Becky Walton, Collection Development Librarian
BABY TEETH Zoje Stage’s first adult novel, is about a wicked seven-year-old girl named Hanna who really has it in for her mother, Suzette. You see, if Suzette were out of the picture, Hanna would have her dad, Alex, all to herself. As early as page one, the reader gets a sense of how Hanna feels about her mom and dad, and soon it’s revealed that Hanna wants to kill her mother!
I think I can handle your last name, but your first has me stumped. Could you tell us how to pronounce it?
I gave the family in BABY TEETH the last name Jensen—pronounced Yensen—intentionally to help spread awareness of "J" as a phonetical spelling for "Y." The best way I can explain my name in writing is ZOJE rhymes with "glad to KNOW YA." (I've toyed with the idea of changing the pronunciation of my last name to something like "Shtahga" just to mess with people's heads; but no, STAGE rhymes with PAGE.)
I learned in your interview with Katelyn Uplinger that you have Crohn’s Disease, so I’m guessing that’s one of the main reasons your character Suzette has Crohn’s. But could the disease also be a metaphor for the sometimes debilitating effects child-bearing can have on a mother’s body? Or maybe a metaphor for Suzette’s feelings of frustration at (temporarily) abandoning her career in order to raise a child? Or am I projecting here?!
Interesting theories! It wasn't an easy decision to give Suzette Crohn's, as it meant revealing quite a bit of personal experience. Ultimately I decided it was a good thing for readers—especially those unfamiliar with invisible, chronic diseases—to gain this sort of perspective, and it gave Suzette a very obvious vulnerability, which is something Hanna uses against her.
At one point, it seemed the story might go in the direction of possession. Even the opening sequence has Hanna being scanned much like Linda Blair’s character Regan in The Exorcist. Did you ever consider maintaining that thread? Might we see a possession novel from you in the future?
I did not consider making "possession" the true source of Hanna's difficulties, but I liked exploring the things Hanna might be knowledgeable about, and then how she misinterprets them. So a seven-year-old might know about witches in the context of Halloween, for instance, but a creative, precocious girl like Hanna sees entirely different applications, especially once she does her own investigating. I'd never rule out the possibility of a possession novel—it's a movie genre I really like—but I have no plans for one at the moment.
Did you have to learn Swedish, Alex’s mother tongue, or is this a language you already speak?
Many years ago I started teaching myself Swedish—partly because of a general interest in languages, and partly because of an attraction to Scandinavian films. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, I watched a lot of Swedish TV online and read cultural blogs. I admit, I have forgotten a LOT since then, but when it came to writing Alex it just gave him a unique dimension… which led to the very convenient use of Walpurgis.
Please tell us there will be a sequel to Baby Teeth?
This is the question I get the most often! I am delighted that people want MORE of Hanna, but I'm not planning on writing a sequel. For one thing, a sequel needs to succeed at two critical things: to be as satisfying as the original, while also being utterly surprising. So far, my idea for a surprising sequel would be ridiculously unsatisfying, so better to leave it be. I will say that I'm very encouraged that the ending leaves readers projecting Hanna into the future, because it means her story already continues beyond the confines of the book. I love that readers are imagining what she does next!
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what one book would you absolutely have to have with you?
Cop-out answer: My unabridged Random House dictionary (endless hours of fascinating entertainment). I really only answered this so I could get to the next question…
And speaking of a deserted island, if you were trapped there with Hanna, what would you do to stay safe?!
This question is EVERYTHING! I know Hanna like I know myself, lol. That child would be putty in my hands, especially after she realized I have better survival skills than she does. We would get along swimmingly (haha), and if ever I was hesitant to get my hands bloody in our need to eat, I'm sure Hanna would be happy to chip in and help!
If you could have lunch with any living author, who would it be and why?
For the longest time I had an easy answer to this question, but now Ursula Le Guin has passed. I had so much respect for her deep and compassionate ability to see humanity and civilization for all of its dichotomies, and all of its untapped potential. Sometimes as a thought experiment I like to "invent" societies—how to structure them, how to keep them solvent—with an eye toward meeting people's straightforward external needs, and complex internal ones. Wouldn't she have been a great person to talk to about that?
What can your fans look forward to next?
I've written what I consider to be a psychic "palette cleanser" to BABY TEETH—it’s a horror novel that shares some traits with BABY TEETH, but this time the family is loving; it’s the environment around them that is terrifying. In this story, the mother is confident about herself as a woman and mom; her children feel loved; her husband is an integral part of the family's daily life. But unfortunately for them—artsy New York City folks—they move to the Adirondacks and their remote homestead seems to be… haunted. Their land is gripped by impossible weather and confounding, increasingly threatening, occurrences, and soon their time there turns from being a magical, hopeful adventure to an all-out nightmare. And they’re stuck in it. Kind of The Shining meets The Snow Child. I hope that's a sufficient tease!
Finally, do you have any favorite library memories you can share with our readers?
I have too many; libraries have been an integral part of my life forever! I started getting library books as a child, did research for film as a young adult (back before Google!), and worked at a public library for six years before moving back to Pittsburgh.
BABY TEETH hits the shelves July 17th, and this is a book that you definitely want to sink your teeth into it.