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Merritt Tierce Wins Rona Jaffe Award: Dallas Feminists, Literature Nerds Rejoice

Dallas can officially claim another up-and-coming literary superstar at the announcement of the 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation writers' awards. Texas native Merritt Tierce was one of six women awarded $25,000 and an opportunity to read at NYU on September 23, 2011.

Merritt Tierce is among a select group of artists who seem best characterized not only by pure, unequivocal talent but also unflinching work ethic. Working ceaselessly, Tierce has spent much of her adult life employed in various clerical positions and waiting tables; where she differs from the majority of would-be artists ensconced in Dallas day-jobs, however, lies in the elegant fiction she has produced despite -- and, assuredly, as a result of -- her various experiences in the Dallas rat-race.

Today, she waits tables again while working as the Executive Director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a Dallas-based non-profit that provides funding to support women's right to choose.

Tierce first achieved publishing success when her short story, "Suck It," was chosen by local writer Ben Fountain to appear in the 2008 Southwest Review. More recently, she graduated in May from the most highly ranked creative writing MFA program, the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, where she was named Meta Rosenberg Fellow.

Aesthetically speaking, Ms. Tierce writes as if brandishing a mace. That is, however, not a suggestion that her work is without intellectual or philosophical merit, but quite the contrary. The authoritative voice of her dynamic prose only evidences the machinations of a rigorous mind.

"Suck It," in particular, is brash and unapologetic but also tempered with the eye/ear of a prudent craftswoman. At its conclusion, a reader is left with the best possible literary feeling -- that of having been beaten about the head, ragged and emotionally exhausted, all in the most stunningly beautiful way imaginable.

Merritt Tierce graciously and (perhaps too) humbly answered our starstruck questions about her craft, achievements and life post-Iowa City and you can find her rich responses after the jump.

Do you decide consciously to write about women's issues as a political statement, or does your writing tend to take this focus organically? Merritt Tierce: No, I never decide what to write before I write it. I write what feels most urgent, because that is how I can create the best sentences. The urgency -- which, in my fiction, is so far usually attached to painful experiences between men and women -- has its own rhythm and I hear it clearly. Whereas the few times I've tried to create something via a more artificial approach, it feels flat.

I honestly wasn't aware that I was writing about "women's issues" until a male friend read "Suck It" and said to me, "My God, my people [men] are so broken." Although I have certainly built my life around my conviction that women are not currently but ought to be valued as much as men, I would write about gardening or the circus if I felt the best sentences could be had there. I did co-write a play about abortion, and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that that wasn't a political act. But my co-writers and I wanted to create a work of art that focused specifically on the reality of women's lives rather than either side of the political issue.

The Iowa Writer's Workshop is - and has been historically - the top-ranked creative writing MFA in the nation. Congratulations! That said, how the hell did you survive living for two years in Iowa? Yes, it is, and even as a graduate I still consider it a massive stroke of luck that I was able to go there. I was grateful for every second of it. When I was trying to decide which MFA program to attend, it came down to Iowa and NYU. I thought that if I went to NYU, the stimulation of living in New York would either be critically invigorating or critically overwhelming, and that if I went to Iowa the sheer middle-of-nowhereness (not to mention the winters) would either allow me the space to focus entirely on writing, or would crush my spirit and someone would find me in the snow clutching a bottle of corn liquor.

Ultimately I realized I couldn't afford New York with two kids, and I made the right decision. Iowa City is a magical place and one of the great benefits of the program, for me, was the opportunity my son and daughter had to live there. They made wonderful friends and miss Iowa City terribly now that we're back. And Iowa City is also a literary mecca -- there's no city in the country outside of New York that has such a high level of literary community and a daily, vigorous heartbeat for books. Almost every night of the year you can walk down the street to the library or the university or Prairie Lights, the wonderful independent bookstore, and hear a great writer talk about their work. Sometimes you actually have to choose between two great writers on a given evening, and this in a town so tiny you can walk or bike wherever you need to go.

Those two years were truly a gift -- but I wouldn't have survived the winters, or the isolation I both crave and despise as a writer, without the extraordinary friendship of my colleague Alexander Maksik. His debut novel You Deserve Nothing came out this month and is having all the success a novelist could dream of -- the New York Times just gave it a rave review.

What I will remember most about Iowa are the meals we shared and the talks we had, and the constant encouragement of someone whose opinion I respect.

Knowing that you write about issues that are especially controversial in Texas, do you feel like your environment here -- for better and worse -- inspires your writing? My guests in the restaurant [where I work] have often remarked to me that I have no accent, for someone who grew up in Texas. I always say "Good, that's on purpose." I've never wanted to be from Texas and had been trying to get out for almost a decade when I finally moved to Iowa. I didn't want to be identified with extreme conservatism, big cars or xenophobia.

But a strange thing happened when I left the state -- I developed a nostalgia and appreciation for Texas I'd never felt before (undoubtedly intensified by my watching all five seasons of Friday Night Lights during a blizzard last winter). I didn't miss the bad politics or the religious lunacy or the constant driving; I especially didn't miss the shallow materialistic culture of Dallas. I just realized where I'm calling from. It sounds simplistic, but I think a lot of times you need to leave a place before you can see it.

And even before I left I recognized the worth of being the only writer in a room full of real estate agents: Living in Dallas is not like living in San Francisco or New York or Boston or some place where liberal creative people congregate. As an artist/writer in Dallas you feel a bit like you're stationed at an outpost to complete a mission. You have a sense of space around your creative work, and I find that crucial. Being surrounded by other writers and artists is intimidating and distracting, and while I wouldn't give back a single moment of my time in Iowa I was ready to leave when I did. I don't want to talk about writing all the time -- for me that kind of intricate and specialized conversation stifles and obscures what I love about reading and writing.

I don't mean to suggest there are no other artists working in Dallas; there is certainly a vibrant arts and music scene. It's just smaller, and for that reason I think it might be more valued, than what you'd find in a place where the arts are a more established part of community life.

It seems like as soon as they become parents some writers (or musicians, actors, etc.) come out with children's books. However, your work tends to focus on darker, very adult topics. Has being a mother affected the choices you make as an artist? And, as a follow-up, do you find it difficult to balance being a mom, working at TEA and finding ample time for your craft? I've been a mother since I was 19 years old. I was supposed to begin graduate school at Yale that fall, and instead of finding myself in New Haven, an exceptionally young Ivy League grad student with nothing but promise ahead of me, I was a pregnant secretary in a cubicle at the corporate office of Sally Beauty Supply. It took me ten years to work my way back to graduate school. I became a wife and mother before I was ready for either role, and my life veered dramatically away from what I expected for myself. Trauma of various kinds ensued.

My children are the best people I know, and I have learned infinitely more from them than I would have learned from any elite institution in the world. But the experience of being a young parent made me who I am, and so yes it absolutely affects the choices I make as an artist and what I am interested in writing about.

And I do find it difficult to balance everything. I haven't written a new story in almost a year, because there's just no time. If I were more diligent I could find an hour between six and seven in the morning, or a couple of hours at night after they go to bed, but it's not only a matter of scheduling. There's too much happening on the ground in my brain, and to write I have to find a way below that level. Having an hour here or there is not worth much if I don't have the corresponding and prefatory time for everything to quiet down, for the quality of my thought to deepen.

Many of the topics in your writing -- from sexual abuse to abortion -- are inherently dramatic, but one of your strengths seems that you write with an authentic voice that doesn't feel preachy or melodramatic. As an artist, do you plan carefully how to approach such topics? Or, would you say you naturally have an ear for what sounds right? No, I don't have a plan. I write entirely by ear. It is both a gift and a handicap -- I've never been particularly skilled at literary criticism, or identifying why I love what I love in literature. It's all sound. I can read a 600-page novel and if the writer repeats a unique adjective even once I'll notice it. So I have to wait for the bullet of the story to form inside me before I can write it. I have to walk around with a vague awareness of it for a long time before I know the first line, and then I write it all over the course of two days because I can hear it.

The way I read and write made it impossible for me to enjoy teaching -- I taught undergraduates at Iowa and while they were earnest and attentive I felt completely fraudulent and hope I will never teach again.

Aesthetically speaking, your prose is gorgeous -- well-timed and lyrical. When did you begin writing? When did you first know that you were good at it? Thank you. I think my ability to tell a story comes partly from my father, who was a high school band director for 25 years and is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. Church is all story; growing up in church I was baptized in story, so that was the beginning of writing for me, long before I actually wrote anything. My writing does have a distinctive rhythm to it and I am obsessive about the way a sentence sounds, most likely because I was immersed in all kinds of music as a child. I took ten years of piano lessons and played the trumpet in high school and college. Band music and church music have in common a strong preference for melody that is embedded in my subconscious and my writing.

I don't think I'm good at it yet. I have a sense of my potential that may be all ego but nonetheless tells me I can make something much more beautiful than I've yet come near. But I first felt the pleasure of writing in high school, when I wrote an essay about The Scarlet Letter for my freshman English class. I disappeared. Time disappeared. I feel like I am and always will be trying to recreate the discovery of that pleasure.

Merritt Tierce plans to use her award to work less and write more. Keep an eye out for updates on her success, including details on her work-in-progress, Love Me Back, a collection of linked short stories set in Dallas. Many of her short stories can be found online at, which provides not only textual versions, but in many cases recordings of readings by Ms. Tierce, herself.

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Brentney Hamilton

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