An Interview with Michelle Tea

Kristin Seabolt

Michelle Tea is the author of four novels, a collection of poetry, and the memoir The Chelsea Whistle. She is founder and Executive Director of RADAR Productions, the queer-centric literary non-profit that supports writers through a monthly reading series, national tour, annual writers' retreat, poetry chapbook contests and more. Tea is currently working with 21 filmmakers on an adaptation of her book Valencia; an original screenplay, Chelsea, is also being developed. Her work has been selected for the Best American Music Writing and Best American Non-Required Reading series, and has been published in The Believer, the Columbia Journal, and other publications.  Michelle visited the University of San Francisco campus during the Fall semester, and was kind enough to answer my questions.


SWITCHBACK: Do you write out loud? The voice of your work flows like conversation. How are you able to get that voice on the page without losing something in translation?

MICHELLE TEA: I have no idea. I'm very lucky. I didn't have formal schooling and just write like I talk, only wittier. I did begin writing with the intention of it being read aloud, not read on the page, so the rhythm and energy of “spoken word” style work probably did infuse my writing style early on, and stayed.

 SB: When I heard you read, I kept wondering about drafts. I cannot imagine you doing different drafts of your work, because of how natural it reads. What is your drafting cycle like?

MT: I don't do a lot of drafts. That is what is killing me with my Black Wave weird memoir book I've been working on - I've gone through a lot of drafts, because the core of the book keeps shifting. It's a bit crazy-making, because on some level you can just keep perfecting one piece of work for your whole life, because it will never be perfect, because such a thing isn't real. But this book just hasn't been working so I've been struggling and waiting and struggling and waiting with a deeper understanding of it. For my other books, I pretty much barf a lot of text out quickly and do some tidying up but no real re-writes. I will keep on tidying it up, and work with an editor before publication, but I do not do a bunch of drafts, no. I worry I'm too impatient and my work would benefit from more drafts, but I think it would make me crazy because it's all so subjective - like, this way is better than that way - or is it? I like leaving it how it first hits the page, unless it's convoluted which a lot of my prose can be. I really do have to check and make sure I am expressing things in the clearest way possible because I tend to write things in the least clear way possible, I don't know why.


SB: You have said in previous interviews that you read your work at events like Sister Spit and iron a lot of things out there. Why is it different to read in front of a mic versus reading through your work out loud at home? Why do you think you catch things in front of an audience that you wouldn't have caught if it were just you and the page?

MT: Knowing you have an audience makes a big difference to me, because I will stay present and perform the piece with as much character as I can, so it will be much more alive than if I was alone. I would feel too goofy alone. Also it helps sometimes to gauge an audience and see how they liked it, which parts worked the way you'd hoped and which fell flat.

SB: You seem to hold very little back in your writing, which risks a loss of audience. In a 2004 interview you said, "I'm comfortable with the idea that things I write are going to piss people off, there's no way around that." Earlier in the interview you also said that you do have the desire for an audience. How are these two points reconciled in you? Do you have to set aside your desire for an audience while writing, in order to say what needs to be said?

MT: Oh, pissing people off in no way stops you from having an audience! All writers want an audience, and having one is one of the most amazing things of my life! Really! I'm not trying to piss anyone off, I have just accepted, as all writers must, that not everyone will love everything you write, and you can't ever be beholden to that because it will compromise your story or your voice. Writers must be free while they are writing, you can feel it when they aren't. It's the difference between things that sound inspired and things that don't. You can always make some calls in the editing process, if you are sick of hurting your mom's feelings or something, but while writing you must be willing to hurt everyone's feelings.

SB: Still talking about holding yourself back, would you say that you do hold some part of yourself back? Or is the reader getting all of Michelle Tea when she reads your books?

MT: Well they are getting a very mediated version of myself. I think a terrible side effect of this sort of writing is people do think they know me, but they only know my books. I'm not my books. There's no way to explain what changes with time and how expressing things in writing alters the reality you're expressing. It's really not the same. As for holding back, I would hold things back if it makes sense for the story, but not out of a self-protective instinct, no.

SB: In class, students typically have to think about a writer's theme and overall agenda when discussing a work. That is easy to do with your writing, since topics of feminism, sexuality, and drug use are prevalent. Would you say you sit down to write on these social themes, or are you just out to tell a good story and the rest happens organically?

MT: I've just written about my life, and in my life I am a feminist, have sex, and have been a drug addict, so that's what you get! Even in writing fiction, I am drawn to explore things that I know, and so these themes will be present. I think my writing is an extension of my consciousness, which has been fed by my life experiences, among other things.


SB: How did you get started with Ironing Board Collective?

MT: I just had to bow out of IBC because I got a temporary day job that has made much of my life hard to balance. But, I had been wanting to do a fashion blog because I really love writing about fashion and wanted someplace to do it. I had an idea that if 5 people were blogging there would always be content and no one would get burnt out. My friend Michael von Braithwaite is very stylish and a hilarious smart brain and she mentioned wanting to do a blog, and her husband Thomas McBee is also super fashionable and funny and brainy and so it was a great match! We recruited others from there. Michael and Thomas are still holding it down and I hope to return if/when my life opens up.


SB: You've written poems, graphic novels, memoirs, novels, and now you're writing a fashion blog as well. How do you choose which genre to write in? How does each experience differ from the others?

MT: I started with poems because they felt like an inviting entry point, they were short and hard and that worked for a while. Then I wanted to tell more of the story, I wanted more room, so I moved into memoir. When I got burned out on my own story I switched to fiction - I also wanted to challenge myself. Part of being burned out on memoir wasn't only the attendant privacy issues, it was having the same subject for so long. I write a graphic novel script because the Rent Girl book had been so fun. My process for that wasn't any different than the other books, I was just writing stories and giving them to the artist to illustrate. But it did make me want to play with a graphic novel for real, and I have written a script. I'm not very strategic, I just write what I feel inspired to write.

SB: I'm dying to know about the dialogue in your books. In Rose of No Man's Land, when Trisha speaks, each word is capitalized, and when others speak their words are italicized. I thought this was a statement about her character until I saw it in Valencia as well. Did you have a hand in this or was this publishing? What's the purpose behind this distinction?

MT: It's just a stylistic tic I picked up while writing memoir. I couldn't bring myself to put things in 'quotes', being aware that I was always paraphrasing what I and others had said at the time. There is something so official about quotes! And also - I felt embarrassed that I would put on such airs as to think I was writing a book - the dialogue in quotes looked like a joke to me, like I was pretending to Write A Book. It felt stiff. I came up with this other way I'm not sure how. Partly from Eileen Myles' Chelsea Girls, she doesn't use quotes and so I was liberated, as I often am by her choices.


SB: You've said that you no longer drink. Does this change how you approach the subject of alcohol and drug use in your work? 

MT: It probably does change how I approach it, but it's not conscious. It’s more in synch with growing, changing, aging, and how your approach changes in so many areas. There is also the reality that since quitting alcohol changed my story, and I so often write my story, I changed the narrative by getting sober.


SB: You're currently working on a young adult novel. In a 2006 interview you said that to you, writing fiction is harder than writing a memoir. Has your view on writing fiction differed since that interview?

MT: Well, I guess it is differently hard. Writing memoir too has become challenging as I have a need for privacy and an aversion to making people uncomfortable that really works against the memoir instinct! But regardless, the memoir instinct is stronger in me than the push towards fiction, but fiction has become easier. I'm probably over-thinking it - how about WRITING is hard! That's better.

SB: I studied Rose of No Man's Land in a class recently, and we talked about how Trisha goes on the ideal mythical hero's journey. We plotted each turn the story takes and compared it to the likes of Homer and Gilgamesh. Did you intentionally put Trisha through a hero's journey, or is that something that the reader finds after the fact?

MT: I didn't do anything of that sort intentionally! That pattern is probably seared into my psyche as it is seared into all of our psyches as it is the #1 most popular format for storytelling. There is an alternative, a Heroine's Journey, that woman have written a bit about and this summer at the Radar LAB Writers' Retreat I founded the writer Jill Soloway was speaking and writing a lot about it. It's a sort of cyclical, recurring journey. I like both journeys. In general, I like a journey.


SB: When I heard you speak, you said you've written one other young adult novel, but you weren't referring to Rose of No Man's Land. Would you say that it's a YA novel, and if not, what differentiates the book you're working on now and sets it apart as YA?

MT: I guess the intention makes something YA for me, as I'm writing it. In a way the whole YA thing is a marketing construct - of course there are books that are more or less appropriate for younger readers, or stories that appeal to them, but I was reading adult literature really early and I bet lots of young readers do the same. With Rose I just wrote it like the ideal reader was some version of me, but for my Mermaid book that will come out on McSweeney's, or the Faggot book I'm working on, I imagine younger people reading it. But I do think it comes down to how the publisher wants to sell it.


SB: In your introduction to Valencia you say, "It's a snapshot, more or less of my 25th year on earth, written not how it happened but how I felt it happened, and how I felt about it happening." This is a very fine distinction, but an important one. Do you ever find this very personal process difficult to do? Do you find you have to have distance from a moment in time before you can write about it?

MT: Sometimes I feel like I need distance for sure, but other times, like when writing Valencia, I had experiences that just happened and I wrote them immediately and it came out with that urgent feel to it. I think I didn't recognize how subjective my telling was until long after the fact, after I grew up some. I think I did believe I was putting THE TRUTH on the page, and while I did realize it was 'my' part of the truth, I didn't know how distant I would feel from it with the passing of time. Which is good! I'm glad I wrote with such conviction and bravado! It helped shape the voice and I love the voice.

Photo by Amos Mac