-focused and that was how I made sense of writing and reading even the world—through this psychological lens of imagining the reader’s experience. It’s almost like a point-of-view exercise.
Rumpus: What gave you the tools to identify that? To say, This is how I process books. I use the lens of craft. Because that’s a very perceptive, almost meta way to read books.
Fierro: The first year-and-a-half at Iowa, I didn’t really think of it that way, but what happened was Francine Prose came to Iowa shortly after September 11th. We were all still sort of in shock with the rest of the country, and the Iowans were in mourning, which was so incredible to see. Like, all the people who seemed so distant from New York—frat boys crying at the ceremony—and she came and she gave a one-week seminar. What we did was, she gave us published short stories—we read a story by Cheever, we read “A Distant Episode” by Paul Bowles, which is just so amazing. So we read a bunch of stories, and we’d come into class and we’d go over them line by line practically and talk about what that line was doing. I don’t know how much of this is my memory making this into a more magical thing than maybe it was, but every day I left class and was like, That was the best story that has ever been written, and it felt like this incredibly intense exercise for your writers’ mind.
Then [after I graduated in 2002], I applied for a job at Gotham [Writer’s Workshop] and I remember the person who interviewed me had me come back like two times…and I sat there for hours at a time talking about my philosophy, and I realized that this is what it was. It was about leading with this really craft-focused perspective.
But the how really developed after I’d been teaching advanced writers for about four years. I started to ask them in class, “Okay, so you felt this effect when you were reading. You felt like you didn’t like the character. How did the writer go wrong? What technical choices did they make that led you to that?” And at Sackett Street—especially in my classes and for all the teachers who were once my students, who now teach for Sackett Street—at least a third of the workshop is spent on what works. And that’s unusual and I don’t understand why. It’s under the guise of making the writer feel good. I mean, obviously you want the writer to feel good when they leave workshop, but it’s not even about that. It’s about teaching writers about how to see the good and the promise and the potential in something. Because if you can’t see that in your own work you’re so lost. Probably the thing I’m most proud about in my whole life is what a good reader I am and how I can see the good in anything.
Rumpus: How does someone who is a good writer go and become a good reader and a good editor of her work or someone else’s work?
Fierro: That’s a good question. It’s funny—I read every application that comes through to Sackett Street. When I’m creating the classes, sometimes there will be students that have a lot of writing experience and no workshop experience and their writing is so incredible and you’ll realize in workshop, Wait. You don’t know how to read! Or, [their reading] is really about their opinion versus their opinion translated through craft-focused language.
I think—and this is controversial, I guess—but I really believe anyone can write. Because I’ve seen it happen that writers who came to me with no understanding of even basic point-of-view have had books published. And I think that happens through practice reading. And practice reading in this way that’s like hard-working reading. What’s so fortunate about being writers is we do it for our entire lives and we’ll only get better at it. We’ll never get worse. You’ll always be a more engaged person who’s seeing another layer of life, which always makes me wonder about this obsession with the young writers in publishing in America—for certain kinds of books, yes, but for real psychological, messiness and complexity? I don’t know.
I took years off of writing because I felt terrible after [my first book didn’t sell], and I was working so hard to get by, and I had children, and Sackett Street, and teaching, and so I was so terrified that I would go back to writing and I would be a worse writer. And I went back to writing and I was finally a writer for the first time ever because I’d been reading with this crazy intense focus, because I’d been reading with this responsibility to my students.
I spent years when I was at Iowa and especially afterwards, when I was reading and I would have a pencil and I would just write really lightly in the margins what I would have written on my students work. Like P.O.V. or tone or pacing, and I never went back and looked at those. Never. I have books covered in notes I’ve never gone back to, because it wasn’t about making notes so I could come back and remember them—it was about, as a writer, that I learned methods. It was just a practice in the moment of checking off the craft elements that were unique and extraordinary and in that way I just absorbed that trick. I think it’s really great advice for young writers—or writers at all—is photocopying a short short you love and covering it [in notes] or even just tracking the point-of-view through a story, like Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” You’re a better writer if you’re doing that. It’ll just sit in your subconscious toolbox.
I can’t believe I said I’d never write reviews. But it’s true. It seems like a lot of work, too.
Rumpus: It is. I mean, I clearly like interviews a whole lot more.
Fierro: Also, it’s too much responsibility! You have to be a strong person to put something out there. Also, I would just never think my opinion or reading experience was that important—
Rumpus: I feel that way, too…
Fierro: You know? That’s the thing in workshop, too. In workshop, you always have to be like, Well, you’re a different reader from this other person who views it differently. There’s an infinite variety of readers.
Rumpus: Well, it’s an interesting thing because writers are an insecure group of people inherently.
Fierro: Yeah, all creative people are. Or, well, everyone. That’s what I like to think of the world.
Rumpus: But it can be this weird balance of very hubristic people and very insecure people, no?
Fierro: Oh, they’re all insecure. I hope so, because that’s what makes us special, I think. And redeemable.
Rumpus: Then what’s the secret to dealing with a room full of insecure people who have put their hearts and souls for judgment?
Fierro: I run a very structured workshop, so if you focus on the technical choices that a writer makes, it’s not personal. So if someone’s like, “I don’t like this character. He was offensive,” I’m like, “Okay, what technical choice that is responsible for that side effect?” Because ninety-nine percent of the time, the writer doesn’t even know that they let the tone get exaggerated. Maybe it’s because they’re feeling insecure about this character. It’s almost always in real life or in writing life, tone is responsible for so much of misunderstanding. We’re all just trying to write stories. I think in a workshop, you need an instructor who is like a mediator and can translate. They’re like the leader of the group therapy. In my workshop, there’s no touchy-feely—it’s all craft, even though we have fun.
I think in a lot of workshops, what happens is the instructor sort of sits back, lets the students run the discussion, and then is not bothering to step in and be like, “Okay, you though the language was beautiful—what does that mean? How did the writer make the language so beautiful?” I just don’t understand and I think it’s just lazy teaching. There’s lots of great teachers that give a lot of great feedback one or one or at the end when they give their summation, but I just don’t understand how a workshop can be valuable if there’s not somebody who’s not like the objective ref. I never thought of it that way.
Also, if it’s like an MFA program with a famous writer running a workshop, and all the students are going around saying their one thing and the writer’s sitting there going, I have no idea what anyone’s saying, and then they’re all kind of like trying to anticipate what this teacher wants them to say.
Rumpus: That was your experience?
Fierro: I think sometimes. I did have some really great teachers at Iowa. Chris Offut is an amazing short story writer and has also written memoirs and a novel—he taught me everything about craft that Frank Conroy had taught him like a decade earlier. He was in many ways my mentor. And then Ethan Canin’s style is probably the most similar to mine out of everyone there. I’ve used part of the structure of his workshop for the Sackett Street method because he really focused on craft—he was like, “Let’s talk about structure. Let’s talk about character. Let’s talk about language.” And I learned so much from him about point-of-view. And then Sam Chang—I never took her workshop, but I took her novel-writing seminar and she’s just brilliant. I also studied with Marilynne, who taught me a lot philosophically about writing, like having compassion for your characters. But I could probably sit in on any workshop and be like, There needs to be more mediating in this workshop. I just think that it’s the responsibility of the instructor. I’ve taught maybe like ten post-MFA workshops and they need guidance. And these are writers who many times I’m reading my students’ work and I’m like, I’d love to be able to write like this someday.
There’s this infinite variety of readers, and it’s about the writer figuring out what reader they’re most interested in engaging. And it might differ from book to book, which is terrifying. Now I’m working on a new book and I’m like, This is so different from my other book—what am I going to do?
Rumpus: Are you scared of—
Fierro: I’m scared of everything.
Rumpus: That’s fair.
Fierro: I wrote Cutting Teeth, and a lot of people think it’s funny in a somewhat satirical way, which I really didn’t intend.
Rumpus: Can you read it that way now?
Fierro: Yeah. I can see the humor now, but this next one is first-person retrospective on this woman’s childhood—and I haven’t written a novel in first-person, ever—but I don’t want to write about parenting again, because that’s been sort of challenging. It’s one thing to write in a style that’s like, whatever literary or commercial is, but it’s another to write about mothers because I found myself “momifying” my book. I was like, Well, it’s just about moms. Then I was like, Oh, should I apply for this award? No, it’s just a mom book. Wait, Julia, what? You know?
So I met with Maria, my agent. The first time she read my book she was like, “I’m really excited about this book. It really fits that literary-but-also-accessible line. So many people try to market their books like that, but I really feel [yours fits].” And it was the first time I really thought, Oh, I’m literary. I feel like if a different editor had acquired the book, maybe there would have been more pressure to revise the book that would have made it more marketable in terms of women’s fiction, even though I see the book online and I see it out in places and it’s categorized as women’s fiction. But the fact that the cover isn’t…
Fierro: Yes. And also it could have gone “woman on the beach.” And I’m not speaking against those covers. Some writers want those covers, and it accurately depicts their books, but I feel like the book is a little too dark and satirical—if not intentionally that. And even with the Raggedy Anns and I was like, Oh, is this too cute? Are they going to be surprised when they open it up and be like, God, these people? My editor Elizabeth Beier just got the book and we just have a very similar reading mind. She wanted the book to stay true to the little bit of edgy darkness and comedy and sexiness and also neuroses—
Rumpus: She cared about the reading experience.
Fierro: Yeah! I could imagine how other editors would have been like, “These characters are unlikable.”
Rumpus: Do you buy into the discussion regarding the unlikable character?
Fierro: I feel like anyone who doesn’t want to have that discussion is ignoring the huge challenge of being a woman. It bothers me when I see women writers or male writers being like, “Enough about this discussion of unlikable women characters,” and I’m like, “No! This is just the beginning!” Just because one person writes an essay about it doesn’t mean that anything has changed. I think that’s what’s important about it is that women aren’t allowed to be unlikable characters. I haven’t seen so much about this conversation, but it’s that women are the ones who aren’t liking the unlikable characters. When I see these strong reactions to unlikeable women characters, they’re often by other women. There’s something almost personal about it.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Fierro: I think it goes back to that sense of us feeling incredibly insecure about what it means to be a good, right woman. There’s a “good” way to be a woman and it’s a very narrow category. And when you see women breaking out of it, it’s often an exaggerated way that doesn’t feel true to real life.
My mother is older and she was in an all-women’s Catholic college during the Vietnam War, wearing white gloves and almost practically becoming a nun. I am so incredibly privileged, and I think all the time, You are so incredibly lucky that you can even have a voice and a job and basic rights, and yet I do want more. I want more equality. And I feel almost guilty about that. Plus, I’m a mother to young children who is able to work full-time and have a career and identity out of that—but the way I talk about it, it’s allowed. There’s just a lot that hasn’t changed, and I think we’re at the beginning of a movement. We’re the first generation to benefit from the feminist revolution in a major way.
Rumpus: And these conversations need to continue to happen.
Fierro: And right now, I feel like many of these conversations about women’s ambition and balancing that with family are very black-and-white. They’re either about leaning in and doing it all and focusing on work, or becoming a domestic goddess and raising bees in your backyard and breeding chickens and making your own soap. But the discussion about women and ambition is very black-and-white so far.
I’m more interested in the conversation about women “having it all” because I really feel like I’m doing that. I feel a lot of guilt for that. I feel incredibly lucky to be a woman right now. Hopefully when my daughter is a woman, the conversation will be a lot more nuanced.
Rumpus: How do you think your book speaks to that conversation?
Fierro: That’s a good question. I wanted to speak to it more but I just couldn’t fit it all in. Most of the women in the book are stay-at-home moms.
Rumpus: What would you say to someone who said that was anti-feminist?
Fierro: It’s not a choice, most of the time. I think that anyone who could look at stay-at-home moms and think they’re anti-feminists is a simple-minded, naïve [person]. Some women choose to and some women don’t have a choice. So much of the choices that you make after you have children feel incredibly out of your control. Even women who were ambitious, incredibly successful lawyers and accountants and business owners and chefs—often, there’s no part-time jobs. So you either quit your job and come home or you never see your children. I don’t know. I think the hardest job that there is is a stay-at-home mother. Especially for a privileged, overeducated generation of women who were raised to think we were equal to men, and that we should have ambition and want to excel. You work really hard and then all of a sudden it’s like, Okay, we’re going to have a time-out for about eight years, and then you have to try to get back to your old life. So, I don’t know. It’s really about what works best for you, but I don’t often think it’s your choice.
Rumpus: What about Grace? Because Grace is in some ways portrayed as the horrible mom who always works and never sees her kid but she’s the one who’s perusing her career.
Fierro: I mean, I don’t feel that way towards Grace.
Rumpus: She’s judged as the “worst mommy” in the bunch.
Fierro: But I don’t think she is. And I was actually worried about that with my editor. I feel sympathy for Grace.
Rumpus: Well, she feels like shit for being a terrible mom.
Fierro: Yeah, and I think it’s very easy for the other mothers to look at her because they’re so insecure. And I think that’s what a lot of women are doing—they’re looking at other women making different choices. You see this all over mothering culture, whether it’s online on the message boards or you see it in essays that mom bloggers write about moms—there’s just this judgment about women who are making different choices from your own.
Rumpus: It’s glaring that there’s such a disparity between those who are in the workforce and those who are stay-at-home.
Fierro: This book is specifically about this very brief time where when you’re in it, you feel like you’ll never be anywhere else. Only now am I able to look at it and be like, Wow, I was really writing about when I was in the thick. I still feel like what I wrote was slightly satirical, but it really does feel like time was either going by so slow or super-fast. And now that my kids are both in school I can be like, One day in September, they both went to school. And life changed. Everything became so much easier all of a sudden, but those early years are intense. I just worry sometimes that the book is going to be a really potent form of birth control.