Q&A: Merritt Tierce on her debut novel, ‘Love Me Back’

Merritt Tierce: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Merritt Tierce: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Merritt Tierce waited tables for a high-end Dallas steakhouse for years before obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, “Love Me Back,” set on the sordid side of restaurant life, was just published in September and already is a smash in the literary world. The book has received accolades from the New York Times, the New Yorker and celebrities including Carrie Brownstein. Tierce lives in Denton, but she wrote part of the book during the few months she lived near Lake Cliff Park.

I was just going through your press, and it’s very impressive. Even Carrie Brownstein recommended your book, which must be the height of coolness.

Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect because this is my first book. You know who St. Vincent is? She even mentioned it in British GQ. That was amazing.

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What was your path to becoming a writer?

I was just waiting tables and doing anything I could to make money. Part of that was intentional, and part of that was inertia. I probably could’ve gotten a job doing something that had to do with writing. I don’t know if that would’ve been teaching high school English or trying to get into some kind of journalism or technical writing or what, but I definitely did not want to be any other kind of writer. I just wanted to write what I wanted to write. I didn’t want to write for anyone else. So instead of doing things to make it as a writer, I tried to make money. I’m really glad I did it that way now. I wasn’t writing toward anything for a long time. I just was living, really. I wrote the first story I ever published while I was waiting tables in 2006, and that was just the beginning of it.

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That was the story “Suck It”?

Yes, and that is now the middle of this book. It wasn’t with any sort of intention, like ‘OK, now I’m going to work on a book because I have all this great material.’ I just kept writing.

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You were accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

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I decided to get an MFA, not to learn how to write, but just so I could have a couple of years to focus on writing instead of trying to make money. So for two years before I went to grad school, I worked two full-time jobs. It was really, really stressful, and I don’t think I realized until I got to Iowa that I hadn’t been getting enough sleep for about three years. For the first six months, I slept a lot. But then I actually worked at a steakhouse in Iowa City, and I also flew home often, at least once a month, and worked a long weekend at the restaurant here.

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How did you get this book published?

I won an award that a lot of agents and publishers pay attention to, so that’s how I got an agent. I had a really anomalous path from then on. I expected to have to send my stuff out to a lot of people and get a lot of rejections, and that wasn’t the experience I had. I had agents contacting me and asking if they could take me to lunch, and that was really great and weird. My route to getting a book published was much different from what most writers expect. My agent sold my manuscript within two weeks. The whole publishing process has been really, really great.

The book is not set in Oak Cliff, but you wrote part of it here?

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I lived in Oak Cliff for about three months, but my apartment was broken into, and my computer was stolen, including everything I’d ever written. There was a chapter where [the main character, Marie,] talks about living in Oak Cliff, but my agent didn’t want me to include it in the book because … Marie talks about wanting to be a writer and my agent didn’t like that. In the book as it is, you don’t know what she wants. That part was only published online.

You received death threats after saying that you gave part of $4,000 in tips from Rush Limbaugh to a nonprofit that helps women pay for their abortions. What was that like?

When it first started happening, there were a couple of days when I was disturbed by it. The people who are most vehemently anti-abortion are also the same people who are most vehemently pro-gun. And all of these people who are heaving this violent language … I would look at their Facebook page, and it would be this white male holding a gun … automatic weapons. That’s really frightening. And they have proven repeatedly that they will be violent against people who support abortion. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been an incident of someone who supports abortion rights killing someone who doesn’t.

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