A VISIT FROM THE TOOTH FAIRY

The following is an interview with Zoje Stage, author of Baby TeethWhile this was put together prior to StokerCon (a conference run by the Horror Writers Association), I had the opportunity of meeting Zoje at the event. So, without further ado …

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The Interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Baby Teeth seemed to have hit the ground running. The cover for the hardback is simple: blank white-ish background, shattered red lollipop, and those two words, which somewhat suggest that yes, this particular book is going to bite. I remember seeing the book for the first time displayed in a local bookstore in Santa Rosa, California, or maybe Petaluma, and it was like one of those presidential portraits that sort of keep staring at you as you pass, not wanting you to pass. The cover as striking as the title. And I remember thinking, Who is Zoje Stage? I didn’t buy the book, then. And I didn’t buy it the next two or three times it wanted me to buy it.

Some backstory: My wife and I have a yearly tradition of getting each other two books for Christmas, ones we’d not typically buy for ourselves; that way, each year, we are each introduced to two new writers minimum. The books I chose for her were, of course, Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage, and Cherry by Nico Walker (which he apparently wrote while in prison … or is still in prison, I don’t know). Both books were debut novels by writers I had never heard of before, and both had dust jackets that were a mix of white and red. They captured my attention in their first few pages (along with the back cover copy). The problem, however (at the time) was that I bought the books for her, as gifts, and the rule we have is that we can’t read them until the other finishes. She’s a slow reader, so this had me a bit worried because the two books (yours in particular) kept haunting, kept calling. Luckily, she breezed through it in a matter of days.

Suddenly I’m reading the book, and doing the same, alternating between chapters from the point of view of little, troubled Hanna, and her mother. Every time I’d finish a chapter, my wife would ask, “Where are you at?” and I’d tell her, and she’d follow it with a smile and say, “Oh, just you wait” and so I’d keep reading. I haven’t read Cherry yet, because she hasn’t yet read it, but I was lucky enough to have read Baby Teeth. It’s a real page-turner. This book is going to do well, I told myself, and This Zoje Stage is going to do well, and before I know it the Bram Stoker Award nominations are announced and Baby Teeth is on the list for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.

baby_teeth

By the time this interview goes live, we will have already met in Grand Rapids, Michigan for StokerCon, hosted by the Horror Writers Association, and perhaps by then you will have taken home one of those heavy haunted house statues. But for now, we are complete strangers, and so I have a few questions as if we haven’t yet already met (like some kind of strange time-travel). That said …

The questions:

Michael Bailey: What made you want to write Baby Teeth, and why do you feel it’s connecting with readers?

Zoje Stage: I’ve long been fascinated by “bad seed” stories. I hate to say it, but sometimes children seem like otherworldly creatures to me, and it can be pretty freaky when you get a bad vibe from a kid in real life (which has happened). While “evil children” is a trope I’ve enjoyed especially in films, I hadn’t found a book that really delved as deep as I wanted to go, and you know what they say: write the book you want to read. I was particularly interested in exploring the dichotomies of such a child, as I do believe that a tiny percentage of the population may be truly psychopathic, but more often children—as highly sensitive beings—are influenced by the world around them. And I also wanted to see a realistic possibility for how a family would ultimately deal with a disturbed child, and there are parents who really have to confront this.

Part of why I think the book is connecting with readers is the dual-sympathy and dual-revulsion they experience with both Hanna and Suzette. Society puts an incredible amount of pressure on mothers, and that aspect is something a lot of people can relate to. And simultaneously, it’s very compelling to explore the inner workings of a child—especially one who is smart but off-kilter. Apparently even parents of the most wonderful children have glimpsed bits of Hanna-like behavior in their little progeny, and I think this has only increased the relatability of the story, as it makes people really ponder nature vs. nurture.

MB: This is your debut novel, but have you written others that are not-yet-published? If so, what can you tell us about those other manuscripts, and if not, how were you able to land this one so gracefully with St. Martin’s Press?

ZS: Baby Teeth was the sixth novel I’d written, and the fifth I’d queried. The first four were Young Adult, with the connective element of being fairly dark, but the genres were all over the place (sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, and something too weird to classify but inspired by Shirley Jackson). Then I made a startling realization that maybe I wasn’t the best person to be writing YA (for a number of reasons). While Baby Teeth is technically the second of the adult novels I’ve written, I recently did a complete overhaul of that first adult novel—and maybe it will become my third published book? I do not, otherwise, plan to revisit my earliest novels, and have written a few new things since Baby Teeth.

MB: A Bram Stoker Award is for horror. Do you consider Baby Teeth horror? How fine is the line between that genre and thriller, which book publishers seem to be using for dark fiction. That said, how fine is the line between horror and any other genre? Alma Katsu’s The Hunger comes to mind, which is historical fiction, yet recently won an award for westerns and is up for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

ZS: The first inkling I had that my book might be considered “horror” was in Aug. 2018—one month after publication—when it showed up on a Bustle list called “15 Horror Books to Pick up If You’ve Already Read Everything by Stephen King” (The Hunger was also on that list). Prior to that it had never occurred to me that my name would ever be mentioned in proximity to Stephen King! But more lists came out, and Baby Teeth ended up on Bloody Disgusting’s “10 Best Books of 2018 for the Horror Fan” and finished in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Horror in the #2 slot, right behind Stephen King. Suffice it to say, I’ve been thinking about the “horror” designation a lot over the last year.

I submitted Baby Teeth to my agent as a suspense novel, and so far as I know my publisher marketed it as psychological suspense. But since then I’ve heard it referred to as a thriller, domestic suspense, psychological thriller, and horror. I’ve been told by many, many readers—a large portion of them via social media—that Baby Teeth was the “creepiest” thing they’ve ever read. I’ve had readers report that the book gave them nightmares, or that they couldn’t read it at night, or while their young children were in the house … And that’s when I came to understand that Baby Teeth is a horror novel because it scares readers. It’s that simple. From the publishing world’s perspective each genre may mean a very specific thing, but from a reader’s perspective a “horror” novel is one that scares them—and I really can’t argue with that reasoning.

MB: The bio on your website states that “Zoje Stage is a former filmmaker with a penchant for the dark and suspenseful.” What can you share about your film-making experience, and why the move to fiction writing?

ZS: My storytelling goal with film was actually quite similar to what it is with novels: to create realistic stories with well-developed characters who were in odd situations. Film had been my passion for decades, but ultimately it was not a truly viable way for me to be my “best” creative self. It took me a long time to realize that, as it was a dream I wanted very badly, but I had to concede, as time went on, that I was not making the kind of progress I wanted to make, and my health and finances were becoming bigger and bigger obstacles. It’s also possible that I was intimidated by the prospect of writing novels, and it wasn’t until I was able to see the correlations between directing a film and writing a book that I felt ready give it a try.

As a DIY indie filmmaker (forever dreaming of a budget that never materialized), I basically wore all the hats: writing, directing, producing, shooting, acting, editing, etc. Early in the process, I realized that a novelist also wears many hats. The writer of a novel “directs” the reader’s attention toward what she wants them to see and know. She develops and performs all of the roles. In addition to being the production designer, the novelist stages all the scenes, and sets the mood. Each chapter of a book is like a sequence in a film, written, directed, and edited … But the big game changer? I didn’t need to secure locations or props, or upgrade or rent equipment, or beg friends for help in front of or behind the camera. I didn’t need more money to write a book, and I could realistically aspire—with sufficient practice—to “wear all the hats” with some degree of competence.

I found there were things I could do with novels I couldn’t do with film—like exploring thoughts and language—but my background in film and theatre proved to be extremely transferable. And somehow, in spite of living in a society that prefers “watching” over “reading,” from my perspective there are more opportunities for a book than a film, and room for more kinds of stories. One of the unexpected thrills of being published is the “presence” of my book in the world, and the chance for readers to keep discovering it. The publishing industry may not be perfect, but it’s a world away from the film industry and I’ll never go back.

MB: Do you also write short fiction, or do you tend to stick to longer works (asking for a friend)?

ZS: I have a weird relationship with short fiction (similar to my weird relationship with short films). With both, I’ve had the sense that I need a longer format to produce better work. There was a time when I wrote a ton of speculative short fiction and tried—and failed—to get it published. I haven’t written short fiction in years, although I do have a writing “to do” list that includes a couple short story ideas. Will I ever write them?

MB: To see if we can predict the future, what are your goals for attending StokerCon? Who are you most excited to meet? Do you have any predictions for the other award categories? For the last five years, during the award ceremony, I have circled who I think will win prior to everything starting, and then underline those that actually win; I think last year was my best, something like 90% correct.

ZS: I’ve never been to any sort of writing convention so I’m excited to see what it’s all about and hang out with so many writers. It’s a little funny that I have to travel to Michigan to meet “local” author J.D. Barker—especially since he invited me to participate in a local panel discussion taking place a week after StokerCon—but I’m definitely looking forward to meeting him. As a debut author I still feel very new to publishing (am I even qualified to be on a panel? LOL), so I’m hoping to glean info from more experienced authors. I’m also looking forward to meeting some folks whom I currently only know in an online capacity.

As far as predictions … There are only a few categories I’ll even wade into, as I am way behind on reading all the nominees. Needless to say, the nominees represent a standard of excellence and they are all worthy of winning. But here are a few guesses:

Superior Achievement in a Novel: Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World

Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection: Gabino Iglesias, Coyote Songs

Superior Achievement in a Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Bird Box

MB: After all the baby teeth have fallen out, what’s next?

ZS: I have multiple things in the works, though the only one with a definite home at the moment is my next novel, Wonderland: On the cusp of winter, a hardcore artsy New York City family moves to a place not quite on the map in the Adirondacks, and begins to experience bizarre and extreme weather. Being so out of their element, they aren’t sure at first if it’s just the influence of global warming, or some sort of haunting, or the decline of their sanity … But the situation becomes life threatening.

I also hope to find good publishing homes for My UnderSlumberBumbleBeast—the children’s book within Baby Teeth—and a short novel I refer to as a Wary Tale, which is a Fairy Tale for adults. And I have two other novels in various stages of completion.

  1. July 29th, 2019

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