Unreal life

Michelle Tea’s new novel proves fiction is stranger than truth

At a time when the publishing industry is trumpeting the memoir and scrutinizing every blog for the next confessional best seller, memoirist Michelle Tea is diving into fiction. “Some years ago, I suddenly felt overexposed, that I had overexposed myself,” Tea said in an e-mail interview while gearing up for her current book tour. “I was sick of my own voice, sick of climbing on stages and talking about myself. I felt my experience was taking up too much space.”

The San Francisco author has built her career on the cornerstones of four autobiographical works: The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and The Chelsea Whistle, which chronicle her youth in a working-class Boston suburb; the Lambda Award-winning starving-artist tales of Valencia; and Rent Girl, an illustrated history of her short-lived career in prostitution. Tea’s willingness to honestly interpret her life, without shame and without glorification, has inspired countless artists to spill their own secrets across Bay Area stages and beyond. But somehow, while leading the charge to honor real experience as art, she lost the drive to tell her own story.

Though switching to fiction seemed like an obvious solution, Tea claims the idea triggered an existential crisis. “After so many years asserting and defending how important and meaningful it is to document reality through memoir, I was unsure what the greater good of conjuring a piece of fiction was. Why introduce a new story in the world when so many worthy true stories go untold?” she said.

Tea tried to press on with autobiographical writing, but she eventually burned out. “I feared that if I continued writing about myself, I wouldn’t grow as a writer,” she admitted.

Enter Tea’s first novel, the newly released Rose of No Man’s Land. The book, which follows brooding 14-year-old Trisha Driscoll through the first weekend of summer vacation in the fictional town of Mogsfield, Mass., guns for a place in the coming-of-age cannon by tearing down the teen archetypes of past eras: “The music slammed on too. The theme to that movie Pretty in Pink. Was that it? Was I in an eighties movie?” Trisha thinks as she arrives for her first day of work at the local mall. “If Molly Ringwald had been going through that drama in Mogsfield she would’ve ended up with her ass kicked at some horrid teen dance club on Route 1, Ducky would have been fagbashed, she never would have found that cool woman who gave her the dress, and her father would have been a more serious loser, like a molester.”

Though the plot smoothly unfolds over a one-day period, Tea confessed to a bumpy writing process, hindered by doubts about the authenticity of her characters—never a problem with memoirs. “I didn’t trust that the characters were believable,” she confessed, “and I was deeply unsure why anyone should give a crap about them.”

Trisha’s similarity to the teenaged Tea of her memoirs offers some assurance of credibility. Both are thoughtful young women warily considering the limited options offered by their economically depressed Massachusetts neighborhoods and less-than-nourishing home lives. In The Chelsea Whistle, the adolescent Tea distrusts her mother’s boyfriend and ultimately discovers he is peeping at her through holes in her bedroom wall.

Trisha is slightly luckier: “Ma says about Donnie: ‘At least he doesn’t bother you girls.’ By bother she means ‘try to have sex with.’ … I’d like to think that you just don’t let creepy guys into the house, not ever, but to hear Ma talk about it, it’s a real crapshoot and the fact that Donnie hasn’t tried to get it on with me or my sister actually makes him a great man as opposed to simply not a criminal in that particular arena. Ma says I’m ungrateful and also unrealistic.”

“I feel most comfortable writing in a young voice because I don’t feel like a grown-up,” Tea said. “I think a combination of being queer and being an artist and being so poor for

so long conspire to keep a person feeling seriously locked out of the common adult experiences and milestones and away from general adult resources. I can really relate to the sense of alienation that is common to teens, and I can also relate to the struggle to overcome that alienation and be a part of a larger world.”

The resemblance between Trisha and a young Tea ends at context, however. Where Tea stomps through the parties, record stores and concerts of her teenage memoirs in gothic garb, accompanied by friends and boyfriends, the quiet, androgynous Trisha is a self-described loner. “On television most people are suspicious and even scornful of the loner,” Trisha thinks to herself, “but one or two people tend to be intrigued, and if the loner manages to avoid becoming a victim of circumstance, he or she often prevails. It’s not so bad. I only needed to locate the one or two key people who would find my lonerness interesting and befriend them. And then learn to identify the precarious circumstances that could victimize me.”

Trisha finds both a key person and a precarious circumstance in Rose, the fry cook she catches shoplifting at the clothing store where she works. “She looked like some neglected 12-year-old,” Trisha says of Rose. “Once you picked her up you’d be buying her hamburgers, you’d be saving her alcoholic mom … you’d be buying Rose a real dress and leaving that gauzy number in a Dumpster somewhere. A whole cinematic idea arced around Rose.”

Rose lures Trisha out of her bedroom and her isolation with a cigarette and the promise of adventure. Within 24 hours, Trisha and Rose commit nearly every teenage taboo imaginable. Be it hitchhiking, drugs, sex or threatening men with used tampons, Tea leaves no dare unexplored.

In doing so, Tea has answered her own question about the value of writing fiction. “What’s better [about fiction] is the absolute freedom you have once you commit to submitting to your imagination,” she concluded. “It’s very fun. You’re not constricted by what actually happened, and by embellishing and creating, the story can get endlessly wider.”

So can her book tour—23 cities and counting—which stops in Sacramento on May 11.

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