by Whiskey Blue
Last year, Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, about a set of parents besodden with their children at a beach house in Long Island over Labor Day weekend, was a staple of summer reading lists. Like many writers, it seems like Fierro found success swiftly and quickly, but in truth she’s been at it for years. In 2002, after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Fierro moved to Brooklyn and, with a Craigslist ad, started what would become the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop in her kitchen; thirteen years later, the workshop has hosted over twenty-five hundred writers.
While Fierro’s next novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, won’t be released until 2017, Cutting Teeth is out now in paperback, so the other day, Fierro and I talked about the America dream, outsider identity, and how she thinks even writing can be taught.
In Cutting Teeth, you write about motherhood, which means your work could be classified as what Cheryl Strayed described in the New York Times as “domestic” — domestic being the easy, dismissive euphemism for women’s writing. Did you ever fear the book might be dismissed on account of its subject matter? Did you come up against misogynist criticisms of Cutting Teeth?
This is such an important topic and I admire the directness of your question. Too often, I see literary writers, women included, zigzagging around this question, avoiding it. To be fair, it is a controversial and complex issue. There are women writers who say they write without gender in mind, as if there is no difference between their perspective as a writer and a man’s. A younger version of myself might have agreed, but now I can’t possibly accept this as truth. Most writers — possibly all — write to make sense of the world around them, and their unique perspective interpreting that world is informed by their experience. No two writers (and no two characters) observe and interpret meaning in identical ways. How can we believe that our gender experience isn’t part of the filter through which we write?
I think often of Salon book critic Laura Miller’s interpretation of the literary world, which, to paraphrase roughly, explains that there are two economies in publishing — the economy of prestige (winning awards) and the economy of selling books (the commercial success). Historically, it has been difficult for women to excel at both, whereas male writers — Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides come to mind — do. This discrepancy can make it challenging for women writers to take their work “seriously.” And I am a bit ashamed to admit that I, too, have the occasional doubt about whether my “domestic” novel populated by women characters (mothers, no less!) is “serious” work. Of course it is, I tell myself, but the doubt lingers under the surface.
This doubt wasn’t as strong before I entered the publishing world and had my work labeled for the market. Although, when I was earning my MFA at Iowa years ago, I did receive feedback from a few of my male classmates that labeled my work as “Oprah Book Club” material (wouldn’t that be great?, I thought) and “writing for and about women.” At the time — I was in my early twenties — this made me worry and I even considered changing my focus. Now, at thirty-eight, I’m proud of the fact that I write not only through women’s perspectives, but also about the complex way in which generations of women experience and interpret the ever-shifting expectations and pressures society places on their shoulders. Of course, I also write in the male perspective (stay-at-home dad Rip in Cutting Teeth is a major character), and often feel surprisingly comfortable, maybe even more comfortable, writing through a man’s point-of-view. This fact shocks certain male interviewers, and I can only respond, playfully, with a confession that I have an active imagination.
In your interview with Royal Young for Interview magazine, you talk about the challenges of balancing motherhood, creative work, and career ambitions. You reflect on the outsider identity that women are somewhat forced into, through explicit patriarchal notions as well as internalized ones, within the literary community (for example). In the interview you say, “I still think even privileged women carry around this mechanism that is part of the historical structure of being secondary. It’s hard for us to feel that we’re worthy.” Please tell me more about this.
I imagine every woman has, at one point, struggled to give herself permission to fulfill her desires — whether it is striving for a job promotion, applying for a fellowship or award, resubmitting work after rejection, or giving herself a few extra hours a week to work on a project. There is one question I always ask writers when I interview them: “When did you give yourself permission to take yourself seriously as a writer?” It is a question I’ve asked myself many times over the past fifteen years. Most male writers answer this question with confidence. Most women writers confess they still have trouble taking their writing seriously, particularly when it doesn’t receive critical attention.
Because I was raised in a family that measured “work” and “success” in financial terms (my parents hoped I’d become a lawyer), I needed that permission from an external authority, and, in my case, it was my acceptance into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA program. I’m not saying that an MFA is necessary for one to be a writer — I strongly disagree with anyone who suggests that — but for me, personally, as a young writer with little to no mentoring and even less confidence, my acceptance into an MFA program gave me that essential nudge. I often wonder if I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t been so lucky.
I am still mystified by the fact that I actually gave myself “permission” to devote myself to writing Cutting Teeth. I wrote the book after many years of not writing consistently. I was building The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, teaching four nights a week to make ends meet, and raising two babies. When I returned to writing after my second child turned two, having finally increased my salary so I could afford a bit of extra childcare, my main motivation was to finish a book. To prove to myself that I could. had to take a leap of faith — financially, emotionally, socially. I had no idea if the book would sell or if the money I invested in childcare would result in “success.” I was asking my family to sacrifice — my kids, my husband, even my job running The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop — but I knew that if I didn’t give myself the chance to be a writer, I’d be denying myself so much.
You’ve made the somewhat controversial statement that you think writing can be taught. Do you think you were taught to write? Did you learn as a child, as a teen, as an adult? As a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? As a mother? Can you describe how the process of learning to write has unfolded in your life?
I really do believe writing can be taught. It is amazing, and quite comical, to see the reactions this belief provokes, particularly from writers who, I can only guess, want to believe they were born to write. Yes, of course, writing requires intense motivation and hyper-focused observation of other people, settings, group dynamics, etc., but storytelling as a method to make sense of life — its joys and pains — has always been part of humanity. Every person walks around, day after day, observing, interpreting and imagining, and these three skills are all that one needs to write.
I’m proof that one doesn’t need a certain background or pedigree to write, to be a writer. While my parents are both very intelligent, and great storytellers, they are not writers or readers. My father grew up in Southern Italy post-WWII and had a limited education. It is amazing to see what he’s accomplished. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized one could be a writer, and it wasn’t until recently that I was paid for my writing.
I am a doubter by nature, and the closest thing I have to religion is the group reading that happens in writing workshop. Participating in a group of writers as we analyze a work of writing, investigating what, why and how it makes us think and feel, is always revelatory for me. Through the close reading of another writer’s work, unpublished and published, an examination of which technical choices create a certain effect on the reader, every writer has the potential to develop. I’ve witnessed writers with little to zero experience take workshop after workshop, working tirelessly on their close reading skills. Now those writers are publishing, earning MFAs and becoming teachers themselves.
In 2013, you wrote “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer,” an essay that explores the insecurities and apprehensions writers face when writing about sex — writing about the action, the sound, the smell. What’s the hardest part of writing about sex, for you? Does this struggle persist today? How important is it to continue writing about sex in honest, and literary, ways?
I still chuckle at how much attention the Millions essay on sex and literary writing received because I consider myself a beginner at writing sex. Your collection was among the first literary erotica I’d ever read, and the scenes in Cutting Teeth were the first real sex scenes I’d written. I ask myself this question often: Is it possible that writing about sex is considered less “serious” because literary writers fear explicit emotional revelation? It is safer to be irreverent. Ironic. And there is a place for irreverence and irony in almost every work of writing. But it is my experience as a literary writer, and as a teacher of literary writers, that the fear of sentimentality and/or melodrama is so strong among writers that writing about sex, an innately emotional experience, feels risky.
Much of the sex writing I see in literary fiction feels emotionally distant — a safe choice. We are warned again and again as young writers, from our college Intro to Writing courses and all the way to our MFA workshops, that the worst sin a writer can commit is sentimentality. It makes us fear writing about emotion, and how can one write about sex without emotional revelation? Subtlety and revelation in sex scenes can be accomplished simultaneously. First, many writers have to conquer their fear of revealing any emotion at all. They need work to look at emotional revelation in their writing as a necessity, not a risk. If your work isn’t taking risks and breaking the rules we live by in real life, what is the point of writing?
You’ve talked about the American dream a lot, drawing on contrasts between your father’s vision of the American dream, as an Italian immigrant, and your own vision of it. Do you and your father discuss these differences? Would you say the differences figure in your writing?
As far as I can see, there are two central themes that run through my novels, particularly in Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer: Fear and the American Dream. Often, the obsessive fear consuming a character is linked to their inability to achieve desires connected to the American Dream. Tiffany in Cutting Teeth is desperate to climb out of her working class upbringing and up to the elite social circle in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Her actions, which prove disastrous, are motivated by her desire to claim a new identity. In my new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, the American Dream is intertwined with issues of class and race prejudice.
I remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time in middle school and feeling shocked that I identified with a character so unlike me. In many ways, my father and Jay Gatsby were alike. Both had an unattainably grand dream — the kind of dream that is uniquely American in its scope. Both had traveled to NYC, the city of infinite promise — Gatsby from the Midwest and my father from the impoverished hills of post-WWII Southern Italy.
The theme of the American Dream will always be central to my work because of my father and all the years I watched him struggle to create a new American identity. What’s more fascinating than stories about the way we rewrite our own story, and, in America, the possibilities for that story seem infinite.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.