“I do anything I can to avoid speaking to people,” Merritt Tierce tells me about twenty minutes into our interview. I’m not exactly sure how to react. Should I be offended? Should I take it as a cue to try to wrap things up? Instead, I sit back and let the author keep going. She might not like talking, sure, but I’ve already figured out in the short time we’ve spent in conversation that she has a lot to say—and a lot that should be said. We don’t hang up for another twenty-five minutes.
Tierce is the author of Love Me Back, a debut novel with bite. The book follows emotionally detached young mother Marie through her jobs at various Texas restaurants. Based heavily on Tierce’s own experiences—she too worked in food service and had two young children by age twenty-one—Love Me Back is an exploration of voice. Tierce’s often poetic language bends, twists, and broods as she recounts Marie’s thoughts and exploits through a series of interwoven shorts. The book is at once beautiful, sexy, and uncomfortable.
A week after digesting one of the most unique reading experiences I’ve ever had, I spoke to Tierce via Skype—she in Dallas, me in Brooklyn. She tapped a pen she was holding in her hand on the table in between questions as she spoke, and we talked about Love Me Back, her work with the Texas Equal Access Fund (which she’s leaving at the end of August in order to write full-time), and what it’s like to tell someone you’re a writer for real. (Spoiler: It’s good.)
Meredith Turits: So, I’ve had your quote “12 Writers Who Have Been Writing in Their Garages for 10 Years and You Won’t Get to Read Their Books for Another 5 At Least”—from your National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 interview with Claire Vaye Watkins—as my Gchat status all week, and about five people have commented on how hilarious it is. But I guess it’s not relevant to you any longer—you’ve “emerged,” yeah?
Merritt Tierce: I know! I guess I am definitely past “larval stage.” It’s really easy to make fun of those things, but it’s fun when they land on you.
Turits: The book technically hasn’t launched yet, but do you feel that because people are already getting their hands on it, it’s out in the world?
Tierce: Since this is my first time out, I really haven’t known what to expect anyway, but it does seem to have gotten out there a lot more than I would have estimated. It’s been fun. I’m still thrilled when someone I don’t know has a copy of my book somehow. It’s like, Oh, my publicist must be doing stuff! The whole machine of it is really strange and thrilling.
My agent and my editor and my publicist all have done a really good job of sending me the latest rave review, which is really encouraging. I don’t know how I could ever get to a place where I took that for granted, or got tired of it. Part of it is like, who doesn’t like an ego stroke? But also, when you’re so used to thinking of yourself as a writer who hasn’t published anything or who no one has read or who doesn’t matter, it’s hard to get used to thinking that people dowant to read what you’ve written. It’s hard to accept.
Turits: When you say a “writer who doesn’t matter”—I’m so interested in this idea of a writer examining herself against the general landscape of writing and literature and novels that are out there. Is that ever a concern that popped into your mind? Do you ever wonder, Will I be relevant? How do I stack up against what’s out there? How will I be received?
Tierce: No. I’ve never known how to think about that. I don’t want it to sound at all like I’m above it, but I feel like what I write and how I write is so personal, and I’m doing it in a way that is meant to please only me. That if I’m not relevant and if people who “matter” don’t think that I do or don’t like my writing—I don’t know. I had to crack that nut in grad school. And I think that was particularly good for me, in terms of responding to the situation of someone—who has been enormously validated by the literary universe and canonized—basically thinking that my work was shit. I had to figure out how to respond to that. It actually was really good for me, and I’m glad it happened. It was really painful for me in the moment, but it forced me to realize that I’m not writing for anyone else.
It hurts when I’m rejected. I got rejected by a literary magazine yesterday. It’s always surprising, too. I don’t want it to hurt. I feel like I should have a scab now, too.
Turits: It never heals, ever.
Tierce: Yeah! Even if they weren’t going to pay anything and no one was going to read it because it was a small literary magazine, [I thought,] Why didn’t you want me? But I went back to the piece that had been rejected, and I was like, I still love you as much as I did.
So that is just how I exist as a writer, for good or bad. Maybe I won’t be as prolific or careerist as I could be because I don’t have that drive, but I’m also not as vulnerable to the competitive stuff that you can get toxically stuck in.
Turits: You got a creative writing MFA at Iowa. Do you think going to a graduate creative writing program was a good thing for cultivating how you ultimately developed as a writer?
Tierce: I was not interested in getting an MFA for a long time because I didn’t know how I’d respond to that environment. I think it’s a pretty common thing for artists working in all different fields—you feel like if you throw yourself into a pool of other artists, how will you know who you are, or how will you not be squashed by the talent around you? It’s hard to figure out, Will you survive that? But I think it was really good for me because one of the main things that was valuable about it was I realized what I do well as a writer, and that was a result of the workshop experience of reading other people’s work and having them read mine.
I don’t know what I think of the workshop experience—I don’t know why it is what it is, and I’m not convinced it’s the most effective model—but I hadn’t had a really good grasp on what I was doing that was unique or interesting before I was thrown into that pot.
Turits: Is grad school the first place where you discovered yourself as a voice-driven kind of writer?
Tierce: It’s the first place where I realized that’s what my fiction would be described as. I write how I write. I didn’t know to call it “voice-driven” before I went to Iowa and decided that’s the kind of writer I wanted to be.
Turits: Developing a voice-driven narrative is a challenge and a risk, especially when plot-driven books are in many ways both easier to write and also more easily accepted by audiences. Can you talk to me a little bit about how your narrative developed and the experiences you had that you believe were unique to writing a voice-driven novel?
Tierce: I’m just not that interested in plot as a reader and certainly not as a writer. This book draws heavily from my own experience, and it is so close to the character of the narrator—and it’s my first book. I have no idea how I will be when I try my hand at a different kind of fiction or at constructing a plot. I don’t know if I can do that, or if I ever will, because what I care most about is language. I don’t care what the sentence is about as long as it’s beautiful. It may end up being a big weakness. I don’t really know yet.
Turits: What was the first impactful voice-driven work you remember reading?
Tierce: Wow. I read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin as a kid—but as an adult, too. Her writing—I don’t know if you can technically call it “voice-driven,” but her writing is at such peace with what it’s telling, that’s how her work captivates me. Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers. When I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, I totally responded to her fiction because it’s just dirty and sad in the most beautiful way. And that’s such a weird combination. It’s such a puzzle and I love it.
Turits: I mean, those two adjectives are very much Love Me Back.
Tierce: “Dirty” and “sad”?
Turits: Yeah! But in the best way.
Tierce: Well, thank you! I think my favorite adjective that I have not seen in a blurb for any writer before is “gross.” Someone said that the book was “gross.” They said “dirty,” and maybe “sad,” and then they said “gross.” But they meant it as a complete compliment. And I’ve never been called “gross” and felt great before.
Turits: When was the first time you felt a real confidence in Marie’s voice?
Tierce: The first story I ever wrote was called “Suck It,” which is the chapter that sort of anchors the book, and I wrote it all in one sitting one night, and her voice is just there. It’s so powerful in that story that I think she just had so much more to say that there wasn’t a way to leave her. I didn’t start out writing a book. I started out just writing stories, but each story I wrote was her saying more about the things that she sees around her. [Her voice] was just there from the beginning. I didn’t realize that I was creating something that would be a larger work for quite a while.
Turits: Because so many of Marie’s defining traits are ones with which you can identify—since you said the character is very much based on your background—what’s your relationship to Marie like, knowing that you have some of these things in common? How did your personal identity enmesh with the project over the course of its evolution?
Tierce: I feel like I learned a lot. I think this is a Flannery O’Connor quote—she says, “I write to find out what I know,” and I’ve always loved that because I feel like that’s true. I’m not a talker. Every time I do an interview, I use up a whole week’s worth of words talking. I forget to talk sometimes. I do anything I can to avoid speaking to people. I’ll text you an entire book before I’ll pick up the phone. I hate speaking. I hate opening my mouth.
But writing is different. I feel like there’s a fluid transmission when I’m writing. So I felt like writing about a lot of the things that I experienced as a younger woman and inside this particular culture really helped me—I don’t want to say “process” because I hate that word—but I needed to tell it. I needed to say what it was.
And writing it as fiction—the distance between Merritt and Marie is really significant. I feel like she’s not me and she is me. We have a lot of mutual respect for each other, if that makes any sense. I know she’s not real…but she feels like that. She’s a real creation of mine, and we have a relationship. The book is about that relationship as much as it is about anything—it’s about how you tell your own story to yourself. I feel a lot of compassion for her, and I feel her compassion for herself, too, as I also really understand what it’s like to hate yourself and fuck with yourself for inscrutable reasons.
Turits: It’s funny—the relationship a writer has with her character is something that only writers really understand, but then the rest of the world gets to judge that relationship however they want. And when a writer and her character appear to be very close, that gets tricky. They’re odd forces going against each other.
Tierce: Yeah, and I don’t really have a pat answer for “Is this autobiographical?” Because that is a question that I’m always asked in some form or another. I’m interested in why that is such a fascinating thing. I mean, anytime I read something—like, Junot Díaz stories, for example; I know enough about him, the person, to think, Is this based on his life? Did he do this? Is he like this as a lover? How can I find out? It seems like a really instinctive human response to [the question of autobiography], and I don’t know why that is. If you find out that yes, it’s totally autobiographical and they’re just calling it fiction, how do you feel? As compared to: if you find out no, they made up every word, it just happens to be like them in some ways. Are you asking that question because you think it’s evidence of greater talent or more skill as an artist, to invent things, or are you asking that because you just want to fulfill your voyeuristic urge to know? Or you want to find out if the person standing in front of you did the things you read about in this book—
Turits: —or do you want some sort of authenticity from the author?
Tierce: Yeah. I don’t really know why I want to know. I feel like I have to know why people want to know before I feel like I can answer, but that’s just because I’m a consummate people-pleaser, and I avoid confrontation almost as much as I avoid speaking. So I’m always looking for: What is the answer that the person standing in front of me wants to hear? I don’t think that’s a great quality, and I think it often goes hand-in-hand with self-destructive tendencies, but it has led me to think about this question a lot without really getting anywhere. There’s no way to answer it, you know?
Turits: Well, what’s really so interesting, too, is: before I read your book, I knew what you did. I know that you’re involved with the Texas Equal Access Fund, and I know what they do. I know that they provide abortion funding. So I know a little bit about you, and I know a little bit about your job, so I’ve got that in the back of my head as I’m reading your book, and that makes me even more curious, to sort of put that extra narrative in. And I start thinking, Well, what if Marie had gotten an abortion? And it puts in that extra layer, which is interesting.
Tierce: Yeah, it always is.
Turits: Speaking of which, how did you get involved with the TEA Fund?
Tierce: I got involved through my best friend/mentor/mother figure [Gretchen]—the book is dedicated to her—and to my husband. She died in 2009. She was twenty years older than I am, and she had been a feminist activist for her whole adult life, and was a screenwriter professionally. The TEA Fund was her idea, and she asked me if I wanted to be involved, if I wanted to be on the founding board. I was really conservative and religious until I was twenty-three, and so I was sort of fresh from a kind of conversion—or anti-conversion—experience. But she had a huge influence on me, because she was sort of the opposite. Really liberal, intellectual—represented this whole culture that I really wanted to be a part of but that I did not come from at all. So I originally got involved with it through her, but the meaning of the work is so compelling to me for very personal reasons.
At this point in my life, it makes all sorts of logical and economical and moral sense to support access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare and on-demand access to abortion, but I don’t think I could have ever gotten there without a really personal understanding of what it’s like to be pregnant when you weren’t planning on being pregnant, and the consequences it can have. I’ve been okay forever with the complexity of having had a kid before I was ready, and of also, no, I wouldn’t change a thing about how it all happened.
I think that that is missing a lot from conversations about abortion because there’s been so much focus on, well, if we could all just decide when life begins then that would just be this cut-and-dry thing. But that’s never going to happen, because it is complex and it is bringing together a whole basket full of taboos. Death and sex and religion—you can’t throw it all into this soup and then just say it’s one thing. I’ve always understood that on a gut level. Working for the TEA Fund has allowed me to bring that out of my gut and up through my brain and understand why I feel that is so true. That gut-level feeling of knowing what is good for me and what is really happening is something that I feel like led me away from organized religion in the first place.
Turits: Do you very much separate your work life and your writing life, or do they bleed together?
Tierce: They used to be a lot more segregated than they are now. It wasn’t necessarily intentional; it was just that they were separate. I’ve written about abortion in the past few years, gradually more and more, and I’m leaving this job at the end of the month, and I’ve felt for a while now that I could be of significantly more use to this movement as a full-time writer than as someone who’s doing a lot of administrative and more leadership-type stuff, which is not necessarily my strength, anyway. I have a feeling they will become ever more related in the future.
Turits: What, then, is the future for you?
Tierce: I’m going to be a writer on September first!
Turits: Well, congratulations then—that’s pretty exciting! Though I would strongly argue that you already are one.
Tierce: Well, I know. I tell people, in this really tentative way, “I’m quitting my job so I can go be a writer!” And my husband will be there and he’ll go, “No, say that again!” And I’ll go, “No! I’m quitting my job so I can be a writer because I am a writer!”