Could Merritt Tierce Be the Next Joan Didion?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Merritt Tierce’s debut novel, Love Me Back, is the most fearless work we’ve read in a very long time.
Eight or nine years ago in Dallas, a young waitress wanted to know if a short story she wrote was any good or totally hopeless. Ben Fountain, then an acquaintance and editor of the Southwest Review, agreed to read it.
The story was about a young waitress, Marie, who works at an upscale steakhouse with a drug-infused, high-adrenaline, misogynistic culture. The high rollers can tip awfully big. The staff members are competent and prone to substance abuse. The charismatic manager never pays the Latino kitchen workers for the cocaine they bring him. Separated from her little girl and insecure in a million ways, Marie debases herself and lets customers and co-workers in on the abuse, too.
It reads sharp as the cuts Marie inflicts on herself: pathos and pain held in tight, with no obvious redemption.
“She wrote it with no sentimentality, no wish to please the reader, no wish to make any of the characters any more redeeming than they should be or could be. Just the clarity of her vision and the mercilessness of her writing,” says Fountain. He read the story every day for a week and then called up the real-life waitress, Merritt Tierce. She didn’t believe he really wanted to publish it. After he did publish it, Tierce still figured it was a favor. Only when the story was picked up for an anthology by another renowned writer, ZZ Packer, did Tierce begin to believe she could write.
Marie the waitress is the protagonist in Tierce’s first novel, Love Me Back, out today by Doubleday. It’s a fiercely realistic account of Marie’s life in the restaurant world. It reads sharp as the cuts Marie inflicts on herself: pathos and pain held in tight, and no obvious redemption. People compare Tierce to Joan Didion, maybe the doyenne of literary realism, and Mary Gaitskill, whose intense short stories have explored sex and debasement.
Tierce is 35 now. In pictures, she looks straight at the camera, all cheekbones and cat-gleam eyes. She has two kids, 13 and 14, a loving second marriage and a good relationship with her first husband, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She writes full time. Tierce has also become a prominent advocate for reproductive rights in Texas. Just this past weekend, she was on the New York Times op-ed page, telling its genteel readers, “This is What an Abortion Looks Like.”
But sometimes when Tierce reads Love Me Back, she’s not sure if it’s Marie she’s reading about, or her former self. On the phone, she sounds like the Marie I imagined: a clarion tone, matter-of-fact language, a roving and precise mind. She swears, but not much. It’s her openness that astounds me.
Tierce was raised in Texas, the older of two children born to Southern Baptist parents. Smart. At 15, she enrolled at a residential magnet school, the Texas Academy of Math and Science, where students take university classes. At 19, she had a college degree and an acceptance letter from the Yale Divinity School; she was going to be an East Coast academic. In her last semester, she studied the doctrinal proscription of abortion — basically, “how the Bible says abortion is wrong,” says Tierce. And then she found out she was pregnant.
“Totally comeuppance for that project,” she says.
The decade that followed was harrowing. Pressured by her parents, she married the baby’s father, who was finishing his college degree. They didn’t have a full-time job between them and for a short time depended on WIC for food and Medicaid. They had another child the next year, and separated the year after that, and divorced two years later. They couldn’t afford lawyers. Tierce went to the law library and filed the documents herself, including an affidavit swearing they were too poor to pay court costs.
Tierce lost her faith around then, too — “23 was a big year for me,” she says.
“Honestly it’s a mystery to me how I broke out of that.” Faith was like being trapped in a box, and “you have the key to the lock but it’s on the outside, so how the fuck are you going to get out?” she says.
“I don’t know if I stepped out of the religion and it gave me the freedom to divorce or if it went the other way. There was a day when I woke up and had this actual feeling — I don’t have to believe any of this — and I stopped believing it at that moment and walked forward into my life, and I haven’t looked back.”
Tierce had by then moved to Dallas, and was working at restaurants. She made a decent income. Merritt went through a lot of things Marie went through, including missing her kids, the self-loathing and drug abuse.
[a writer who takes] open a razor blade and slices it across your eye as your eye goes across the page.
— Ben Fountain
It’s hard to think of another contemporary writer who tackles class the way Tierce does, which is to say, from the perspective of the underclass, from the inside of middle-class fantasies looking out. The restaurant setting is crucial. It allows a very intimate collision between the waitstaff, who prepare, serve, sate, clean up after; and the diners, who have the power to tip, or not. That there hasn’t been a lot of restaurant fiction is “kind of surprising for me because it’s such rich material,” says Tierce. But editors, readers and writers tend toward the upper class, and so do the stories they tend to promote. That may explain the paucity of restaurant fiction. “It’s not a glorious experience, though, it’s not something you want to relive over and over,” Tierce says.
“I think about Marie a lot, and there are certainly other stories to tell, but all of them are restaurant stories,” she says. “That’s who Marie is. She doesn’t live beyond a restaurant.”
Tierce hasn’t written fiction since Love Me Back, and though she’s dreaming up a new novel, it’s not clear when she’ll take it up.
“When Merritt says something like that, that’s Merritt being Merritt,” Fountain says. He sees her more as Joan Didion. For him, Tierce is among the “writers who take open a razor blade and slice it across your eye as your eye goes across the page,” he says. “This may be the start of an extraordinary body of work.”
This piece was originally published Sept. 16, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 14, 2014.