An Interview with What Big Teeth Author, Rose Szabo

How did the concept for What Big Teeth come to fruition?

Very quickly, and also very slowly. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote the first draft of the novel in about twenty-four hours, but that was after years of staring at a doodle I did and a handful of vignettes I wrote. I imagined a loosely connected series of short stories, possibly in some kind of choose-your-own-adventure format. At one point I thought it was going to be a card game or a divination tool.I took a cartooning class and made a very ugly comic book. I tried everything I could to avoid writing a novel, but it turns out that’s the main thing I’m good at, so that’s the form this story ended up taking.

Your book incorporates a lot of gothic horror tropes. Were those elements present in every draft or did they come as you edited the book? Further, which gothic horror element was essential for you to incorporate into What Big Teeth?

The book Dracula was absolutely crucial to me. There’s no vampire in What Big Teeth—at least, not as far as I’m aware. But the villain, who you don’t meet for a while, is heavily influenced by Dracula, which is to say: a monster who is so old, charismatic, and well-connected that they’re essentially a nation unto themselves, and dealing with them is more like dealing with a national emergency than with a person. In the first scenes where Dracula encounters Jonathan Harker, he behaves really courteously, and we later learn that this is a feat of restraint. I like the idea of that incredible power under incredible restraint, and what it would take to fight back against it.

The essence of your novel has been compared to the likes of Midsommar, Black Mirror, and the Hazel Wood series. How important was it for you to capture that same sense of unease and, oftentimes, terror in your novel?

Midsommar is a very flattering comparison! But I think there is a similar kind of unease there about something really horrible being presented as normal or even desirable. In What Big Teeth, all the drama is domestic and takes place between people who ostensibly love each other. Horror is a great genre for conveying how much human fear is ambiguous fear—am I really in danger, or are they joking with me? I feel unsafe, but if I confront this person, will it be worse than if I just let it ride? How much fear can I bear before I have to admit that I’m afraid? Those are questions that plenty of people have to live with every day, and horror is a genre that allows me to illuminate that.

What Big Teeth features significant generational trauma, especially regarding long-lasting decisions made by the story’s matriarch. Did you set out to write a story so centered on family trauma or did it come naturally as the story progressed?

I think that we write the stories that we wish we’d been able to read. Stephen King, a fellow graduate of the University of Maine English program (I get a real kick out of this), talks about the muse as being the guy in the basement of your brain. When I started writing, I was like so this is gonna be about emotional abuse. But only after several revisions did I start to see that what I was describing wasn’t simply one bad person acting against victims, it was generation after generation of injured people acting out their survival instincts with one another. This book helped me to understand dynamics I saw both in my own family and in other people’s, but it certainly wasn’t what I set out to write. Writing is usually like that, for me: I start invoking things without really knowing what’s going to show up.

Dreams play a significant role in What Big Teeth, often trying to signal important messages or warnings to Eleanor. Why did you pick dreams to convey those messages over the already established breadth of horror and magic?

I feel a little self-conscious about that, actually! Personally, I love dreams, and I’m a very vivid dreamer. But I’ve learned through experience that when you talk about dreams out loud, they usually don’t have the same potency as they do in your head. Originally, I had a second point-of-view character who had almost as much shared space in the book as Eleanor; when that went, I needed to find a different way to get that same information. Some of it went into dialogue or scenes, and some of it went into dreams.

Rose Szabo, photo courtesy of author

The house feels like its own insidious character hiding important discoveries behind locked doors, shadowed corners, and grand trunks. Was it an intentional choice to give the house as much of a role as the characters in the book? And if you had to pick a room for yourself, which one would you choose?

Yes, absolutely—architecture shapes the way we live. This story could never take place in a smaller house; everyone would have talked it out or killed each other in the first thirty pages. I spent the first ten years of my life in a very small house, like building-code-violation-ceilings small. Moving to a larger house made me aware that privacy and distance change how you interact with people, and not always for the better. I pictured the two founding members of the family building a house that was supposed to be chock-full of people, and it being slightly emptier than they’d actually intended for it to be, because of people they’d lost. I wanted it to feel really lively inside, but also slightly cavernous, empty, lonely.

The greenhouse is the room I love the best in this book. Heat, and plants, and the smell of soil, and magnified sunlight. I wish I’d set more scenes in the greenhouse.

Which book (new or old) are you most looking forward to reading in 2021 and why?

I haven’t read Mexican Gothic yet, and I know I’m going to love it. I have it on hold at the library right now, actually. It’s got everything I want in a book, namely: poisonings, investigation, a creepy estate, and Mexico.

In addition to What Big Teeth you write a lot of short stories. How did writing a novel differ from writing short stories? And do you prefer one over the other?

Funny story: I wrote a lot of short stories because I was in fiction programs, where the short story is sort of what they teach you how to write. I have a lot of respect for the short story, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever really nailed it the way I want to. I want more space for my characters to run around and do stuff. The short story I’m the proudest of is “Christmas in the Catskills,” and that’s a behemoth in the short story world at 6,000 words, and so I couldn’t place it. It lives on my website now.

Short stories to me often seem like they’re about the moment that someone enters a crisis. I think about Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” which is about what may be the final fight between a mother and her son. I don’t really know how to skip right to that. A novel gives more context. You can see the crisis coming, like a storm on the horizon, and you get to see how people become aware that it’s going to break.

At times the publishing process can feel more daunting than writing a book. What was that process like for you and what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are about to start or who are in the midst of the publishing phase? 

I’ve talked about my own publication process a bit already, and the short answer is: I have been very lucky, and it took a long time. I met an agent I connected with on my first (and only) query, and she rejected my book; I went and worked on it for three years and then queried her again. Then, she and I worked on the book for about a year and a half. Then it was on sub for about a year before one house made an offer, and then there was an auction. And then it was another year and a half before the book came out. So I have been in some stage of the “publication process” since about 2014. I learned a lot from that first rejection in 2014, namely that the book wasn’t ready.

I feel pretty unqualified to speak about the business end of publishing, which went more smoothly for me than it had any right to. But the editorial process is something that was interesting for me, because I thought my book was basically done when we sold it, but then it went through two more rounds of major edits on its way to publication. I think if I were to say anything, it would be that finishing a book takes as long as it takes. I kept wanting there to be some magical way to be done sooner, but the book wasn’t ready until it was.

Rose Szabo, Interviewed by Kaitlin Lounsberry

Rose Szabo is a nonbinary writer from Richmond, VA, where they live with an assortment of people and animals. They have an MA in English from the University of Maine and an MFA in creative writing from VCU. Their work has been published in See the Elephant and Quaint magazines. What Big Teeth is their first novel.

Kaitlin Lounsberry graduated magna cum laude from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and a minor in fiction writing. She recently earned her master’s degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University with distinction. While working towards her master’s, Kaitlin was a managing editor for The Garica Boy, published through Big Shoulders Book. She has bylines in publications in The State Journal-Register, The Columbia Chronicle, Pop’Stache, and Chicago Talks. Kaitlin is currently working on her first novel and loves to listen to true crime podcasts and learn about wine in her spare time.