WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Zoje! I am so happy you’ve agreed to be interviewed by us here at Writers Tell All. We loved your book Baby Teethand are honestly fascinated by you and this work. To start off, can you tell us how you got the idea for Baby Teeth?
Zoje Stage:Is it cheating to just give you a link to the article I wrote for Amazon? I'm never going to explain it as well again!https://www.amazonbookreview.com/post/da6e1cbe-8f57-46b0-86fd-eaba16f785a0/taxonomy-of-an-idea-zoje-stage-on-baby-teeth
MT: What attracts you to the idea of malicious children—like the child seen in Baby Teeth. I have to admit, the synopsis seems almost absurd, but reading the book, I and several of my friends peers have found ourselves absorbed, astonished and shaken by your writing. The switching between mother and daughter, and the tension between them, can at points be frightening, hilarious, and stomach-churning. How did you manage to create these two different voices, and what sort of preparation did you have to go through for writing this sort of book?
ZS: Part of my interest in "malicious" children is, in fact, an interest in prodigiously talented children. Hanna, in her own way, is a prodigy, though her intellect and creativity take her talents down a darker path than what we typically think of when marveling at precociously-abled children. It was actually quite easy for me to create these two different voices, because in many ways Suzette and Hanna are opposites. Where Suzette is reality-based, Hanna is fantasy-based; Suzette looks for expanding levels of possibilities, where Hanna laser-focuses on one possibility; one attempts to use love to solve her problems, the other uses hate. And of course they are also opposites with their illnesses, where Suzette battles physical issues, and Hanna mental ones.
MT: How do you manage to build such amazing tension—and seemingly so effortlessly—between the mother and child in the book? Sometimes, I found myself cringing reading passages, wondering what would happen and how certain characters would survive or make it through a situation completely intact.
ZS: I attribute much of the tension in my book precisely to the dual POV. Because readers have insight into what both characters think and experience, they immediately grasp the magnitude of the disconnect between mother and daughter. I think readers then "carry" some of this tension in themselves—whether it's an urge to jump into the book and set the other characters straight, or to wait it out and see how much worse it gets.
MT: What is your writing process like? How many words or pages do you write a day or a week? How long did it take you to write Baby Teeth, and what was the process like in writing this novel? How was it shopping the books to agents and later publishers?
ZS: I am a "pantser"—which means I don't use an outline when I write, but instead write by the "seat of my pants." Before beginning a story I usually have a grasp of where the story starts, something that happens in the middle, and something that happens near or at the end, which then becomes what I'm writing toward. I only write every day when I am working on a first draft or revisions, and it's very common for me to take weeks, or even a couple of months, off between drafts. A first draft for me consumes about three months of my life, and I phrase it that way because the impulse becomes to write every single day until it's complete (though, by necessity, I take individual days off to rest my brain). Typically, I'll try to write about a thousand words a day. All in, BABY TEETH took about ten months of actual writing time.
While the querying process for this book didn't take that long—about three months—I sent out a ton of queries, because I'd been polishing my manuscript with a mentor during Pitch Wars 2016 and I felt strongly that it was ready for the world. However, the first few versions of my BABY TEETH query letters really sucked, and after 60 queries I had barely any nibbles of interest. After finally conjuring a decent query and sending it to another 20 agents, things started to happen. I signed with my agent, Sarah Bedingfield, within a few weeks of that batch of queries. They say publishing is a slow industry, but after that everything happened very quickly. We were only "on sub" to publishers for one week when St. Martin's Press made a pre-emptive offer.
MT: You’ve created a book that several of my peers and friends have found entirely fascinating. You manage to keep their fingers quick, turning the pages at rapid speeds. What tricks do you use to keeping the reader interested? What would you recommend to up-and-coming writers who are trying to tackle the same feat but find themselves lacking in one way or another?
ZS: I think the trick to keeping any genre of book a "page turner" is to keep introducing new questions or dilemmas. The second you wrap up something too neatly, that part of your book will feel like it's "finished." Characters need to keep encountering things that keep them off balance—things that make them question themselves, or people around them, or build on new intrigue or conflict. I also think it's really important—though admittedly, a challenge—to try and leave chapters in a place that hint at something unresolved, so that readers stay engaged in following the protagonist ever onward, toward a resolution.
MT: What are the books that have had the most profound effect on your writing and your growing as a writer? What books do you recommend to readers as tools to learn from?
ZS: This might not be the answer you were expecting, but I'd say that Ursula Le Guin had the biggest influence on my writing (and I have written more fantasy and sci-fi-like stuff in the past). The big thing I took away from Le Guin's books was the awareness that a writer could use genreas a means to explore various elements of human society and behavior.
MT: How many books did you write before Baby Teeth? I remember Jeffrey Eugenides saying he’d written a number of books before The Virgin Suicidesand had to struggle with all of them? Are there any past literary attempts you’d like to return to and explore now that you have become a successful and beloved author?
ZS: I wrote five other novels before BABY TEETH. My first four novels were YA—and then I experienced an epiphany: I was writing the wrong books! I know writers are often advised to follow their hearts and write the book their heart wants to write. And that's how I started out too: I didn't analyze the whyof an idea, I just plunged in. But after taking a step back to really examine my process for deciding what books to bring home from the library or bookstore, I made a shocking discovery: I would not have picked up my own books! From that moment on I committed to writing the books I wanted to read! I thought about the elements that really excite me when I see a blurb or dust jacket description. And I thought about the things that I don't seebeing written, but wanted to read—like a bad seed novel where readers get insight into the child's mind, and where the parents ultimately have to deal with her behavior in a realistic way.
MT: What is next in line for you as a writer? Do you have a novel or story collection planned in the future? What about anything else? What does the future hold for Zoje Stage?
ZS: I have a novel or two in the works. ;-) I hope to be able to write and publish many more books in the future, but this career is still all quite new to me and I need to find a better way to balance my writing with my health and life needs. The past year has been a little intense!
MT: Have you ever found parts of yourself, your life, or your personality bleeding into your own writing? If so, do you consider this a positive aspect of writing, or something dangerous that you might need to steer away from? I know that all authors after different views on this issue, and was just wondering how you felt about making a novel personal, or distancing yourself from it as much as possible.
ZS: Who was it that originally said "the personal is universal"? I'm sure my paraphrasing is a little off, but I think the sentiment is spot on. It's not a secret that I have Crohn's disease and I used a portion of my own experiences to create Suzette's medical history. I draw on my life experiences all the time, in different ways. But, I can't imagine ever writing something truly autobiographical, or trying to recreate someone I know as a character. I take known elements—of myself, of people I know, of things I've done, thought, experienced—but the very act of putting them into a fictitious story, surrounded by new elements, puts all of these things squarely in the realm of fiction, not fact. Because of some things that exist in what may ultimately become my third book, I needed to talk to a couple of people and make sure they understood this, and that superficial or historic similarities did not equate to writing about them. I used Suzette as an example: she has elements of my medical story, but our similarities end there. I want to be able to use these bits from my life because they're inside me, part of my tapestry, but I view them as being akin to tubes of paint: I can mix them in different ways and create all new colors.
MT: What writers in your genre do you admire, especially those working today? What do you think of how women and other marginalized people are slowly but steadily taking charge of the literary industry, especially in comparison with just five or ten years ago? What women writers—or other marginalized writers—do you think are leading the way for people to change the look and shape of writing?
ZS: Okay, I may veer off-question here, but… I want to take a moment to express how important it is to value other people's perspectives. Who are we as human beings if we can't enjoy the simple collaboration of hearing each other's stories? Much of human civilization has been recorded through the lens of what white men were doing. And then their history has been held up as the history of the world. And then we've been told to believe that this—white men's lives—is what's most important and valuable. We can't accept such a limited view of reality. We aren't living up to our potential as human beings until we see the value in allpeople—and learn from and marvel at the breadth of how we are similar, and how we are different, and how we are intrinsically improved for seeing things through a lens we hadn't previously contemplated. Progress is being made. Much more needs to happen.
MT: What advice do you give to writers who are working their hardest to break through into the industry but can’t seem to make it? How did you keep yourself motivated by writing, and would you briefly like to elaborate on your history of writing? What is some sound advice given to you by other authors, agents, editors and the like?
ZS: This might sound like strange advice, but: Don't freak yourself out. We writers have a lotof ways of freaking ourselves out, and some of them come from unrealistic expectations, or comparing yourself to what other writers are doing, or being too hard on yourself. I am truly to God the tortoise that won the race—pursued another creative career (unsuccessfully) for 20+ years, switched gears, wrote and wrote and queried—and slow and steady is a viable game plan. To keep yourself motivated, you have to keep enjoying what you do. It can be hard when you have ambitious goals, but it helps to always accept and acknowledge that, if nothing else, at least you enjoy your creative process. I can't say to anyone that their external success is guaranteed (even if you never give up); but I can say that one's internal success is guaranteed if you always find worth in how you spend your time.
I'd also encourage writers to periodically take a step back to assess what you're doing and why. There's no harm in changing things up—whether that means retiring a project that isn't working, or switching to another category, genre, or medium. I think experimenting is good. You learn valuable things about yourself.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me, Zoje. I really enjoyed reading your book Baby Teethto lots of friends—it’s something I’ve discovered that all of my friends have enjoyed in one way or another, finding themselves or things they enjoy in various parts of the book. Please let us know what’s up next for you, and we can be expecting in years to come. Also if you wouldn’t mind, in closing feel free to impart any wisdom or thoughts or suggestions or advice or commentary that you feel is necessary and essential to your own work, or to writing in general. Thank you so much!
ZS: Thank you for such an interesting interview!