The Michelle Tea Interview

Today is the day to read a foreign newspaper.

Hey, there is an interview with me here.

I heard about today's author by word of mouth before I read the review of her latest book in the New York Times Book Review. I had probably met a good handful of women who were just crazy for her, and why not? She's a fascinating person and a prolific writer. Her latest book is her first novel, Rose of No Man's Land. Some of her most-beloved books include: Valencia, which "dramatizes the hopes and hurts, apathies and ambitions of young lesbians looking for love in the Mission District"; The Chelsea Whistle, a "memoir of growing up poor and white on the East Coast in the 1970s and '80s" and Rent Girl, a graphic novel about her experience as a prostitute. She's also the editor of several anthologies like Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class and Best Lesbian Erotica 2004. I caught her while she was in DC on her book tour.

The Michelle Tea Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

How do you know when something you’re writing is meant to be a poem and how you know it’s meant to be prose?
Well, I started out writing poems, and it was just the way the stories and images would come to me. In a streamy rant or a dreamy clutch of discombobulated text. Sort of the way the answer to this question is coming to me. After a while, I wanted to tell a larger story than I felt a poem could hold, so I started telling the stories in prose that I had outlined as poems. Now, I never write poetry. Could it have been a 'phase'? How sad! I think that I just don't allow for the more subtle energy of a poem to enter, because I've filled my life up with a lot of hectic busyness.

Would you consider Rose of No Man's Land a book for young adults in addition to adult readers, because of the age of the protagonist?
Sure! And also because young adults who are readers read all sorts of books, not just the ones that are officially marketed to them.

In another interview, you discuss the need for privacy when you write. So where do you do most of your writing now?
I do some at home in my little office, but that sometimes feels claustrophobic, and my boyfriend will want me to kiss him, and my cat will want to sit on me as I type, and the dishes piled in the sink will mock me, and I'll have to go to a cafe. I write in cafes now. I used to stay up too late writing and required the later hours a bar could offer, but now I'm more of a morning/afternoon writer. In fact I can't believe I'm still awake, it's past midnight.

What’s it like writing horoscopes? Do you just totally make them up or do you have any sort of way of divining?
I like spending time with my friend Jessica, who is the amazing astrologer who really is the engine of the column. She knows all. But I don't like writing them. They just take up a lot of time in my life so I always feel a little stressed about them plus I worry I'm always repeating my metaphors. They are not just made up! They come from the raw notes of Jessica who is a professional, successful, super gifted astrologer. You should all get your charts read by her! She does phone consultations. It will change your life.

Is Rent Girl still in development for TV? What’s happening with it now?
That is a wonderful question. Last I heard, the super amazing Jill Soloway was all hooked up to write and direct, and my agent was making too many demands of the network and slowing things down. I'm waiting to hear something any minute now....

You describe a lot of your writing as feminist. How do you think feminism today is different than it was thirty years ago…or is it different at all?
30 years ago I was 5 and didn't have much of a feminist consciousness. Or, rather, I had the same feminist consciousness: I liked to wear high heel shoes I couldn't walk in, with a face full of makeup I couldn't quite apply, making everyone in the neighborhood act out scenes from CHiPs with me and I always had to the be the kidnapped hitchhiker on rollerskates, and I got pissed if you took any of that away from me and I still do today. But seriously, feminism has stopped being anti-feminine and anti-transsexual, two hugely important things. It has stopped banishing all feminine expression as some brainwashing of the patriarchy — a sort of misogynist opinion, really — and actually allows girls to be girly if they want, plus smart and you know autonomous at the same time. Women can choose to make their money in the sex industry without also being seen as stupid or victimized. The experiences of transsexual women is enriching and really revolutionizing feminism. And these are values that are being embraced by young feminists, so it's going to keep heading in this direction and that's really exciting.

What advice would you give writers who are first-time-public-readers who are nervous about their first performance?
Well, many people enjoy a bravery-boosting cocktail, and lord knows I spent the 90s on stage delivering my poetry in a cloud of booze bravado, but now I'm in AA so you might want to watch that. Face your fears, people. The audience doesn't bite. I've found most audiences to be very warm and cuddly, and they looooooove nervous little first-timers.

And what advice would you give writers on creating a good sex scene?
Oh jeez I don't know. I guess it depends on what sort of good sex scene you're trying to accomplish. I think really awful and awkward sex scenes are so real and therefore good, but they don't necessarily get you off — they're not meant to. As for sex scenes that get you off, that's a personal thing. I just like stories that are really raw and nasty and don't try to be all mysterious and 'erotic'.

Your subject matter is a lot more personal than many writers’. Do you have a lot of fans who feel that they’re more familiar with them than they actually are? How do you keep your distance, if you do?
I don't! I have no boundaries! It's a real problem. Because of course many people feel that they know me from my writing, and who knows, maybe they do. I still feel, deep in my heart, like I am very close with Billy Idol simply from listening to Rebel Yell so obsessively in the 80s so I understand being so moved by someone's art that you feel a false closeness to them. And of course it's worse when it's writing, which is such a direct and personal communication. I don't know, I always feel really awkward and dorky when I meet people who like my book. I did manage to avoid a super drunk girl who kept needing a hug from me at a recent reading. Of course I gave her two hugs, because I have no boundaries. I just managed to escape the bar before she asked for a third.

What did you think of the film version of The Outsiders? I hated it, just because it was so unlike the image I had in my mind.
I loved it, because I am madly in love with Matt Dillon and especially love the movies where he dies in a hail of bullets. Over the Edge, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and Drugstore Cowboy. Seriously, I loved the Outsiders movie so much. Poor little Ralph Macchio! All burnt up on that contraption. I love Diane Lane. But really it's all about Dallas Winston. I loved seeing the characters from the book come to life. I was in 5th grade, I think. I watched it again as an adult and was surprised by how cheesy it was. But maybe I was going through a cynical phase. I want to give it another chance.

Have you ever taught writing? What do you strive to bring to your students (or what would you, if you haven’t?)
I teach occasional workshops, often for teens. I'm about to start my yearly residency at the School of the Arts High School in San Francisco, a public arts high school I teach writing at. I just try to keep them inspired and excited about life and about writing and being creative. They've got other teachers to make them read the classics. We worked a LOT with Lynda Barry, and also with ZZ Packer and Katia Noyes and with found photos. I just want to bring them a feeling of excitement about the world and their place in it, as observers and participants.

From your point of view, do you concur when some people say that for some women, working in the sex industry is empowering?
Of course. If a woman says something empowered her, I would never challenge that. The sex industry is such an intense place to work and people's reaction to it can go back and forth throughout the course of a day. It's complicated. I personally found aspects of it empowering and aspects of it really oppressive. In that respect it was like most jobs I've had, including writing.

What were some of the challenges of working on fiction that you hadn’t faced with nonfiction? Or did you find that fiction was easier?
Fiction was NOT easier. Not for me, a lazyass writer who likes for the plot to have already occurred, in real life, leaving me to patch together clever jumbles of words. No, it was hard to develop the characters, hard to trust that they seemed true, hard to come up with a plot and hard to sustain it. Hard to feel that it was worthwhile, hard to not sink into an existential crisis: why am I creating more lost girls in the world and putting them through all this bullshit?

As somebody who writes from her own life, do you ever worry that you’ll run out of material?
Amazingly, it's not so much that I would run out of material. I could probably get a full memoir out of any single day of my life. It's weird. But, what has happened is that I'm sick to fucking death of hearing me yabber on about myself. I just lost the stomach for it. I felt so showy all of a sudden, and had a sudden concern about implicating others in my writing, something I'd never given a crap about before. I also felt overexposed and publicly vulnerable and had to give it a rest. I have no doubt I'll be back, though.

In the Amazon description of The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, it say “At 27, Michelle Tea is an ex-prostitute, ex Goth, ex-drummer for Dirt Bike Gang, ex-straight girl, ex-lesbian separatist vegan, ex-Catholic schoolgirl, and ex-resident of Chelsea, Boston's working class slum.” Now that you’re older, what are some other “ex-“s that can be added to your resume?
Hmmmm.....ex-bookstore employee, ex-lesbian, ex-poor person, ex-mission district dweller, ex-cellent....?

Are you still working on a science fiction novel? How is that coming?
No! I haven't touched it. I do think I'll return to it, though. I did just finish the script for a super hero comic I'm doing with Laurenn McCubbin, though and that was pretty sci-fi. It's about a girl who turns into a pigeon and hops a train to a city of mutants. Among other things.

Who do you like in this cycle of “America’s Next Top Model”?
God, I've been on this damn book tour and I keep missing episodes! There's not one damn lesbian on the show this cycle, I guess someone got punished for having 4 lesbians on it last cycle (oh yes, Kim wasn't the only one). I am enjoying what a psychopath Jade is, and I really like Danielle and Furonda. I like that Furonda's name is Furonda, and that she used to work phone sex. I think one of those two will win though we will be stuck with Jade and her borderline personality disorder til the bitter end cause she gives such good tv.

How does it feel to be the 145th person interviewed for
It's really cheered me up. I'm on a book tour right now, in a hotel in Washington DC, all by my lonesome, and I got a facial today and now my face is all fucked up, like really red and splotchy and doing this interview has helped me to forget that I look like I have chicken pox ON MY FACE and how I have to you know keep reading in public and being looked at by attractive people, like the Keanu Reeves of DC who came to my reading tonight and took a picture with me and little did I know he now has a souvenir of me looking like Ralph Macchio in The Outsiders.

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