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Jess 2 by Seth Hamilton
Jessica AndrewsPhotography by Seth Hamilton

Jessica Andrews’ Sensual Second Novel Explores the Politics of Desire

The author talks to AnOther about the lasting trauma of heroin chic, the influence of Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois, and the importance of good sex scenes in her latest book, Milk Teeth

Lead ImageJessica AndrewsPhotography by Seth Hamilton

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to establish, early on, what your characters want – it could be a brief yearning that plays out over the course of a scene, or a deep desire that informs the arc of a whole novel. In most books, these wants are what propel the plot forward, and the characters’ proximity to them defines the emotional peaks and troughs. Jessica Andrews’ new novel, Milk Teeth, however, tells the story of a young woman who is struggling to understand what exactly it is that she wants, or – when she does – how to let herself act on her desires. “I want to live in the world without feeling guilty about my needs or wants,” she says, “to let them move through me in their animal heat.” And yet, time and again, she denies herself.

Jessica Andrews published her debut novel, Saltwater, in 2019. Like its follow-up, the semi-autobiographical book followed a working-class protagonist, Lucy, who moved between Sunderland, London, and Ireland, trying to understand her place in the world – a narrative that won Andrews the Portico Prize, an award for writing that “evokes the spirit of the North“. Milk Teeth similarly draws a parallel between the protagonist’s emotional and physical journey. Growing up in the north of England in the mid-2000s, she traverses London and Paris, where she works as a barmaid and a nanny, and spends the rest of her time watching other women at bars and parties, teetering between aspiration and acceptance that she will never move through the world with the ease and freedom they project.

Things start to change, however, after she meets someone new: a man who offers a blueprint for another way to live. Following him to Barcelona, she spends a sticky, sultry summer trying to remember how to be messy, and how to indulge after years of denying herself the things she wants – years influenced by the dangerous beauty ideals of heroin chic, morphing into a worldwide obsession with self-image at the advent of social media. In Spain, she eats fried octopus and drinks Catalan wine; she takes pills from her friends and dances with strangers; she has (enjoyable!) sex.

“It felt really important to write a book that had positive sex between a man and a woman in it,” Andrews explains. “I feel like there’s not much representation of positive sexual experiences.” It does feel refreshing to read an unabashed celebration of sex in all of its pleasure and complexity, embracing every part of the body, from a hidden freckle or smudged tattoo, to the bobbled texture of a shaving rash. That being said, Milk Teeth isn’t all tapas and sex and swimming in the sea; in short, fragmented chapters, the protagonist also looks back on the failed relationships in her past, with men that made her feel worthless or insecure in her own body.

There are moments of heartbreak and longing in her new relationship, too, exposing the raw vulnerability of romantic intimacy in the same way that Saltwater exposed the fragile bonds between Lucy and her mother. Through it all, Andrews’ lyrical, sensory prose – describing sweet fruit and soft bodies, sweat and smoke – holds us close to the protagonist, putting us in her place. Her writing slows us down to take in the sluggish summer heat, giving us time to pause and ask ourselves: what do we really want?

TW: Speaking about the autobiographical element of Saltwater in the past, you’ve mentioned that you began to lose track of where your real history ends and the fiction begins. Were the two similarly intertwined in Milk Teeth?

JA: [Milk Teeth] is more fictional, but it’s still rooted in some of my lived experiences. I think the fiction, memoir, autobiography question is to do with emotional truth, and which form will let you get closer to the emotional truth. With Saltwater, I think the way to access that was a story that had a lot of ‘truth’ in it. But with Milk Teeth, I found that I was able to get closer, sometimes, to the emotional truth of what I wanted to say by fictionalising things. 

My books feel true to me, even though if someone sat me down and made me verify everything that had happened, I wouldn’t be able to. But it’s because the feelings in them are feelings that I have felt. For writing to feel meaningful to me, I think it has to have that emotional truth. That will always be a question that I’m trying to work out, I think: why do some forms allow that more than others?

“As the protagonist is falling for the world, I wanted the reader to sort of fall with her. Falling into the love story, and falling into the humidity. I guess it’s a kind of letting go” – Jessica Andrews

TW: There’s a strong sense of place in both books, and Milk Teeth spans the north of England, London, Paris, and Barcelona. How did you approach the setting of this book?

JA: Because it’s a book that is partly about denial, and there’s a hardness to it in that sense, particularly the denial around food, I felt very strongly that I didn’t want it to be a cold, hollow book. I also wanted it to have a lot of fullness in it, and I wanted the reader to feel hungry for food and the world and experience while they’re reading it. The setting of Barcelona really loaned itself to that because it was so lush and humid and sticky. The harder, colder cities like London or Paris, or even the North East, where [the protagonist is] from, serve as a contrast.

I wanted the reader to feel like they’re very much within the protagonist’s body, to understand how it feels when she is denying herself things, or when her life was hard, but also to feel all the sensory experiences of her coming into her body. As the protagonist is falling for the world, I wanted the reader to sort of fall with her. Falling into the love story, and falling into the humidity. I guess it’s a kind of letting go.

“I found that I was able to get closer, sometimes, to the emotional truth of what I wanted to say by fictionalising things” – Jessica Andrews

TW: The book also seems to be concerned with the converse relationship – how people affect the places they inhabit, which is often tied up in conversations about class.

JA: There’s a bit in Milk Teeth where she interns at a magazine, and she meets some young women working at the magazine, and they end up going for coffees and stuff together. But the city of London seems to be made for them in a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s made for her, because they have this class privilege or social ease with which they move through it, whereas she feels like she’s scrambling all the time, she’s struggling all the time, and she never has any money, and she doesn’t know what to say. I guess that is something that I have experienced, and it’s a complex intersection of things, because it’s to do with class, to do with privilege, but then it’s also partly to do with gentrification. Because in a city like London, it’s so difficult now to make a living as a creative person, generally. Especially if you’re from a working-class background, and you don’t have money to fall back on, or you may have a bit of an impostor feeling in those spaces. 

With the housing crisis, and things becoming more and more expensive, and people being pushed out, I wanted to ask the question: who are cities for? Particularly London. Obviously, it’s so exciting and it’s so culturally diverse and rich. But then in so many of the spaces you’re thinking, ‘Ok, but who are these shops for, who are these restaurants for, who are these cafes for? Because I don’t really feel like they’re for me.’ 

TW: Food is a really important part of Milk Teeth, tied up with ideas of desire and denial. How did you land on that theme?

JA: I started the book with a knot of things I wanted to untangle. I knew the thing that I was trying to work out was to do with wanting. Like, what do I want? Why do I deny myself things that I want? How do we learn to suppress our wants? I guess [there are] class and gender elements of that. Lots of women I know have complicated relationships with food, and it felt very emblematic of everything else [the protagonist] was trying to explore in other areas of her life. She denies herself something simple like food, which is also nourishment, and it’s also security, and it’s also the opposite of self-destruction. It really functioned as a symbol that I felt could hold a lot of those feelings.

TW: The narrator’s issues with food often originate in an external space, and then they’re internalised. “We learned the language of self-destruction,” she says, “in hip bones and heroin chic.” Could you talk about that dynamic?

JA: I can only speak from my own experience, but there are two edges to it. If you do feel like an outsider in certain spaces, because of systemic problems, if you don’t have the language to understand or articulate those systemic problems, you internalise it, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m wrong, I’m weird, I don’t fit in.’ All of that gets turned in on you, to make you feel like you’re not really deserving of things. But then on the other side, I was thinking a lot about the messaging around my own teenage years. I was a teenager in the early 2000s, and it was the whole size zero, Kate Moss, heroin chic sort of vibe. I think the language and the rhetoric around that time was always about diminishing yourself and making yourself smaller. And there was a very self-destructive ethos around that time. Pop culture was Skins or The Libertines, and it was all about taking loads of drugs and doing wild things all the time.

I started to think about the legacy of those years, if you are someone who has also internalised these systemic issues, but also your first experience of adulthood was in a landscape in which you were never taught to value yourself, or that your body had worth, or that it was good to look after yourself. The protagonist in Milk Teeth, she’s in her late twenties, about to turn 30, and it’s about: how do you free yourself from that, and begin to think differently about yourself and the world?

“I think it’s dangerous sometimes to equate visibility with social change” – Jessica Andrews

TW: Have you seen those attitudes change in a meaningful way in your lifetime?

JA: I think there’s more conversation. Now, people talk about feminism, or there’s #MeToo, or people talk a lot more about LGBTQ+ issues. I don’t think that kind of conversation existed so much when I was a teenager, but I don’t really think things have changed. There’s so much backlash against these things, there’s so much transphobia, or there’s what just happened in the US with Roe v Wade. I think maybe it’s dangerous sometimes to equate visibility with social change. Then I also think, is wellness culture equally as damaging? Even though the messaging of that is essentially about looking after yourself. But is that just masking things like eating disorders, and a kind of puritanical way of being, just through a different language?

TW: The men in Milk Teeth lack that language too, and it often leads to misunderstandings, even in the more well-intentioned relationships. How did you approach the men in this book?

JA: With Saltwater, I very much wanted the focus to be on the relationships between the women, so the men are slightly shadowy, or the love story is slightly in the background. With Milk Teeth, the protagonist has lots of horrible encounters with men who make her feel worthless, or make her feel like her body doesn’t belong to her. But then within the central love story, I didn’t want to write a character that was just horrible and abusive, making you think, ‘Why is she with this guy?’ In some ways, it’s more interesting to me to explore the complexities of when you both actually mean well, but you just can’t quite get there. You’re not fully communicating. 

Also, it felt really important to write a book that had positive sex between a man and a woman in it. A lot of the books I read are about trauma and rape and sexual abuse. And while it’s really important that we have those conversations, I feel like there’s not much representation of positive sexual experiences. If we only have the trauma, and we don’t have the positive things as well, then how do we really move on from it, because then do you not feel afraid, and do you not feel hurt, and do you not feel scared?

“I was thinking about people like Tracey Emin, or Louise Bourgeois, how they come back to their childhoods again and again and again in their work, but it never feels boring. It always feels original and refreshing” – Jessica Andrews

TW: You’ve previously written about the influence of Tracey Emin on your work – were there any other particularly important influences, writing Milk Teeth?

JA: I really love Louise Bourgeois, and I think Tracey Emin is very much a descendant of that school, with some of the themes that she works with, and the way they represent the body. I struggled at one point to think: oh, well, can I keep writing about class? Can I keep writing about gender? And can I write about these things that still feel really central to me? And I was thinking about people like Tracey Emin, or Louise Bourgeois, how they come back to their childhoods again and again and again in their work, but it never feels boring. It always feels original and refreshing. You know that when you go into their work, that you’re going to be in conversation with some of those things. With Tracey Emin, when I first encountered her as a teenager, I think it was more the autobiographical nature of her work that felt very freeing. I wouldn’t say she directly influenced the story [of Milk Teeth] or anything, but as a wider influence, of a woman from a particular background who was making work about her life in this very visceral, bodily way – that felt super important to me.

Jessica Andrews’ Milk Teeth will be published via Sceptre on July 21.