Michelle Tea Magic: An Interview
Michelle Tea’s work ranges from poetry and novel-writing to editing and literary organizing—and she does it all with an infectious energy and sense of humor while highlighting themes like queer identity, class, fashion and sex work. She’s the author of five novels, a book of poetry and dozens of articles, plus the editor of several anthologies. Tea is also the founder and Artistic Director of RADAR Productions, a literary nonprofit that hosts a monthly reading series in San Francisco and organizes the legendary all-women performance group Sister Spit’s annual tour, among other programs. I am pretty certain there’s nothing that this literary miracle of a woman can’t do, and in doing so she inspires the hell out of me and countless others.
Forthcoming from McSweeney’s this spring, Ms. Tea’s debut Young Adult novel—the first in a series called Mermaid in Chelsea Creek—brings the fantasy genre down to earth with a dirty-mouthed mermaid, a polluted creek that runs alongside public housing, a gang of talking pigeons and a teen girl who finds magic in the seemingly ordinary. I caught up with Michelle over email to talk about her new book, plus magic, fashion, inspiration, finding time to write and more.
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Fanzine: You write about growing up in Chelsea, Massachusetts in your 2002 memoir, The Chelsea Whistle. What was it like to return to writing about your hometown ten years later with Mermaid in Chelsea Creek? Has your relationship to where you’re from changed?
Michelle Tea: You know, I worry that my relationship to Chelsea hasn’t changed. Because the city itself has changed, in ways I’m totally ignorant of and in ways I’ve noticed on my brief trips there. There is a gay-run coffeehouse, and a lot of revitalizing theater going on, and way more arts-focused programs for youth. Gays have moved in. It’s being gentrified. When I lived there, even though Chelsea is just five minutes from Boston and dirt cheap, people didn’t live there if they hadn’t been born there. But as all our cities have become gentrified, the ripple affect of that has hit Chelsea some. Obviously it sucks that property owners will exploit that, hurting the native residents, but the other aspects of gentrification—more gay people, a coffee shop, art—these things could have been lifesavers for me when I was a kid there. But to answer the question—I am probably doomed to forever write about the city as the beat-up, oppressive place it was for me, and that might not be as common an experience now. Or maybe it is. Let me know, kids.
FZN: You read tarot cards, you used to be an astrologer, and you noted quite hilariously in your xoJane column that “every modern woman should have a witch, like having a hair stylist or Pilates instructor.” Can you talk more about your relationship to magic, and the paranormal? Did this interest inform you writing a fantasy novel?
MT: I think a lot of people are witches, have that magic, but don’t necessarily recognize that aspect of themselves or their potential. I feel like all the women in my family are witches—everyone has ‘hunches’ and psychic dreams or ‘feelings.’ They have mainly been utilized to win the lotto. I was raised by women who had a guilty obsession with astrology, psychics, numerology, etc.—guilty because they were Catholic and Protestant and were themselves raised to believe that such things were evil. My grandmother had this amazing dream book, where anything a person might dream about was listed, and beside it a number, and it helped you play the Lotto off your dreams! Certainly writing this series was driven not only by a feeling of inspiration after reading some really amazing fantasy, or a desire to stop writing about myself so much, but also to have a project that pushed me to investigate some of my own ethnic magical traditions.
FZN: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek features a 13-year-old protagonist, Sophie Swankowski. What were you like at thirteen? Do you relate to Sophie?
MT: I do relate to Sophie, to an extent. And in other ways I don’t. When I was thirteen I had a hard time separating trouble from excitement. I think she is more of a ‘good kid’ than I was. I mean, I was a good kid on the inside, but I liked to be sneaky and obsess on boys and smoke cigarettes and shoplift and vandalize and smoke pot. Maybe I was more of an Ella!
FZN: I was struck by the way the mother character in your new book is conveyed as “a person too:” you use her first name instead of just calling her “mom,” and the reader gets to see her perspectives more than we might normally in a YA book. Why did you choose to do this?
MT: I think it’s just a natural outgrowth of not writing in the first person, with that narrow perspective. Having written so many memoirs, always being hemmed in by that one view, it was really liberating and exciting to work on a project where I could dip into anyone’s realities at will.
FZN: One of the female characters in Mermaid struggles with anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. Why did you choose to include this in the book?
MT: It’s one of those things that just popped up. I don’t have any personal experiences with the things that torture Ella; as I was creating her they just presented themselves, and I went with it. I guess in some way I knew that Ella was going to be sort of tough and break Sophia’s heart a little, and I wanted to give her a vulnerability so she wasn’t just a one-dimensional ‘mean girl’. But I don’t know how consciously I plotted that! Writing is weird.
FZN: I guess I’m asking these questions about the depth and struggles of your female characters because one of the things I love so much about your work is how you bring a feminist & queer consciousness into everything that you write without those ideas coming across as at all didactic; they just feel like natural parts of the story. So I’m wondering if your multidimensional depictions of female characters—a financially struggling single mother, an anxiety-ridden “bad” girl with self-destructive habits, a drug-addicted teen mother branded as a “slut” by her peers—in a story that’s aimed at teen readers are at all part of a conscious effort to challenge dominant narratives about women, girls and gender? Can you talk a bit more about bringing a consciousness regarding gender, race, class and sexuality, etc., into your work aimed at younger readers?
MT: I don’t want to sound like I don’t think it’s crucial that those dominant narratives be challenged, because I do, and I am thrilled if any of my writing can work to put one more crack in that wall. But writing is so subconscious for me, and I really do write what I know, what I am obsessed with—and these sorts of stories are what comes out. It’s like my writing is a weird emanation of me, and I am all these things—queer, female, feminist, a poor background—and so my writing will have all of those things in it. I always want to make everyone an alcoholic, and it’s because I am, and I want to explore that syndrome, but again it is so subconscious.
This is why we need more writers whose backgrounds are not white, middle class, straight, male. Because in general, what comes out of their psyches are experiences that challenge that landscape we’re all so bored by.
FZN: The theme of immigrant roots and culture getting lost in younger generations in the U.S. runs through Mermaid in Chelsea Creek. You talk about immigrants bringing “magic” from their native land, and how this magic fades with each generation—“how their grandchildren would grow up magicless and never even know it.” Can you talk more about this idea? Is your heritage/ancestry important to your identity, and if so, how?
MT: I don’t feel like I have an ethnic heritage, which is ridiculous, because everyone does. I feel ‘American’. And there is no tradition of magic attached to that particular experience—being a European mutt not raised with any connection to the old world your people came from. My grandmother was English, which has an amazing witchy tradition, and my grandfather was Irish, another fairyland. My paternal family are Polish, and I had no idea at all what Polish pagan traditions look like, but all cultures have their own pagan history.
When I was a teenager I really liked that I was part English because I was Goth and that’s the homeland. Ireland didn’t inspire me, mostly because Irish people in Boston are such dicks, and the ‘Irish Pride’ there can sometimes be a euphemism for ‘white pride.’ I started getting fascinated with my Polish history because it was more obscure to me. I’m estranged from my father and his family, so I don’t really have any cultural connection to my Polish-ness, and I started getting really interested in it, so much so that I visited Poland and taught some feminist writing workshops while doing research on Syrena, the Warsaw mermaid, and also the sprawling salt mines outside Krakow.
FZN: What were your favorite YA books growing up, and do you have favorite contemporary YA writers?
MT: I LOVED Judy Blume, and I loved Lois Duncan, whose books creeped me OUT! Paul Zindel and Paula Danziger. S.E. Hinton, who I have written about endlessly it seems! There are so many individual books I can still remember, but I can’t remember their titles or authors. I was a really voracious reader, I’d go to the library and come back with 8 books and read them all. I really loved books where girls were doing horrible things like getting venereal diseases or getting hooked on drugs or running away. Or books about stricken girls, girls with anorexia or bi-polar disorder or who needed heart surgery. And I loved spooky books about witches, or where a girl’s house is haunted by antique dead twins trying to inhabit their bodies. Shit like that was my jam. For a period in the 90s when everyone was tagging my tag was ‘Lois Duncan.’
FZN: Ummm, that is AMAZING! I can’t believe your tag was ‘Lois Duncan’! I also loved her books when I was growing up, as well as anything related to the paranormal and/or to dying, drug-addicted or otherwise tortured teen girls. Why do you think it is that so many teens and pre-teens are attracted to books with dark, scary undertones? And, on the topic of Lois Duncan books, here’s a really important question: Summer of Fear (the one where the visiting cousin from another state turns out to be an evil witch whose face doesn’t show up in photographs) or Daughters of Eve (the one about the exclusive school club-turned radical feminist cult)–which one do you pick?
MT: I know that, as a female, I was raised to know that there were like a million horrible things out there that could happen to me. And the warnings weren’t really literal or clear, so what it feels like you are being warned about is life itself. But I loved life and wanted to get out in it and I wasn’t scared. Maybe it was because these terrible scenarios were being narrated and detailed by a sensitive writer who imbued her subjects with depth and feeling, it made the situations feel like rites of passage almost. Like—these are the girls who did not heed the warnings. They are suffering for it, but they also are living! They were weirdly inspiring. Go Ask Alice just made me want to try drugs.
Even though I feel compelled to pick Daughters of Eve because it is a seriously unheralded radical feminist classic, I have to pick Summer of Fear because it scared the hell out of me so bad. That, and Down a Dark Hall, where musical virtuosos go to this boarding school where they become possessed by the mad spirits of dead musicians.
FZN: In your xoJane column, “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea,” you share such intimate and perhaps difficult experiences with so much energy and humor. What has it been like to share a very personal part of your life with the world in this way? What kind of feedback have you gotten, and do you think this column has brought new audiences to your work?
MT: I have always had a disconnect between the real inspiration and energy I get from writing about my own experience, and the reality of bunches of strangers knowing all about me. And it’s actually not comfortable. In the abstract I am 100% okay with it. I’m not particularly private and I think as a female, queer person who has a working class/poor history, a lot of good comes from speaking openly about things you’re maybe not supposed to. But I really get so uncomfortable when strangers come up to me and ask me if I’m pregnant! There are a lot of people who enjoy the column and tell me so and say nice things about it and I really, really appreciate that. I want people to read it! But there are also people who get too affected by the illusion personal narrative creates—that they know me—and have bad boundaries and want to get personal with me, and the reality is I don’t want to talk to strangers about my personal life. I only want them to read it.
Generally, the column has gotten a great response, and I have learned so much about my own process just from the feedback in the comments section on the site! I’m touched by how many people feel invested in my fertility! It’s so lovely. I do think I have gotten a broader audience, because so many people can relate to the desire to have a baby and the myriad of obstacles that can stand in your way. It’s very emotionally charged.
FZN: You’ve done a lot of writing about fashion. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to fashion? Is fashion related to magic?
MT: I just really love fashion and always have. I spent a lot of my younger life punished for it in very real ways—my home life was very, very turbulent for a time because my mother could not handle the way I looked, and didn’t know what to do with the fact that I was also being persecuted for it out in the world, like being beat up for being punk or goth or whatever. She was like, well you DO look like a freak, stop dressing like that and people will leave you alone! But the way it feels to wear something you know is amazing feels better than the worst feeling of getting hassled by losers. I understood deeply and early on the way our culture punishes difference—before I ever knew I was queer, or had any sophisticated understanding of racism, feminism, etc.
I do think fashion and magic are related. Glamour is a word shared by both fashion people and witch people. Witches manipulate reality, and fashion gives all of us the ability to manipulate our own reality a bit. Also, I feel like fashion and witchcraft engage the same creative sphere of my brain or whatever. Casting a spell feels a bit like getting dressed up for something special—something magical!
FZN: You’ve written novels, memoirs, poetry, blog posts, articles and more! What’s your writing process like? What was it like writing your most recent book, and does your process change depending on which genre you’re working in?
MT: My writing process SUCKS. I am blessed with be able to barf out a lot of text in a sitting, so I have been able to create some sort of body of work in spite of how undisciplined I really am! Now, trying to balance writing with being the director of my literary non-profit, RADAR, and also balancing it with my personal life, which I value deeply, is super challenging. I try to have days just for writing—for example, tomorrow I have scheduled one such day, but now RADAR really needs to find a Development Director, so I am having a meeting with someone tomorrow. And it’s the first of the month and if I don’t trek downtown to my totally inconvenient but ‘green’ bank my checks are going to bounce. And I’ve gotten a couple blog assignments that pay, so I have to write them tomorrow, and will I even get to what I’d planned—to finish a proposal for a book that my agent is working on? FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, but they’re real. And I think any writer who has to make a living deals with it.
FZN: How do you find a balance, between all the different writing, editing, organizing, and more, that you do? Do you ever get overwhelmed?
MT: You probably noticed from the above answer that I am in a constant state of overwhelm. Being on a rather high dose of a fine SSRI really helps! I am, at any given moment, neglecting five different projects. Right now I am doing this interview but I know I have a book to edit for Sister Spit Press, I know McSweeney’s is waiting for promotional materials, I know that there are a bunch of RADAR things I need to do including prepare for the creation of our next three-year Strategic Plan, I have two blogs due to the Bold Italic and the proposal my agent is waiting for, plus McSweeney’s expects the sequel to Mermaid in June. I’m also beginning research for a film I will write, and I am in a producer role for the film Valencia, based on my book, which will premiere at Frameline this summer and be feted with a series of panels and parties I am organizing. I also need to schedule my sperm donor with the fertility clinic, and am planning a wedding. NO BIG WHOOP. There is no balance. I actually read a great article about this in the New York Times—everyone is struggling with the way we live now, with multiple jobs and responsibilities, an increased awareness of the need for self-care (Oh yeah, I also am neglecting gym, yoga, AA Al-Anon and my fake Buddhist practice!), personal lives and the reality of being online at all times and the insane multitasking and lack of daydreaming-time that goes with that. And the ‘experts’ in the article were like—give up. We’re not going back. This is the new normal. You will never be ‘caught up’ in your life again.
For me then, the only thing you can do is let go. Let go of keeping all your balls in the air and allow your imperfect best to be good enough.
FZN: That makes so much sense—that in all the day-to-day chaos, daydream-time is the last priority, and, kind of similarly, enforcing the space and time to just write can also be easy to brush aside when more urgent tasks come up. When you do carve out time to write, do you have a space where you like to be, or any rituals that help you get into the writing mindset?
MT: I like to wake up and get into it right away. If I turn to any of the work that is waiting for me from RADAR, I can get caught up and stressed and them my mojo feels destroyed. Sometimes–a lot of times–just leaving the house helps. I might be only going to a café but it can feel like I’m entering the writing place, in a very concrete way.
FZN: What are you obsessed with right now?
MT: My wedding! Really. I’m obsessed with my wedding board on Pinterest, like a million other females, many of whom are not even getting married! It’s just, like, a hobby. Which I sort of understand—as a creative person and a curator I get to dress up and be on stage and plan big fun events all the time. The average woman does this only once, at her wedding. I kind of get it. It goes back to witchcraft and magic—people are hungry for magic, and this unmet need comes out in all kinds of ways, like wedding obsessions. Anyway, I am obsessed with the creative and daunting details of the big event. I’m also obsessed with Jean Genet and his relationship to Jean Cocteau and how those queens made it through occupied France without being sent to a camp. I’m obsessed with Hawaii’s last Queen, Liliuokalani, who was kept under house arrest in her palace while the businessmen from Dole pineapple took over her queendom. I’ve taken in a lot of culture this week that deals with people being imprisoned and sentenced to death really for their magic, and their difference, and desire for liberation, and this has gotten me obsessed with: the Salem Witch Trials, as a result of Morgan Bassichis’ play The Witch House; Pussy Riot’s ongoing ordeal, as a result of the new Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom anthology Feminist Press put out, and the film West of Memphis, the latest (final?) documentary covering the false imprisonment of the ‘West Memphis Three’, a contemporary Witch Trial right down to the preponderance of pentacles used as evidence in the trial. It’s really heavy stuff, but I’m so grateful to the artists who have the resolve to interface with such disturbing and potentially spirit-killing material, so that we can learn and heal and be moved.
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is forthcoming from McSweeney’s May 14, 2013.
Photo of Michelle Tea by Amos Mac, a fellow advocate of the zine.