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Michelle Tea on Queer Pregnancy and Writing a Memoir in Present Tense

Michelle Tea has been one of my favorite authors since before I came out as a dyke. The very first time I met her, I exclaimed “Valencia taught me how to be a lesbian,” which is one hundred percent true. Now, more than a decade later, Michelle has written another memoir that gives a front row view into another chapter of being a lesbian: knocking oneself up.

Though it really does selfishly feel as though Michelle is forever writing the books I personally need to read to live my best dyke life, Knocking Myself Up is a delightful tale for all readers, whether you’re deeply interested in parenthood or happily child-free-forever.

Michelle and I chatted about how this book came to be, its iconic cover, the differences of publishing with a mainstream publisher versus an indie one, urgent storytelling and writing in the present tense, what her kid thinks of this memoir, and an anecdote she shared with me in 2019 that it turns out I incorrectly embellished and have been misremembering since then!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Vanessa: I’m very curious about the process of how the book became a book! I remember your column about this subject for XOJane, but that website doesn’t exist anymore… I want to hear how this went from an idea in your head, to a column, to this book that people can buy soon!

Michelle: Well, it was an idea in my head the minute I started. When I made the decision to try to get pregnant, I felt like I’d immediately catapulted myself into some sort of strange world, like I immediately had strange errands to run, you know, errands that I’d never run before. And I was 40. At any age, it’s pretty easy to feel like you’re not doing anything particularly new, and so I was really struck with how new everything felt and how I had to think about myself differently, my body differently, my life differently, dating differently. And as a writer, of course, I just immediately want to write about that. It’s just how I process my own life. So having so many things feel new all at the same time was really overwhelming and exciting.

I’d been in touch with XOJane for something else, and I really like Emily McCombs a lot… I had wanted to [write about getting pregnant] more than anything, but I knew that [having a column] would help me stick with it. I get a lot of ideas all the time, and then I just don’t have the time to do it. But if somebody says, yes, write this column, then I’ll do it. And so I just pitched it to her. And she said yeah! I remember when I was signing my contract, they wanted to own everything, like all corporations do. And I remember the part about a book, I crossed it off, because I just knew that I was going to write a book about this, and that these blogs would be a sort of study for that, a way for me to hold on to my memories about how things felt really immediately in the moment. Those funny little details that can get lost but are so wonderful to have in there, you know? I’ve never really worked from source material, like a diary or journal or anything, because I don’t really diary or journal. But I do have the entirety of all the blogs on my computer, and it was really helpful to go back and look at them and just remember.

I’ve always had people ask if I would do a book about [getting pregnant], and once I learned that [the xoJane column] wasn’t accessible anymore, I felt more motivated to really do it. And it also felt far enough in the past that I felt curious about it. There was enough space that it felt like, oh, that era is over now. I ran it by my agent, and she loved the idea. Thankfully, Peter Kispert at Dey Street really fell in love with it… and then he ended up leaving, and I ended up working with Kate Napolitano, my editor right now. And she was my editor for How To Grow Up. So it was really cute.

Vanessa: That is cute! How is working with a major press different from working with an indie? Especially as a queer writer who tells her stories very honestly?

Michelle: There are a lot of differences. Thankfully, with the passage of time, I don’t think there’s that concern that your queerness will be censored or stamped out or anything like that. I think that at this point in time, the big publishers understand that queerness is actually the value, like, that’s the point, and it’s good, and it’s important. I certainly didn’t feel that my queerness was a problem or needed to be toned down.

But, you know, my point of view is not only queer — it’s also other things. It’s weird. My humor can be really dark; I think that you can get away with making more underground references [with an indie]. Having your humor be a little darker, less accessible… you can get away with being a little less accessible with indie presses. With mainstream presses, they are going to try and sell your book to the masses, so they want you to be a little bit more accessible. I didn’t find that it was my queerness per se that was a stumbling block, but more other temperate parts of my temperament or state of mind or reference points. Definitely a lot of weird dark jokes got cut from [the manuscript], …but I just was like, it’s fine. I don’t care. My friend Ali Liebegott is also a queer writer with a very dark sense of humor, one of the funniest people that I know, and I would text her all of the fucked up jokes that were getting taken out. [Laughs] So that was pretty funny.

And also… I share the same agenda as my publisher. I also want this book to be really accessible for the masses. I have loved publishing more indie less accessible work with Feminist Press and indie presses. I’m a writer who’s always been like, what’s the best press for this book? Because I write kind of differently around different things. But I’m super into the idea of this book being comedic, accessible, and, hopefully, still a little weird.

I’m not invested in being a niche market. You know what I mean? I’ve always wanted my books to reach as many people as possible. The older you get, or the more experience you get under your belt with publishing, you start to understand more. The realities, whether you like them or not… it’s just fucking capitalism. Which sucks. But it’s like, I’m okay with some of my sharp edges being a little rounded as long as I don’t end up just like a weird little bouncy ping pong ball by the end of it.

Vanessa: Yes, that makes sense. Thank you for talking so candidly about that. In other news, I am obsessed with the cover of this book. Like, obsessed. I would like a frame of this on my wall. I hope that’s not weird.

Michelle: Oh my gosh, stop, I love that.

The cover of Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir Of My (In)fertility features Michelle Tea in a red bra and matching red panties laying on a couch with her arm on her forehead and her other arm dangling off the side of the couch. On the floor in front of the couch, there are a bunch of dishes and food and a pair of red pumps.

Vanessa: How did the cover come to be?

Michelle: There is a queer photographer in San Francisco, Sophie Spinelle, and she does classic boudoir portraits, but you know, retro and super body positive. She’s just a great queer femme photographer. And she had this idea once I was pregnant to do this series of me and just like really use my body, my pregnant body. So much gets projected upon a pregnant body. I was of course game for it. Her pictures are beautiful. I love collaborating with artists. There’s a whole series… my favorite is the one I originally suggested [as the cover]. I’m sitting in my underwear and a ribbed tank undershirt, sitting on a mountain of cheeseburgers with ketchup on my shirt. And that was being pregnant to me. Just constantly eating. I’m a slob. When I eat, I eat kind of like a monster. And when I was pregnant, I was eating more ravenously. My body was extra, my dimensions were extra mysterious. I was a mess. I always had food on me. And I was like, this is what being pregnant is.

Vanessa: I love that. And you suggested the series to the publisher?

Michelle: I did. Yeah. They wanted to know if I had any pictures of myself pregnant. And I was like, do I! I wanted the hamburger one, but they… you know, that’s like such a perfect metaphor for… you know, it’s like, I’m still very happy with this. This is still real, right? It’s great. It’s not me on a bunch of dirty hamburgers, but it’s okay, you know?

Vanessa: Yeah. Well, I love it. I love that story.

Michelle: It was really fun to just like, wear a bullet bra and a wig.

Vanessa: Yeah! Now I have so many ideas for when I’m pregnant.

Michelle: Do it all! It’s so fun. Your body just becomes so many different things. It’s like you’re a walking art installation!

Vanessa: I can’t wait. My girlfriend is always like “you’re gonna look so hot when you’re pregnant” and I’m like, “I know.”

Michelle: You are! And you can have so much fun with it. It can be so many things. It can be hot, and it can be weird, and it can be challenging and provocative.

Vanessa: Truly cannot wait. I’d love to hear about your process when writing, especially a memoir like this that is so grounded in the voice of the version of yourself you were as this was happening. How do you stay so in the present? What’s it like to sit down and write this without letting the Michelle who knows what happens get in the way?

Michelle: You have to shut that Michelle up! [Laughs] I mean, the short answer is, I have no fucking idea. Because what is writing? It’s magic. It’s so subconscious. I don’t know what I’m doing, you know? But then that’s not the whole answer either.

So… there is a little trick, I think, especially when you’re writing about things like real hardships — and I don’t know how I do it, but I know that I read work where it’s being done — and it’s where you get this sense that the person is okay. In spite of [whatever’s happening in the story], you trust them somehow that they’ve gotten through it, even though that might not be something that’s in there. So the You Of Today does come through somehow. But it can’t be The Voice, you know? Or it can be — some people want to write that book, but I really like thinly veiled memoirs, so I wanted mine to be in that style. I wanted to take the tropes of fiction, to have it read like a real story. That’s the kind of memoir I really like, where you can sink down into it. So I guess to write it, I just kind of sink down into it.

I can tell when I want to put my own Today perspective into it, because usually, it’s a false note. It’s a clunk. It’s like, I am wanting to apologize for somebody; I’m wanting to control a little bit; I want the reader to hate my ex; I want the reader to not hate my mom; I want something instead of just presenting what happened and letting the reader figure it out. Don’t tell them how they should feel about these characters. Just show them what the characters did, and let them make up their own mind. I think having any kind of agenda can really compromise the writing. You have to guard against having an emotional agenda.

Vanessa: Was it an obvious choice for you to write it in the present tense? Was there any part of you that wanted to write it like, this is how it happened? Or was it just like, oh, duh, the present tense is the way to tell this story?

Michelle: No, I really wanted it to be present tense. I really want it to feel like you fell down a rabbit hole into this world, because that’s how I felt. That was the reality of the experience for me. That’s why Valencia was written like that, you know, because I felt like I’d fallen into a rabbit hole of San Francisco dykes. That tone helps tell the story. So yeah, it was really important to me that this book had that urgency of the biological clock, the urgency of just like, whoa, what are we going to do today? I didn’t want it to be like, oh, I’m looking back on it from where I sit with my child. I didn’t want any spoilers that I could help.

Vanessa: In the Afterword of this book, you write: “Writing such a book in the shadow of a divorce is certainly a bizarre experience.” What was it like writing about your ex in such a present tense?

Michelle: Well, I edited out a bunch of the romance between me and Dashiell, because I’m not feeling particularly charmed by them anymore. But at the same time, I didn’t want to remove that story. I mean, first of all, I couldn’t remove the story, because I could not have given birth without Dashiell’s help at that point. And also, I wanted to give a love story, I wanted to be true to the moment. That’s always the case with memoir, right? You’re always trying to go back and link up with however you felt in a moment, knowing that it’s different than how you feel now. It almost always is, but this was so acute — it was such a huge difference. And the break was so relatively recent that I really didn’t have a lot of separation from it. So I was actually really grateful that there were some pre-written little lovey parts [from the xoJane column], because I don’t know how I would have conjured that freshly in that moment. So that was really great.

I really wanted it to be present tense. I really want it to feel like you fell down a rabbit hole into this world, because that’s how I felt. That was the reality of the experience for me.

Vanessa: What are some books you’re reading right now that you’d recommend to people who like your writing?

Michelle: I’m reading the Cookie Mueller released from Semiotext(e), Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, which was her collection that came out from Semiotext(e), I think in the 80s. And then after that, High Risk did a book called Ask Dr. Mueller, which were all her columns from when she wrote for The Village Voice and did a recreational drug advice column sort of? And I guess they combined those two books and then maybe also found some other unpublished stuff, so there’s this whole new volume of Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, and my god it’s like — just reading like the first chapter, I’m like can I just get a back piece tattoo of Cookie Mueller’s head or something? I just love her so much, and I was so inspired by her. Her work was introduced to me right when I was starting to write in San Francisco, right when I was starting to write the stuff that would become both my first book and Valencia. So that work is really heavily influenced by Cookie Mueller, and it feels so fun to reread it and then read new stuff and just kind of really soak in her vibe. I’m also rereading The Greatest of Marlys, the Lynda Barry comic, and there’s some new stuff in the beginning that’s almost about how she found Marlys. She’s written so much about her creative process, and it’s all very immediate and about accessing memory and really sinking into those memories. And so I love her. I love her so much. Oh! There’s this really great book, it’s called Literally Show Me A Healthy Person, by Darcie Wilder. I didn’t know anything about this writer. I just saw it at my local bookstores, and I was like I need to buy this book to thank this person for titling a book with the best title… and then I’m obsessed with it. I’m also reading another great book called Aesthetical Relations, by Christina Catherine Martinez.

Vanessa: Thank you for all of those recommendations! Back to your book — I love the way the title suggests that it’s a solo project, but then almost immediately, that’s upended. Like, it’s disrupting how a nuclear straight cis family might make a baby, but it’s also disrupting the idea that people maybe have in their head of like, a sad lonely lesbian making a baby all by herself. I love that.

Michelle: Yeah, it’s so funny, you know, we landed on that title, and I was aware that it’s maybe only accurate for the first two chapters of the book, and not even then really, because my friend Rhonda is knocking me up, Quentin is knocking me up. So I was never really only knocking myself up. But when I think about the overall spirit of the book, it really all began when I was just like, I’m gonna get myself pregnant. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m gonna get myself pregnant. And I liked that energy, and I wanted that energy to color the whole story, even as it morphed into it taking a few villages to get me pregnant.

Vanessa: Yeah, I mean, I loved that. It felt intentional to me. Speaking of taking a few villages, I would love to hear more about Mutha magazine!

Michelle: It’s a project that even though I’m not quite as involved with it anymore, it continues to thrive. It’s a great online resource.

It’s a web magazine, and it’s all first person stories about parenthood, from all different kinds of people who came into parenthood in all kinds of different ways. It’s exactly what I wanted when I was trying to get pregnant. I was trying to Google my life, like Google myself a baby basically. And I couldn’t really find anything that I could relate to. Even when I was able to source some sort of helpful practical information, it always came through these weird white straight and middle class portals. When I was in the TTC [trying to conceive] community, all these message boards had all these women who were very straight, cisgender women, I think a lot of them were Christian, and it was just so not my world. The vibe on a lot of these sites was also very I’m living for my baby, this is my purpose in life, I’ve got to have a baby, and I didn’t relate to that either. I didn’t know a ton of people with babies, you know, as a queer person, I just didn’t, but I was like okay, I do know some people with babies. I know some writers who ended up having babies, and I was like, what’s their story? I want to read something by Megan Camille Roy, or I want to read something by Beth Lisick, or Joey Solloway, or Jennifer Natalya Fink. Who can write something not even necessarily queer, but just weird? What is it really like? What kind of stories can I expect to really live out?

So I just kind of made a WordPress and took a close up picture of my sister’s kid’s play food and put it up! And I just started doing it. And people just started sending me stuff. And it was really incredible. I had new stuff to post every day, and it really kept me afloat. During that whole time I was trying to get pregnant, I was also doing Mutha magazine. Even though I don’t talk about it very much [in the book], that was a big thing that I was doing. And it really did sustain me to know that there was just this wealth of people and information and that these people would be my people when I was pregnant. Because that’s another thing too — there’s this weird ego identity shift, and you’re like, well, who am I if I have a baby? These things always feel so dumb when you’re confronted with them, but they are truly very deeply rooted in us. We have egos, and we have these senses of ourselves that we’re not even hardly aware of, but we are operating on them. They’re pulling us through the world every day. So it was really great to find this lineage of weird people having kids and writing about it. So yeah, it’s still out there! If you happen to live in New York, there’s going to be a great Mutha magazine panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival this year. It’s so cool, and they’re always looking for writing.

Vanessa: That’s so cool.

Michelle: Yeah, it’s very cool. It’s not only queer, but it’s very queer.

Vanessa: Amazing. Okay I have to ask… I’m so curious what your kid thinks about this book.

Michelle: I don’t know if he knows what to think about it. It’s really funny. I remember at one point, he sort of like… he took offense, but he loves to take offense. He loves to find something to take offense about and be mad at me about! So at first, he was like you wrote a book about me! And I was like I actually didn’t, I wrote a book about me. I wrote a book about me, and you were in my belly. And I do write a little bit about you when you come out of my belly, just to end it, so that people know you are alive and you’re well. But like, it’s really not about you.

He’s a little… he’s curious. You know? I think he likes looking at the cover and looking at my big pregnant belly and knowing he’s in there. You know, he’s always been really fascinated by that.

But yeah, he’s definitely at the age now where he’s seeing and comprehending more of the world, and he wants his privacy, which I totally respect. I know I’m going to be writing a book exploring my adventures in polyamory, and part of my experience of that was being a parent who was being polyamorous and having poly relationships… but I don’t know how much I’m gonna be able to talk about it, to be really honest. I guess I’m not going to worry about it until I’m writing it.

But when I think about the overall spirit of the book, it really all began when I was just like, I’m gonna get myself pregnant. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m gonna get myself pregnant. And I liked that energy, and I wanted that energy to color the whole story, even as it morphed into it taking a few villages to get me pregnant.

Vanessa: I remember when I took your class at Tin House, I told you I was nervous that people weren’t going to universally love my book, and you were like, they’re not going to because queer people will judge you no matter what, and you need to have a thick skin about it! And I was like oh my god how?! And then you told me about that girl who dumped the popcorn on your head, like on behalf of your ex.

[Michelle makes a confused face]

Vanessa: It was after Valencia and some girl… you were at the movies? And it was like, not your ex, but it was your ex’s friend? And she was like, how dare you have written all that stuff about so and so, and then she dumped a thing of popcorn on your head?

Michelle: She didn’t dump popcorn on my head! But I love that that’s how it morphed!

Vanessa: That’s how it is in my head!

Michelle: She did see me at the movies, and she was like, oh, look, it’s Rona Barrett!

Vanessa: Right, right, right! And then in my head, she dumps popcorn all over you.

Michelle: That’s amazing! You should make that happen.

Both: [Laughter]

Vanessa: But in terms of handling negative reviews or mean commentary about your writing…?

Michelle: The worst thing you can do is to seek it out. You know what I mean? So you have to just ignore it; you really do. I can imagine it can feel like, but I have a duty, I need to read this, I need to respond, and I need to be accountable or tell them to fuck off, or I need to defend myself or apologize. And it’s just like, no. You actually don’t. I mean, of course, we need to be accountable. But that’s not what we’re talking about, right? We’re talking about the more petty shit. And you just can’t seek it out. You have to deliberately ignore it. Because you have to train yourself to not dwell upon it. And then, according to Buddhism, the flip side of that is you can’t crave those good reviews either, right? And so, it’s hard, but you have to try to find a middle ground. Like I know there’s a really bad review out there of How to Grow Up on NPR — something that I respect! — and I’ve never read it, and I will never read it. Sometimes I have to Google myself to find press clippings or whatever and it’ll pop up and I’ll be like, no, not reading you! And then obviously you’re gonna read the good reviews, you’re gonna feel good, like, oh, good, I did what I set out to do, it seems, according to this person… and then you just gotta let it go. You just gotta fucking let it all go. It doesn’t even matter anyway.

Vanessa: Ugh, thank you for that free therapy.

Michelle: Oh, I’m always here for free therapy.


Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility by Michelle Tea comes out August 2. Stay tuned for Autostraddle’s review of the book, also coming out August 2. You can find Michelle this fall promoting her new book in the US and the UK, on the Sister Spit 2022 Tour, and on her podcast Your Magic.


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Vanessa

Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. She used to be hot and fun but now she’s mostly hot and sad. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 379 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I’m so excited for this book!!! I remember reading Michele way back when on XOJane and it looks like I’ll get this book right smack in the middle of my first IVF cycle. And man, I think I’ll really need that dark humour. It is SO hard to find IVF/infertility/TTC from a queer POV, let alone a queer who’s POV I like – truly cannot wait to get my hands on this!!!

  2. What a wonderful interview Vanessa! I read How to Grow Up at about the exact right time in my life when I was going through a lot of the same stuff, so I’m so curious to read this book after having a kid last year. It’s so nice to have Michelle Tea living life just a little ahead of me.

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