Interview with Michelle Tea

Originally published in Punk Planet, September/October 2006

Michelle Tea catapulted to queer icon status as cofounder (with Sini Anderson) of Sister Spit, the raucous all-girl spoken word open mic and traveling roadshow that terrorized the country in the mid-to-late-‘90s.  Her follow-up novel Valencia delivered the dirt on dyke hipsterdom, desperation and debauchery in San Francisco's Mission District.  Then came The Chelsea Whistle, a memoir on the perils and perseverances of Tea’s childhood; the anthology Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing up Working Class; and the graphic novel Rent Girl (with Laurenn McCubbin).  Tea’s new novel, Rose of No Man's Land, a mesmerizing take on the horrors and highs at that point between childhood and the end of the world, has garnered critical acclaim from all over the place, and now Hollywood has even entered the picture.

Between touring with the Sex Workers Art Show and touring for Rose of No Man's Land, Michelle Tea sat down to talk about intuition, drugs, sobbing, breaking and entering, Route 1, mall culture, panic-inducing language, who's making millions, compromise, sex work, TV, optimism, appropriation, landlords, accountability and living in cities.

Mattilda: I want to start with the point in Rose of No Man’s Land that just blew me away. And that’s when Trisha, the narrator, does crystal for the first time, with her new friend Rose, and they’re out in this dinosaur-themed miniature golf course in the suburbs of Boston, and they start to make out, and it’s like everything from there to the end is one extended revelation filtered through breakdown. I wonder how you managed to convey so much complexity in this intensely personal way.

Michelle Tea: I was kind of freaked out the whole time I was writing it and crossing my fingers, and just hoping that it made sense and that it worked, and feeling most of the time like I really didn’t know, and then sometimes feeling like I hated it, and sometimes like I loved it. But most of the time I was really in the dark about it.  It was just kind of intuitive—I just kind of went with whatever I felt like was the thing to do. That’s like the least helpful answer in the whole world. It’s really true.

M: Another thing that I really liked about the book is that you’re able to talk about crystal without having this really simplistic way of talking about it.  Like, “Oh, it’s the worst thing that ever happened. It’ll destroy your life…” Or, “Oh, it’s so amazing and it’s just going to change the way you see everything.”

MT: Some of the best times of my life were spent high on crystal. So I totally know… I always felt like any drug I’d ever done, there was always, no matter how great a time I was having, there was always this weird void kind of right under the surface. And part of the exhileration of it was, you’re getting over on that void and you’re like “oooh!” Then sometimes you come down a little bit and you see it there—I just wanted to talk about both of those things.

M: The void that you're talking about -- that's what always made me do more.  But you probably miss the crash.

MT: I liked the crash sometimes. There was something really great about feeling so ruined.  Sometimes hangovers are really enjoyable, and felt kind of glamorous, and languid, and feeling crashed out almost felt like you’d just been on this intense road trip or something, and you’d made it to your destination, and you’re totally wrecked from it, but you did it, and now you’re going to take a bunch of pills and go to sleep. But then, that’s only at the beginning. Then towards the end, the crashing, everything gets really sort of terrible, and not glamorous anymore, and really awful, and you’re calling into work because you’re crying and you can’t stop. I had to do that once. I can’t remember what I said as an excuse—it wasn’t like, “I did too much drugs and I can’t stop sobbing,” but that’s pretty much what the reason was.

I don’t do drugs anymore, ‘cause I just can’t. But it’s not like—it would be such a lie to be like, “I can’t do it anymore, so it’s bad! I can’t do those bad drugs anymore!” I just think I can’t do them anymore because I’m an addict and I just used them addictively, ultimately, and not everyone has that relationship to drugs. And even if you do have that relationship to drugs, that’s what you need to go through. If you’re an addict, you need to get addicted. You need to come out on the other side, hopefully. And have that great knowledge.

M: There’s a point in the same section of the novel where you talk about sex as breaking and entering, and I thought that was a really good way of talking about the whole book. You say sex is like stealing something and replacing it with something else.

MT: One thing that I think was on my mind, and is on my mind, in the mainstream popular consciousness, certain things are like irredeemably bad. Like getting strung out on drugs is bad, and you’ve lost something if you’ve gotten addicted on drugs. This idea that you’ve lost control, or you’ve lost your mind, or something. Or you’ve lost your virginity, you know how girls always “lose” their virginity. Or if you do sex work, you’ve somehow lost… Any transgression get marked as a sort of loss. And what’s never talked about is what you get from it.

M: I like the whole part that takes place in Revere Beach, there's a scene in one of those crazy glass towers that I always wondered about when I lived in Boston.  In the book, there's this shiny façade that’s concealing a decaying inside. And I was wondering if you—because I know that you’ve lived in San Francisco for the last 15 years or so—I’m wondering if you went back to Boston before you wrote the book.

MT: To be honest, when I was working as a prostitute in Boston, I did a call in one of those buildings, and they’re much nicer than I made them in the book. I made them real crapholes. [But] I got inspired to write the book while I was in Boston. I was hanging out with my friend Peter, and we both grew up on the North Shore, we were on Route 1. And then we went into the Square One Mall in Saugus, and I used to hang out there when I was 13. And then—this is really embarrassing and funny—we went to the Waldenbooks or Barnes and Noble or something—the big one on the side of Route 1—and they have this local authors table, and my book wasn’t on it, and I got really indignant, ‘cause Chelsea [where I grew up] doesn’t have a bookstore, so that was like the closest bookstore. And I was like, what the fuck am I going to do? Write a book about Saugus? Fine, I’ll write a book about Saugus. It’s settled. I’m going to write a book about Route 1. And I realized, I don’t know Saugus at all, and I think I’m just too damaged from writing memoirs—if I don’t know a place, I can’t write about it.  So I decided I would just make up a place, and put the Square One Mall in it, and then make up the interior of the mall, because I didn’t know it well enough to really document it. It was so fun to make stuff up. So I’m really glad they didn’t put me on the author’s table. I mean, I surely would have rested on my laurels and done nothing.

M: Barnes and Noble is good for something, I guess. So I was wondering about your graphic novel, Rent Girl, which was based on the time when you were turning tricks, and is now being turned into a Showtime series.

MT: Or not.

M: What’s going on with that?

MT: I don’t know. All this crazy shit just happened like a week ago. I got a call saying, “Move to L.A.! It’s happening!” And I freaked out and started re-arranging my life, and it turned out it wasn’t nearly ready to be happening. Everyone is using totally alarming, panic-inducing language, you know, like: “This deal is in peril! It’s all going to fall apart! Showtime’s gonna walk away!” And then I hear: “These people are fucking you over! You’ll get nothing! They’re going to make millions, and you’ll have nothing!” And meanwhile I was having tea and I was crying at my table, and being like, “What’s going on?” People are crazy in L.A. They yell and they swear, it’s like a brawl. It’s really intense. It’s so brutal.  I felt like, when it all crumbled, I realized that I thought that it was going to happen, and I got really disappointed.

M: Are you worried about becoming a sort of badge of dyke realness for Hollywood to exploit?

MT: I don’t feel exploitable. Maybe that’s really naïve of me, and maybe I’ll find out differently once I’ve been in the jaw of the monster, but I just feel like it’s exciting to me to think of doing things on TV, ‘cause it just seems insane and absurd and I watch TV. That would be really bizarre and fun to be able to get as much of my aesthetic and my interests and my culture and personality out there as I could.

M: But do you think there’s really a chance that you’re going to get the whole thing?

MT: The whole thing? No. Certainly not. It’s an enormous compromise, right off the bat. Right off the bat it’s a total compromise—yeah. So what you really need to push… I think you need to figure out what your bottom line is when you’re doing something like that, you know?

M: Are you worried that if it does happen that you will become so surrounded by it that you won’t be able to do the creative work that is meaningful to you?

MT: I guess, firstly, I do believe that it would be really meaningful for me to do writing based on Rent Girl for TV. I’m not worried about my creativity or my inspiration being somehow contaminated from doing TV work—I think the only thing that would get in the way of me writing would just be that I didn’t have enough time, because I was working so hard on something else.

M: Do you worry about being put in a position where you’re exploiting the people you’re trying to represent?

MT: Well, I feel like I would do my absolute best to create characters that are interesting and honest and real.  So if that winds up being a massive failure, my apologies, you know what I mean? Seriously. I don’t mean to be flip. Like I will do my best and if it’s out of my hands, and it’s another shitty show exploiting the idea of sex workers, again my apologies. You know, the thing is, I think that if I just don’t worry about things, and I don’t think that much about the future, and I’m an optimist—so that’s a deadly combination to be walking into Los Angeles to do a TV show, ‘cause you’re probably right—it will be totally terrible, you know, and the worst like anti-feminist, anti-revolutionary show, and then it all kind of stemmed from a book that I unwittingly wrote.

M: Recently, sex work is increasingly appropriated like sort of this identity choice for edgy urban consumers -- not the actual thing that happens, just the idea -- which makes me think of the way that gentrification works, in terms of marginalized queers and artists moving to neighborhoods—like say the early ‘90s in the Mission, where we both lived, and which is sort of what you represent in Valencia—and that also being the point where the neighborhood was transformed from a working class neighborhood into a hot yuppie playground. And I guess my question is: how can marginalized queers fight that path?

MT: Fight the path of being appropriated, or appropriating others?

M: Both of those things.  And gentrification.

MT: Well, I don’t know. The place that I grew up in was a really slummy city that was primarily Puerto Rican, it was primarily people of color living there, and then really racist white people. I think that we all know that it’s absolutely true that the path of gentrification is like, you know, neighborhoods that are populated by people of color, and then white artists and queers come in, and then rich white people come in. It was always really weird for me because I always have lived in so many places where white people have lived with people of color, and so when people were talking about that gentrification thing—with like,  “We’re gentrifying”—I just felt like that was a kind of middle class argument, ‘cause I felt like, “But where else will I live?”  You can’t tell people who don’t have any money not to move into a poor neighborhood. It’s in a lot of ways beyond our control. So then I have to think about what’s in my control, and I think it’s to kind of have a consciousness about it, have a consciousness about where you live. Have a consciousness about the neighborhood you’re moving into and who your neighbors are and how they might be feeling about your presence. It's just one of many things I feel kind of like at a loss about what to really do.

M: Do you think accountability is a starting point?

MT: Yeah. Being aware of the issues that your presence might be bringing up in the neighborhood. We are all at the mercy of something a little larger than us, which is the market, which is money and capitalism and landownership. I just feel like, ideally, we would have the people who have more power than us being accountable, like landlords being accountable for their rent and for their evictions, and stuff like that.

M: Or just that they would be evicted and we wouldn’t have to deal with them.

MT: Right!  Some things I feel like are so much bigger than me that I just trip out and feel frustrated and some things I feel like I can kind of put my finger on something I can do and it’s always really fucking miniscule. You know what I mean? And is it even just to make myself feel better, or something else? I don’t think that we’re going to cure gentrification, you know? But something really fucked is happening, cities are out of control—it didn’t used to be this bad. It might not look the same as it looks in the Mission as in Chapel Hill, but it’s still people not being able to afford to live in the place that they want to live in, and why? Because it was at some point affordable and suddenly it’s not anymore. I don’t understand what is happening under the surface that I’m not seeing or something, but it’s really incredibly difficult to live in cities. What are we supposed to do? Go live on farms? How will we find each other?