05/29/14 10:00am
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

You hear the phrase “long-awaited debut novel” thrown around a lot these days, which is ironic given that it’s become something of an oxymoron. More and more reliant on bankable household names to meet its meager bottom line, today’s book industry tends to be wary of the humble debut novelist. And the writers who do elicit genuine excitement are far more likely to be the precocious than the long germinating type. All of which makes Julia Fierro’s new book Cutting Teeth a rare literary beast—a first novel that’s been hotly anticipated by industry insiders for months, by an author who’s honed her craft for years. The heat surrounding Cutting Teeth can be chalked up in large part to Fierro’s subject: the trials and travails of modern parenting, an issue so relentlessly fascinating, so deliciously divisive that the book seems destined to land on sandy blankets across America this summer. But it’s safe to say that at least part of the interest surrounding the novel is due to the author herself. This may be Fierro’s first published novel, but she is no stranger to the publishing world.

If most of us struggling literary types fall squarely into either the MFA or the NYC camp these days, Fierro happily straddles both worlds. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder of Brooklyn’s own Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Fierro has emerged in recent years as a doyenne of the literary scene. Her social media conversations read like a Who’s Who of Literary America and her writing school (which, full disclosure, I’ve attended) has increasingly come to function as a sort of high-end clearing house for up-and-coming writers. Some of her recent instructors include Emma Straub of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures fame, critical darling Adam Wilson, and Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick.

Given Fierro’s literary stature, some may find it surprising that this is her first novel. But it becomes easier to understand when you see how much energy she devotes to nurturing the talents of those around her. At a recent reading, Fierro was introduced as “the mother of literary dragons,” but it might be more accurate to call her Brooklyn’s literary fairy godmother. To those who know her she is a nurturing force: the first person to praise the work of promising newcomers, to dole out a much needed hug or to provide a key reference to an agent or MFA program.

Fierro’s ability to draw normally reclusive (or at the very least awkward) writers out of their shells and into conversation with one another begs comparison to another literary mother hen from a different era, Gertrude Stein. But unlike Stein, Fierro seems less concerned with reinventing the form than with stretching our sympathetic imaginations. This fierce urge to connect, which animates her life and teaching, comes through on every page of Cutting Teeth.

Set in Long Island, Cutting Teeth charts the mounting tensions between six Brooklyn parents (and one long-suffering nanny) marooned together in a ramshackle beach house for the weekend with their children. Over the course of the book, Fierro seamlessly shifts between one perspective and the next until her readers are close enough to recognize themselves in each. A literary dramedy about love and family and all of the fantastically messy stuff in between, Cutting Teeth has been dubbed “a Mommy book” by some, but it is better understood as a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

I spoke to Julia Fierro in early May about the genesis of her book, the taboo against overt emotion in literary fiction and the trouble with genres.

More summer reading recs>> (more…)

02/17/14 2:00pm
Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, "The Dismal Science," with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, The Dismal Science, with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Sometimes the name of a book alone can tell you a lot about its author. It doesn’t take a genius to intuit that the man who wrote War and Peace, for example, suffered from no shortage of ego or ambition. Likewise, before I had even cracked open Peter Mountford’s new novel, The Dismal Science (February 2014, Tin House Books), I understood a few things about him. He was not a writer apt to talk down to his audience. (No one who doubts his readers’ critical faculties names a book after one of the world’s most inscrutable disciplines: economics.) And I knew Mountford had a sense of humor. Let’s face it, anyone who puts the words ‘dismal’ and ‘science’ right there next to each other in the title of a book aimed at a general audience understands black comedy.

02/03/14 3:00pm


Cari Luna reads from her book "The Revolution of Every Day," about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete's Candy Store

Cari Luna reads from her book, The Revolution of Every Day, about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete’s Candy Store

There are so many reasons to admire Cari Luna’s debut novel The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House, September 2013), the story of a group of radical “homesteaders” who transformed a collection of abandoned tenements in the Lower East Side into a thriving squat community in the mid-nineties. First, there is the smooth, rhythmic beauty of Luna’s sentences, which steadily lull you in like waves lapping at the shore. Then there’s Luna’s holographic resurrection of the squats themselves, which despite being destroyed more than a decade ago, still figure heavily in the mythology of a certain class of New Yorker. And then there’s her utter lack of cynicism—the belief at the heart of the book that redemption is a choice we can all make no matter how far we’ve strayed from our best selves. But the thing that really had me pinned to the page while reading The Revolution of Every Day was Luna’s New York, a city she renders with such loving, careful specificity that it becomes a character in its own right. As a recent expat, her reverent evocation of the city’s grimy, cigarette studded sidewalks, its cat-calling neighborhood boys and death defying delivery men, halogen lit bodegas and swelling crosswalks, had me choking with nostalgia.

Those who’ve already read Revolution will not be surprised to learn that Luna was born in Manhattan and cut a fast trail back there from New Jersey when she left home. Nor will they be shocked to learn that she started off a poet and honed her fiction writing skills at Brooklyn College under the tutelage of Michael Cunningham. In anticipation of her upcoming reading with Brendan Kiely at Pete’s Candy Store on February 6, I talked to Luna about the parallels between her own life and her characters’, her research process, and her decision to let go of the New York of her youth and set off for the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon.

Orli Van Mourik: The Revolution of Every Day is often described as a political book, because it deals with the fallout of the “Disneyfication” of a city that was once a subcultural hotbed. But I really read the book as a love letter to a lost New York. Did you set out to write an overtly political book?

Cari Luna: There’s definitely a political aspect to it, but politics aren’t its primary concern. What I’m most interested in are individuals and their stories. The Revolution of Every Day is character-driven, and the squats are the world the characters move through. But yes, it’s a love letter to the New York I felt I’d lost, and a Dear John letter to the version of New York I’d found myself in in the fall of 2005 as I began writing the book. I started writing the book very early in my pregnancy with my first child, and because of that I was preoccupied with the idea of home, and what it would mean to raise a child in New York—particularly a New York that was drastically different from the one I was born in in 1973. And so it started out as me trying to understand how New York had changed, trying to understand gentrification and what it had done to the city. And that led me to set it in the squats.  (more…)