Issue 038 Author Interview: Johanna Levene and “Grork Dentist”

Terrific Tuesday — we’re here to present an interview with one of our fabulous Issue 038 authors. This time we sat down with Johanna Levene and chatted about her short story “Grork Dentist.” So pull up a chair and read along, won’t you?

LSQ: Even though I don’t have a dentist phobia, I felt super nervous while reading this story! What is it about dentists that makes them perfect nightmare fodder?

Johanna: I’ve hated the dentist since I was eleven years old and got my first crown. At the end of that appointment, I got out of the dentist chair and fainted – autobiographical tie to my story there. For me, the lack of control, the pain, and the torturous instruments are a horror show. In some ways, I think Grork dentistry is less scary than human dentistry. The pain and instruments are gone, and all that’s left is surrendering to aliens and their secretive procedures. Honestly, I might be tempted to give the Grorks a try if they opened an office in my neighborhood.

LSQ: Nothing overtly sinister happens to Melissa, but you’ve planted seeds of potentially horrific outcomes for us humans. Can you tell us a bit about revealing just enough information without spelling everything out for readers?

Johanna: What happens? The rallka-urk juice microbes infiltrate our water system and turn all life on Earth into a new species of bone hungering zombies. Wait, no. The Grork’s reproduction rate is staggering and their babies only feed on human flesh. Just kidding.

This isn’t a story with a cut and dry horrific ending. It might all end up fine. The Grork practices may create a world with no dental problems . . . but what will the Grorks do then? What scares me are how quickly Grorks learned to manipulate human institutions – the media, marketing, and the law – to ingratiate themselves into human lives. We humans love grabbing the next great idea without considering the consequences: think asbestos, plastic bags, social media, chemical sunscreens, and SUVs that get 7 miles to a gallon. All those may be great ideas, but at what cost?

The horror is seen during the interaction between Cheryl and Greg. With no research, they are embracing Grorks and encouraging Melissa to do the same. All they care about is how great their teeth look. Intended and unintended consequences are never considered. No one has done their homework and that feels very familiar and frightening to me.

LSQ: The Grorks are so vividly described, with their giant, smiling mouths. Where did the inspiration for them come from?

Johanna: I’m thrilled that the Grorks came across so clearly, because I can see them perfectly in my mind, except they have snail-like eye-stalks which somehow weren’t written. The story inspiration came from a remarkably calm emergency dental appointment. I was eating a birthday cupcake and one of my seven crowns fell out while chewing. (Worst birthday present ever, but at least it didn’t hurt.) My dentist met me in his office, examined the situation, and told me it was an old crown and the glue holding it on my tooth had just worn out. He took my crown across the room and started cleaning it up and getting it ready for installation. The drilling and scraping were a good five feet away from me. We chatted like normal people who don’t put their hands in each other’s mouth. A little gluing and I was good as new. I thought, “This was great. Why can’t the dentist always be like this?”

Well, my dentist can’t pull off disembodied dentistry, but an alien dentist could, and a story was born. That said, I have no idea where I came up with the Grork globular toothy physiology, but they were a hoot to create.

LSQ: What was the most challenging part of this story to write and why? What was the most enjoyable and why?

Johanna: The most challenging part of the story was the dialogue. Typically, I use conversation to build characters and relationships, but after several weeks holding my lips motionless with my fingers while trying to read lipless Grork dialogue out loud, I gave up and put in a few paragraphs of narration. My other challenge? My ideal reader is my mom, and her dental phobia dwarfs mine. She’s managed to read the story twice – once before and once after publication – but it’s not her favorite. She says I’ve “succeeded in creating emotion in my reader,” which is a nice way of saying my story scares the crap out of her. Sorry, mom.

My favorite part was creating the Grorks and their world. I love that they are genderless, and I had a whole version where I made up new pronouns for them. That was fun, but I didn’t have the writing chops to make it readable. I love that their sexuality doesn’t fit any human norm, but that humans have accepted their differences. Ironic given that we struggle accepting the diverse varieties of human sexuality. I love that they do amazing work for the needy, even if their motives are suspicious. Oh, and the Grognorg is awesome. What a wonderfully helpful little symbiotic creature – unless it’s not.

However, the truly best part is having my first story out in the world. I’ve been a writer in the closet for seven years now, not letting my colleagues at work or school know about my night job. After this publication I’ve shared my avocation with anyone who will listen; it’s been thrilling. My favorite moment was reading “Grork Dentist” aloud to my eleven-year-old daughter. She laughed at the right places. She worried at the right places. She felt the flossing shame. Sure, I could have done that pre-publication, but cracking the spine on a physical copy of LSQ and reading my daughter an alien bedtime story was a life high-point.