Putting a bird on it.
This is shaping up to be a good year for Michelle Tea. With the movie adaptation of her sex-frenzied bildungsroman, Valencia coming out in late June, this month’s release of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek marks another welcome triumph, if an unexpected turn, for the queerlit star as she takes a shot at the young adult novel. Blending Old World, babushka-bound magic with the gritty realism of teenage isolation in post-industrial New England, the novel (the first of three, if not more) is J.K. Rowling meets Lynda Barry and a worthwhile read for (nearly) any age. Kicking off a new book tour, Tea agreed to chat with us about hyper-literate high school students, the genius of Philip Pullman, and the bulldogs of gay men.
Compared to Valencia and Rent Girl, writing a novel for a younger audience must have been a pretty jarring change of pace. Was it tricky to adjust?
Not really. Going into it, I was definitely aware of whom I was writing for, so I left out a lot of the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But I feel like a lot of my writing has a juvenile sensibility, anyway. When I started to write this book, partly I was just trying to see if I could write for a larger audience. I knew that I didn't have much of a change with a larger adult readership, because I don't really understand how adults live in the world. But I do understand how younger people live in the world. Really, what was most different and difficult for me was the whole fantasy aspect of it.
You didn’t have much experience writing speculative fiction?
No. I don’t even read a lot of fantasy. I took years of my friends’ nagging for me to finally get around to The Golden Compass. When I finally did read it, the timing was great. I was getting really sick of writing about myself and the book totally opened up my brain to the kinds of stories that I might be able to tell. It was a revelation. I started to ask myself all of these questions: What would a magical world of my creation look like? What could it be? What would the creatures that populate it look like?
The magical world of your creation—at least the setting—is actually pretty realistic. Bleakly so. There are polluted rivers and busy hospital waiting rooms and garbage dumps. You drew all that from your childhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts?
The Chelsea that I put into the book is my recollection of the city, though it’s definitely more of a dystopic take on it. When I’ve gone back to visit in the summertime when there are leaves on all of the tress, it’s actually really pretty. It’s dilapidated, but I had completely forgotten how charming it can be. Like here, it’s also seen a lot of gentrification. Last time I visited, I was staying at my grandfather’s house and I saw this really nattily dressed gay man walking a French bulldog outside his house. I was like: "That’s weird! That guy would have gotten killed when I was growing up here!"
And then in the middle of that working class New England setting, you insert this supernatural Polish myth about a salt hungry messiah who will come and save the world from itself. Was that a story you heard a lot growing up?
Nope, I completely made that up. But I think the idea that there’s going to be a chosen one who’s going to come and help everyone out is a pretty universal one.
That idea has got to be especially appealing for kids in middle school or high school. Thus, the success of books like Harry Potter and The Golden Compass.
Exactly. It’s like, "maybe my alienation is an awesome thing! Maybe I’m alienated because I’m extra excellent or because I have powers that other people just don’t understand!"
You were writing for a younger crowd, but you really didn’t seem to simplify your writing style or dumb things down much. Was that ever a temptation?
As I work on the sequel now, sometimes I do stop and ask myself: Is a thirteen year old really going get this? But I also think you can make yourself crazy by constantly thinking about that. For the most part, I just let it come out as it comes out. I also teach high school kids now, which gives me some perspective. They are so smart and their reading levels are so advanced. They definitely blow any sort of presumptions you might have about their abilities out of the water. So when I’m writing for younger readers, I just trust them. And if that means that a kid has to pick up a dictionary every now and then, that probably not the worst thing in the world.
You can catch Michelle Tea (with Ali Liebegott) at the Booksmith's Pride-themed queer lit book swap this Friday, June 7, at 6:30 p.m..