Michelle Tea is one of The City’s Queer literary treasures. She is a one woman, creative wrecking crew who uses words and stories to carve out space for herself in often inhospitable lands. She is an author, poet, and literary arts organizer who put the underground Mission culture of the 90′s on the map with her second book, a memoir, ‘Valencia’ (2000) which is being turned into a film of the same name.
She is also the chief alchemist in the long running and highly acclaimed, spoken word tour, Sister Spit, that gave voice to the often unheard community of primarily fringe women writers. In 2004 her anthology that celebrated all things Queercore/Avante Garde and included luminary writers like Dennis Cooper and Eileen Myles, ‘Pills, Thrills, Chills and Heartache’, landed on the LA Times’, non-fiction, best seller list for months.
She has now set her sights on conquering the Young Adult Fiction genre. Castro Biscuit’s Ken White spoke with Michelle at length about her new book, ‘Mermaid in Chelsea Creek’ in anticipation of her reading at a free event on May 14th at Books, Inc., 2275 Market Street in the Castro. (WP)
Castro Biscuit: Your new novel, ‘Mermaid in Chelsea Creek’, is your first young adult book. And it doesn’t even take place in SF’s Mission District! How is it different when you write for a younger audience?
Michelle Tea: My literary voice feels really different. It’s probably the result of being written in the third-person which I’ve never done before. There’s something in the way that I’m unfurling a fairy tale, that approach and that voice is part of the story itself. I was just working on the sequel this morning; and as I’m writing it I’m like, God this language, is this too big of a word? You can really over-think it. But thirteen-year-olds who are big readers are very likely reading a lot of different work and are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
CB: What do you think of Young Adult as a genre?
MT: I think there’s really awesome people out there like Jacqueline Woodson, who’s amazing. I very vividly remember the YA books I read when I when I was young. I remember Judy Blume, I read all of her work, and the creepy amazing Lois Duncan. SE Hinton was such a huge influence. As far as the books that have inspired this book, I’d say there’s Francesca Lia Block and Weetzie Bat, the way she takes the everyday and infuses it with a magic that’s very believable. I would say the Philip Pullman books were really influential. They’re so engrossing!
CB: Tell us about Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.
MT: It’s that story of the Chosen One who’s going to come into their destiny and learn there’s going to be a lot expected of them. I set it in the town I actually grew up in, Chelsea, Mass. It was really enjoyable for me to return to that place that I’ve written so much about in memoir, and put this layer of magic on top of it. The magical back story contains this idea of a curse that’s not just on Chelsea but many places and is responsible for how sad and depressing the place is.
CB: Do you feel like you’re working out some childhood stuff by setting it…
MT: …by having this girl come in and save Chelsea? I’ve realized because of the particular abilities that Sophie has, where she’s able to feel other people’s feelings and take their dark feelings from them, omigod I’ve created her the most co-dependent heroine ever in literature! Like, ‘let me feel your feelings for you,’ it’s so ridiculous! But I think I’m obsessed with Chelsea. It feels very far away from me and the farther away I get the more it seems like an odd dream to me, [but] the obsession doesn’t fade. We just keep returning to our obsessions in a different form. It’s a way for me to talk about things I’m obsessed with–Chelsea, and a rough adolescence, being a girl in a tough town–and bring other elements into the story so these things aren’t the point anymore the way they were in my memoir, they’re just the flavor. And I want to represent poor and working class characters in literature because in general, there’s not enough of it that’s real.