Julia Fierro: The TNB Self-InterviewBy TNB Fiction
May 15, 2014
You just launched your debut novel, Cutting Teeth, you run The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and you have two children. How do you do it all?
My lifelong insomnia has been a blessing in disguise. I pretty much sleep four hours a night, and am doing my best to ignore conspiracy theories like this, that simultaneously attempt to cut my productivity in half and promise my inevitable doom.
It is amazing what you can accomplish if you abandon all household chores that aren’t absolutely essential. Sure, we’re living in chaos, but mom’s making great progress on her next novel and the number of Sackett Street writers attending classes has doubled in the last three years. It turns out that women can “have it all”—they might be miserably tired, suffer from high blood pressure, and not have enough time to eat well, exercise or have meaningful relationships, but you can do anything when you don’t give yourself a reason not to.
You’re known as a social media maven, and there are even people who claim it is an obsession of yours, that you clog your Facebook friends’ timelines like rush hour on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Why do you spend so much of your precious free time online?
The truth is I’m a pleaser. Always have been and will be. I love to be liked. And liked. And liked some more. I am ashamed of this need, but there’s no denying it.
I’m also an introvert. I know… you don’t believe me… no one does. If you ask the people who know me in real life, they’ll call me friendly, outgoing, overly chatty. But I can only be socially attentive in three to four-hour spurts. I’ve struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder my whole life, and when I’m in a social gathering, the pace of my observations and interpretations is relentless as I wonder and worry about what everyone is thinking and feeling. The socializing I experience online is satisfying without exhausting. It is socializing on my own terms. I can logon, and logoff. And while the argument critics make—that online relationships are artificial—might be technically true, they sure feel authentic to me.
The characters in Cutting Teeth experience a lot of fear, most of which is self-imagined. Each character has an obsession, usually linked to a secret, which they are desperate to hide. The character of Nicole is particularly obsessive. She fixates on rumors she spotted on an online message board, rumors that the end-of-the-world is imminent. As the weekend unfolds, her fears escalate. What are your fears and obsessions? Have you experienced anything like Nicole’s obsessive fear of the “web bots”?
Ah, yes. Fear. That’s my specialty and probably what I’ll be writing about in one way or another for the rest of my days. As a person who has always viewed the world through the emotionally heightened filter of obsessive-compulsive disorder, my perception of people, events, and details, is colored by my obsessive fears. When readers or critics call Cutting Teeth “satirical,” I accept it. How can they know that while the tone and mood of the book is a bit hyper real—similar, I think, to the tone of one of my favorite TV series, Six Feet Under—Cutting Teeth is, in many ways, an accurate depiction of how I see the world.
And web bots…well, yes. There was a three-hour period back in 2008 where I may have found myself caught up in the panic on an online parenting message board—rumors of Web Bots (government computers that scan the Internet for risk factors) predicting a catastrophic event. I may have placed my baby in a playpen and turned on a Baby Einstein video so I could do a bit of obsessive Googling. I may have called my husband at work and suggested that we flee the city. Just in case the Web Bots rumor was not a bunch of baloney. I may still have several carefully assembled Go! Bags similar (or identical) to the character Nicole in Cutting Teeth. I may, occasionally, hear the rumbling of a semi on a street nearby and fear, for a nanosecond, that the end is near.
I have two categories of fear.
Airplanes, cars, anything that moves faster than 10MPH
The clown in Stephen King’s It
The end of the world
Large groups of young children
Large groups of teenagers
Large groups of people
What are your vices?
My worst habit is staying up late each night (see insomnia mentioned above), watching episode after episode of what my 6-year-old son would call “inappropriate” and “violent” television shows, all while knitting.
My taste in television resembles that of an 18-year-old guy, not a cheerful 37-year-old mother of two young children. I knit baby blankets while I watch foreign horror flicks. I am proud of the fact that I can knit and read subtitles, though there’s not a ton of dialogue in the horror genre, mostly grunting and screaming. I knit toddler-sized cardigans out of organic cotton while I watch gruesome British crime series. I just finished a lovely set of dishtowels while watching season 1 and 2 of the ultra-violent Vikings on the History Channel. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, True Detective, Game of Thrones (the “Red Wedding wasn’t that bad), even Spartacus with its slow-motion blood spatter—the higher the body count the better. And that’s not even including the serial killers I consume in both TV form—Hannibal, True Detective, The Following, The Killing, and The Fall—and via audiobook.
I have a Tumblr dedicated to my audiobooking/knitting projects: NightOwlKnitLit. I’ve listened to hundreds of audiobooks about historical true crime. My favorites include the meticulously researched account of serial killers at the turn of the century—The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, and Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook. Contemporary serial killers are part of my reading diet as well, including the newly released investigative accounts like Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber, Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen, and The People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry. Finally, the audiobook not to be missed, if you’re into this kind of thing, is the classic memoir/true crime account of a friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy—The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.
Phew. I feel better after confessing my vice.
I wonder, often, how my taste for violent literature and film was formed. I have my mother partly to blame/thank—the TV in our home was always set to a detective show, a crime scene dramatization playing out as we ate dinner as a family. From Columbo to Cagney & Lacey to Murder She Wrote to CSI. I’m also able to see as I examine my viewing and reading diet that I’m searching for something. What, I’m not sure? But in the multitude of life and death situations, last-minute rescues, battle scenes, shootouts and slayings, there’s a kind of redemption for me. Maybe even a bit of protection. As if, by watching these horrific scenes, situations where the most is at stake, I am preventing them from happening to me, from crossing the boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
Okay, enough of your vice. I’m almost sorry I asked. What do you hate?
Elitism. The intellectualization of emotion.
Hospitals. Doctors who don’t laugh (or at least smile?) at my anxious jokes.
The lack of empathy in the world.
The arrogance and competition that breeds war.
Women feeling as if they need to judge other women.
Women feeling as if they need to judge themselves.
Humor created through humiliation.
Heart burn. Migraines. Bullies.
What do you love?
People. I can forgive almost anyone. It is my coping method—finding a spot of redemption in even the most unlikable character, real-life and fictional.
Knitting. Audiobooks, so I can knit and read at the same time.
My garden. My father’s garden. His roasted chicken and pasta sauce and pasta fagiole. The woods where I grew up on the Long Island North Shore.
The sound of the wind swishing through the trees.
Coffee. Earplugs. A quiet cubicle at the Writers’ Space.
Late afternoon sunlight on a spring day.
The scent of lavender and leather and almonds.
My children. They taught me to love and how to be loved.
JULIA FIERRO‘s debut novel, 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 and 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 the 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 grown into a creative home for over 2000 writers. A graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, Julia currently teaches the Post-MFA workshops at Sackett Street. She can be found online at juliafierro.com and on Twitter @juliafierro.
Julia: I’m glad to have discovered you via MediaBistro today — and to see all that you accomplish and a little bit about how. I’m looking forward to checking out your book.