Michelle Tea loves words, and it shows. As one of the founders of San Francisco’s brilliantly loopy poetry slam-cum-cabaret Sister Spit, the 28-year-old Tea’s flair for whipping tales of life and love into hilarious dramalogues have made her a local favorite on the spoken-word scene, and her gleeful energy and tongue-twisty stylings come through just as loud on paper.
Her first book, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (Semiotexte/Smart Art Press), was a collection of memoirs in short-story form whose sugared-up, often punctuation-free voice drew the reader into Tea’s New England, careening from adolescent goth exploration to prostitution to desert-bound heartbreak in less than 200 pages. Her latest, Valencia (Seal Press), finds her chronicling a heart-churning, teeth-gnashing series of adventures in love, sex, friendship, and caffeine in San Francisco’s Mission District, a world where dyke bars and communal apartments overflow with equal parts drama, angst, and crazy delight. Bitch caught up with the ever-traveling Michelle for an e-mail interview, and found that she had some choice words on inspiration, obsession, and the perils of using your short story as payback.
What are you doing this summer?
I’ll be with Sister Spit at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this August, reading as part of the Moving Targets series at New Langton Arts in San Francisco on August 24th, and hawking my new book Valencia at Bodecia’s Books in Oakland on the 26th.
Your first book, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and the second book, Valencia, are both written in first-person narrative, in the voice of a character who is also named Michelle. Are we meant to take the character Michelle and the author Michelle as two different people?
No, the “Michelle” in the book is definitely me, though if it makes a reader more comfortable to imagine it’s all a giant work of fiction, that’s fine too.
Do you find that your friends/lovers are a little wary because there’s always a chance they’ll end up in one of your stories?
I’ve found that most people are kind of in love with the idea of being written about—initially anyway, before the reality of their lives via my perspective is put into print. My last girlfriend ordered me, as part of our break-up terms, not to write anything about her, ever. My current girlfriend really wants me to write about her, anything. Even awful things. She’s shameless, it’s really great. I think many of my friends have felt slighted when I don’t write about them.
One girl I was trying to have an affair/friendship with didn’t get close to me because she thought I was just trying to exploit her for writing material, which made me feel bad, but I guess I understand. Most people are more private about themselves then I am, but I hated her thinking that I was hanging out with her just so I could write about her. It’s more like, I want to hang out with people who are interesting and intriguing, and of course I also want to write about people who are interesting and intriguing. It’s all one to me, because it’s my life.
When was the first time you considered yourself a writer? And what does the term mean to you?
I knew at a very, very young age that I wanted to write—I remember being like 6 or 7 and trying to write my life story. Not a lot had happened yet, so I didn’t get very far. But I loved writing about troubled kids, and I once wrote a script for Facts of Life in which Jo gets the Go-Go’s to perform at a school dance.
I love that I’m a writer, it means I’m in very good company. All my heroes are writers, and I’m honored to be among them. Eileen Myles, Dorothy Allison, Cookie Mueller—people that are honest and inspire others to document their own lives and take them seriously as works of living art.
How do you see your work evolving as time goes on?
The fact that I’ve been published means that now while I’m writing something I’m aware that it will probably be printed at some point. Which is really new for me—Passionate Mistakes and the bulk of Valencia were written as short stories to be read at open mics, so I was more concerned with how it sounded as oppossed to how they read on the page. So I’m more conscious of that, and the things I’m working on now reflect it. [I’m] being less rushed, taking more time with the way things are worded, being more lyrical and descriptive and not worrying that what I’m writing is perhaps too slow for a spoken word-type reading. Not that I want to lose that cadence, though.
What’s the best thing about writing?
I am just so happy that I have found something that gives me pleasure and purpose and doesn’t cost any money! It makes me feel free and gives a strange comfort to know that it’s something I always have. The kind of writing I do, about my own experiences, can really redeem things that I’ve been through, things that were hard or stupid. I feel really lucky that I was born with this compulsion; I honestly think it makes my life easier.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written about someone?
I once began a short story with a totally unnecessary slam against a girl who I and my current girlfriend had had an affair with, because this girl was a poet as well and had just read a really nasty piece about my very sensitive girlfriend at a show I’d invited her to be part of! I thought it was so rude and inappropriate for her to have read it there, plus it was a bunch of lies, which she later admitted. I was wanting revenge and feeling like, “Do not fuck with me in this department, missy, because I will destroy you!” All Joan Crawford about it because I knew the story would be published, and it was. I regret doing that, though; it was stupid and not me at my best, I like to think.
One of the segments in Valencia really hurt an ex-girlfriend who insists it’s not true, and the more I think about it, I do think it’s an amalgamation of my experience with her and things I heard from her subsequent girlfriends. So while it’s not an outright lie, it wasn’t my immediate truth, which is what I really try to stick to. But memory is weird sometimes. You think you’re remembering something, but really you’re remembering a story someone told you and somehow it registered in your brain as having happened to you.
What’s your definition of obsession, and how does it figure in your own life?
I am very prone to obsession, which I adore—I think it’s just part of my personality. I’m generally super enthusiastic and passionate about all my loves and hates, so anything or anyone I love I end up really loving, which is kind of obsessive. I like it, though; it’s fun and makes life seem big and exciting. I’d rather be obsessive then chronically bored [or] jaded. Those are two kind of extreme ways to be, but I’d rather be extreme, too.
What’s your favorite form of procrastination?
Doomed, emotionally fraught relationships vs. less dramatic but emotionally untroubled relationships: Which are more interesting, and why?
Oh god, I truly do not prefer emotionally fraught relationships. They may be more interesting to write about, but I don’t even believe that’s true. As long as you find a serious thrill-seeking troublemaker to shack up with, life will be filled with adventure. Good drama rather than bad drama. I mean, I want to keep things psychotically exciting, but not painful.
What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in, say, 20 years?
I have no idea where I’ll be in 20 years. Hopefully I’ll continue to be inspired and grow as a writer and will have published some more books that I’m proud of. In the shorter term, I’m working on a cabaret tour of the U.S. this fall called The Wasted Motel Tour, working on working some parts of my books into screenplays, flirting with some possible anthologies and also perhaps organizing a queer lit festival. And hopefully starting a band: My friends all chipped in to buy me a drum set for my birthday last year, and it’s been sitting in my bathroom collecting dust.
What have been the three most helpful things for you as a writer?
Judy Blume, Sylvia Plath, and Eileen Myles. Or, memory, experience, and honesty.