Set in Dallas, Love Me Back is a debut novel by Merritt Tierce, a native Texan who now lives in Denton with her family. Tierce and her book have been the source of media buzz within the book industry since May, when she spoke at BookExpo America’s Librarian Breakfast.
An editor at Doubleday introduced Tierce as a “fresh, new voice” and said that when the book first came into the publishing house, it was like an “electric current” that got everyone talking. She also noted that everyone who read the novel had an “intense, visceral reaction” to it.
The book is about Marie, a bright young woman who works her way up the waitressing chain from Olive Garden to Chili’s, then Dream Cafe and, finally, The Restaurant, a high-end steakhouse. But despite this superficial progress, Marie is emotionally stuck, immersing herself in sex, drugs and forming relationships that leave her empty.
We learn through Marie’s first-person narration that she has a daughter who isn’t part of her life — scattered throughout the novel are chapters where Marie speaks directly to that child.
It’s a hard book to read. Dark, disturbing. Marie is lost, and the book challenges the traditional story arc of conflict and happy resolution.
Tierce is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. This novel is largely autobiographical. Now 35, she left home for college at 15, spending two years at the University of North Texas in the TAMS program, a semester at UT Austin as a Dedman Scholar (with full tuition and fees as a National Merit Scholar) and then, as she says, “had an 18-year-old’s identity crisis” and transferred to Abilene Christian for her final three semesters, graduating at age 19.
She was accepted at Yale University in a master’s program in religion and literature, but didn’t go, and she ended up working briefly at Sally Beauty Supply in Denton and then waitressing at Nick & Sam’s steakhouse in Dallas.
In an email interview, Tierce revealed for us some of the personal details of her life, past and present, that give us a window to understanding how Love Me Back came to be. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Could you talk a bit about the path you were on when you went to college — about your religious beliefs and how you were raised?
I was raised to believe that personal salvation through Jesus Christ was the most important thing in life. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, and my father was the music minister in the churches we attended when I was growing up. I went to church at least three times a week for most of my childhood; I took it very seriously and most of my family’s social life was connected to the church in some way.
I believed everything I was supposed to believe and was as devout a young person as you could find, but most of my deep thoughts about faith were thoughts of anxiety, dread, guilt and hollowness.
I had been taught to think of myself as sinful and fundamentally corrupt, so of course I didn’t trust my own feelings and thoughts about Christianity for a long time.
Why didn’t you go on to study religion — how did your thoughts and beliefs change, and why?
My thoughts and beliefs about religion were still intact when I graduated from college at 19 — in fact, my last semester I gave a presentation on the doctrinal proscription of abortion. Two weeks after I graduated, I found out I was pregnant, and that really slammed my life in a different direction.
I had made arrangements to spend the summer in the Dominican Republic doing mission work, before beginning graduate study at Yale Divinity School.
None of that happened, but I did try to stick with my original plan — when my second child was a newborn, I applied to [several theology schools]. But when it would have been time to enroll and move and all of it, there was just no way. We had no money. I was 21 and had no idea how to be married or move forward in life.
My husband and I attended a Church of Christ because that was the tradition he had been raised in, but the Church of Christ is an even more conservative branch of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity than the one I was familiar with. Women were not allowed to address the assembly or teach children older than 5.
That’s when everything started to break down, for me. I felt like I could handle the belittlement and subjugation and discrimination myself, but I resisted absolutely the part where I was supposed to begin indoctrinating my children to believe any of it. Soon after that, I realized I didn’t need to keep the faith. I realized I was an adult and I could let it go if I wanted to, and that was a tremendous relief.
Love Me Back is largely based on your own experiences. Could you talk a little about what that time was like for you and what it was like to revisit those emotions as you wrote.
I was not ready to be married, or to be a mother, when I was 19. I was still significantly unformed as a person, and my intelligence, which I equated with scholastic overachievement, had been my only guidewire. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, I think the apostasy dealt a blow to my mind. I felt much more comfortable living as not-a-Christian, but my psyche had been specifically built around some basic ideas centered in religiosity.
And I think I had to grieve the loss of what I had wanted for myself — time with books and ideas and writing and thinking. All of that led to some fairly damaging acting out, and I was very unhappy for a long time. I think I also displayed symptoms of postpartum depression with the birth of each of my children, but I didn’t know how to acknowledge that or seek treatment.
As for revisiting those emotions as I wrote, I tried to focus on what Marie does/hears/sees/smells/feels (tactilely). I knew that the emotions would come through if I stayed with how she observes and reports on the world. And in a way I think I could also use her as a shield.
In what ways is Marie different than you?
In many ways her life is simpler than mine, and in many ways my life is simpler than hers. And while it’s clear that she wants more than a life in a restaurant, it’s not clear if she will ever make it out, find something more meaningful. It’s not clear if she will ever figure out how to really be available to her child. I feel like I am in a wonderful place as a person, a writer, a parent, a spouse. My daily reality couldn’t be farther from Marie’s.
What made you decide to start writing about your experiences working in a high-end Dallas steakhouse?
That’s where the sentences were. And while I was writing most of the book I had no conscious awareness of, or intention related to, the richness of the class structure and theater inherent in any restaurant world, but I’m sure that is what drew me to the setting.
One of the chapters, “Suck It,” was first published in Southwest Review in 2007. What was the evolution of this as a novel?
I wrote “Suck It,” and then I just kept writing. The next story I wrote happened to be set in the same restaurant, told by the same narrator, and featured some of the same characters; so did the next story. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to write a book. There was no objective beyond writing the best story I could write, the one that I wanted to write.
The stories were significantly connected on their own, but I wrote the interstitial chapters after the book was sold, to help it feel more cohesive.
While developing your writing career, you’ve also done a lot of work for the Texas Equal Access Fund. Can you talk about why that was important to you?
I worked with the TEA Fund from the time it was founded in 2004. I served as a founding board member, hotline volunteer, president, secretary, treasurer, administrative director and finally executive director (2011-14). I started working with the TEA Fund because of the influence of a dear friend and mentor, Gretchen Dyer, who passed away in 2009 and to whom Love Me Back is dedicated.
And it was clear to me very early on how essential reproductive healthcare — especially access to abortion — is to the liberation and equality of women. Both because of my own experiences and because of what is so easy to see if you just open your eyes — women need the power to make their own decisions about whether and when to become a parent or have another child. Without that, everything else is harder or impossible.
What’s ahead for you? Are you working on your next novel (and if so, what is it about)?
I am writing full time as of Sept. 1. This is the first time in 12 years that I haven’t had a full-time job (or two!). But I don’t plan to leave reproductive rights advocacy or activism behind — it’s one of my main interests as a writer, and in fact, I hope I can be of more use to the reproductive justice movement as a writer than an administrator. I do have a new fiction project brewing and all I’ll say about it is: kangaroos.
What’s life for you like these days?
I haven’t had a quick answer for what day it is in quite some time. Yes, my kids are 13 and 14, and my stepdaughter is 12, so they are all people in great flux. And don’t forget my Flemish giant (a very large rabbit). It is never dull, or still, or quiet at our house.
LOVE ME BACK
by Merritt Tierce