Local author Michelle Tea’s new book, “Mermaid in Chelsea Creek,” will be released by McSweeney’s McMullens May 14. A film of her book “Valencia” (2000) will be released this summer. Tea founded an imprint of City Lights Publishers, Sister Spit, last year. She sat down with Mission Local to talk about her recent works and the processes of writing and reading.
Mission Local: Tell us what your forthcoming book is all about.
Michelle Tea: The book is a kind of like that classic superhero story where there’s the person who’s often young who doesn’t know that they’re “the one.” In this case, it’s this sort of grungy girl raised by a single mom in this really rough town, which is the town I’m actually from, Chelsea, Massachusetts. So what happens is that the depression the town suffers and that humanity suffers is a sort of good-against-evil thing. The girl, Sophie, is the one who’s going to come forward and remove the curse.
In doing so, she’s visited by a mermaid in a creek who swam from Poland and a bunch of talking pigeons. There’s a lot of ethnic Polish magic in it because that’s her heritage. The larger idea is that all these different people have their kind of indigenous sort of paganism.
It’s a trilogy. So there’s a larger story I’m writing my way into. The second book is due in June.
ML: Have you always wanted to write a young adult book?
MT: Young adult, yes. Fantasy? No. I’m not a big fantasy reader. It took me a million years to read “The Golden Compass” [the young-adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman]. I had people trying to get me to read [it]. But I was like, there’s a picture of a girl on a flying polar bear on the cover. I’m just never going to read that. I was between books at the time and was definitely sick of writing about myself. I got really inspired at the thought of, not only can you make things up, you can completely make things up that don’t exist.
ML: What do you think about other young adult popular franchises that have come out in recent years?
MT: I didn’t really read Harry Potter because it just didn’t really click with me. “Twilight” just looked so ridiculous I wouldn’t even try to read that. I loved “The Hunger Games.” I kept getting feedback from my agent to read “The Hunger Games.” So I did and was like, that was really addictive and fun, but I actually don’t want to write like that. It’s in general very unhelpful advice to tell a writer to go read another book. Only Suzanne Collins could write “The Hunger Games.”
ML: Your new book is pretty gritty, and some people say it’s too dark for for kids. What’s your response to that?
MT: That just makes me think, everything that’s out there must be so middle class and fake cleaned-up. It reflects my own adolescence with the exception of pigeons didn’t talk to me. But the mechanisms, the people, that was my experience.
That is such a sanitized response. I just think it’s people who have very maybe comfortable upbringings who are scared of reality. But kids are living in reality. They don’t need to be protected from it.
ML: What did you read as a young adult?
MT: I did read Madeleine L’Engle [the author of “A Wrinkle in Time”]. And I just reread the graphic novel about “A Wrinkle In Time” by Hope Larson. I liked to read books about girls in horrible trouble and books that were scary, kind of quasi-horror, but smart literary horror. Like Lois Duncan, who wrote “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” that was made into a movie.
I tried to read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” too early. I remember trying to take it out of the library, and the librarian saying, “That’s too old for you.” And I was so offended because I was so proud of what a reader I was. So she was like, “Get a letter from your mother and I’ll let you read it.” My mother wrote me the note, which is wild. I must have been 7. Right away in the book, Margaret’s looking at Playboy, just musing about boobs. And I was like, whoa, and just shut the book and was like, that’s too much for me. I can’t believe what a little square I was.
ML: How is your literary nonprofit, RADAR Productions, going?
MT: I’ve been doing literary organizing since the ’90s. For the love of it, not making any money. We’re having a harder year this year because, you know, we live on grants, and sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. This is a tighter year than our past years, but in general we do really well.
ML: Where do you live now?
MT: In the Lower Haight.
ML: The Mission has changed a lot since you lived here in the ’90s. Are you nostalgic about all the changes?
MT: I wouldn’t say I’m sad or nostalgic. It is shocking how it’s changed. I remember kind of raging against gentrification literally 15 years ago. The larger problem is just people being driven out, and that’s always been a problem in San Francisco. Not to oversimplify it, because I know it’s complicated. But I do think you can have a restaurant and you can also have low-income housing.
It’s a historic problem of people of color and low-income people always getting driven out. It’s more of the same, but at this point has hit a level that is really intense. I can’t believe the theme restaurants. You know a neighborhood’s dead culturally when a theme restaurant has popped up.
ML: Your new imprint with City Lights Publishers, Sister Spit — how long has that been in the works?
MT: It’s been in the works for a couple of years. I didn’t approach City Lights about it immediately because I was almost intimidated by them. I have such awe and respect for them. Then when I went to City Lights, I was like, why didn’t I just do this in the beginning? Of course they’re total visionaries. And they’re so connected to a specifically San Francisco outlaw tradition.
ML: Why did you want to start the imprint in the first place?
MT: Publishing is a natural extension of the literary organizing work I do. We’ve lost small presses and queer presses. I used to tell people, oh, just write your book and you’ll find a home for it. And it just suddenly started feeling not as true. A really great queer press, Suspect Thoughts, went under, and they published Ali Liebegott’s “The Beautifully Worthless.” That book won awards and she gets regular emails from universities saying “We want to teach this. How do we get copies?” and her being like, “You can’t.”
Something that always seemed really fun to me, publishing suddenly felt a lot more urgent. Like we actually need to start publishing. We have access to so many people who need a home for their work.
ML: If your new book could be made into a movie …
MT: You mean when it is.
ML: You want it to be?
MT: Yes, three movies.
ML: Who would be your dream director and screenwriter?
MT: I love Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. I love how completely he creates a world in his movies. And I’d write the screenplay.
ML: What are your next books?
MT: The next one [in the trilogy] is called “A Girl in the River Vistula.” I also just sold another book to Penguin that’s called “How to Grow Up.” It’s going to be more of a memoir, nonfiction, tongue-in-cheek, self-help book.
ML: Will that be your fifth memoir?
MT: Yeah, I love doing that kind of writing. There is a particular kind of burnout that comes with that perpetual self-exposure and self-focus, but I do keep coming back to it. When I was working on a proposal with the “Grow Up” book, I sat down to write the first chapter and it was a 50-page chapter in three hours. But I know my story intimately, and I enjoy telling it.
ML: What else is on the horizon? Are there other things you want to create or other books you want to write?
MT: Oh my God, so many books I want to write. I have an ongoing list, and I’ll probably never get to all of them. I have a half-written young adult book called “Little Faggot” that kind of got put on hold when the mermaid trilogy took off.