'Bad Seed' Novel Plays On Expectations Around Motherhood

Aug 3, 2018

Zoje Stage isn’t a parent. But the Pittsburgh-based author’s debut novel describes a deeply disturbing mother-daughter relationship rooted largely in the mind of a sociopathic 7-year-old girl.

"What if a mother did kind of regret having her child?"

Baby Teeth is told alternately in the voices of Suzette, a chronically ill woman who put her career on hold to become a mother, and her young daughter, Hanna. Suzette comes to believe that Hanna, who does not speak, wants her dead – and she’s not entirely wrong. The story describes an escalating battle of wills between the two, with Hanna motivated by the desire to turn her father, Peter, against his wife, and have him all to herself.

Weeks after the novel was published, in July, by St. Martin’s Press, Stage said a second printing had already been ordered. Readers might be responding in part to early reviews. The New York Times Book Review called Baby Teeth “propulsive.” Publishers Weekly said it’s “a fearless exploration of parenting and marriage that finds the cracks in unconditional love.” And Kirkus Reviews concluded, “chilling.”

Stage, 49, grew up in Squirrel Hill, and has lived in Pittsburgh all her life save a long stint in Rochester, N.Y. She said that her earliest artistic pursuits were film and theater; she turned to writing fiction after developing health problems of her own and ending up on disability.

Baby Teeth, she said, is actually her sixth novel: Her draft of the book took off thanks to a mentorship program called Pitch Wars. Stage said that her agent sold the redraft – which turned out to be more or less the finished product – very quickly.

The story, Stage said, was inspired partly by “watching some of my friends become parents and then becoming more aware of how parenting is described in blogs and in the media. And I feel like so much pressure especially is put on mothers in terms of the things that they should do, the things that they shouldn't do.”

Suzette “is someone who has very much internalized all of that,” said Stage. “And because her experiences with her own mother were quite negative. She has this idea she wants to be a perfect mother. …So in that aspect she does make herself a little bit crazy.”

Which is not to say that Hanna is blameless. This is a girl who, early in the book, decides to claim that she’s really Marie-Anne Duffoset, the young woman who, in the 17th century, was one of the last people burned for witchcraft in France. 

Many readers will see Hanna as creepy – the ultimate “bad seed.” Stage said she relished writing the character.

“Writing Hanna's chapters was the most fun I've ever had as a writer,” she said. “I liked the aspect that she was both a very precocious child but also that as a child she has certain limitations in her understanding of the world.” Hanna’s misunderstandings of the adult world, and her black-and-white way of looking at it, are a major plot-driver.

Stage said that the narrative is more nuanced than some readers might believe.

“There may be some debate where people read the book if they just think, ‘Oh this is a straight-up bad-seed story’ versus a story about a child with a serious mental illness,” said Stage. “And I really did try to take it down the route of, ‘If a child presented with this kind of very serious and dramatic behavior, how would a family deal with that?’”

Society’s expectations about motherhood reverberate throughout the novel.

Suzanne “starts out with this idea about what motherhood is going to be, and that she's going to have this beautiful, wonderful child and they're going to have this creative loving relationship, and it becomes obvious by the time Hannah's two or three years old that that's not going to happen,” said Stage.

“It still takes her a very long time to recognize the degree to which their situation is really serious, and she also hides it, to some degree, from her husband. There's still this aspect that she fears if he knows the degree to which she's struggling to raise her daughter that it's going to reflect negatively on her. So she's coming from this place of so many insecurities.”

Suzette, too, longs for a return to her pre-motherhood life – one where she had her husband to herself, and didn’t have to worry that a small biped living down the hall wants to kill her.

“I had wanted to tap into that sort of taboo idea,” said Stage. “What if a mother did kind of regret having her child?”

While Stage called Baby Teeth a work of suspense, she has seen it classified as everything from “psychological suspense” and “thriller” to straight-up “horror.” Some readers have told her “it’s the creepiest book they’ve ever read,” she said.

“I find that very interesting, because of course there's nothing truly supernatural in the book,” said Stage. “It's just an extremely dysfunctional family. And so for people to be so creeped out by a family's dynamic is very interesting to me.”

Stage's next public reading in Pittsburgh is a meet-the-author event at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library, at 6:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 17.