Michelle Tea is so many things: award-winning memoirist and novelist, inimitable documenter of the queercore scene, founder of RADAR Productions and the international Sister Spit performance tours, writer we’d most like to join for a road trip, and much more. Her most recent books include Black Wave (Feminist Press, 2016), a fiction-memoir hybrid; Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (HarperCollins, 2017); and Against Memoir (Feminist Press, 2018), which Maggie Nelson calls “a bracing, heaven-sent tonic for deeply troubled times.”
We invited Michelle Tea to be this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York. While on tour for Against Memoir, she spent a night at Ace and penned a letter to an unknown audience of hotel guests. The letter was kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room—but first we caught up with Michelle to talk unexpected readers, workhorse crystals, and being alone.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
MICHELLE TEA: Roberta Rohbeson, the protagonist of Lynda Barry’s novel, Cruddy—which, were the world a fair and just place, would be held in the esteem of, like, Catcher in the Rye. Sixteen years old when the work was published in 2001, I would want to know, first of all, if she was alive or dead (perhaps this correspondence happens with the aid of a psychic medium), and I would want to know if indeed it does “Get Better” for put-upon teens such as herself; does she still have her trusty blade, Lil’ Debbie; is she queer or simply one of those very tough women who get mistaken suchly throughout their lives? Finally, I would beg her to go on a road trip with me.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
Traditionally I have discovered my path along the way, but as I work more and more on learning the secrets of screenwriting, I find that outlining and plotting is working its way into my once-upon-a-time stream-of-consciousness writing.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I try not to think of my audience when I write, but I have at points written to impress specific individual authors who I was obsessed with, or have imagined a sort of girl in the world who is essentially a projection of myself, and I write for her. I am surprised on occasion when very young people or very old heterosexual white men have found my work. I’m not surprised that they enjoy it, more that they found their way to it. That is interesting to me!
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Everything by Ali Liebegott—The Beautifully Worthless, The IHOP Papers, and Cha-Ching! They talk about the deep experience of being an outlier in this world, in Ali’s case via gender and sexuality, income and artistic nature. It is by turns really hilarious and seriously heartbreaking, often both at once, always rendered in a really unique and beautiful fashion.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I can’t really write creatively at home, it’s too distracting. I like to be out in the world somewhere; a loud, busy hum is less distracting to me than silence. I will often bring a crystal with me, one that promotes stamina, creativity, inspiration. I like Calcite, Honey, Orange or Green. They are workhorse crystals. Pieterstine to burst through blocks, Amethyst for inspiration. I used to have more superstitions and then I created a writing retreat that was very close quarters and bare bones and it challenged all I thought I needed to be productive, which is great. All I need to be productive is myself, and for people to leave me alone.
Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.
Photography by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York.