Interview for Tentaciones in El País

[Note that the text of questions posed by the El País interviewer has not been edited to standardize the English—they are presented here as they were received/responded to by MT.]

EP: I confess that one of the things that most caught my attention in the book is its total absence of morality: drugs do not lead the protagonist to a terrible end and her addiction to sex does not end with a stupid epiphany. It is impossible to find in your book a single line where you warn about the use of drugs, recommend the use of contraceptives or in which you say that you have to be more selective with your lovers. Why did you choose something as unusual as not taking sides and not include morals in your book?

MT: Maybe the only idea I feel any certainty about is uncertainty. I am rarely certain about anything, because I understand how hard it is to ever know the whole truth about anything. New information arises, old information proves false, or at some point a different perspective makes sense. I'm not saying one can categorically never be certain about anything; for example I am certain that abortion ought to be a human right. Regarding drug addiction, I think that often people arrive at a greater, truer, fuller understanding of life after making what are thought of as 'bad' decisions, and then living through the consequences of those decisions. So it's not for me to say what someone else should or shouldn't do, because I can't know any other person's entire history or potential. I think this is the fundamental difference that defines the political divide in America, and almost anywhere else there is a cultural divide that falls out as conservatism vs. liberalism: conservatives typically believe they can know what is best for everyone, what is best for an individual they don't know anything about, and liberals typically believe that everyone ought to have the freedom to make their own decisions as long as they aren't harming or impeding anyone else. That is, in my opinion, perhaps the only logically sound moral stance one can take, given the reality of individuated consciousness.

EP: Where does this book come from? Did you write it thinking about drawing attention to what you narrate or as a purely literary exercise?

MT: This book comes from my life and I wrote it thinking about my life and the experiences I have had. I told the stories the way I would tell them to someone who wasn’t there and didn’t know any of the people in the stories. When I wrote this book I did not know how to have any (conscious) narrative intentions or how to do anything deliberately 'literary.' It didn't occur to me to approach what I was doing with any formal purpose. 

EP: Do you know real cases like this? Have you reflected them, in any way, in your book?

MT: Yes. I hope so.

EP: Marie is addicted to drugs, sex, bad decisions ... Why did you want to reflect a story as crude as this?

MT: Marie is also very good at her job and trying to live a life. I don't think that the drugs or sex or bad decisions are the whole story for her, or the most interesting story. Those elements are salacious so they pull attention more easily. But the book is also just as much a book about work and a book about class and a book about being female. Regardless, again I did not approach the creation of this material with any understanding of the 'why.' I wanted to write about my time working at Chili's so I wrote about it. That meant writing about marijuana and extramarital sex and breastfeeding and learning how to wait tables. Perhaps I hope to someday arrive at the questions of why, but I feel that first I have to set down what happened.

EP: On the contrary the work looks like his own physical control therapy and drugs a fun. You do not establish a clear relationship between poverty and drugs. Why is Marie like this? What causes her to become addicted?

MT: I think she's simply young, and drugs are around. She's not so happy with her life and she's willing to try drugs as a way to escape some of her feelings and as a way to connect with other people. I feel like those are pretty common reasons that young people use drugs. And to be clear, rich people are just as likely to use drugs as poor people...but rich people are much more likely to have the resources to eventually stop using drugs, meaning rehab if necessary but also meaning education, travel, job training, mobility, anything that could give a person another reason to live. People without those resources often don't have an incentive to stop using drugs, or the means to.

EP: In your book there does not seem to be a moral, just a story in which the protagonist accepts her mistakes without any more, facing them as she can ... Why is Marie accepted as she is? ... Why did you choose a structure without final conclusions ? For such an open ending?

MT: That's life. I think we are always living in the middle of our story, because we know something about the beginning (whatever has come before now, this moment), but we don't know the end. I read and write to understand life. But I want to understand it from an open, descriptive, inquisitive place, not from a prescriptive place. The religious rigidity and dogmatism I was raised within almost killed me and part of my life's work is to reject close-mindedness and fundamentalism of any stripe. 

EP: How did you get someone so imperfect to end up falling so well?

MT: I don't know...I didn't do that on purpose, so I feel that is someone else's question to answer. If what I created is successful I can say only that I was loyal to the story in my head. 

EP: You attack the problem of teenage pregnancies from a very crude, very honest and very direct perspective that clashed a little with the fashion of the TV programs of pregnant adolescents who tend to sweeten the situation a lot. What opinion do these programs deserve? And, above all, what can your book teach a teenager about to face her motherhood?

MT: I believe that any person who becomes pregnant ought to have the freedom to decide what to do about that pregnancy—whether to continue it, and if the decision is to continue it, whether to raise the child or let someone adopt it. Teenagers deserve that freedom as much as people of any other age; becoming a parent is difficult at any age. But teenagers are more likely to face greater financial and circumstantial challenges, and there is something to be said for allowing yourself to grow up before you try to take responsibility for another being's growth. I think it's important for teenagers to be presented with those ideas, and I think it's important for teenagers to have prospects beyond parenthood for achieving a meaningful life. That is, the romanticization of teen pregnancy is often tied up in a dark truth: income inequality and class striation cause many young people to have not much to look forward to, realistically. The idea of a baby can signify hope and love in a world that doesn't offer much of either to billions of people who don't have the resources to survive or thrive. But that is not a moral argument for or against teen pregnancy. Again, one person's teen pregnancy may be the best thing that ever happened to her, and another person's teen pregnancy may be a trauma with lifelong aftereffects. And it doesn't have to be one or the other. 

My own teen pregnancy was both a crisis that sent my life in a completely different direction than I wanted to go in, and a transformative and rich experience that has shaped everything since. I don't regret it, whatever that means, but that is not the same thing as saying I wouldn't ever wish that I could have given my kids more than I was able to. If I had waited to become a parent maybe they could have gone to better schools and I could have given them more attention and stability and all of that would have led to their being more successful, well-adjusted adults. But private school and money can fuck up a kid as easily as deprivation can. (At sixteen and seventeen, my kids are both remarkably well-adjusted, healthy, happy people, but I think I have had WAY more support than most teen parents do—I can easily credit their father and my parents and their other grandparents for their wholeness—they have been loved and taken care of and protected since birth, by all of us, which is always all that matters.) To anyone about to become a mother, whether you're 16 or 46, I'd say only that I believe life doesn't end or begin at motherhood, and there is no one right way to be a parent, and it's going to be hard.    

EP: Have any waitresses complained about the image you reflected in your book? Why did you turn Marie into a waitress? It is a critical book with the labor situation of women and, above all, with the attitude of men ... What should we do to compensate for this situation? Do you think that steps could be taken in that direction?

MT: No one has complained—the only comment I have ever received about my portrayal of waitstaff is that it hits the mark. Many different waiters and people in the service industry have told me effusively that I got it right. This doesn't surprise me, since it wasn't invented—waiting tables was my life for thirteen years—but it is still so gratifying. I think that compliment pleases me more than anything anyone says about the literary quality of the book. 

And yes I think that all kinds of steps need to be taken to create workplaces that are safe for everyone—I don't think that women should have to endure workplace cultures that allow or encourage harassment. I think that we are definitely shifting in that direction, but I think that we must continue to insist on zero tolerance of not only sexual harassment but any behavior that demeans or subjugates women in the workplace (or anywhere else).