Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series. 

In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.

Our complete list of conversations, including:

A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books

The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the market 


Tweet to get free copies of Zoe and Julia's debuts:
Just use #FierroPilger. On July 16th, two randomly selected readers will win physical copies of CUTTING TEETH and EAT MY HEART OUT.


Episode XVI: "Likeability is expected of women, fictional and real-life"

Published 7/9/15
In this installment, I set up Julia Fierro (above) with Zoe Pilger (below). They discuss quitting smoking, virtual animals, their current projects, the effect of gender on reviews, ‘unlikability’ & more.

Andrew: Welcome to the sixteenth installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with two debut novelists: Julia Fierro (CUTTING TEETH, St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and Zoe Pilger (EAT MY HEART OUT, The Feminist Press, 2015).

Both novels construct conflict where it’s most engaging: in characters, not between them. Julia and Zoe define their protagonists by the ideals, desires and philosophies they struggle to hold together, without sacrificing any of it. We get intersections of the many shades of a person—love, sexuality, class, money desires, biological makeup, relationships—and the result is a color too complex to put into anything but a novel.

CUTTING TEETH is the story of thirty-something couples staying at a beach house on Long Island. Time moves, conflicts arise and morph, the reader discovers the characters as they discover themselves. In EAT MY HEART OUT, maturity and immaturity collide in the shape of two distinct human beings. Zoe uses humor (but never relies on it) to amplify the pathos of the story, to remarkable effect.

Before we get started, first things first: would you each kindly describe where you are and what you see?

Julia: I'm sitting at my kitchen table, which is covered with piles of my children's books. Legos scattered on floor underneath. Second cup of coffee and a bowl of blueberries to my right. My iPhone to my left so I can check on my virtual farm app.

Andrew: You either sound really good or really bad at staving off distractions.

Julia: My iPhone addiction is at a new high. But I figure it is better than going back to smoking.

Zoe: Thanks for that intro, Andrew! I'm sitting at my desk in my flat in South East London, looking at a Japanese print that I have in front of me - it shows a woman hunting a giant octopus

Andrew: Octopus prints are in right now

Zoe: I'm looking forward to reading your book, Julia - it sounds great

Andrew: I'm curious as to how your iPhone works to curb your smoking?

Julia: You can't go wrong with octopus--such a fascinating image. The kind of animal that implies a story.

Julia: Well...I need to be doing something at all times. When I was younger I used smoking as a distraction. Now, I take care of my virtual animals on my farm app, do crosswords, and--the best technique yet--knit and listen to audiobooks simultaneously!

Zoe: Yes, I'm not quite sure why I like it - it's from the 19th century and she seems to be riding the surface of the water

Zoe: I admire you! I haven't managed to quit yet...

Julia: Zoe, I'm looking forward to reading your work as well.

Julia: Honestly, I wasn't able to quit until I decided to have children.

Andrew: Taking care of virtual animals is the new patch.

Zoe: That makes sense - how did you manage it? Friends of mine have said that hypnotherapy works

Julia: So now, instead of going for a smoke break in between writing, I do a crossword on my phone. Or social media.

Julia: Ha! Think of all the lives virtual animals, and the care of them, can save.

Andrew: It would be fascinating to try to explain to a farmer in the early 1800s that humans were doing their job through electricity and false images, to help quit rolled, manufactured tobacco products.

Julia: It was motivated mostly by guilt--like, ok, Julia, you have another life inside your body, maybe you should not poison it. It is amazing how comfortable I was (am) with poisoning myself, but how uncomfortable with hurting others.

Julia: My father grew up in southern Italy during WWII and his family farmed, mostly potatoes. No electricity. No running water. I showed him my FARM app and he was confused.

Julia: Zoe, what project are you working on now?

Zoe: Yes, I can imagine.

Zoe: I'm nearly finished writing the first draft of my second novel, which is about a romance writer who gets locked in a mental asylum for pushing against the bounds of the genre. How about you?

Julia: Oh that sounds fascinating. The kind of darkly intriguing story and setting I'm always hunting for.

Julia: Is it set in contemporary times? I have a bit of a fascination with turn of the century prisons. Well, turn of the century everything.

Julia: Prisons and mental asylums. I just watched a terrific film on Netflix about an asylum.

Andrew: What's the name?

Julia: Stoneheart Asylum. With Kate Beckinsale and Ben Kingsley. And the ending was surprising AND inevitable. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1772264/

Andrew: The best are

Zoe: Thank you, I'm glad you think so. It's set in the present day but it's surreal - the asylum is old-fashioned. I became fascinated by the rules of genre aimed at women following the publication of Eat My Heart Out in the UK last year.

Zoe: That sounds interesting - I'll look it up. I've already watched the whole of Orange is the New Black season 3. Do you like that show?

Julia: Congrats on nearing the completion of your draft. I have about 150 pages of my next novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, to be published summer 2017. It is a story and setting I've thought about for many years and so I am really excited. Set on a fictional island off the coast of Long Island in the early 1990s, it focuses on a small community centered around an aircraft factory. As the end of the Cold War looms, the islanders are faced with the end of life as they know it. It is about class, racism, and, my favorite topic, the American Dream.

Julia: Your new novel sounds so right for me. I can't wait.

Julia: I'd love to hear more about how your new project was influenced by your post-publication experience, especially as related to genre.

Andrew: "fictional island" usually signals I'm going to love a novel

Zoe: Ah that sounds great. 150 is a good chunk! Mine is very much at the first draft stage so I'll probably rewrite the whole thing.

Julia: I'm fascinated by the way in which a writer's gender + genre affect the reception of a book.

Julia: Particularly when writing about sex.

Andrew: Please elaborate

Zoe: The Bookseller in the UK called Eat My Heart Out a 'romantic comedy without the romance'. I suppose I realised in retrospect that the novel draws on certain conventions of romance / chick-lit, but it is much darker, and about feminism. I began to understand from the inside how strict the rules of writing by women can be - from the kind of articles that appear in women's mags to the way books by women are reviewed

Julia: Oh yes, and I think that has a lot to do with the market, in that publishers are narrowing the labels for women's writing, if that makes sense.

Zoe: Yes - this issue of 'likeability' is absurd

Julia: A book has to fit into a certain category for a publisher to consider it. I have students--women writing novels that have a feminist perspective--who are having a tough time publishing.

Julia: Even if their books have commercial appeal.

Julia: The most common rejection they hear from publishers is "We don't know how to sell this" and I think that ties into what you are talking about.

Julia: Personally, my favorite novels are "genre-benders"--books that play with the expectations of genre. That surprise the reader.

Zoe: Really? That's interesting. Things do seem to have widened in the past couple of years, but I know publishers are under pressure to cater to a pre-established market, which leads to a culture of mediocrity overall. We need to take risks...

Julia: Oh, the topic of "unlikability" is one I will never tire of. As a reader AND a writer AND a writing teacher.

Zoe: Yes, I'm fascinated by genre at the moment - I just finished reading a brilliant biography of Patrica Highsmith by Andrew Wilson. I've never read any of her books, but she seems a good example of someone who wrote genre, but elevated the form - refused to punish the criminal etc

Julia: I know there are many who think the unlikability discussion has been overdone...but when we live in a culture that expects women to be likable, polite, pleasant in real life, how can we be surprised that readers have the same expectations for fictional women?

Julia: Oh yes, Highsmith is incredible.

Zoe: Yes, I couldn't agree more

Andrew: Highsmith also started writing very unlike to what she ended up doing.

Andrew: The Price of Salt very much refused genre, but had none of the criminality of her body of work.

Julia: Really? I didn't know that and would love to hear more. Might be time to reread some of her books.

Andrew: Strangers on a Train matched the rest, but The Price of Salt was very exploratory in a different way

Andrew: I feel like she's having a small comeback

Zoe: How do you feel about the unlikeable / likeable issue? Has your character been called unlikeable?

Julia: ALL my characters have been called unlikable. ;)

Zoe: I've just ordered Edith's Diary by Highsmith, which seems different genre-wise too

Julia: Except for the devout Tibetan nanny. In reviews on goodreads and amazon ( do try to avoid reading them), readers often point out how much more likable the Tibetan nanny is.

Zoe: There's also an issue of judging an author like Highsmith on the basis of whether she was 'likeable' or not - she was a genius (it seems, as I haven't read her books). Who cares?

Zoe: She was herself - complex, courageous. Sorry - I usually hate words like 'genius'!

Julia: In Cutting Teeth, most of the characters are women that have a certain amount of privilege. They SHOULD be happy, content, likable. The fact that they aren't is what makes some readers angry. But I wanted to be honest and write genuine characters.

Julia: Ah, yes, the scrutiny of the author.

Julia: Ironically, I am probably too desperate to appear likable in real life. One of my flaws. But also a strength in some ways. And there is no doubt that women writers' lives are scrutinized in a way that male writers are not.

Zoe: Have you been asked about their 'unlikeability' a lot in interviews? I've been explaining the behaviour of Ann-Marie, the main character of Eat My Heart Out, for a couple of years now.

Julia: Like in that famous Publisher's Weekly interview with Claire Messud. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/56848-an-unseemly-emotion-pw-talks-with-claire-messud.html

Julia: I admire Jonathan Franzen's work. But I don't think he would have ever been asked such a question.

Andrew: I'm guessing this interview wasn't supposed to be this short...

Julia: There was an article/review about Brooklyn's women writers that came out last year that grouped me and two other women novelists who wrote about Brooklyn. In it, the journalist (a woman), wrote about how all these women, me included, had the same pedigree, how all had graduated from Ive League schools.

Julia: ^^Ivy

Julia: I didn't go to an Ivy League school. But I did show my Dad (he'd wanted me to go to a prestigious undergrad) the article and we laughed about it.

Julia: How do you react when interviewers ask you about Ann-Marie's "likability?"

Julia: It is quite exhausting to have to "defend" your characters again and again.

Zoe: I'll read the interview - I loved The Woman Upstairs

Zoe: Yes, people make a lot of assumptions

Julia: My favorite character in Cutting Teeth is Tiffany because she has rewritten her life in an American Dream kind of way. Grew up working class and has now made her way into what she considers an elite social circle. And she is unlikable, just as we all are. But interviewers have called her names--bitch and worse.

Zoe: Likeability is so much about social performance - who appears good, who understands and can conform to the rules of feminine acquiescence - be non-threatening / girlish / with good table manners / helpless but not a total headcase etc Just the right amount of vulnerability

Julia: And I do find myself defending her because I love her. Maybe more than the other characters in the book. Because she is, in many ways, the most flawed and vulnerable.

Julia: Ha! Jinx on "vulnerability."

Julia: A friend reminded me recently that some readers read "to feel good." Sounds silly but I do forget that sometimes.

Zoe: That's terrible. Tiffany sounds great - I really can't wait to read your book! My character Ann-Marie was called everything from brash, narcissistic, unhinged etc I didn't mind because I sort of wanted her to be like that. She doesn't ask for forgiveness or redemption

Zoe: I also resisted giving her a backstory which would 'explain' her behaviour in a psychoanalytic way eg pathologize it as acting out / the result of trauma. I think it's much more unsettling if no explanation is given

Julia: Ah, yes, Tiffany too. She is the only character who, at the end of the novel, moves on relatively unscathed. She is a survivor and, just like you said about Ann-Marie, doesn't ask for forgiveness. I admire her for that.

Zoe: Being well-behaved is not the same as having ethical depth / being truly good in a deeper way

Julia: Truth.

Julia: If I could rewrite Cutting Teeth, I would go back and edit out Tiffany's backstory. Or at least cut it down. I can see now, more than a year after the book was released, that I was worrying about her unlikability as I was revising the book. And maybe even as I was writing it.

Zoe: Ann-Marie is very honest, which I see as moral in its way.

Julia: The topic of unlikability of women characters is one that I've heard from my very first workshop two decades ago. It is unavoidable. I've heard women sitting behind me at the movie theater complain about unlikable women characters.

Zoe: That's interesting. There was backstory in all 3 earlier drafts of EMHO, but I cut it for the final one

Zoe: Where / what do you teach?

Julia: Because likability is expected of women, fictional and real-life, I have to try hard not to let it affect my work as I develop characters.

Julia: In 2002, after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I put an ad on Craiglist for a workshop in my home, and its grown into The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.

Julia: We've had over 2500 students and there are 10-15 instructors teaching all over the city. Mostly in their homes, but also on the lower floor of BookCourt bookstore in Brooklyn.

Julia: I learned how to write a novel through teaching years of novel writing workshops. Before that I was clueless.

Zoe: That sounds great - how do you find teaching and writing? How does one inform the other?

Julia: I love this idea of honesty, in characters, as moral. I couldn't agree more.

Julia: Every bit of the confidence that allows me to write, that keeps me going, is borne from the inspiration of watching my students develop. They are amazing.

Julia: After my MFA, I had a big rejection. My first novel went out on submission and didn't get published. It was pretty awful--I was only 24. I stopped writing for years and taught Sackett Street classes--mostly novel workshops and post-MFA workshops.

Andrew: On that note, I'm going to say we're just about out of time

Julia: Teaching became a kind of haven for me, and after years of teaching, I regained some confidence (I also had to wait until I was making enough money to afford extra childcare) and returned to writing.

Andrew: I'll ask for last comments now

Zoe: That's so interesting - I taught at Goldsmiths for a while, but never creative writing, and I've never done a creative writing course myself. I suppose I see it as completely private and solitary

Julia: I'd thought of myself as a failure, but I really needed that time to learn how to write. Through reading my students' work.

Zoe: Even though it was difficult, did you find that early experience useful and strengthening in the long run?

Julia: Now I'm a bit of a loner writing-wise. ;) I dont let anyone see my work until I have a draft. Quite hypocritical for a writer who runs a writing school, but I think I trust myself more now.

Zoe: I imagine being in a community, especially one that you've buit yourself, can be incredibly rewarding.

Julia: Yes, I think there is incredible reward in our so-called failures. Unfortunately, that reward is impossible to see when we are slogging through the tough times.

Julia: It is. Next time you're in NYC, you must come to a Sackett reading at Bookcourt. We can grab dinner beforehand.

Zoe: I know what you mean! I had a good 4 years of trying to teach myself how to write before I managed to finish a novel

Julia: And I can't wait to read it. And your next one. We've only just met, but I'm proud of you! And me too. ;)

Zoe: I would love to - I was just in Brooklyn last month for the US launch of EMHO. It's a shame we didn't meet before! I'd love to keep in touch

Julia: And Mr. Lipstein, of course.

Andrew: Thank you both, wonderful exchange of ideas

Zoe: You too! I am going to order it now.

Zoe: Thank you Andrew - it's been a pleasure.

Julia: What a fantastic concept for interviews. Thank you so much, Andrew. This was my very first "blind date" and it was swell.