Lynsey May has just celebrated the publication day of her debut novel, Weak Teeth. As recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, with several short stories published, Lynsey’s novel has been hotly anticipated and it doesn’t take long before we see why. In Weak Teeth Lynsey draws upon a subject she knows only too well: family teeth traumas. It took a bit of moulding and recreation before feeling comfortable with her protagonist, but May centres Ellis in this break-up novel that culminates in a wider family drama. Weak Teeth is an intriguing tale about phobias and dentistry, family differences, and characters that get stuck.
What made you feel compelled to move into contemporary fiction? Had you tried out other genres and then decided this was what it was going to be?
Yeah, I’ve definitely experimented in other books. And it’s not that I hadn’t tried contemporary before, but I think with some of the other ones there were more fantastical elements or definitely an exploration of not writing contemporary fiction. I’m going to be annoying [for publishers] and I’m not going to have found a style and be able to stick to it, which I know can be tricky to market and sell. But you got to do what you got to do.
And why teeth and dentists? I am curious about the decision to home in on this as a narrative.
Obviously, you take bits from your life and experiences and bad tooth-related experiences are in my family and in my life. And also, partly because of that, I’ve had quite a phobia of dentists over the years. In a way, the book kind of addresses this, that you do the therapy when you’re confronted with the thing. I think somewhere in the book there still is the line about them being a family of strong bones and weak teeth. And that came from my own family, the sentence just popped up. I was thinking about my family – though the family [in the book] is a million miles away from my own – about how we rarely broke any bones, but we all have various dental traumas.
I’m curious to know more about the characters. Ellis is interesting: what was your process as a writer for giving her a voice?
So, I think I’m always saying that I am someone that couldn’t plot, and I think it’s similar with character; I rarely start anything with a character fully formed. It takes a lot of writing, and then a lot of pulling back. Ellis evolved and was more pathetic or angrier or nicer in some earlier versions, and then she kind of settled where she was. But I like to write about people who are quite stuck, and that’s always a challenge because it can be quite boring, if you’re in the life of somebody who’s passive or stuck. A lot of effort went into trying to not make her too boring.
With several narrative threads within the family all happening simultaneously, it feels there is ample going on. What inspired you to adopt that storytelling structure?
This novel was definitely a break-up novel but in a lot of ways it’s about the family, and how your family shapes you, whether you realise it or not. How, even when you’re trying to defy it, somehow it can happen. So, it was really important to me to have the other characters very present. There was a much earlier version that had different viewpoints. But as I went through, Ellis’s voice became stronger and stronger. At the same time, I really wanted to hang on to the complexity of the family and the way that even when they’re not living together, when she’s barely seeing her mum or seeing her sister, they still help create who she is, in opposition to them and then is forced back into it.
And Lana must be someone you know in real life, surely? She seems a character that you could have fun with in future novels. Do you think you might refer to any of these characters later in the future?
I definitely don’t have a Lana in real life. I really enjoyed writing her, though, because I can vicariously live as the bolshie domineering person. I definitely like playing with the idea of a fine line between normal family personality problems and where it tips into something darker in the way it actually affects the rest of the family; the effect of having one very domineering child has on their sibling. Though I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I really enjoyed writing Lana, because she’s definitely not the hero’, but I did really enjoy it.