Grinning skull, colorful
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The Tooth Hurts: John Patrick Higgins on Pain and Porcelain

John Patrick Higgins chatters about his newfound porcelain immortality and the tooth hurt endured for his new book, Teeth: An Oral History.

Teeth: An Oral History
John Patrick Higgins
Sagging Meniscus Press
April 2024

Author John Patrick Higgins came to writing late in life, but he is catching up on himself quickly by releasing two books in one year. The first of these, Teeth: An Oral History, is not just a personal history of his own dental problems but an idiosyncratic cultural history of teeth themselves. Reggie Chamberlain-King gets to the root of things.

People already know you from your macabre fiction podcast, Inside John Patrick Higgins, but Teeth: An Oral History is probably the furthest inside John Patrick Higgins that you’ve allowed us. It goes right into your head, beside those rotten teeth and rotten thoughts. Having enamel hypoplasia (glass teeth) myself, I know the shame of owning a mouth full of browned stalactites and -mites. A shame that can largely be hidden by never smiling. When did it all become too much for you and you knew you needed to get those teeth changed?

Well, for years, it wasn’t an issue as I had nothing to smile about, and I could hide my teeth like motives or inbred royals. I was lucky to have been born in an era when pop stars – and for a time I earnestly wished to be a pop star – didn’t smile in photos. They cultivated an air of mystery and seriousness, always engaged in some great work, as though standing behind an emulator synthesizer beneath a personal ozone layer like a follicle-frying halo, was art for the ages. 

Also, I was quite shy, and being aloof and distant was a great way of not having to say anything. There is always a tension in me – as this answer will attest – between chipping in with a wry observation but keeping my cards close to my chest and telling you everything about me, even things, especially things you have no desire to hear. Teeth: An Oral History contains both, of course. 

For years, the slow erosion of my teeth made me sad. I’d go to the dentist, she would sigh, tell me there was nothing to be done with these loose chippings, and I’d trudge home in the rain. It’s always raining when I go to the dentist. 

Then I earned a reasonable amount of money writing a film and thought, this is it – it’s now or never. I may never get paid to write another film. Use the money wisely. Buy some teeth. I’d also been in Zoom meetings with pristine Hollywood smiles, which was another contributory factor. [Higgins wrote the 2013 short films Breaking the Silence, directed by Adam Heayberd, and 2023’s Muirgen, which he also directed.]

Teeth is quite systematic about the procedure. At what point in the process did you think I’ve got to write this all down – there’s gold in this manky mouth?

It was a big deal. I had seven teeth pulled out of my head in one afternoon. I emerged hare-eyed and coughing blood into a hankie like a Victorian consumptive. It was an extraordinary experience, and as I record every single mundanity of my life anyway, it seemed obvious that I’d write about it. I was about halfway through the process, faithfully recording each tooth-powdering physical assault, when the strangeness of the situation overtook me. I was paying a very pleasant man in green pyjamas vast sums of money to hurt me. I was reminded of the scene in Dirty Harry where the villain Zodiac, to frame Harry, pays a man to beat him up, giggling with each nose-flattening punch. 

Teeth isn’t quite an unrelenting series of assaults on my gums; there are digressions. I talk about Tom Cruise and vampires. We meet the patron saint of dentists and discover what George Washington used to chew his dinner. Even if you have no interest in what’s going on in my mouth, there are fascinatingly chewable tidbits scattered throughout the book, like teeth on a rough nightclub floor. 

I don’t think we take teeth seriously – you can buy wind-up sets in the joke shop for goodness’ sake. False buckteeth are a quick way to the easy laugh – look at me, I’m a country bumpkin! In Teeth, you describe how teeth are clues to class and worse. Do you think their relationship with status makes them useful in comic writing?

Teeth are a tremendous shortcut. They tell you so much. In the past, there were goofy aristos, toothless simpletons, cackling witches with blacked-out toothy pegs. Pirates and vampires and trolls, oh my. For a while, it looked as if this dental dimorphism might be going away, as more and more people seemed to have blandly perfect teeth. Certainly, everyone in the media has a mouth like a vicar’s collar. 

The influence of pristine Hollywood smiles on more people than just you.

There’s a curious disconnect between the people in Hallmark movies—wooden spoon-shaped, blandly even-featured, with smiles like the grille on a Cadillac Deville—and, well, the way Americans look when you meet them in real life. British celebrities are allowed to be less committee-designed. We have the sort of faces you see caked in mud in a greengrocer’s display. Nevertheless, a dental consensus was creeping in there for a while.

Luckily, we have the Conservative party as champions of the characterful idiosyncrasy of British teeth. People are pulling out their own teeth with pliers. [See: “Pliers, abscesses and agonising pain“, by Coco Khan, The Guardian.] The careful erosion of the NHS by successive Tory governments will see us a nation of snaggle-toothed buffoons once more; our upper lips stiffened again to disguise the softness of our teeth. 

I do love those wind-up chattering teeth, though. They’re brilliant. Must get some. 

In Teeth, you recognise yourself as desperate to please people, filling every silence with a joke or quip. This generates hits and misses when you’re under the drill. Does that drive to please have anything to do with your feelings about your teeth?

I know some people positively relish the idea of being disliked. The upfront, abrasive, the in-your-face, the that’s-just-me-and-you-don’t-like-it-you-can-fuck-right-off crew. That’s not me. I’m not all about the drama. I slide into parties; I shrink from the spotlight. I don’t hold court. 

Humour is the mayonnaise in the social sandwich. Life goes better with a laugh and, if I didn’t think human interaction was inherently funny and strange, I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in. People are strange. And funny. And interesting. And, yes, it would be better if we could just all get along. 

My pretty new teeth are symptomatic of this. I’d like my teeth to be friendly, if not actually funny. 

I suppose the question I was asking was more, did you feel pressure from other people?

No. My friend Shauna is quoted in Teeth saying, “I don’t think people really look at teeth.” Maybe people don’t. But I do. I’m always squinting at hairy noses and laughter lines, downy earlobes like the bellies of white mice, funny walks and brave fashion choices—never invite me to a dinner party—and especially teeth. I assumed everyone was just as interested and judgmental as I was.

But I was never under pressure. No one outside the dentist’s office mentioned my teeth, and even the dentist seemed to look upon the blighted Gomorrah of my mouth like the act of a jealous God. My partner loves me, even with a smile like blistered plaster. She knew the teeth bothered me and supported me completely throughout the process, even though the amount of money I spent on them could have bought a new bathroom, a newish car, or two tickets for the Orient Express – our hierarchy of needs. Susan knew I’d long wanted to do this, and she held my hand throughout. The only pressure, then, was from myself. I buckled under it.

But, for all the seeming frivolousness of teeth, I was frequently reminded of Frigyes Karinthy’s exacting descriptions of his brain surgery without anesthetic in A Journey Round My Skull and the big questions that he pondered. Does time in the professional’s chair give you time to connect the profound and the trivial?

It gives you time to focus on not choking on your own tooth enamel. Those little saliva vacuums the dental nurse runs ’round your gums do nothing. You enter the realm of the “stealth swallow”. I was very focused on bits of my head being snapped off. Unlike Frigyes, I frivolously chose to have an anaesthetic, but you still feel it. My teeth were in there. I felt it in my cheeks, my neck, the torn corners of my lips. My dentist was excellent and very concerned with pain management, but these are still strenuous physical acts. You know it’s happening. 

You do disassociate, you drift, your brain says no, we’re out of here. I worked on songs, I thought about stories I was writing. I had lengthy, hypothetical arguments with people I destroyed with cold, hard logic in my head. I thought about my holidays. There were several occasions when he declared, “That’s it, we’re done,” and I had to bite my tongue to stop myself saying, “Just another five minutes.”

But, of course, I was incapable of biting my tongue. 

A few years ago, I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 [“Granda Harry and the Coathanger Horse“] about my early memory of watching my grandfather have all his teeth removed so a surgeon could later access a tumour. The dentist brought the new teeth out on a coat hanger, each one tied to a wire frame with a little loop. It’s haunted me all these years. Teeth also recognises teeth as a memento mori, doesn’t it?

I have no stories that begin, “A few years ago, I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4…” I should probably look into this. 

Unless you’re having a really bad day, your teeth are the only glimpse of your skeleton you ever see. They’re the workings, glimpsed through the fleshy aperture of your mouth, your bare bones. I can glower all I want in photos, but beneath my skin, my skull is grinning like it knows something.

It does. It knows it’s going to stick around for a very long time. All my meat and sinew will melt away, leaving an inarticulate bony caricature behind. While even my bones will eventually crumble to dust, my unnatural teeth won’t because they’re made of porcelain. Like the Chesire Cat, all that will remain of me is my ghastly phantom smile. 

Do you think your new teeth will see a bright future?

They’ll outlive me. They’re an investment in eternity. When some future Dante Rossetti digs me up looking for a notebook full of my dank memes and ideas for sitcoms based on antiquated puns (A Comedy of Errols: Errol Flynn and Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate share a flat…hilarity ensues) they’ll find my perfect smile gleaming in its mouldering skull. I will be having the last laugh.

 Or at least the terminal grin. 

Another thread that runs through Teeth is your struggle as a professional writer: the challenges, the disappointments, and the moments that make it worthwhile. The dentist is sympathetic, but he doesn’t really get it. Did you choose the wrong career?

Ha! There it is. The iron fist in the velvet glove. Kind of you to call it a career. I don’t expect I’ll find out if I chose the wrong career until it’s far too late to do anything about it. It certainly took me long enough to get here – I was in my forties before I ever wrote anything. I’ve led what you might call a storied life, but they’re not stories I’ll be telling. 

My dentist was a very nice man. He was on to a very nice, steady little earner with me, and I think it genuinely shocked him to learn about the vicissitudes of a writer’s life. I didn’t tell him the half of it.

Is [writing] the wrong career? There’s a lot of rejection and very little money. Victories can reveal themselves to be defeat, but the opposite is also true.

I’m not a natural hustler, and the job requires you to work more of the room than I’m comfortable with. But I’ve done a lot of other jobs. While I enjoyed the money, I didn’t get to do the stuff I’m doing now. Next month, I’m being flown to London to pitch at BAFTA, and I don’t even know what I’m pitching. I’m filming an unboxing video – something I’ve not encountered before – where I get to dive into a big box of books – and I wrote them all! I never thought I’d direct a film, and I’m doing it in my fifties. I have two books coming out this year. 

I mean, this is great. Isn’t it? I love it. 

Your writing is sweet and decadent. It indulges in every excess of wordplay and elaborate allusion. It is rich and probably only good for you in small amounts. At one point in Teeth, you’re arguing with the producers of your latest film [Muirgen] about the archness of your dialogue. You make an argument for the truth of “archaic phrases grabbed for in the moment of crisis.” Do you believe that? Or do you just enjoy writing that stuff?

These questions veer very close to compliments before you snatch them away again, like Lucy Van Pelt [Peanuts]. 

One of my producers was very interested in what he called “provocations”, by which he meant disruption of the smooth running of my day and causing me to question every one of my life choices. It was all good fun. 

My choices for Teeth were correct. The character is out of his depth and grasps at anything. He summons an appropriate reference from somewhere. This has happened to me on countless occasions, I’ve plucked the mot juste from the ether, and I contend that anyone can. We all have a deep reservoir of forgotten knowledge and can draw from it at times. I wouldn’t like to rely on it, though. 

I think you’ve done something similar in Teeth. Maybe you didn’t find the mot juste in the moment of extraction, but you’ve taken the crisis and embroidered it, built out from it. Seldom in an obvious or straight way. 

If you’re telling me that I enjoy writing whatever the hell I like, then yes. Obviously. I like lending people fluency and wit. These things do exist in the observable world. 

Artists can’t be perfect. You reference Martin Amis’ writing on his own decrepit chompers. Would you ever really trust an artist with decent teeth? David Bowie got a new set. That represented some level of success in his career. But, after someone’s death, it’s their rank old teeth that we remember, isn’t it?

Dave kept hold of his manky vampire snagglers until they became physically painful. I always liked him for that. Van Gogh arrived in Paris with a gobful of horrors and immediately had ten of them yanked out of his ragged gums. The self-portrait of him with a bandage knotted ’round his head, we assume it’s because he’s just lopped an ear off. But to me it looks like an image from the Beano or something, where he’s got an absolute throbber in the jaw. 

Good teeth are a recent phenomenon. In the past everyone stank and everyone had bad teeth. All your favourite heroes of antiquity had breath that’d make a dog cough. In Elizabethan times, it was fashionable for aspirational types, aping the nobility, to artificially blacken their teeth. 

Dave Bowie’s last album with his original ivory intact was the ironically titled Never Let Me Down. His first album with state-of-the-art gleamers in his head was Black Tie White Noise. So, we can be sentimental and cling to Dave’s mouldering tusks, but getting a fresh set didn’t do his mojo any harm. 

Besides, we don’t have to miss them. A German sculptor named Jesse Hein made a reproduction of Bowie’s natural teeth. His imperfect smile rendered perfect and kept under glass forever. He’d have loved it. 

That cross-section brings to mind Woody Allen’s story If the Impressionists had been Dentists: “He longs more than anything to be a great dentist, and he has real talent, but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too proud to stand on anything.” But if it’s your passion, you just have to keep plugging away at it. In that regard, this funny book about your mouth is an amuse-bouche for your debut novel coming out later this year, also from Sagging Meniscus. What can you tell us about that?

The novel is called Fine [publishing November 2024]. It’s a book I’ve been writing for a very long time and exists somewhere between J K Huysmans’ With the Flow and the Grossmiths’ The Diary of a Nobody. No one surfs the literary zeitgeist like I do. 

If Teeth is about me undergoing a series of costly humiliations over the course of six months in pursuit of a winning smile, Fine is the story of a very different middle-aged man encountering a series of flummoxing derailments over the course of a year. 

He’s called Paul. He lives, anonymously and alone, in a big city and does a job he’s neither good at nor interested in. He likes music and art, is failing to write the novel he’s been writing for a decade and is lonely to his bones. He’s looking for love in all the wrong places, so it’s no surprise he fails to find any. 

Fine is not, in any way, autobiographical. Paul is a lot taller than I am. And he can drive a car. 

The book has been called “laugh out loud funny” and “sensitively written and moving” by people who have read it. They were two different people, admittedly, but I’ll claim both are correct. 

Will you give you dentist a free copy of Teeth? Or will you get back some of your money from him?

He can pay. I know he’s good for it.