Father’s Day is a great time to reflect on the universality of parenthood. While novels and movies often portray mothers as doing the heavy lifting when it comes to parenting, fathers are sharing more and more of the childrearing as families strive to achieve the elusive work-life balance. Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s 2014) unfolds through the varying perspectives of all the “mommies” (including one dad) in a long-running playgroup, along with Tenzin, the Tibetan nanny. These disparate voices who narrate alternating chapters of the book highlight the many ways we approach parenting, but also the similarities that underscore this difficult and rewarding experience.
The novel has been garnering attention; it was included in the “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, and Marie Claire, demonstrating that readers are eager for an honest (and entertaining) depiction of parenthood. We recently sat down with Julia to find out how she created so many different but still authentic characters, and what she thinks about her characters’ parenting experiences.
BOOKTRIB: How did you so effectively capture the various perspectives on parenting depicted by your characters? Where did all these parents come from?
JF: The first seeds of Cutting Teeth can be found in Nicole, the character whose perspective opens the book, and in that very first scene, now the prologue. I wrote that scene before I knew, or believed, it would grow into a book. [It was] shortly after my second child was born as a way to work through the debilitating obsessive-compulsive anxiety I experienced during my pregnancy, which I wrote about recently for HuffPost Parents. Like many writers, I write to inform myself of myself, to make sense of how I feel about my life, other people, the world and my place in the world. So much of me is in that first scene and in Nicole’s character, but exaggerated so her anxiety and fear is a hyper real version of my own experience.
There are parts of my perspective, the way in which I interpret and imagine the world, as well as my insecurities, my flaws and strengths, in every character. They are all, in some way, me, even the characters who are, seemingly, most unlike me, like Rip, the stay-at-home father. I think many writers are often shy about admitting this but it is true for all creative storytellers. Our characters are a reflection of how we see the world and reveal so much of who we are—our personalities, our loves and hates and dreams and fears. I’ve been writing more nonfiction lately and the experience is revealing to me how much I use the guise of fiction as a shield because my work is autobiographical.
BT: The book opens with an epigraph from Peter Ustinov: “Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth.” In what ways do you think this is true for your characters?
JF: I loved the way this epigraph sounded as soon as I discovered it. But I didn’t sit down and truly consider its meaning until I saw it in the bound galleys, the advance copies of the novel that go out to publishers months before the book is published. By that time, after all the revisions that went into the final novel, it had taken on a new meaning. Cutting Teeth, the book itself is, in many ways, my child and it sure did feel as if it had cut its teeth on my bones. In the most satisfying and rewarding way, of course, but writing a novel and parenting young children are both incredibly intense experiences where you are spending long hours working to keep your babies safe, to make sure they have everything you need. Really though, in all honesty, because no experience can be compared to parenting, particularly those sweet but relentless early parenting years, I couldn’t find an epigraph that felt as perfect as Ustinov’s quote.
As for the characters in Cutting Teeth, the experience of parenting young children has made them just vulnerable enough that the natural flaws of humanity—our envy, greed, fear, desire—are stronger, strong enough to overpower them occasionally, particularly that weekend. When you are taking care of a child 4-years-old and under, the pre-preschool years, enjoying them, but sometimes enduring them, 24/7, the exhaustion can leave us open to emotions we didn’t know we had.