Growing Up: The Rumpus Interview with Michelle Tea

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Once upon a time, Michelle Tea was a feral baby femme-bot smashing drums in a sleeveless T, her blackened rocker locks tossing sweat on her thin, powerful tattooed arms in scruffy grunge bars. In those same venues, she read stories to legions of fledgling glam dykes at her Sister Spit events and struggled to make rent in her crappy, packed San Francisco hovel. Her grubby tales of romantic foibles were reminiscent of early Eileen Myles and Karen Finley. Her novel Valencia, a lush portrait of early-’90s hipster queerdom in all of its gutter-diva glory, achieved critical acclaim. It was also made into a feature film.

More recently, her successful monthly RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library continues to be a hit. I read for the series right after she returned from Paris. Michelle Tea, always the bubbly, hilarious host, looked like a star-fucked sprite in a beautiful designer dress probably constructed by cherubic drag queens. She cheerfully handed out French cookies to her readers. I had no idea she’d just blown off a fancy adjunct gig while seeking a rare and delicious adventure at Paris fashion week. But according to her memoir How to Grow Up, she did. I admire her for that.

How to Grow Up is Tea’s most commercial memoir to date, because it’s a refined and polished narrative that begins with Tea in her seedy digs in the Mission as a struggling writer and ends with our fierce heroine blossoming into a woman with a successful writing career and a baby. However, How to Grow Up still contains all of Michelle Tea’s signature lust for life as she trots towards her own colorful version of adulthood, motherhood, and recovery, reminding us that there’s hope after all—even for spirited pirates who have gotten lost on the path towards maturity.

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The Rumpus: How would you describe your memoir, How to Grow Up?

Michelle Tea: It was through a brainstorming session with my agent, trying to figure out a non-fiction book I could do that would maybe hopefully have commercial appeal. We landed on some sort of “I used to be a wild dirt bag and then I got my shit together—here’s how I did it” topic, but I didn’t really understand how the book would come together in tone or structure until I sat down to write it.

Rumpus: I was moved by the way you found solace in recovery on so many levels, from your suffering in the areas of alcoholism to dysfunctional intimate relationships to money. I related to every single one of your vices and your programs (Stevie Nicks!). What I love about How to Grow Up is that you never claim to be “fixed” or “broken.”  What does it mean to be fucked up? What does it mean to be broken? What does it mean to be recovered from immaturity?

Tea: Well, in recovery you say you get a daily reprieve based on maintenance of your condition, right? “Fixed” and “broken” are not helpful terms to me. It’s more like I got this thing, alcoholism, and it can really kill me. I’ve watched it kill other people in my family. But because I take care of myself, and I do it through recovery programs, I get a break from all the suffering that goes along with my condition. I mean, I was fucked up when I was using, but I’ve been fucked up in recovery and might even be fucked up now in ways I don’t realize. But being recovered to me really just means that I’m not suffering and I’m not doing things that are inflicting suffering on other people. I’m still an alcoholic. I’ll never be “cured,” and I have a lot of personality quirks and ways of thinking that are common to people with alcoholism, so for me it’s good to be in recovery because it gives context to that part of me. Like, “Oh I’m not crazy, I’m an alcoholic!” Kind of like astrology. “I’m not a weirdo, I’m an Aquarius!” Not that I’m not also crazy and a weirdo.

Rumpus: I remember that I read at RADAR when you returned from Paris after bailing on that teaching job. Are you teaching now? Are there still moments that tempt you towards reckless abandon?

Tea: I don’t teach anywhere now, though I am doing an online memoir workshop through 24 Pearl Street next month. Bummer! Of course I have moments where I am like, Damn it would really be nice to have that teaching job. I enjoy teaching, I think I’m good at inspiring students, and who doesn’t like a paycheck and health insurance? But I stand by my decision. It was absolutely the right thing to do at that time. You can’t always take off on a crazy spontaneous glamour trip so it’s important to seize such moments when you can. For instance, last year I got the opportunity to go to Argentina with my film Valencia and stay for a week, all expenses paid, and I couldn’t go because I was so pregnant! But I was very, very tempted.

Rumpus: If you could jump on a plane and go anywhere today, where would you go and why?

Tea: That is such a great question! I think Venice because it is unlike any other place in the world, so weird and magical, with no cars and boats everywhere and the streets are so narrow and ancient and because it’s an island you can just take off and sort of get lost without really ever getting lost because you can eventually find the edge and jump on a bus-boat. And the best art museums are there and the best arancini. I don’t care if it’s touristy; it’s such a special place. But I worry that I’ve managed to get to a handful of very special places outside the country—Venice, Paris, Akumal—and I’ll just keep going there and won’t branch out and try to see, like, Copenhagen or Thailand. The opportunity to travel is a bit rare these days and it’s hard to pick between a new adventure or revisiting someplace you really love.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about Botox, your undying devotion to beauty. You wrote, “Beauty seemed more of a tool used to whack women around with than anything else.” What is your concept of beauty, and how has it changed over the years?

Tea: Beauty is used in this narrow, abusive way in this culture—all cultures?—and as a rebellion against that, I sort of was anti-beauty for a while. But that is sort of impossible. The urge toward beauty is in me the way the urge toward love or food or sex is. But what happened is my concept of what is beautiful broadened. So it was a great project to embark upon, dismantling your beauty concepts, and really everyone should do it. Instead of being “fuck beauty” I see beauty everywhere.

Rumpus: Is there something still beautiful and inherently twisted about your upbringing that taught you to seek blue houses—a.k.a. dark and desperate places—or was it just a special time in San Francisco that drew you to those blue house people and “wild dirt bag” activities?

Tea: Oh, jeez. I mean, I think growing up in a sort of busted town, very working-class, didn’t give me any expectations as to what my life should or shouldn’t be. So when I was living in the blue house it wasn’t like, Oh my, what is this squalor I’ve succumbed to? It made a certain amount of sense. I was a punk teenager and grew up in a house where people with money and ambition to better oneself were mocked. Toughness was a prized quality in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where I grew up, and you had to be tough to live in a place like the blue house, and I felt good about that. There was a certain amount of endurance to it that I enjoyed, like, How bad will this get before I break? I can handle it! And I have a dark sense of humor, so the absurdity of, say, your roommate painting the cockroaches with glow-in-the-dark nail polish was not lost on me. But when I found a cockroach in my hair I really lost my shit. I did have some limits.

Rumpus: Your book made me recall some dark times. Like that Thanksgiving at your house that became a bloody play piercing party. I remember my girlfriend at the time screaming my name from the street like in A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m pretty sure you and I laughed and kept up the play while being pierced. I remember blood dripping down my forehead and this being totally normal family fun. I guess what I’m asking you is, what have you learned about family and what family means from these experiences as you build your own version of family? Do you regret any blue house moments? Do you miss those blue house times?

Tea: My understanding of family is very informed by the queer family I built in my 20s. That was such a special time, and those bonds were really fierce and unique. So many of us had lost our families of origins and considered ourselves orphans of a sort, so there was this—the word “fierce” keeps coming to me—this really fierce loyalty. Like, we’d all been hurt by the world, and we were now going to protect one another and never judge one another, just be there and have one another’s backs. I don’t know that I miss it, but I feel very lucky that I got to have those experiences, and of course lots of people from that time period are still my close friends. And even the ones I’m not as close to, we have this weird bond, like we’ve gone through something other people can’t really understand. I didn’t go to college so maybe it’s my equivalent of college buddies or something.

And I remember that night, that Thanksgiving. For some reason, my fake fur chubby was in the bathtub, and that’s where you were getting pierced, and my band Dirt Bike Gang decided to go to the practice space at like midnight to practice, and I had to go into the bathroom to get my jacket, and that’s where I found you getting pierced and was like, “Oh, okay, this is happening. Hi, you guys, bye!”

Rumpus: Funny how I remembered that night so differently. I was in a workshop recently where Cheryl Strayed told everyone “memoir is the art of subjective truth” but that we must be responsible for the facts. Speaking of particulars, can you share the details of how this book deal happened and your journey to finding your agent?

Tea: I’d love to! I’d been working with an agent I really loved, she is a wonderful person and has a ton of integrity, but for whatever reason she couldn’t sell a book for me beyond the contacts I provided. I’d be like, “Hey so-and-so wants to publish me, and will you work out the contract?” When I wrote my YA fantasy series, I had a hope that it would come out on a New York press, something I didn’t have access to, just to bump up everything—my profile, my income, readerships, et cetera. I am really happy it came out on McSweeney’s because who doesn’t worship McSweeney’s? But I also felt at a crossroads, like, I need to find someone who has access to places I don’t. Beth Lisick connected me with her agent, and he thought that someone else at the agency might be a better fit for me, so he connected us and I fucking love my agent Lindsay Edgecombe. She was really perfect and had this “you’ve done so much amazing work on your own; let’s get you a book that busts you out to the next level” attitude that I was very grateful for. And she also has no illusions about how homophobic publishing is, so it also felt great to work with someone who understood that reality but didn’t let it hamper her optimism and ambition for me. We worked together on a proposal, I wrote some sample chapters, and then I had a lot of interviews with various editors at great houses who wanted the book. And we went with Plume because they really seemed to get the book and me and were so excited about it and had the resources to do a super bang-up job with it.

Rumpus: What would now Michelle say to little Michelle? What advice would give? What would you say about the writing life?

Tea: Well, for sure, I would tell myself to drop out of high school. That was bullshit. I would tell her not to bother with those sad semesters of college. It was just a waste of money. I would tell her to take that money to go to San Francisco, get there a little earlier, start sleeping with girls, and to just keep writing. I think I did everything right with the writing, I always was just doing it and that’s all you can do.

Rumpus: Who are you deeply influenced by these days in fashion and literary circles?

Tea: Hmm, Miranda July‘s new novel blew my mind and haunted me for weeks after I read it. I would find myself just walking through my day with this little longing feeling in my heart and be like, I’m missing someone. Who am I missing? I’m missing that book! Maggie Nelson‘s The Argonauts is totally a masterpiece. She is so incredibly smart and emotionally astute [that] I’m in awe of her when I read her. I’m also reading Eula Biss‘s On Immunity, and I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to read about motherhood in this particular hyper-intelligent way until I picked up her book. Wendy C. Ortiz‘s Excavation is really gripping. I haven’t read Karolina Wacklaviak‘s new book yet, but I am so excited she has a new one out because hers is one of my favorite voices. Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise. And oh my gosh, Malaina Poore. She is an unpublished writer who grew up a wild girl in Detroit and now lives in Virginia, and she is the greatest writer, and I’m reading her manuscript right now, Elsewhere, and I’m hoping hoping, hoping City Lights will give me the green light on putting it out on the Sister Spit imprint.

Fashion? Oh, man. Ever since I had the baby my fashion has sort of been really weird. I can’t fit into my favorite clothes, and I’m afraid to spend money on new clothes because my body feels sort of temporary, so I keep getting shit at, like, Target and am like, This is how once fashionable women have babies and then begin wearing exclusively Target. I am really psyched to start reading Milk, this high fashion kid’s clothing magazine from France!

Rumpus: What books do you read to Atticus, and what music and fashion does he love so far?

Tea: Atticus’s favorite song is Sonic Youth’s “Goo.” He really loves when I sing it to him, and he really really loves when I make my voice funny and go, “Hey Goo, what’s new?” I sing the whole song to him, like, multiple times a day. One of Dashiell’s coworkers gave us this amazing record of David Bowie songs as instrumental lullabies, and it is just the best music, period. It’s hard to know what books he likes because he’s so little still, but my favorite right now is Home by Carson Ellis. It’s really gorgeous. We love the John Klassen books, Extra Yarn and especially Who Stole My Hat. Probably the best, best kids book is 13 Words by Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman. Marcus Ewert’s 10,000 Dresses and A is for Activist are classics in our house. And the new Rad American Women A-Z book on the Sister Spit imprint is a fave. Miriam Klein Stahl’s art are these graphic paper cuts and it’s exactly the sort of stuff babies like to look at.


Antonia Crane is a performer, 2-time Moth Story Slam Winner and writing instructor in Los Angeles. She has written for the New York Times, The Believer, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Salon.com, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME, the Los Angeles Review, Quartz: The Atlantic Media, Medium.com, Buzzfeed, and dozens of other places. Her screenplay “The Lusty” (co-written by Transparent director, writer Silas Howard), based on the true story of the exotic dancer’s labor union, is a recipient of the 2015 San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Grant in screenwriting. She is at work on an essay collection and a feature film. More from this author →