Flannery O’Connor, the American writer and essayist, said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” Many would agree with her; the time from the germination of an idea to completion or publication can seem like an eternity.
Given my background in dentistry, O’Connor’s mention of tooth decay grabbed my attention, and had me champing at the bit to write a few words on the subject.
The processes involved in forensic odontology—pouring models of bite marks to help prove an offender’s guilt, identifying remains through dental records, and determining a person’s age by the eruption sequence of their dentition—are all fascinating. From braces to porcelain crowns, and from thumb-sucking babes to edentulous (toothless) old witches with warts on their noses, dental matters can be surprisingly important to a writer and play a big part in plot and character development.
Talking through gritted teeth, baring your teeth, clenching, grinding, chattering, lying through your teeth, a kick in the teeth, and teeth-brushing in one’s pyjamas are all images that convey emotion and action.
Teeth also give us some great descriptive words and phrases which help to visualise a character: pearly whites, nicotine-stained, gap-toothed, overbite, yellowing, false, prominent, crooked, buck-toothed, dazzling, crowded, overlapping, horsey teeth, and vampire canines.
A more recent term, “meth mouth” is typically characterised by a mouth full of broken, dislodged and rotten teeth, which occurs because the drug methamphetamine reduces salivary flow, leaving the mouth’s acids to dissolve the tooth enamel, causing rampant caries (decay).
Human teeth are not the only ones of interest to the writer. A Rottweiler and two Spanish bull mastiffs snarl, snap, and crunch their way through parts of my books Star-Crossed Lovers and Death-Marked Love. In Natalya I have wolves tearing at flesh.
Elephants’ “incisors” are their ivory tusks, which can be used as weapons and as tools for digging and moving things. (This is, of course, their real purpose, rather than to be ornaments on someone’s coffee table.) Along with the tusks, elephants have twelve deciduous premolars, and twelve molars, which can weigh up to 5kg each. Elephants are polyphyodonts, which means they have cycles of tooth rotation. The chewing teeth are usually replaced six times in an elephant’s life. The last set usually arrives when an elephant is in its forties and must often last until seventy years of age or longer.
While I was visiting the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, my guide explained that many older elephants’ teeth wear out and they become attracted to marshy areas with softer grasses they can continue to eat. But sadly, many elephants with worn-down teeth die of starvation.
Teeth scenes are the stuff of nightmares and fairy tales. Who could forget when Little Red Riding Hood said, “Oh, Granny, what big teeth you’ve got!” and the wolf replied, “All the better to eat you with, my dear!”
Dental torture is a cinematic favourite. A classic example is the interrogation scene in John Schlesinger’s thriller classic, Marathon Man (1976). The whir of a high-speed drill, the crunch of a molar being extracted, or the sight of a screaming, drooling victim are enough to send shivers up the spine of the most hardened moviegoer.
Needle phobias are common among dental patients. “Open wide, this might sting a bit,” the dentist says, and all of a sudden your lips feel like rubber. But imagine undergoing root-canal treatment of a vital nerve without anaesthetic. A tungsten or diamond-tipped burr cutting through the enamel would be relatively painless, but once it entered the dentine, the discomfort would gradually intensify. Exposure of the nerve, a bloody mass encased in the pulp chamber, would be excruciating.
And I’m not at all sure the sadistic interrogators of film and literature would be aware of the correct extraction technique. It’s not a simple case of yanking a tooth out. First, the forceps must be secured around the crown. Then you push, twist, twist again, again, break the ligaments—pop!—then you remove the tooth. Incisors with their single roots are not too difficult to get out, but lower molars with double roots and upper molars with three roots can be a challenge even for the experts.
The state of a person’s or character’s dentition says a lot about them. It indicates socio-economic background, age, self-esteem, diet, hygiene, income, race, where they grew up, and any history of substance abuse. According to Flannery O’Connor, even one’s profession can make you susceptible to tooth decay. Writers beware.
Agatha Christie offered some dental wisdom in The Patriotic Murders when Hercule Poirot said, “No, my friend, I am not drunk. It is that I have been to the dentist and I need not go for six months. It is a beautiful thought.”
Very high on the list of my favourite New Zealand pastimes is spending time with my dog, Absinthe. She’s currently living with her extended family and enjoying five acres of snake-free, spiderless, lush emerald pasture. Abbie’s had a pretty tough week, a couple of teeth extracted, and she cried through her hair cut. She’s happy now, though, toothless grin and all.