Merritt Tierce was born and raised in Texas, graduated from college at 19, and waited tables for ten years before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She's the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and a 2013 National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” author. Her first book, Love Me Back, won the 2014 Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction and was shortlisted for the PEN/Bingham prize for debut fiction. Merritt's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, and Southwest Review, among other publications. She lives in Denton, Texas.
“Avatar of Myself“ an interview with Merritt Tierce
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Crawford Pederson. Of the process he said, “The word raw flashes in my head anytime I think of Merritt Tierce’s writing. She is blunt, honest, and explicit. I could spend hours using different words to describe her prose, but I cannot fully describe the punch that her writing packs. Read this interview, then go pick up her novel.” In this interview Merritt Tierce talks about her favorite fictional heroines, re-reading her novel, and new people.
Superstition Review: The very first page of Love Me Back deals with sex and drug abuse. Those topics escalate from there. The story goes on to discuss self mutilation, prostitution, and domestic violence. What was your process for writing such a raw and fervent narrative? Were you ever at times uncomfortable with the subject matter?
Merritt Tierce: The first question seems to connect the process with the material, but I am not aware of any explicit relationship. The novel began as a set of standalone stories I wrote over seven years; all I can say is that perhaps I would not have written the material that became Love Me Back at all, if I had not felt the urgency of each story pushing its way out of me, and perhaps that urgency arose from the rawness. But my process for Love Me Back seems to have had more to do with how one writes a first book than how one writes any particular narrative, whether raw or not.
And no, I was never uncomfortable with the subject matter. Whatever is hard or dangerous or painful in life contains some truth about the darkness of life; I am uncomfortable with the idea that I might pretend the darkness isn’t there. I am uncomfortable with the reality that women are still not considered fully human, so there is hardly a subject more worth writing about than the subjugation of women.
SR: Marie Young is an impressively complex character. She is a hard working and reliable waitress who abuses drugs and self mutilates. She was also valedictorian of her high school class and was accepted into Yale. What lead you to create the character of Marie Young? Was your vision for her character the same throughout the writing process?
MT: She is an avatar of my self, so I suppose I was led to create her by a need to tell my own story. I was a hardworking and reliable waitress who abused drugs and self-mutilated. I left home for college at fifteen and was accepted to graduate school at Yale when I was 19. I didn’t go to Yale because I got pregnant. I was threatened and shamed by church elders. Et cetera. So I can’t take much credit for “creating” Marie—hers was the story I knew best, the story that felt most important and available.
My vision for Marie never changed—actually that seems like a false way of explaining it. The book is entirely of Marie’s vision. I tried to report her vision accurately; I had no vision of my own for her character. That probably sounds disingenuous but what I mean is that what I wrote, I wrote out of a subconscious allegiance to the already-known truth and worth of it, not out of an externally imposed intention.
SR: Speaking of well written female characters, which female protagonists in literature do you admire? Who is your favorite heroine?
MT: Ursa, from Corregidora by Gayl Jones; Brienne of Tarth, from George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series; Penthesilea, from Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthesilea; Alison Bechdel’s and Grace Paley’s protagonists; Lydia Davis’s narrators. My favorite heroine might be Princess Mononoke, who is a creation of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese filmmaker—technically outside literature, but his storytelling is so masterful I have to include her.
SR: How did you turn your real life experience of waitressing into a novel?
MT: One day I wrote a story called “Suck It.” I wrote it out of anger, and because I knew how to tell the story. The story happened to come out of my real life experiences waiting tables, so I had a deep and extensive knowledge of that scene to draw from; I tried to include only what I thought compelling, but that was an instinctive process. The next time I felt the urge to write a story it happened to also come out of my real life experiences waiting tables. And so on. This is not much of answer to the question of “how” I did it but the answer to that is I’m not really sure. In writing and in life I try to avoid being boring or shallow, so that was part of what drove the work and influenced the specific choices I made.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
MT: My friend Ben Fountain once said to me “A story doesn’t have to do everything.” He also said, about writing: “It should be a source of joy.” I try to keep both of those ideas in mind when I’m writing. But I don’t know if it helps, since writing is most often a source of dread, and since I’m always trying to make a story do everything.
As for my process, I don’t know how it has been influenced by other writers because I don’t feel I have arrived at a process I can yet claim or describe. But knowing a lot of other writers has given me many examples of how other writers do it, which is useful. Patterns emerge, indicating strategies that result in books. The most basic of which is: writers write. I answer this question from within an extended moment of trying to take what I know about how other writers write and what I know about how I am as a person and invent a process that will make me a writer who writes. Frankly this period of my life as a writer sucks, and I have no certainty that it will not continue forever.
SR: Love Me Back has now been out for a little over two years. How has your view of the novel changed over time? How will this book affect your next project?
MT: I love the novel more now, which is either a good sign or a sign that it was all I had to give. I re-read parts of it when I feel like I really don’t know what I’m doing. Re-reading it gives me the great feeling that I can do what I did, in Love Me Back, which then rolls over into the awful feeling that maybe I did what I can. Maybe there won’t be more, from me. I suppose that might sound ridiculous but I feel like a lot of books appear every year that just didn’t need to be written. That were written because the writer thought of himself as a writer and squeezed out a book so he could keep thinking of himself as a writer.
As more and more time passes since the publication of my novel I also think about how quickly books fade, how quickly the next class of books everyone is excited about replaces the last. It’s inevitable but it still gives me the sensation that I’ve become separated from my book in a crowd, that there’s no way we will find each other again. Obviously I can find my book whenever I want (I just bought sixty remaindered hardbacks for $1.27 each!), but I am also part of the collective cultural audience that is constantly being saturated with new content (odious, industrial word, but it’s not just new books that eclipse old books—it’s music and movies and television and the Internet).
I’m not sure how Love Me Back will affect my next project. It may be that knowing I wrote Love Me Back is suppressing my desire to try to write anything I don’t feel so intensely. What could be the point of that? I would like to be able to focus on the possibility that I could write something even better than Love Me Back, but my confidence is at an ebb.
SR: You recently wrote an article for Marie Claire where you talk about having to become a postal carrier to pay the bills, and how the lack of funds is affecting your ability to write full time. What are your plans going forward? What is your advice to young writers about how to balance an author's life and still pay the bills?
MT: I’m still trying to figure out my plan, going forward. I’ve definitely discovered that I need to feel a sense of security about how the bills are going to be paid, to feel like I have the right to practice writing. The idea that I must make money as a writer to have a home and food directly stifles any freedom I might feel to work on something for which there is no market. But I want that freedom. I don’t think I can learn to write at a higher level without trying things that may not work commercially.
My advice to young writers is to chart a deliberate course from the beginning. What do you want your life to look like? The daily rhythm of it, I mean. How do you want to spend your time? And how do you get from here to there? You might frequently adjust the answers to those questions, and everything will happen incrementally. But each path I see involves some hazards and some benefits. If you teach, maybe you have health insurance and a paycheck. But maybe the work you have to do for that paycheck is not worth it. The academic job market is shit. If you have to be insanely overqualified to get the good gigs, maybe you should consider becoming sufficiently qualified as a financial analyst instead. I feel like the pool of people teaching and studying writing in universities is too homogeneous, so if you have to go that route, are you someone who can bust it up in some way? Can you make that part of your mission? Will you be dedicated to your students? I admire writers who have a devotion to and expertise in some other field—doctors, scientists, farmers, etc. But the hazard of going that route, or any day job route, is that you may wake up twenty years from whenever without having made the time to write. That’s a hazard no matter what though. So when I say chart a deliberate course I mean break it down and be real with yourself as to how and when you’re going to write, and what you expect from yourself. That way if you’re failing, at least you’ll really know it and won’t be able to delude yourself, won’t be able to drift along with a vague sense that you want to be a writer. The beauty and horror of it is no matter what you do to pay the bills no one can keep you from also being a writer.
SR: You have accomplished a great deal during your career as an author including being a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ award winner. Could you describe how your success have affected you as a writer?
MT: It’s difficult for me to think of the awards mentioned as accomplishments—I am so grateful to have my work recognized and validated, but luck seems to be such a part of it that I would hate to think I’d think less of myself as a writer without the laurels. That is, if you are a writer whose work has not been or is never prized, that does not in any way mean that your work is worth less than mine or some more decorated writer’s, given that the cultural consciousness has a hard time understanding what books will have lasting significance. “Worth” here refers to aesthetic and artistic merit, but there is of course another kind of worth: any success I’ve had as a writer is extremely valuable to me solely because it may create more time to write. The awards and best-of lists can feel exclusionary and trendy to the point that it’s obvious you shouldn’t feel snubbed if you’re not chosen; but the reality is that, for those who are, the coins add up, toward creating a resume of legitimacy. And that legitimacy can help you land a job or a residency or a fellowship that will give you some financial support while you write.
SR: Why do you think is it still taboo for women to write and talk about casual sex?
MT: Because women who enact or present a sexual agency that is outside of male control are a threat to the patriarchy. And the whole world and every system in it runs on the patriarchy.
SR: You’ve brought up in previous interviews that women who talk about their sexual encounters are looked down upon. However, the way you write about sex in Love Me Back sometimes seems to be less about pleasure and more about a form of self hatred. Many of the narrator’s sexual encounters seem to be out of her want for a pleasurable experience but others seem like she may be doing it for unhealthy reasons. Marie allows herself to be pimped out by a coworker, physically abused, and demeaned by several men. I see her demeanor and detached approach to abusive relationships as a direct result of her treatment at the hands of the religious elders. Can you discuss your use of sex and power dynamics as a way to characterize Marie and the people around her?
MT: Marie has internalized the male view of her self as an object. She is, however, on some level aware that she has internalized her objectification, and so she hates herself twice—once because she has internalized the patriarchy’s view of and understanding of her self, so she hates herself on behalf of the patriarchy; and once more because she knows she is doing this. She gives herself up for use as a sex object because it’s just another way to punish herself for her failures as a person and as a mother; those encounters have nothing to do with sex per se. Sex is simply another route to pain, like drugs or burning herself. But she also lets herself have sexual encounters that aren’t about pleasure, with men she despises, to increase her hatred of the patriarchy. She wants it to reveal itself for what it is. She doesn’t want to forget for a second how much women are hated, how little they’re worth.
SR: I really liked your portrayal of the subtle trials and joys of motherhood in the story. I particularly enjoyed the excerpt that takes place in the public library where Marie was shamed and asked to leave by the Librarian for breastfeeding her child in an empty section of the stacks. The controversy about public breastfeeding is still present. Could you talk for a moment about why the female body, and more specifically the maternal body, scares certain people?
MT: I think we want to pretend like we aren’t animals, and the maternal body reminds people that we’re just helpless mammals at the beginning, that we’re dependent. And it reminds people that women have so much power. New people emerge from maternal bodies! I mean if that doesn’t scare you…
SR: What does your writing space look like?
It’s a cedar closet. It’s dark. I climb up on the shelf in the top of it to climb up into my mind.