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Episode LXI: "I am afraid my writing arm is going to be sucked into the publishing machine, and be pulverized by it, or just yanked off by it, and I'm going to bleed out right here before I make another book"

Published 9/26/16
In this installment, I speak with Merritt Tierce. Topics include money, "waiting for inspiration", the publishing machine, paying bills, criticism, the Second Book & more.

Today I’m with Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back, a 2014 debut that was met with wide, nearly unanimous acclaim. She recently published an article in Marie Claire on what it means, financially, to be a writer in 2016: “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” In it she tells of how she sold 12,000 copies of Love Me Back, and wonders “if my publisher considers 12,000 a failure, commercially, and won't want to pull the slot machine handle on me again.” Last Christmas she went to work as USPS letter carrier, making $16.65 an hour. She also claims, “I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options,” which may sound insane to anyone who hasn’t tried to make it as a writer, but the very definition of sanity to anyone who has.

One of the things I loved about the piece is that it doesn’t seek an immediate solution, and it doesn’t add morality to the equation. It doesn’t say writers ‘should’ make a decent living for putting pen to paper (which was the theme of a few think pieces/social media postings that were written as a reaction to a few think pieces/social media postings that were written as a reaction to her piece). She finishes: “But this is a fantasy; the reality about making money as a writer is you hustle the fuck out of freelance pieces like this one. Or you teach. Or you drive a bus. Or someone supports you. Or you're independently wealthy. The reality is that somehow you have money, and somehow you write.” Merritt: your interview with Sarah Gerard was actually the first interview I posted on 0s&1s, in early 2015, less than half a year after Love Me Back was published. Since then, how has your view changed of the viability of being a novelist as a full-time career? How has your life changed?

Yes! I was about to say "I've been happy to watch the success of Sarah's BINARY STAR since that interview" but—it's hard to say how to measure success in publishing, which is something I wrote about in the Marie Claire essay. However I saw recently that she has a new story collection coming out soon, which is evidence of a different kind of success: post-first book, she's still writing.

As for how my view has changed—I never thought of being a novelist as a viable career option, to be honest. Which is not meant to be a quibble. I just hoped I would be able to write another book before the money ran out, and I wasn't.

It took me seven years to write the material for the first book, and I had two full-time jobs for much of that era. I wasn't sure what to expect from the "freedom" of not having a full-time job—but it turned out to have a really negative impact on my ability to write. And perhaps that shouldn't have surprised me. I've always been superstitious about the relationship between my desire to write and my need for money.

The time it took to write Love Me Back, as well as your own block, seem to be in pretty stark contrast to the prose of the novel, which resembles a roaring faucet left on from cover to cover. But I guess that's why it's called fiction, and not all-of-your-anxieties-and-neuroses-in-a-book. How do you mean when you say you've always been superstitious about the issue?

I'm glad to hear the novel feels that way—and I think it does because each chapter was written when two important forces aligned, and not before: the force inherent in a story worth telling and the force of a strong urge to tell it. I would distinguish between waiting for the emergence/alignment of these forces and "waiting for inspiration," which writers are exhorted not to do. I have a deep fear that forcing myself to write, if I'm telling a story that really doesn't bear telling, or if I'm telling it with only a limp, out-of-duty urge to tell it, will result in a story that naturally sucks. 

So when I say I've been superstitious I mean that I became a secretary and then a waiter because I was so averse to ever using my ability to write to write something I didn’t want to write. If I wasn’t dying to write it, and the writing of it wouldn’t bring me immense joy, wouldn’t make me feel high, I didn’t want to go near it. I know it’s a ridiculous, counterproductive position, but what can I say. I don’t want a dog, I want a wolf. I don’t want a wolf, I want a direwolf. I don’t want a direwolf, I want Ghost.

But. That said, I'm of two minds about it. Sometimes I think I'm just inventing an elaborate philosophy that keeps me from "treating it like a job," as they say to do, and actually impedes my growth as a writer.

I look at some of the pieces I've written purely for money, that were assignments I contrived because I needed to get paid, that felt painful and forced the whole time, and I read them now and I'm proud of them and I'm so grateful I wrote them. For example, this profile.

It's not really a new anxiety, for an artist. It's the oldest, actually. You worry that selling your work will corrupt it. But you need to live, in order to make it, and you need to make it in order to live.

Still: If I run a thought-test on my creativity, and I pretend that I will never sell another piece of writing, not an essay, not a book, not a screenplay, nothing—I immediately realize it does change everything. What I imagine writing in that scenario is so different from what I imagine writing in the scenario called reality, where I can probably sell something at some point. If I know I'm never going to try to sell it, I immediately become interested in experimenting, in trying different forms, in practicing. If I think I'm trying to sell it, I unintentionally impose all these restrictions on what and how I write.

When it's a question of freelance nonfiction vs. fiction, I understand this logic (and the duality of), but in the question of writing a novel, how does the experimentation vs. profit question tangibly manifest itself? I think most people would classify Love Me Back as on the 'experimental' side of most books that get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. Is it a matter of sticking to your voice so that a publisher feels confident in how it might sell it?

I suppose. Because I don't want to stick to "my voice"—what if I want to write a 19th-century epistolary novel next? Part of me feels like I don't give a shit what is expected of me, and part of me just feels buffeted by the whole experience of being published. (That is NOT a complaint—and I'm glad you pointed out the morality component that was deliberately missing in my essay and yet present in some of the responses—my almost universal orientation is: whence any 'should'?) When I say buffeted, I mean it just rocks you, the first time out—you've been floating in your still pond for however long and then suddenly you're in a river with an intense current. Publishing is a machine that does what it does. You're grateful, of course, to have the connection to it, because part of what it does is present your book to thousands and thousands of readers. That's the whole point of publishing. But that's not the point of writing. And I am afraid my writing arm is going to be sucked into the publishing machine, and be pulverized by it, or just yanked off by it, and I'm going to bleed out right here before I make another book.

Well then it seems there are three types of failures: i) the one where you write a novel that yields to commercial forces and which you end up perhaps hating and which puts food on the table, ii) the one where you hold your nose and dive in and forget the account balance and produce a novel with avant-garde line breaks and no dialogue punctuation and which your agent requests a sit-down after receiving, and iii) the one in which the dissonance between the other two failures produces a failure in its own—producing nothing. I guess I'm more curious, and perhaps this is impossible to say, what that first and second failure actually look like in book form.

Yeah. I think it's actually hard to say—which creates another fear, for me. I mean I am afraid of writing a bad book and not being able to tell that it's bad. Or somehow confusing money and acclaim for proof of worth. Proof of artistic merit, I mean.

Let's jump back just for a second to your "whence any 'should'?" universal orientation, which I've found desperately missing from most within the industry, and in full flourish from anyone outside of. That modifier, should, I think comes most from the conflating of those two concepts, artistic merit and money. Or, more accurately: that the first should precipitate the second. I find it admirable you say money was never an assumption on your part, nor was sustenance through writing. Do you feel the minority in that perspective among other writers and publishing personas?

I'm not sure—so many people responded to the essay like I was reporting from their own front lines that I feel like a lot of writers, or at least the writers I know, are definitely not feeling like sustaining themselves solely as writers is a realistic possibility. Maybe I just know more writers at the beginning of their publishing lives, because I'm at the beginning of mine, and we are all out here feeling more precarious. But I also feel like there is absolutely no correlation between great writing and great wealth. If you want to make a lot of money as a writer, you can try on that bestseller algorithm or you can get stupid lucky or you can write something that a shit ton of people want to read, none of which has anything to do with whether or not the writing is good. So if you just want to be able to pay your bills, I don't know what to tell you to expect from writing. I don't know what to tell myself. Except that I need a job.

That's a fair answer. Now I want to jump back again, to right before I asked to jump back the first time, where you said you're 'afraid of writing a bad book and not being able to tell that it's bad'. The relieving thing about using cold hard sales as a measure for success is that they're cold and hard, whereas when you put out something that's going to be urgently shepherded into the 'literary fiction' genre, what you're also left with is a cloud of opinions, albeit opinions that tend to grab each other and fall together, but still: there's critical success and mixed critics and negative reviews, and then there's also that thing beyond that, the truth of the art, how well it achieves what it achieves and this is something you will perhaps never know. How have you adjusted your own conceptions of the quality of your work through the process of publishing Love Me Back?

That's a hard question to answer—I mean when I wrote the book, or if I go all the way back to when I had written just the chapter "Suck It," which became the engine of the whole thing, and no one had read it, I loved it and I thought it was good. Then a bunch of other people read it and thought it was good and it's hard to keep that from fortifying your own instinct that it's good. It's hard to be like let me just ignore all that and hold on to just the small pure part where I think it's good. If you wanted only that, if that were sufficient, you wouldn't show the work to anyone. But then if a bunch of people shit on it you gotta believe them too, right? And that could be so debilitating it would keep you from working, or worse, grossly contort the work. So I suppose if I have adjusted my conception of the quality of my work it has been mainly to realize the need for a force field between the work that is ongoing and the reception of any past work. You need a cloaking shield to protect it. And maybe that shield is just a constant reality check, a constant mantra that the reception of the work is not the work. Which is not to say there isn't value in praise, or criticism. If the praise goes to your head it can do so in a way that causes you to slack, or it can do so in a way that causes you to push further with something; and if the criticism goes to your head it can do so in a way that goes to your heart and really kills you, or it can do so in a way that forces you to work harder.

We're nearly out of time, and so I'll let you go with one last question. You cite "Suck It" as the engine for Love Me Back, and I imagine the book couldn't have existed without it. Is it possible you're just a step away from finding a new engine that will—whether it takes one year or seven—become your Second Book?

I've wondered that. I hope so. I'm not sure if I am supposed to, or can, write toward that engine—or if I'm just supposed to, or can, wait here for it. What if it never comes? I think that is an essential anxiety that all artists feel, but recognizing that doesn't dispel it.

Maybe you don't write the second book the way you wrote the first.

Thanks for your time and words, Merritt. I'm one of many fans hoping that second comes sooner than later, however it may.

Thanks so much Andrew! Nice to talk with you about all this.