Taxonomy of an Idea: Zoje Stage on "Baby Teeth"

Erin Kodicek on July 31, 2018
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Zoje.JPGHanna is the apple of her father’s eye, so it’s difficult for him to believe her apparent malevolence towards her mother. You want a creepy summer read? Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth is it.

Here, Stage talks about the cinematic inspiration behind this wonderfully unsettling debut.

Writers like to commiserate about a commonly asked question, "Where do your ideas come from?" It isn't that the question isn't worthy; the problem is that it's very hard to answer. There are so many elements in a novel—characters, plot, subplots, locations, backstory, mood—and each with a myriad of details. And the writing process itself, for most of us, means making discoveries along the way that bring new elements and nuances and, well, new ideas. A slightly easier question, and hopefully as satisfying in its answer for the curious reader, is "What influenced this particular story?" From the writer's perspective, this allows for a contemplation of the things she encountered—the observations that made a deep impression—before being certain of having "something" dynamic enough to become a novel.

BABY TEETH had a more protracted evolution than many of my projects, because the underlying concept began as a screenplay back when I was still pursuing a dream of being a writer/director. Because of that, many of its earliest influences were films, and even though the story changed greatly once I developed it as a novel, BABY TEETH germinated because of bits of things that resonated with me while watching, over a period of time, a number of foreign films. Here's a little peek at the what and why:

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 COMMERCE QUAY, 1080 BRUSSELS: This is a 1975 Belgian film about a woman who becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of her domestic life. It had a certain mood, a certain realism, and it made me think about the domestic roles that woman have played, seemingly since the world decided that patriarchy was the way to go. Contemporary women, even in strongly feminist households, still do the bulk of the childrearing and domestic duties, and it was a natural evolution to start thinking about how a woman—especially one with a difficult child—might start to regret her life and choices.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: This 2008 Swedish film was a game changer for me because of how much I loved its artistic elements: the photography, the music, the pacing, the chilling story. It inspired me to envision a film with—to draw from the description above—a certain mood, and a house that was beautiful and modern, but still a prison to the mother who began to resent her place in it. This film, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, also depicted a unique twist on the vampire genre: a struggling immortal who not only looked like a child, but befriended a child. For me, there is nothing more fascinating than a truly well-drawn child character, as children have a naiveté to them that allows for a freedom in their thinking and creativity. Eventually my love of Scandinavian films led me to study Swedish on my own, in an attempt to better understand the beautiful but mysterious languages I'd heard but couldn't grasp.

Another film that opened my eyes was a British documentary I saw on PBS around 2010 (though the doc itself may have been older), but unfortunately I cannot recall the title. It was about a specialized residential facility in England that helped children with profound behavioral difficulties. I love documentaries of all varieties—what is more interesting than real people? With great sympathy, from this I pondered childhood mental illness and its impact on the families. The subject has become something of a draw for me, and I read about—and watch—most anything that crosses my path involving "aberrant" behavior, which I put in quotes because some things, like hyperactivity, can be more about adult expectations than childhood deficiencies.  

In more subtle ways, there have been numerous books that have given me things to consider. As many people have experienced, the relationship with one's mother can prove difficult, and have repercussions that reach like tentacles into the tiniest crevices of a person's soul. I am drawn to books with mother protagonists—of which there are many, from the best variety to the worst—though I admit to being fascinated by the stories where motherhood might not be the woman's true calling. From SHARP OBJECTS (Gillian Flynn) to MOTHER, MOTHER (Koren Zailckas), THE FIFTH CHILD (Doris Lessing) to AFTER BIRTH (Elisa Albert), it's acknowledged that, for different reasons and in different ways, not every woman is up to the task, which drives a burning question: How does one know what sort of parent they'll be? For conscientious adults this can be a nerve-wracking dilemma, made all the worse by the pressure to parent according to a set of societal standards that seem merciless and mercurial.

One of the final key elements in BABY TEETH—Suzette's Crohn's disease—is something I know about all too well, having had it for 35 years. I never imagined I'd write about something so personal, but there were reasons why it worked well for this story: it gave Suzette both a physical and emotional vulnerability; it was a recognizable weakness that Hanna could exploit. I have been contacted by a number of readers with IBD or other autoimmune diseases who feel "seen" for having encountered a protagonist with this disability. It had been my hope to bring a greater understanding of what it's like to live with an invisible illness, but I hadn't anticipated hearing directly from readers with similar conditions, and it's been incredibly rewarding.

So these pieces of the puzzle percolated in my brain in different ways for quite some time, though the first draft of BABY TEETH only took three and a half months to complete. Several months of revisions followed, but by that point the process wasn't at an "idea" level anymore, but on a more mechanical level of how to make it all work. These "influencers" spanned about twelve years of my life (plus my experiences with Crohn's disease)…

And now that I think about it, most of my writing, even the projects that didn't start with film aspirations, have an equally long gestation period in terms of my exposure to movies, books, nature, and daily life. So where does an idea come from? Everywhere. I would encourage aspiring writers—actually, I'd encourage everyone—to always be observant: I absorb the world around me and its riches not only find their way into my writing, but into my heart and soul. What influenced BABY TEETH? Everything.


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