Michelle Tea came on the literary scene in the mid 90s, the product of queer San Francisco nightlife, telling stories of drugs, sex work and everything in between. Pre-Internet, her books were spread amongst counterculture weirdos like map points to a rave, through word of mouth, gossip and hand to hand exchange. She started the legendary Sister Spit tour to organize her fellow literary strays, launching the career of Ali Liebegott and honoring her idols such as Dorothy Allison and Eileen Myles. She helped birth a movement of young writers and mobilized, in part, the genre New Narrative.
All the while she has remained prolific, publishing such classics as Valencia, and modern masterpieces such as Black Wave. Michelle is most of all a warm and generous advocate—much like her favorite childhood book, The Outsiders—for those voices who have been told there is no room. Michelle is a champion of the underdog, the counterculture, the queer browbeaten voice, struggling to be heard amongst a cacophony of patriarchal noise.
The Rumpus: In How to Grow Up you write about being sober and in twelve-step programs and that you wished all people could sit in church basements, even non-alcoholics, and get what you’ve gotten from those rooms. Are you ever nervous that you might potentially turn off your audience? I ask because AA is such a specific place that requires time to acclimate to the language of the program, even for people who are just beginning to attend. Do you worry that you might be misinterpreted as promoting something that doesn’t match up with your intentions?
Michelle Tea: For better or worse I don’t worry about writing. I’m not ever really worried how something’s going to end or if it’s going to put anybody off or not because when I first started writing I was writing about my experience as a working class queer female who’d worked in the sex industry and this and that. I already knew that just my existence at that time, which was the early 90s, there was not a lot of media, no Internet, nothing like that, and that I could be potentially off-putting to everybody. So I didn’t care about that, you know, as a survival skill. And I still don’t today, even though I think the people that you’re asking, do I worry about putting them off is a very different demographic. But in general, I just don’t think like that.
I feel like if people read something I’ve written and disagree with it or I guess I can’t imagine that I write anything that’s so outrageous that someones going to slam my book down and walk away, you know? I might wrangle them and then if they’re like me as a reader, they get wrangled and keep reading to see what comes next. It’s true that the twelve step programs are, in my experience, wildly misunderstood in popular culture and in our culture. I say that as somebody who now partakes of them. I initially, even when I entered into them, had no idea what I was walking into. I was completely incorrect about what they actually offered and what they actually offer is just tools to live and communicate as a healthy adult. People go to therapy to learn how to do that. Well I’m in therapy and its awesome except what I found is free and weekly and anarchistic in a sense in its organization and its so cool.
Rumpus: You’re so prolific. In the last five years you’ve written How to Grow Up, Black Wave, Modern Tarot, and now Against Memoir. Not to mention the books you edit and publish. What is your writing practice like?
Tea: It’s super undisciplined and haphazard. It really is. I don’t have a strident discipline. I don’t edit while I write, I just write and I’m able to barf a lot of texts in one sitting and then go back later and fix it, clean it up, pretty it up or delete or whatever. I think that if I did edit as I go it would really slow me down if I stopped too much, looked at what I was doing, so I override the internal critic. Thankfully I don’t have a huge internal editor, again, for better or worse, my writing could probably benefit from a stronger internal editor, but I just don’t have a big one. So, you know, a lot of coffee, high on caffeine, start typing, high on my own delusions of grandeur and power over language, and it makes up for the fact that I haven’t sat down and done that in a week, you know? Wow. Yeah, I mean, I’m really grateful that it works. I do always feel like I need to be more disciplined. I really do.
Rumpus: How did or when did you decide you wanted to become a writer? When did you realize you were good at this? Better than others? Was it reader feedback, teachers or you just ‘knew?’ And while were here, who are your favorite authors?
Tea: When I was young I really loved Judy Blume. I mean, right? I loved Judy Blume. I loved Deenie. I loved Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. I remember taking out, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and the, the librarian was like, I think that’s a little too old for you, and I was so offended because I didn’t get what she meant about content.
I thought she meant like I can’t read, and in my child mind I thought, I can read anything. I’m a better reader than grown-ups, insulted that she, you know, that my reading progress had been challenged. I got my mother to write a note for me and I got it and I brought it home and right away she’s talking about boobs and Playboy magazine and I just shut it and I was like, Oh, the librarian was right. It’s too old for me, and brought it back and I said, “You’re right, it’s a little too old for me.”
Rumpus: Did the librarian think that was the cutest thing?
Tea: I’m sure she was charmed by me. I think I was an endearing annoyance to her. I was always there. I always wanted to talk to her. She was the branch librarian in Everett, Massachusetts. But to answer your other questions, I just loved books and like I said read voraciously. Stephen King, V. C. Andrews, S. E. Hinton. I will read anything by S. E. Hinton. I had a boyfriend whose grandparents lived in the town that Stephen King was from and I remember we drove there and we arrived at night. I love Stephen King so much. He was, he was who I read. I mean he was that, those were the books in my house, that and horror paperbacks. I remember one called like Mom, it was like a doll on the cover. Just shit like that, you know, I just loved these books so much. And so we went to his (Stephen King’s) town, we pulled up and there was this mist, there was a frickin’ lake with mist crawling off. I’m like, Oh my God, I’m looking at the mist that inspires Stephen King to write The Mist! It was like my head exploded and we went to the grocery store in there and I was like, is this the grocery store that everyone gets trapped in The Mist?
Rumpus: You’re a rare individual in that you’ve acquired cult status while still living. How do you perceive it or deal with it? You’ve been canonized in queer culture and you’re not even fifty. You must get recognized every day.
Tea: No, no. Oh my goodness. Especially here in LA today. I’m like, oh, the smallest fish. It’s so humbling to come from San Francisco where I was a bit of a big fish in a small pond. I could score a free dessert at a really nice restaurant. Sometimes I could see a queer give me a double-take on the street and it was, it was cute, you know, it’s unnerving, but it’s cute. It’s nice, but it makes you feel kind of goofy. Here in LA nobody knows who I am. It’s like breaking down doors trying to convince people that I’ve done something in the world.
Rumpus: How do you think not having an MFA has affected your work? You often teach in MFA programs do you see the ubiquitous MFA cycle having an impact on the writing you read as a publisher, editor, and now teacher?
Tea: Okay, that’s a lot it, I get what you’re talking about, like this, the sort of larger collection of apparatuses that props up publishing and as someone that did not take that route, I don’t think it’s useless or hampering creativity. I think I can only imagine that my writing is completely impacted by the fact that I didn’t go to college and study writing. I didn’t even get an undergraduate. So I learned by reading voraciously, I learned by going to a lot of literary events and listening to writers read and listening to their process, and I learned just by writing. I feel like during the years when a lot of people were going to school, I was in San Francisco, slightly feral, going to all of these open mics and happenings every single night and was essentially workshopping my work every single night, just under particularly strange conditions, drunkenly workshopping them with other drunk writers.
There’s other ways to learn how to write though. I feel mixed about teaching writing. I don’t believe that you need an MFA to teach writing, you just need to know how to write and how to teach. There’s a limit to what you can teach with writing though because there’s something, it feels like it’s almost the way… it’s almost like writers have a particular brain chemistry, you know? I do. A lot of the writers that I talk with and have relationships with also have this odd writerly brain chemistry. And you can’t teach that, you can teach tricks. I’ve certainly learned from talking to other writers, different tricks that helped me be a better writer.
I really think the thing that has helped me grow as a writer, just writing, writing, getting better through trial and error and growing and paying attention. I do think that taking writing classes helps you prioritize and focus on your writing. And that’s really important because a lot of times the thing that is the biggest problem for writers is not prioritizing their work, not making time for it. So I think all these things are valuable. I think MFA programs are valuable for that reason and some people I think come out of them with these wonderful success stories, where they crafted, they had the time and the space and the funding, in some cases, to craft work. And for that, I think it’s incredibly valuable. I mean, we should all say all writers should be so lucky as to have the conditions that MFA programs allow a writer, which is to take your work seriously, to have mentors around you, to be taken care of while you write your book.
But it’s not necessary. It’s an easier path and in some ways it’s a harder path. There are pros and cons going both ways. I think what’s hard for me at this point in my life, because I’m older and I have a kid and I often have more of a need for stability and income and insurance and all of those sort of adult things, it can be harder to find a place to teach within the academy because you’re not a product of the academy, even though I think what I bring is equitable to anybody else in the academy and there’s an argument that I’m bringing a few other things, too, right? But for that reason, I certainly know people who have gone through an MFA program and have created wonderful works and I also know people who’ve gone through MFA programs and are now in terrible debt and haven’t created anything. And so that’s really it—you’ve either got it or you don’t.
Rumpus: We should probably talk about Against Memoir. What inspired you to write the book and where did it come from?
Tea: Well, I’d wanted to have a collection for a little while because I had written so many pieces over the years for this or that and they were just out there floating around and I felt this sort of need like when you look in your filthy closet and you’re like, Oh God, I gotta get that organized. Like sometimes I would think about these pieces or see them in a folder and be like, they need to be together somewhere organized, you know? So I thought that it would just be a collection of things that were already out there. Then my editors at Feminist Press rightly wanted me to write some new work. My initial impulse was a little bit of, there was an element of it just being a lazy way to get a new book. To put a book out without having to write one. Then I did have to do a lot of writing, but it was fine. It was, I mean, obviously those are the pieces that I’m personally the happiest with, the ones that are new.
Rumpus: Can we talk about the title?
Tea: Sure. I don’t really come out against memoir, but it seems like a good kind of a strong, slightly provocative title for the book.
Rumpus: You’re a writer who is often thought of as writing memoir because so many of your characters have your name.
Tea: I have written memoirs. I feel perhaps much like a conventional writer, you’ve dabbled in it the same amount.
Rumpus: Yes, this is true. I feel however when people read your work they very much strongly identify your characters with you.
Tea: Yes. I think that that’s true as well and I think that that’s to some extent deliberate. I mean I have written plain bald-faced map memoir like, I grow up and all that. I mean there’s Valencia. I’ve had books like Valencia get kind of interpreted as fiction, it was, but it’s always been more, too. No one ever asked me, is this memoir fiction? And it’s just sort of like, of course it’s memoir. It’s always fiction and always memoir. I had just come out of this very first-person, spoken-word world where we were all just writing about our lives and our feelings and experiences and traumas. And that’s where that, even though it’s not in that form that’s where it came out of. Where so much of it comes out of.
Rumpus: Thank you so much Michelle.
Author photograph © Rebecca Aranda.