Meet Zoje Stage, another writer who was a mentee in Pitch Wars 2016. Her psychological suspense BABY TEETH is releasing 7/17/18 from St. Martin’s Press.
Tell us about your book BABY TEETH. Did you have any specific inspiration for it?
BABY TEETH explores what happens when a mute, manipulative seven-year-old girl takes advantage of her mother’s perceived weaknesses. It’s told in dual POV, so we see the girl’s creative thinking and her somewhat naïve view of the world, as well as the mother’s sense of guilt and failure as she struggles to find help for her increasingly dangerous daughter. It was inspired by the “bad seed” trope, but is handled in a very realistic way: what would a family do if they seriously started to believe their child was a psychopath?
You placed the setting of your book BABY TEETH in your home city of Pittsburgh. What inspired you to pick Pittsburgh as the setting?
The easy answer is it’s the city I know best, though I’ve lived in many places. But I like setting my books in Pittsburgh—it’s a very dynamic and beautiful place. And it suits BABY TEETH well in that the house my characters live in is very “green” and modern, which reflects how the city has rebuilt itself since its steel mill days. When I was a kid, we drove past blast furnaces on our way to pick up my dad from work! It’s evolved into a super high-tech city.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, you’re moving back this summer. What about the move are you most excited about?
Being closer to my sister. And I’m really looking forward to returning to my old neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, and trying out all the little international restaurants. And pizza places. And finding a good deli. To some degree when I think of Pittsburgh I think of food…
BABY TEETH is your sixth novel. How did writing the previous five help you succeed in writing your sixth?
I think I’m a slow learner in certain ways because I’m not very analytical: I need to “do it” rather than read about it. I may have erred in moving away from my earlier novels too soon, when they might have been salvaged by additional rewrites. But I really liked taking all of the things I’d learned and applying them to a fresh project. I definitely couldn’t have written BABY TEETH as my first novel, or even my fourth; I simply didn’t have the skills. All of that practice helped make me very aware and able to make better decisions as I wrote BABY TEETH.
Before you started writing novels, you wrote screenplays. What’s the biggest difference between writing screenplays and novels and what was your biggest hurdle you faced in switching from screenplays to novels?
It was a pretty steep learning curve. In screenplays there is no internalization, little in the way of backstory and description, and dialogue is conveniently formatted in the center of the page—no “she said” or “he said.” I had to really grapple at first with how much detail to include. But there were also some advantages: I came to writing novels with an understanding of making a story a visual experience, and able to “stage” scenes. As an indie, DIY filmmaker I wore a lot of hats that ultimately helped my storytelling (acting, pacing, visuals), but also taught me the discipline required to finish a large project.
You wrote fiction for young adults before switching to adult fiction. What made you realize you were better suited to writing adult fiction instead of young adult fiction?
When I started writing novels I ran with whatever ideas I had. I liked teenage protagonists because they had certain limitations—whether it was inexperience, or lack of true independence—and I liked the challenge of solving character problems within those limitations. But as I read more YA books, it became clear that I was not the ideal audience for many of them, and I questioned if I could “speak” to that generation. Once I really examined the complexities of what I most enjoy reading, it seemed obvious that those criteria should also apply to what I write. So I started writing the books I most wanted to read!
Something most of my blog readers don’t know about me is that I have chronic rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that causes my knees to swell when I have a flare up. I also can’t eat gluten or it will cause an arthritis flare up. During flare ups I find that I have less desire to write. As an author with Crohn’s, has the disease ever interfered with your writing or chipped away at your writing motivation?
Honestly, I encountered my biggest challenge with writing and Crohn’s disease after I got into Pitch Wars. Prior to PW I had always written within my own perimeters: for me, the biggest consequence of my disease is I just don’t have the energy and stamina that other people take for granted. I’ve learned, after writing for many years, how to get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time. But during Pitch Wars I had a deadline. It was extremely stressful—and my body doesn’t handle stress well. At all.
I pushed myself for many weeks beyond what I would ever do if left to my own devices, and I was a physical and mental wreck by the end of the revision period. I was so worried that I asked my fellow mentees if the Pitch Wars revision process was equivalent to working with an editor after selling a book—I was deeply concerned that I just didn’t have what it took (physically) to handle a publishing career. But my fellow mentees reassured me that I would have more control over my professional deadlines—especially with an agent on my side. And that has turned out to be true.
I want to add that I’ve been very open with my agent about my health, and she’s been very supportive. I feel safe with her having the knowledge that I may need to do some things differently than my healthier colleagues.
Got any advice for other writers struggling with an autoimmune disease?
Be aware if you have certain limitations—so you can work within them and keep yourself well—but don’t ever feel like they diminish you. Be aware of your needs, so you can advocate for yourself and build the career that works for you.
As a Pitch Wars alum of 2016, how did the contest help you reach your publication goal?
I had never done a “proper” revision prior to Pitch Wars—with a big picture round, and line edits. One of the primary things that motivated me to do PW was a desire to experience this micro-version of what a publishing career might be like. It was extremely educational, and I think it prepared me well. In addition to having an insightful mentor to guide me, the camaraderie of my fellow mentees was a crucial part of my experience. I ended up getting my agent through querying, rather than the Agent Round, but Pitch Wars in its totality was like a compact Master’s Degree/bootcamp for aspiring professional writers. In many ways it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but it felt like just the thing I needed to cross that last and difficult hurdle toward Being Ready.
What advice do you have for other writers looking to submit to Pitch Wars?
It took me three years to get in, submitting three different manuscripts. I clearly wasn’t ready the first year I applied—my skills weren’t ready, nor was my understanding of what the process would involve. So for me, getting in happened at the right time. Don’t give up! And embrace the entire learning experience—the weeks prior to the submission window are often the most fun and educational, when everyone is interacting, and the mentors are so helpful and encouraging. And understand that Pitch Wars isn’t everyone’s destiny: a good writing friend who wasn’t selected for 2016 signed with an agent a few weeks later. There are many paths! Your path is out there, even if it seems elusive!
To end on a fun note, if you could take an all-expenses paid vacation to anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, where I could huddle under blankets in a reindeer-drawn sleigh and see the aurora borealis!
Want to know more about Zoje? Visit her website.