The novelist and reproductive rights advocate on motherhood, sex, and the sensuality of restaurant life.
Image by Kael Alford
September marks the release of Love Me Back (Doubleday), the debut novel from Merritt Tierce, one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” writers for 2013, a Rona Jaffe Foundation award winner, and a prominent voice in the debate over the future of abortion in Texas.
Love Me Back is a story about work and self-destruction and the sometimes murky line between them. It’s also about restaurant life, and it comes as a great relief to find not a single mention of flavor profiles, palettes, the spiritual proximity of farms and tables, or the necessity of responding to all commands with a steely “Yes, Chef.” Tierce’s world is populated by waitresses, busboys, and bar-backs, outcasts whose artistry is in the relentlessness of their movements and in their ability to endure one more shift while keeping reasonably upbeat and obscene.
At the book’s center is Marie, a young waitress working the gamut of Dallas restaurants. She has a small daughter at home, a child she doesn’t quite know how to love, and the ache of that separation drives her to grind away more and more of herself. She takes every waitressing shift on offer, every drug, every drink, every partner, so long as it hurts. As Tierce writes: “It wasn’t about pleasure, it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.”
I spoke with Tierce by Skype from the patio of a café in Austin, Texas, where she was attending a trial challenging restrictive new rules on Texan abortion providers. In addition to writing fiction, Tierce has long been involved in the reproductive rights movement, serving as a founding board member and executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund. She leaves that organization this month, but not the movement, which she plans to continue serving as a lifelong Texan and full-time writer.
On a wide array of subjects, Tierce is impassioned and eloquent. We talked over the course of an afternoon about suppressed appetites, her break from conservative Christianity, and the double standard women face when writing about sex and motherhood. She seemed to hope that fellow café patrons would overhear, buy another cup of coffee, and sit down at the table to join our discussion.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: Love Me Back portrays a steady regimen of sex, drugs, restaurant work, and generally self-destructive behavior. Why do those activities seem to go hand in hand?
Merritt Tierce: I’ve thought a lot about that, because it’s so universally acknowledged that if you work in a restaurant, you’ll be a part of this crazy, drug-fueled culture. I have some theories. One has to do with appetites. You work yourself into a frenzy trying to satisfy other people’s appetites, and you can’t do that without suppressing your own, and at some point, they’re going to pop out like a jack in the box. Another theory is about performance. Especially in high-volume fine-dining restaurant work, you exist as a cog in some rich person’s beautiful machine. They’re paying you to keep the whole thing going, and you have to be a certain version of yourself that’s consistent and flashy and perfect. That takes a toll, and you have to recoup that toll in some way. Also, it’s just a really stressful job. Anytime you work in a taxing environment, you have to do something to relieve that. You see this with other high-pressure work situations.
I should severely disclaimer this, because waiting tables is not like being in the military or being a surgeon. But you do have a mission to accomplish in a specific time frame, under nearly impossible circumstances, and sometimes the people you’re in the trenches with suck or drive you crazy, but this atmosphere still creates a lot of juice between you and them. It’s hard to just walk away from it at the end of the day. You feel like you have to do something to honor what you just went through together, even if what you do to honor it isn’t necessarily positive.
Guernica: Are you inspired by the particularly lowdown stuff that goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant? The prose in this book surges with the bawdier stories.
Merritt Tierce: It’s just an inverse relationship. You have to rise to it or else it’s just gross. Why read about it if it’s not beautiful in some way? Why write about it?
Guernica: Your narrator, Marie, seems to notice and appreciate the best physical traits of everyone, especially the people who treat her terribly. Is that the same impulse?
Merritt Tierce: She’s really hungry for beauty and she’s taught herself to see it in ordinary places, rather than waiting for conventional beauty to come along and satisfy that hunger. That’s how she copes with a lot of this ugliness. It’s something I love about her.
For the wait staff, it’s about these physical, sensual things that have nothing to do with why people come to the restaurant.
Guernica: When you were waitressing, did you have some favorite piece of the restaurant choreography—a gesture or movement, or task?
Merritt Tierce: I loved the way your body would learn the restaurant itself. When you first start working at a new restaurant, you bump into everything and everyone. After you’ve worked there a while, your body calibrates to the physical space. It’s not something you do consciously. Your body just works it out so that you never run into someone going around that one tricky corner, or so that you know what to expect every inch of the dining room and how many footsteps you need to get across it. There’s something really beautiful about that. I love seeing waiters who’ve been working together in a restaurant for a long time. Their movements are so seamless and fluid. For the wait staff, it’s about these physical, sensual things that have nothing to do with why people come to the restaurant.
Guernica: Do you eat out regularly?
Merritt Tierce: I do, and I love eating out with waiters, because they know how to eat out. You wouldn’t think it’s that complicated: you go somewhere, sit down, and put food in your face. But there are rules. I’m not just talking about people having good manners. I’m talking about how you are with other people, how you share food, how you interact with your waiter. Eating out is a skill.
Guernica: What’s the cardinal sin for a diner?
Merritt Tierce: Acting like there’s no one else in the world except you, sitting there eating your sandwich. Acting like the waiter isn’t human. I’m not saying you should ask for the waiter’s life story. When I was waiting tables, I didn’t want that either. But diners should be courteous and should acknowledge that while you’re doing a job and while they’re paying for a service, the transactional nature of that interaction doesn’t obviate the humanity of either party. There are people who just don’t know how to do that. They think that because they’re being served, the waiter is in a servile position.
Guernica: I can’t think of much fiction about waiting tables. It seems like an underrepresented socio-economic world.
Merritt Tierce: It’s odd, isn’t it? Most writers and other artists have waited tables at some point in their lives. But I think that if you survive it, you don’t want to think about it ever again. You want to just forget that dirty, shitty job you had to do to pay the rent. You don’t want to dive back into it and relive it. That’s my theory, anyway. But really, it’s a gold mine. It’s a perfect representation of the American caste system. You have people who are thought of as worthless—people who are undocumented, working for very little money, barely surviving in this country—and, just around the corner, millionaires eating off the plate those other guys just washed. There’s so much meat there. Rebecca Curtis has a story collection called Twenty Grand with some good stories about waiting tables, but otherwise I haven’t seen this world in literature or television or movies. And it would make for some really rich episodic television.
Guernica: Maybe the producers of Friday Night Lights could give us a Love Me Back / Friday Night Lights spin-off where Lyla Garrity or Tim Riggins ends up with a newborn, waiting tables in Dallas.
Merritt Tierce: I love Friday Night Lights! I grew up in West Texas in a town that was just like Dillon. That show is so well done. Aside from the fact that the actors who play the high schoolers are all about thirty, it’s so true to what life is like there. The town where I lived really did shut down on game day, and all the small-town politics are just dead on.
It’s really hard for me to believe in epiphanies in fiction.
Guernica: Can I ask a little about your upbringing? There’s a movement away from religion in the background of your narrator’s story, and I wondered about your own experience.
Merritt Tierce: Well, I was brainwashed from a very young age. I was raised in a Southern Baptist, fundamentalist Christian family. It wasn’t as damaging as it could have been. My parents are conservative Christian, but they’re not fanatical. They’re on the moderate point of that spectrum. But I didn’t get to venture outside that worldview until I was an adult, and that has had really significant consequences for my kids and my ex-husband and me. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to break out of that box, because it’s hard to do psychologically. When I did walk away from Christianity, it was fairly sudden. This is the closest I’ve ever come to an epiphany. I realized that I didn’t have to believe this, think this, do this. It was the most amazing relief of my whole life. But that didn’t mean I knew what to do next, and without the boundaries of that locked-down system, I just floundered.
Guernica: To the extent that there are overlaps between your life during that period of floundering and your narrator Marie’s life, how much of the story do your parents know?
Merritt Tierce: I don’t think they know very much. We’re people who avoid confrontation at the expense of everything. We have a very cordial, fine relationship. I couldn’t have made it through my twenties—or at least my kids would be much worse off than they are—without my parents. Our politics and beliefs are completely at odds, but they were an indispensable support network, and I value that, even if they don’t necessarily know what they were supporting my kids and me through. I don’t want to hurt them, but I also feel like part of writing the book was about talking about what it means to stop hurting yourself. To do that, you have to let go and stop caring what other people think about your life.
Guernica: We’re talking about really significant transformations, but Love Me Back doesn’t go in for the epiphany moment. Was that something you wanted to resist with this book?
Merritt Tierce: It wasn’t something I set out to resist, and in fact I’ve been criticized for it, but in retrospect I like that there isn’t a typical arc. There’s just so much that you can relay in fiction that doesn’t include epiphanies or turns or changes. It’s really hard for me to believe in epiphanies in fiction. In real life, people have them, of course, but they have to be really convincing, and Marie is a person who doubts everything, especially herself.
And the book still has tension: stuff happens and there’s this voyeuristic hole. As a reader, you want to know how much a character can fuck herself over, how much of a mess she can make out of things, and you want to know what’s going to come of all this self-destruction. It’s the same as slowing down to look at a wreck on the other side of the freeway. It’s a pain in the ass when you’re in the back of the line, but when you get to the front, you can’t help it.
Guernica: Marie has a small child at home while she’s working these restaurant jobs and living this self-destructive lifestyle. Is postpartum depression part of what you’re chronicling here?
Merritt Tierce: That’s a significant aspect of what Marie’s experiencing, and it really comes out in certain passages. I think it’s pretty common for women to have postpartum depression without ever being diagnosed or treated or even letting themselves think that’s what it is, because that would be too scary.
Guernica: You often use direct address, so that Marie is telling this story to that child. What drew you to the technique?
Merritt Tierce: Those sections just came organically. Throughout the book, the reader is in the cockpit of Marie’s skull, and it makes sense that this is how she would think about and imagine addressing her child. But direct address can be tricky. It’s obviously the least used of the modes you have at your basic disposal, and it can easily be done badly. Readers can get defensive when they hear “you”—that’s why they tell people in therapy to talk about “I,” not “you.” But in these passages, Marie is addressing her child, and I think that when readers know that, their reaction is different. They’re with Marie, because they also feel some sort of obligation to that child, rather than just their knee-jerk defensiveness.
Guernica: I want to ask you about some of the gender politics in the book and in the writing of the book. Do you feel like women don’t get enough of a crack at publishing a certain kind of book, the kind that includes a litany of sex and drugs and toughness?
Merritt Tierce: I don’t want to come down on you…
Guernica: Please do.
Merritt Tierce: The presentation of that question alone is gendered. Yes, I wish there were more books about the female experience of sex and drugs and toughness, but, as a woman, if you write about something that’s explicitly calling into question how men and women interact and what’s expected of them, then that’s what your book is about and those are the terms on which it’s evaluated. It’s considered a man-hating book or a feminist book, and the author is treated as having written a manifesto or an idea book rather than literary fiction, whereas, if a man writes a book with those elements, it’s judged differently. That bothers me.
I grew up being smarter than the boys in school and being told I could do whatever I wanted, and then I got to this point where my gender betrayed me.
I didn’t have these politics and these ideas and then decide I wanted to write a book about them. These are just the things I care deeply about, and they came out in this story. My history parallels Marie’s in a lot of ways. I grew up being smarter than the boys in school and being told I could do whatever I wanted, and then I got to this point where my gender betrayed me. When I became a woman, life became progressively uglier and harder, and I bucked against that. I faced this really personal struggle between wanting the approval of men and also hating that I wanted that approval, experiencing the unfairness of gender politics without having any way of talking about it or knowing what it was. Marie’s living that, too, and that’s the story I wanted to tell.
Guernica: So you think women who write about the act of sex are treated differently than men who do?
Merritt Tierce: I think there’s a bias against women writing about sex when that sex isn’t part of a socially acceptable relationship structure, and a bias against women writing about motherhood in a way that doesn’t live up to all the myths that we constantly uphold about motherhood and parenthood. You’re not supposed to break the code.
Guernica: What is that motherhood code?
Merritt Tierce: Ideas about selflessness are so connected to ideas about motherhood that they’re rarely distinguished. As a mother, you’re just supposed to be willing to sacrifice your whole self and identity for the wellbeing of your child, and to the degree that you’re not, you’re a bad mother. That’s not expected of fathers. I have kids, so I’m speaking from a place of experience, and I’ve thought about this a lot. Most parents want what’s best for their children, of course, but that doesn’t mean they automatically have the tools to provide for their kids, materially or emotionally. Even if a woman thinks a mother should be willing to give up a lot for her kids, she might not know how to do that. It’s damaging and facile to assume that she does or to assume that it’s an easy thing for her to do.
Guernica: While we’re talking about motherhood—you have another career, in addition to writing, as an abortion-rights activist. How did you get from conservative Christian to the Texas Equal Access (TEA) Fund?
Merritt Tierce: When I was nineteen, in college, I did a semester-long research project on how the Bible proscribes abortion and all the doctrinal edicts that say it’s wrong. It was just so anti-abortion. And of course, at the end of that semester, I got pregnant accidentally. That’s such a great irony it belongs in fiction. At that time, I couldn’t even consider having an abortion or giving the baby up for adoption. So I had a close understanding of what it means to get pregnant accidentally, a natural reservoir of empathy for women who need abortions, and a lifelong, deeply embedded, instinctive resentment toward everything that I perceive as discriminatory. I came to feel that restrictions on abortion and reproductive rights are the key things that keep a lot of women from doing what they want with their lives. As I got older and veered away from religion and became more politically conscious and feminist-activist, I just couldn’t accept that I was worth less because I was female. So in 2004, I was one of the founding board members of the TEA Fund, which was the brainchild of my friend and mentor, Gretchen Dyer. We’re an abortion fund. Low-income women who want an abortion but can’t afford one call us—Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion in Texas—and we provide them a small amount of money to help pay for the procedure.
Guernica: This is a precarious moment for abortion rights in Texas and in the Fifth Circuit generally. After Wendy Davis’s filibuster, this restrictive bill passed in the next session and is now being implemented. Where do things stand? How dire is the situation?
Merritt Tierce: This new law, HB2, has four parts. The first three parts went into effect on November 1, 2013, and half the abortion clinics in Texas closed. Now, on September 1, 2014, the fourth part goes into effect, and only five to seven clinics will remain open. The others will shut down because they can’t meet this last, completely unnecessary, ridiculous requirement imposed by the state of Texas. That will mean that about 900,000 women of reproducing age will live more than 150 miles from the nearest abortion provider in Texas. That’s a bigger number than in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia combined. It’s a massive population, and I just left a courtroom where the state of Texas was saying that it’s an insignificant percentage of people. The Republican legislators who support this bill and Rick Perry’s lackeys in the office of the state attorney general—the people who are defending this law—operate under the guise of caring about and protecting “life,” but they’re very willing to stand up in a courtroom and say these 900,000 women don’t matter. It’s so infuriating and contradictory on its face.
But there’s no miraculous way out of it at this point. I don’t know what’s going to happen in September. There will be fewer abortion providers in Texas, that’s for sure. There will also be a lot of activists on the ground trying to change that, but the other side is winning and they have been for a while, because they have the political power, and until we change that, we don’t have a way to change the laws.
Guernica: This month, you’re leaving the TEA Fund to pursue your writing career full time. Has that been a difficult process?
Merritt Tierce: It has been, especially in the middle of this fight. But I also feel I can be of greater value to the movement as a writer than as an administrator, so I’m not walking away from the issue.
Guernica: And you’ll stay in Texas?
Merritt Tierce: My whole life, even before I was a liberal progressive Democrat, I hated being in Texas. I could see how it was stereotyped and I didn’t want to claim it. But I’ve grown out of that over the years. I can see now that I’m not needed in Boston or Portland. They already have people like me there. I’m needed here in Texas.
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