The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, 2013
Love Me Back
(Doubleday, fall 2014)
Selected by Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Merritt Tierce was born and raised in Texas. She received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was named a Meta Rosenberg Fellow. In 2011, she was a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her first published story, "Suck It," was anthologized in the 2008 New Stories from the South, edited by ZZ Packer. Her work will also be featured in the forthcoming collection, Dallas Noir, edited by David Hale Smith. Tierce lives near Dallas with her husband and children. Love Me Back is her first novel, and will be published by Doubleday in 2014.
Interview with Merritt Tierce, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins: Can you tell me your book's artistic origin story? What image/story/phrase/character did you start with? How long did it take to write? What was the research, composition, and revision process like? What most shocked, confused or surprised you about that process?
Merritt Tierce: My book came out of the story ‘Suck It,’ which I wrote in a blind rage one night in 2007, at a Dallas coffee shop that no longer exists. I was feeling angry and humiliated about an incident that had nothing to do with the content of the story, but that knot propelled me through the first draft. The story itself begins ‘Suck it is Danny's favorite phrase,’ which sets the tone for not only that story but most of the book—the narrator reports on the crude, fast, slick culture she finds herself within as a waitress at a fine-dining Dallas steakhouse.
Which, no surprise, is exactly the position I held in real life at the time. I was 25 when I was hired, and working there was my first experience of the kind of intense team effort—like being in the military, or playing college basketball, or doing triage as an EMT— that bathes you in stories every day. There's magic in throwing people together under pressure to perform at a certain level within a limited amount of time. Obviously dinner is not on the scale of surgery or warfare, and the steaks are different (sorry, had to), but every night for almost seven years I went to bed dripping with material. Most of it I didn't even write down.
I had no plan to write a book then. ‘Suck It’ was my first real story, and the first one I published. I had two little kids by the time I was 21, and was divorced by 23, so I've never had a lot of time or energy to write. I worked at the steakhouse five or six nights a week, and I worked at a law firm 8 to 5 during the day. I had my kids on the weekends. I didn't get around to writing another story for a couple of years after ‘Suck It,’ and it turned out to be another restaurant story, told by the same narrator and featuring some of the same characters.
It didn't register that I could try to make a book out of the restaurant stories until I had half a dozen of them written. Those six stories took five years to write, and not because I write slowly. Once I know what a story is I usually write it over two long days. It was the time between knowing what stories I had to tell that took so long. Rocky pieces of stories pile up in your mind, and eventually some of them break off and fall into the river, but it still takes forever for them to get round and catch your eye as beautiful or interesting.
CVW: How about your book's journey to publication: How did your project go from being a Microsoft Word document to being a real life glued-together book? How long did that take? Any helpers along the way? What's been the most shocking/confusing/surprising part of that process?
MT: It's hard to mark the beginning of the journey to publication—so many without- this-there'd-never-have-been-that-moments. And I think the way it happened for me is uncommon. As a young/new writer you expect to strive over the book itself, to get a manuscript written around the edges of your day job or other responsibilities, and then to beg the world to notice. I was fortunate to win a Rona Jaffe award in 2011, which certainly let me jump some lines. I hadn't made an effort to find an agent yet and suddenly they were asking me if they could buy me lunch. After meeting with all of them I didn't know how in the world I was supposed to decide, so I picked the one my gut told me to pick.
It took me another year and a half after that to actually complete a draft. At some point in there I was really frustrated that I hadn't managed to finish it, and said to my fiancé, I'm never going to have a book if I don't get away from my job and our house and our three kids and you and all these pets (we have two dogs, two cats, a giant rabbit, a hedgehog, and a guinea pig). I thought I was just venting, but he secretly made arrangements for me to go away from my job, our house, our three kids, him, and all those pets. I didn't even know where I was being shipped until he dropped me off at the airport. Five days later I came home with a new story. So we did that a few more times until I got to the end, propelled as well by a significant amount of good-natured harassment from writer friends. It seems extravagant and unsustainable to have to go so far away from routine to work, but I can't be blank and unavailable at home. I can't live in my head for days, or even one day. In a different place I can float, I can sink into the dream and write.
(At home I do have an emergency writing closet in our bedroom, which my daughter refers to as The Annex. If I go in there it is known that people are to forget I exist until I come out. It's a cedar closet. There's no light except what comes from my laptop's screen. There's a rocking chair. Miraculously, it's the one spot in the house where you're too far from the router to get online. I go in with provisions—water, cheese—and come out when I’m done..)
Once I did deliver a draft to my agent (almost six years after I wrote the first story), she sold it at auction within a couple weeks of sending it out. That was a nice referendum on my gut as a picker. The next magician en route to publication was my editor, who found the throughline in the book that made it a novel, and read my stories as closely as I could ever hope they'd be read.
CVW: The phrase "emerging writer" always makes me feel like I'm stuck in a birth canal somewhere, so forgive me, but: were high-profile spotlights on emerging writers—like 5 Under 35, the Granta ‘Best of...’ lists, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40, or the defunct Best New American Voices series—on your radar as you were coming of age as a writer? Did they influence or inspire or intimidate or nauseate you? Were there other, now-emerged writers whose career trajectories and/or early work you followed via these venues, and if so which? Or were you looking up to major already-established writers as a young person considering one day writing and publishing a book? Did you have contemporary writer role models, and where did you find these?
MT: Yeah...those. In grad school we laughed about those lists and about what "emerging" means. Like how do you know when you're an "emerged" writer? It sounds larval, emerging. And the lists are arbitrary. Why not 80 Under 80? But of course you can also feel intimidated by all the laurels being thrown around, and then if one lands on you and good things happen because of it you stop laughing. And you realize that the listmaking not only helps good things happen for the listees but brings new books to the attention of readers who want to read something by somebody new.
I do have two contemporary writer role models, but they're both Overs, not Unders. One is Ben Fountain, who is inspiration for everyone 41 and older who was never chosen for a list, and everyone 41 and younger regardless. When we met in 2004 through a mutual friend in Dallas, he had been writing in his garage for seventeen years and hadn't published a book yet. Can you imagine that list? 12 Writers Who Have Been Writing in Their Garages for 10 Years and You Won't Get to Read Their Books for Another 5 At Least. Or Maybe 7. If Ever. Wait, 1 Just Died.
I think a lot of writers and artists feel relieved when they come across a story like Ben's—the people who don't get cranking until they've already had one career, or they're 50 or 60, or they've just been trying so hard for so long. You feel like you can take a breath and keep working and not agonize so much over whether anyone cares yet.
My other writer role model is Alexander Maksik, whom I met at Iowa. Everything is always on the line for him, every time he writes. I don't think I could approach it the way he does because it seems too intense, like flinging yourself out of a plane every morning. But knowing him and being near that kind of focus is invigorating.
CVW: This year's 5 Under 35 list is composed entirely of women. Care to share your thoughts on how gender affects a writer's encounters with the literary world?
MT: It's harder for women to be taken seriously. But to say so in some circles prompts a reaction of Come on, you're still saying that? There seems to be a collective notion that because some women do get big book deals and win big prizes everything is square. But it's not, which projects like VIDA are bringing attention to. Like if you were a male writer, would you ask this question to the five females on the 5 Under 35 list? Maybe not, because that might seem paternalistic. Or maybe it wouldn't even occur to you. And if you were male, and all the honorees were male, would you ask them why there were no women on the list? Maybe not, because that could seem odd and like a waste of a question, since the absence of women is not as remarkable as the presence of only women. My perception is that for the most part the gender question is a question women ask women, at least within the literary context. And I think that's unfortunate, because it circumscribes the conversation in an unhelpful way that perpetuates the idea of Questions We Ask Women, when there isn't a balance of similarly circumscribed Questions We Ask Men.
I also think gender affects the reception of the subject matter. A man writes a sex scene or a domestic scene and it's an element of a larger narrative—a function, an expression, a grappling-with. A woman writes a sex scene or a domestic scene and poof she's not a serious writer. She's writing homey soft shit that dudes don't want to read about. An irony here is that women buy and read more books than men, so if dudes don't want to read about something the publishers don't have to care. Critics and reviewers, on the other hand, are more often men than women, and are trying to sell their own ideas, not books.
Relevant aside: why is my book's cover hot pink? They tell me this is a placeholder cover, since my book won't actually be on shelves for another year, but—. I have a hard time imagining dudes carrying around my hot pink book, which is unfortunate since people are always telling me, ‘You write like a dude,’ and I'd hate to send the wrong signal to half my potential readers. Hot pink screams chick lit, doesn't it? Which is also unfortunate, since chick lit is code for Not Literature or Fake Writer. If I am a fake, by all means label me so and I won't protest. It's mainly the inaccuracy of the chick part that bothers me. Chick lit makes me think of warm golden sweet chirpy little baby chickens, and anyone who reads my book is going to find something more like a cold gross dead macerated old three-headed chicken. False advertising.
CVW: What makes you write?
MT: Deadlines. All the time I hear/read about writers who say they write because they are driven to, because they couldn't not. It sounds so pure and noble: the mark of the true artist is compulsion. I admire that, but that's not me. I write because creating a beautiful sentence is the most pleasurable thing I can do. But my life is so full of so much else that I don't make those sentences until the stars align, or until the deadline is imminent, or my husband sends me into exile.
I also write because it's hard for me to communicate otherwise. I don't like talking—and I mean the physical work of moving my mouth and translating Brain to English. Writing is different. It's a direct transmission that tells me what I know.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize. She currently teaches at Princeton University.
Erykah Badu, “Bump It”
as mentioned in "The Private Room" (chapter of Love Me Back)
Powderfinger, “My Happiness”
as mentioned in "Chili's" (chapter of Love Me Back)
Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul”
as mentioned in "The Dangler" (chapter of Love Me Back)
Sarah Jaffe, “Shut It Down”
because the song sounds like the essence of Love Me Back: raw, hard, sexy, out all night, alive. The best, baddest kind of bad, as sung by a woman covering a man's song about a woman. She's saying the same words, but out her mouth they don't sound the same.
About Ben Fountain
Ben Fountain was a National Book Award Finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winner in 2012 for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He has also received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and two Texas Institute of Letters short story awards, among other honors and awards. His fiction has been published in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, among other publications. His reportage on post-earthquake Haiti was nationally broadcast on the radio show This American Life. He and his family live in Dallas, Texas.