Merritt Tierce on Iowa, Comma Usage, and Her Debut Novel, Love Me Back

Author photo by Michael Lionstar

Author photo by Michael Lionstar

Love Me Backby 5 Under 35 honoree Merritt Tierce, isn’t like other novels. For one thing, its protagonist, Marie, doesn’t change. There’s no discernible arc. She’s self-destructive, and she’s not sure why, and neither are we, the readers. She cuts herself, has sex with people she doesn’t like or hardly knows, submits to humiliations at work. Tierce doesn’t tell us how these acts make Marie feel; she only reports on what Marie does, in notably beautiful, clean sentences. Love Me Back is a novel that will make you gasp, in surprise at Tierce’s honesty, and in awe of her talent.

EC: I loved your book. I loved it so much. I just want to gush about it for the whole interview. It was one of those books that makes me feel like everything else is so fake and phony and this is one of the only things I’ve read that’s about real life and being a woman. It’s so real that I wonder if you had to put pressure on yourself as you were writing to be honest and not to worry about what readers would think.

Yes. I don’t think I should get any credit for it; that’s just how I write. I don’t think about who’s going to read it. <span style=”line-height: 1.5em;”><span style=”line-height: 1.5em;”>I write to make really, really perfect sentences. That’s what I’m going for. I don’t care about the story that much, so it’s hard to think about. I say that because I think that people who have an imaginary reader or an imaginary critic must think about what that reader would make of a character’s decisions, or the plot turns or something. But those aren’t the things that I care about most, and it’s hard to think, “What would a reader think of this sentence?” The closest I’ve come to that was in grad school, where one of my professors, who’s a famous writer, just kind of loathed my writing and had some pretty negative things to say about it—and even said flat-out that it wasn’t fiction, which I don’t even know what that means. And that was kind of crushing because she was—and still is—an idol of mine as a writer. But it forced me to realize that I wasn’t writing to please anyone else or for anyone else’s approval. And it wasn’t like before that I had been writing for her approval or anyone’s approval and then I changed courses. It was just that I realized, “Well, people will think that. And I don’t really care.”

What did she mean when she said it’s not fiction—did she suspect it was memoir?

No, that’s not what she meant at all. I think she meant that my work isn’t recognizable in the sense that no one changes. There’s not a pivotal, transformative climax.

In the traditional workshop format, you can’t speak while people are discussing your story. But I’ll love one of my colleagues forever, because he held up one of my stories that she was bashing and interrupted her and said, “No, I don’t think so. This is what you see in real life.”  He said “real life,” like you said. And that’s the highest praise I think I could get. But I think that really good fiction—at least the fiction that I love—everything is already there in real life. You don’t need to construct things or contrive things. You just have to tell the stories that you know. And keep them. I don’t really know how to create structure or anything yet—maybe I will learn that.

Well, you say that, but I don’t know. Obviously it would be bizarre to describe your book as a thriller, but it really is a page-turner. Because I wasn’t sure why Marie was doing what she was doing, and I wanted to know. You carefully reveal a little bit about her backstory and her motivation. And it felt like that was done artfully, like you didn’t just throw everything on the table immediately. That felt like a strong structure to me.
No, I think that that is there for sure, but it comes out of who she is and the fact that she doesn’t herself know what her motivations are a lot of the time and she’s trying to figure out what they are. People are both easily understood on a psychological and emotional level, and incomprehensible. Other people, for sure, but even yourself.  Sometimes you feel like you’re the little person in the cockpit, and sometimes you feel like no one’s there. How can you yourself do something and then later say, “I don’t know why I did that”? You did it!

I’m not implying that you were revisiting memories when you were writing this, but was it difficult to spend time in Marie’s head and be with her as she was doing all this dangerous, crazy stuff?
Yeah, but not in a bad way. In a thrilling way, I guess. The whole trip of, you know, why do you like anything that’s tragic or sad? There’s nothing that could explain why you need to put yourself through those emotions over and over. I never have a craving to watch comedy. I don’t have a craving to watch 30 Rock, but if I sit down and watch it, I think it’s funny and I laugh. But I never have this urge to watch it, whereas I always want more sad, fucked up people doing really disastrous things. I don’t know. It was hard in the sense that it was intense, but it wasn’t hard in the sense that I was reluctant to do it.

I haven’t read anything this real about breastfeeding, about intrusive thoughts. And it was so wonderful to see these things in your novel, and made me feel less weird and crazy. I think for most people, it wouldn’t even occur to them that they <i>could</i> write about that stuff. It feels off-limits in some way. Did it feel off-limits to you? Did you think “This is not something that I see a lot; I want to write about it”?
Not at all. I think that that is very tied up with my own experience as a mother and a woman and a human. For me, I think, it’s a way to hold onto some sanity in the face of all kinds of things that I really don’t understand. And it’s taken me a long time, you know, to be the bear getting up on the ball and dancing. I have just fallen on my ass so many times trying to figure out how to be a mom and how to be—how to be. There’s always so much to think about there that I feel gets totally flown over in most of what I read, hear, see about parenting and motherhood in particular. But I feel like I can say it’s not that uncommon, this kind of experience of feeling disoriented and like you are supposed to know what you’re doing but you have no idea what you’re doing. And I’ve always been kind of an observer of my own life, and I feel like a lot of writers are like that, but just where I feel a really tangible distance between the live-er and the observer. And there’s some dangerous space between here and there that you can mess around in, to good and to not good.

I want to ask about the cover, because I read in an interview that it used to be hot pink and it’s not anymore, and I’m happy for you.
It was actually never hot pink. But when the National Book Foundation gave me the 5 Under 35 thing, I was the only one of the five authors whose book wasn’t already published or in ARC form. Mine was the only that didn’t have cover art. So they had to come up with a placeholder on a very short timeline for the marketing materials for that one thing. And what they created happened to be a hot pink representation of a cover. But they told me, “This is just a placeholder; this is not your actual cover.” I don’t know, I’m new to this game. So I said something about it in my interview with Claire Vaye Watkins. I wasn’t concerned that it was hot pink—

You said in the interview you knew it was a placeholder.
I love my cover now. I think it’s beautiful and I love that color.

I love it, too. It’s not girly and it’s not frou-frou.
No, which is good. I really was concerned that pink sent the wrong message—the wrong subconscious message. I love the cover. They told me they commissioned a Belgian artist to create the sign, and it looks so real, like an actual neon sign they created and then photographed.

Oh, it’s not?
No, it was 3D modeled. And I love that, too, as a representation of my book, just because I want it to be as real as possible.

Did you have any say in the final cover?
No, that was the only one I ever saw. They just said, “What do you think?” And I said, “Oh, it’s great. I love it.” And that was the cover. I was kind of dreading and fearing that whole cover process. You feel like maybe they’ll show you three covers and two of them are not even in the realm of possibility and they know it, but that’s just so you’ll be forced to pick the one that they already were going with. I’ve been really happy with everything at Doubleday, and my people there.

Did your editor really edit you?
Yes. She suggested some really crucial ordering of the pieces of the book that, as soon as she said it, seemed obvious to me. The reason that I went with Doubleday and signed with her in the first place is that when I talked to her, it seemed like she understood the book as well as I could hope for, and what it was really about. Its essence. So I was hopeful that whatever changes she suggested or asked for, they would still be true to what I wanted to be there. I also didn’t know what to expect in the realm of, you know, if your editor suggests a change and you don’t want to make it, are you allowed to keep the book the way you want? And I was. In the places where I said I didn’t want to make that change, they left it, which I really appreciated; I feel like that’s a great sign of respect. And then the copy editor put in about 600 commas, and I took out 599 of them. I feel sorry for that person. I mean, I’m sorry that they had to do that. It was wrong. That was exhausting. By the time I got to the end of that, I wished I had known that that was how it was going to be, because I would have just said, “I want to keep this one comma that you put in, and the rest please…”

Did he try to put in quotation marks around the dialogue, too?
No, we talked about that; that was kind of an obvious style thing. I use some commas, whereas I never use quotation marks. But the comma splice is actually my style.

What about the title? Did you have that early on?
=Yeah, I did. And it comes from one of the stories. So the book never had any other title, really, I don’t think. It was one of those that just occurs to you and that’s it, you go forward with it. People seem to like it. Titles are weird. You don’t know. You think they’re good and then you wonder, “Wait, is that good?”

I can imagine it’s like saying a word over and over again until it loses all meaning.
Exactly. Like rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

I have a baby, and I feel like now it’s too late to be a writer. Did you ever have those feelings?
Oh yeah. Yeah. I thought nothing would ever happen for me because I was a mother. I mean—that’s it. Okay. My life is over. Not only did I think I would never be a writer, I didn’t even have that specific of a thought. I just thought, “I’ll never __________.” Fill in the blank. But it turns out not to be true—I mean, if you want it not to be true. I feel like I’m much more privileged than a lot of mothers or fathers out there. I mean, my kid’s dad, from whom I’m divorced, is one of my best friends on earth and is an amazing father. I’ve never been a single parent in the remotest sense, even though we’ve been divorced for twelve years or something. And my parents were really on deck all the time. I don’t know what I would have done without that support system. I might not have fallen as far off the deep end, but I also feel like I was given a long enough tether to figure shit out. And I know a lot of people don’t have that luxury. It was still hard and, you know, no matter how privileged you are, at some point you have to take stock and be like, “Well, these are the kids I have and this is the life I have and this is what I want and this is what I’m going to have to do to get it.” And either do it or not do it.

Cracking the nut in the first place was really hard, but it seems to be getting easier. The momentum gathers. As my friend Ben Fountain says, “Nobody wants you until everybody wants you.” And he should know. He wrote in his garage for seventeen years before anybody knew who he was, or published him. I don’t even know if I have that kind of resolve. I hope I would, but I’m glad I didn’t have to, in a sense. I have a kind of romantic notion about the direct relationship between how hard you have to work for something and how much purer that makes it. But I definitely feel like I did have to slave away at stuff that did not matter to me at all so I could support my kids and not be destitute and try to work toward this other thing that I wanted. I worked at a law firm for a few years all day and then I would go to a restaurant and wait tables all night during the week, Monday through Thursday. And then I would have my kids on the weekend. That was really grueling. Of course, sometimes at the law firm I worked on my own stuff. We had really finicky computers and I was working on my application for Iowa one day and my screen froze. Of course. When I have my novel up on the screen. And my boss, who’s a former federal judge, is walking past, and I’m supposed to be transcribing something that’s definitely not someone breast-feeding and getting thrown out of a library. Like, that was not in the evidence.

What was applying to Iowa like? 
I decided to get an MFA, or I decided I wanted to try to do that. This sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way—it wasn’t to go somewhere to learn how to write, it was just to take a recognizable step in the direction of that world and to get some—this is another thing that Ben says—to get some psychological cover for a while. So you can be sort of protected from judgment while you’re trying to write something. You can do that waiting tables too, I guess, but…

There are no deadlines while you’re waiting tables, though.
Right. Exactly. And there’s no community, and there’s no, “This is what I’m doing now to be a writer.” I did hold onto “This is what I’m doing now to be a writer” when I was waiting tables. Anyway, I did not expect to get into Iowa. I don’t think anyone does. It seems sort of arbitrary when you get to a certain level. I was accepted to a few different programs, and I ended up trying to decide to between NYU and Iowa. They had offered me basically the same financial package, but of course it was worth a lot more in Iowa City than in New York. So I had to figure out, “Well, would it be better for me to be completely overstimulated beyond all reason, would that be good for my writing, or would it be better for me to go somewhere where there’s nothing, there’s just prairie?” In the end, I’m so glad I went to Iowa. Mainly because my kids had such an amazing time there; it was such a great place for them to be for a couple of years. I loved it too. I just loved the whole experience. The program is incredible. Mainly because it’s not a graduate program as much as it is a fellowship; it’s just time to write. And they don’t put very many restrictions on you. Just being able to focus on reading and writing for a while, and on being a parent.

The debate over MFAs is so bizarre to me. It’s just time to write in a community of writers, and it’s great. I don’t see what the controversy is.
I think I had sort of snotty internal attitude toward it before I got one. But I understand where that orientation comes from, you know? And there’s a legitimate kernel at the heart of it which is something that I believe still, even having gotten an MFA, which is that you can’t really teach someone else to write. You can’t teach a great writer to write, you can’t teach a good writer to write. I just don’t think you can teach writing—no offense to all the great writing teachers out there. I think great writing teachers are usually teaching more about reading than writing. And the workshop format to me is bizarre; I had to place a lot of insulation around myself to participate in that. And mainly just kind of go through the motions and take what I valued from it and ignore everything else. Because you can really disappear and kind of flat-line into what other people think about your work. And it kind of starts to seem like you could put up an unknown story from Dostoevsky and someone would say it’s utterly shit. Of course, at Iowa, there is no obscure story so obscure that someone wouldn’t recognize it.

Love Me Back is out now.

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