Vp Issue 7: “An interview with Michelle Tea”

[Originally published in Vp issue 7 by Kent Martin (2004)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 7 by Kent Martin (2004)]

Michelle Tea is the award-winning author of Chelsea Whistle, Valencia and The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America. At her relatively young age, she has blazed through lifetimes of experience. A bio on her online shrine at www.purpleglitter.com lists the various paths she has walked: “ex-prostitute, ex-Goth, ex-drummer for Dirt Bike Gang, ex-straight girl, ex-lesbian separatist vegan, ex-Catholic schoolgirl, and ex-resident of Chelsea, Boston’s working class slum.” She has channeled her many identities into a successful writing career. Her debut volume dubbed her as “the spokesperson for America’s young queer girl mutant horde,” and she’s since become a darling in reading rooms across the nation, especially in San Francisco, her home base.

Recently, while on the road promoting her work as a contributing writer and editor on two new anthologies (Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class and Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person) and her own book of collected poems (The Beautiful), Michelle and I exchanged e-mails. E-mail, it turns out, is one of her favorite means of communication.

New Yorkers and Californians seem to have a curious, love/hate relationship. What attracts you to San Francisco as your home?

Well, I just ended up there on a coin flip, really. It was that or lesbian separatist land in the Arizona desert. But I do love San Francisco. People seem to flock there to forge community and to try to put theoretical political ideas into practice. There is more freedom to be a raging freak and live an interesting life and not get too wrapped up in notions of career or money. That can be tedious sometimes, but I’d rather live in a place where people are more interested in changing the world than competing for each other for a piece of it.  

When did you think you might be able to actually become a writer?

Well, when I moved to San Francisco and found the intense open mic scene of the early ‘90s I understood that there was a place for me to bring the writing I’d already been doing. I began to understand that the only thing required of a ‘writer’ is that she ‘writes’ and I was doing that. And now I had a place to sort of showcase it and not be writing in a lonely little vacuum. But I first realized I might be able to actually get published when I read Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls. Because I was writing about such similar things, living a life so similar it was almost creepy, I thought. I mean our dads were both alcoholics who worked in the Post Office in Massachusetts. I thought it was weird, and so cool. And I thought that maybe if I kept at it someone would publish me too.

You recently traveled with the Sex Workers Art Show Tour, which featured a collective of artists who’ve also worked in the sex industry. What were the highlights of that experience for you?

I’ve been on it twice now. The highlight of the first tour was really getting to be friends with the woman who created it, Annie Oakley. She’s my hero. It took two people to get Sister Spit on the road and Annie does it all by herself! AND people stay in hotels, AND we get paid. Sister Spit didn’t pay anyone and you slept on a floor and were happy about it. Plus, with Sister Spit we were all mostly friends with each other, and on the Sex Work tour it’s a lot of strangers with conflicting personalities and endless needs squished into a van. It was challenging, but Annie did an incredible job.The other amazing part was being part of history. It’s the first tour of its kind, and I felt like it was serving a serious political purpose — demystifying sex work and challenging assumptions and stereotypes about the people who work in the industry.

Speaking of sex work, do you think online personals – and the easier access to sexual partners – have had an impact on the business of prostitution?

I don’t know. I haven’t done any real sex work in like ten years. I think there will always be a market for prostitution, though. It’s not a mutual sex exchange, so personals can’t replace it. In personals, the woman wants sex, too. In sex work, the woman wants money.

In what way do you think attitudes surrounding sexuality in general have changed most in the last ten years?

Well, it’s so hard to say because I live in San Francisco and it’s so different from the rest of the world. I mean obviously there is more queer stuff out in the media, though I still don’t feel represented and don’t expect to, really. I guess aspects of queer sexuality, like sex toys and stuff, have become acceptable for regular straight people. But it’s weird, the way those shallow surface representations can make people feel over-saturated without actually changing the reality of being a sexual minority. I mean, people are so jaded about Queer Eye and Queer As Folk and it’s like, “all right, queers are everywhere now, will you please shut up.” But we still have no rights and in many places are in deep danger simply existing. Same with sex work — everyone’s jaded about these college girls stripping or writing memoirs about hooking, but if you’re a trans-woman who is hooking because no one will hire you, you’re in a ton of danger out there. And nobody wants to make a TV show about you. You’ll be on the east coast promoting your recent work in a couple of new anthologies as well as some of your poetry.

With all this traveling, you must feel like a rock star in the literary scene. Do you leave trashed hotel/motel rooms and broken hearts in your wake?

Oh my god! I’m staying at friend’s houses, and my life is rather calm. I don’t drink or trash, alas. You should have asked me this a few years ago and my answers would have been a lot more interesting! I love to see the country, I just really love performing and traveling. 

In what city do people seem to be having the most fun?

Hmmmmm. People are really having fun in San Francisco, and I think they are also having fun in Santa Fe. Yeah, people are putting on circuses and break-dancing and shit in Santa Fe. People have a lot of fun in New York. I made out with a lot of drunken ladies last time I performed in New York; they were definitely having a good time! I think people are having the least amount of fun in Salt Lake City.

After working on the new anthology, Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, which have seemed for you the most striking elements of the contributing writers’ work?

The defiance! Poor and working-class women aren’t supposed to have any anger about their situations. We’re supposed to, I don’t know, be grateful and not make anyone feel guilty. There’s a lot of shame imposed on us too, and I think under that is this righteous anger and it was great to see it articulated. It’s about time.

You’re currently working on a new graphic novel called Rent Girl. What can you tell us about this new character?

There isn’t ever any other character but me because I write memoirs. That will certainly change, but it hasn’t yet. It’s not based on my experiences. It IS my experiences, and it’s illustrated by this wonderful, award-winning comic artist, Laurenn McCubbinn. She did the art for the comic series XXX Live Nude Girls, and is the art director for this hot new magazine Kitchen Sink. She’s fantastic.

Readers would like to know if you are single…er…are you?

No, I’ve been with the same person, Rocco Kayiatos, for the past five years. He makes hip-hop under the name Katastrophe. We are, as they say in Boston, wicked committed. But we smooch on other people.

What is the best advice you give to aspiring writers?

To just write your ass off and don’t freak out about your ‘career’, or being published. Just read a lot, go to readings, be part of a literary community and dedicate yourself to your writing above all else, put it first in your life and let all things feed it. If a space doesn’t exist for you, make one.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 7 (Summer 2004).