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.