Freedom to Fuck Up: An Interview with Merritt Tierce


At Work


Photo: Michael Lionstar

In Merritt Tierce’s debut novel, Love Me Back, life does not go as planned. A Texas high school student named Marie becomes pregnant on a missionary trip when she’s only sixteen. The event completely changes Marie’s life. Raising a child means not going to college, marrying a boy she’s only just met, and cutting short her own adolescence. Tierce writes poignantly of the pain and loneliness in Marie’s new life—as a waitress at a restaurant where the only thing that feels permanent is what her life has become. She tests her boundaries and her limits, numbing herself from reality with sex, drugs, and pain. And while it’s a hard life on the page, Love Me Back is also filled with the kindness and humor that people offer one another when they know there’s no one else. Tierce is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Meta Rosenberg Fellow; she is also a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. 

You write of Marie’s pregnancy, “I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body, cell by cell.” Marie had been accepted into Yale, but the baby completely upends her plans and distances her from her family. One of the earliest scenes in the novel is Marie’s interview at the Olive Garden—it signals the beginning of her life as a young mother in the service industry. What drew you to start at this point?

I wrote the book backward, chronologically—so I actually started at the latest point in Marie’s life. I knew what she felt and thought in the stories in the second half of the book more clearly than I knew younger Marie. I had to write back through her states of mind, back toward childhood. She was still a child when she became pregnant and I had to approach that fog carefully. Marie is unknown to herself at the beginning of the book, and I couldn’t start there. It felt like the gameplay in something like World of Warcraft, where you can only see as much of the map as you’ve explored. The rest is dark. While Marie was living it, she had to emerge from the dark and settle her territory—but while I was writing it I could only write out to the edge of black. I respected that. I let her be what she was—aware, but ignorant. New. And I can’t make any categorical statements about sixteen-year-old mothers, but my hope for my own daughter is that she lets herself find and grow and use her power for herself before she lets anyone else lay claim to it.

I’ve thought a lot about how both MTV’s Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant series revealed the realities, highly edited, of teen pregnancy to a wider audience. There’s also a lot of new work, from women, that deals directly, and with a frank sense of humor, about accidental pregnancy and abortion—Jenny Slate’s Obvious Child, Emily Gould’s Friendship, even Juno. What do you think about the current conversation in our culture about pregnancy and abortion?

I think the culture and the conversation still have a long way to go, but Obvious Child is a great start. Efforts like Sea Change, Not Alone, All* Above All, and 1 in 3 give me a lot of hope because people are realizing it’s a long game. Abortion is the best-kept secret, in that it’s an experience so many women have—but they have it alone or with the one person who goes through it with them, whoever that may be. Most people don’t know anything about abortion until they need an abortion or someone close to them needs an abortion—and then they learn everything about abortion in a compressed timeline, under the stress of both their own circumstances and the stigma forced on them. They have the abortion and then they go on with their lives. But we have to stop pretending that abortion is an experience one has to earn or justify, and that means we have to talk about it. About how common it is, and how there might not be a lot to say about most abortions—someone got pregnant and they didn’t mean to, someone just doesn’t want a kid right now, someone isn’t sure about a lot of things and has trouble making decisions. It’s hard to report that story because it’s not “compelling,” but it’s the most common abortion story there is—a woman knows she doesn’t want to have a child so she has an abortion in the first trimester and the procedure itself takes less than five minutes. Abortion has been around as long as pregnancy, and our responsibility is to let it be complex and to make it safe and accessible. And most of all to not question people when they choose abortion—to let them be the experts on their own lives.

Obvious Child is so frank and so hilarious and I hope everyone sees it. There was hardly a line I didn’t laugh at, and my husband and I took our daughters, who are twelve and thirteen, because we thought it was practically a how-to for getting through that inevitable extended moment in your life when you’re good at some things and terrible at others and you don’t know if you’re going to make it. And it’s okay if all kinds of things go into that soup, including abortion.

LoveMeBackMarie copes with her sense of alienation and depression by abusing drugs and alcohol as well as practicing other forms of self-destructive behavior, like casual sex and cutting herself. It sounds dark in summary, but I found those passages to be some of the most beautiful in the book. So much of what she is doing is avoiding any real sense of intimacy and disguising her pain. What was it like to write those scenes?

It was like the kind of conversation you can only have with someone on a long car ride or when you’re trapped somewhere. I was in the enclosed space of Marie and I felt what she felt, both the deep sadness and the dissociation from it. I wanted to write that state of inwardness that is simultaneously so focused on the spark of the pain and on the avoidance of it. For the most part I ignored what she felt and just reported what she did, what she thought, what she saw, and trusted that the feelings would come through because they were there.

I’ve always considered sex scenes, by the way, to be incredibly challenging for most fiction writers. They can be too graphic, too cheesy, completely gratuitous, or total fantasy! But I loved the sex scenes in your novel. Did you look to other writing? Did you come across any, uh, bedroom dos and don’ts when writing?

I didn’t look to other writing. I just wanted it to feel real. And I think that Marie is teaching herself what she doesn’t want. Outlining it, repeating it, making sure she knows what it is and how bad it feels. That’s a painful process, but I don’t think women have enough freedom to fuck up in general, and even less when it comes to sex. The sex in Love Me Back is also not so much sex as it is just another way Marie hurts herself, so maybe I had more set boundaries than a writer typically does with a sex scene.

You live in Texas, where you work as the executive director of the Equal Access Fund, which provides financial support for those who can’t afford abortions. In what ways does this job inform you as a writer?

I’m constantly working on behalf of people who have nothing. They are homeless, they are living in violent situations, they have children they can’t support and children who have been taken from them. They have debilitating health issues and no money. They are twelve years old and were raped. My job is listening to their stories and then telling those stories to other people who have more than nothing, asking them to care. Chekhov said, “People must not be humiliated, that is the main thing.” I think about that all the time. I think about how shame is the most powerful force and you could write a story about anything horrific or depraved that someone did because of shame and it would feel true. Yes, you would think, someone could possibly do that most craven thing, because of shame. My urge to write and the focus of my job are both motivated by a need to reject unwarranted shame absolutely and explicitly. People have a right to healthcare that includes abortion, and they shouldn’t have to beg for it.

Some of my favorite characters were drawn from the scenes of Marie’s later job, at a five-star steakhouse in Dallas, where excess is the norm. Customers spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a dinner. Danny, the charismatic and hedonistic owner, is coked out of his mind, flirting and fucking women in the restaurant. I was wondering how you considered humor and caricature when writing these scenes—how humor can underpin Marie’s sadness in a really effective way.

Stories don’t feel real if people never laugh. Even in the most unbearable circumstances, people still laugh—and as one draws closer to death through illness, corruption, age, or violence, it can sometimes be easier to see the absurdity of life and laugh at it. You’re on the edge of the coin. Marie sees the excess up close but she pulls back to think about it and lets the humor in because it helps and it’s worth something.

Thessaly La Force is a writer based in New York.