Andrew Byrds: Earlier on in your book, you make it a point to let the reader know this is a fictionalized version of yourself, interrupting the narrative just once to emphasize this during a particularly vulnerable moment. You really pry and nail your heart open in JULIET THE MANIAC, are you someone who prescribes to the idea that writing is therapy?
And did you also want to maintain the line between fiction and reality for creative purposes, ie as a means of challenging yourself to create rather than explicitly recreate?
Juliet Escoria: No, writing is not therapy. It can have therapeutic effects, in that it can be a way to process one’s past, and turn negative things into a positive thing—but if the sole or main purpose of a piece of writing is to be therapeutic, then you should keep it to yourself.
Yes, exactly. There are conventions and expectations for every form of writing, but it seems like you can make up the rules a bit more if you call a book a novel. In my mind, the term can function as a sort of catch-all for a work that tells a longer story and is largely fictional. I knew I wanted to do odd things structurally, and odd things with the layout of the book, and I hoped that people might be more willing to go along with me if I called it a novel. It also seemed both more practical and more fun if I knew I wasn’t bound to the truth.
AB: A few years ago you were on Listi’s OTHERPPL talking about BLACK CLOUD, and you mentioned you were working on a novel. That was about five years ago now, was it MANIAC you were working on? Did you begin working on it before BLACK CLOUD?
JE: Yes, that was it. I think at that point in time, I was writing a bunch of stuff that I thought would fit into the book, but I was wrong about all of it. I had this (insane) idea that I would write a giant book that would span my entire life, but focus mostly on my teenage years. If I remember correctly, the things I was working on then were a fictionalized family history, and bits about my childhood. I don’t really know why I ever thought that was a good idea—to write a book that covered not only my entire life, but also my family history.
I started working on this book before Black Cloud, but only in terms of the subject matter. I knew I wanted to write a novel based on ages 14-17 in my life, beginning back in 2010 (possibly earlier?). I wrote a partial draft from 2010-2011, in grad school, and another partial draft in 2012-2013, but I discarded the entirety of both. The earliest parts that actually made it into the book weren’t written until late 2015.
AB: With the recurring themes of suicide and reflection, and Camus’ MYTH OF SISYPHUS also plated over my brain, I have to ask: has routine been more of a detriment or a benefit in your life, both in your professional and personal life?
JE: I think routine is healthy, and that all humans crave it, whether we realize it or not. Some periods in my life have followed no discernible routine whatsoever, and those were times when I was more or less failing at being a functional human being.
But I’ve always had this problem, where if I have too much routine, I start feeling cagey and having Camus-like problems with my outlook. Everything feels meaningless and endless and dull. I don’t think I could ever cut it at an office job. The thought of going to the same place at the same time for years on end makes me incredibly depressed.
I think that’s one reason why I like school so much— partially why I went to grad school right after I graduated college, and partially why I teach college now. You have a routine, but it only lasts for a semester, and then it all changes again. It’s just enough order for me. There’s always a definitive end, somewhere in the near future.
AB: It’s a bloodmatch between poetry and prose. They’ve been tearing each other apart for years now going back and forth, hooked fingers and splintered teeth. They look up to you from the electrified razor-wired cage below for a yay and nay on which one gets to live, and which goes to die. The choice is yours, which do you choose?
JE: There are plenty of poems out there that feel holy to me, like something carved from stone under the guidance of a divine force. My students and I were discussing Emily Dickinson the other day, for example, and what I thought but didn’t say aloud while we were talking about “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” was “If you don’t like this poem, then there’s something wrong with your soul.” That poem gets at something that no piece of prose ever could. There are a lot of poems I feel this way about.
But of course I pick prose. Excellent poetry might feel holy, but nothing beats reading a really good novel. With poetry, you get a dreamlike glimpse into someone’s psyche, but in prose, you get to fully occupy it. It’s the art form that most closely replicates the impossible experience of being an entirely different person. Sorry, poetry.
AB: People always ask about literary influences when it comes to piercing together a novel or collection, or they focus on specific people who helped them along the way. Besides all that, are there any influences you find throughout your daily life that others may not consider or be aware of? Like how Proust managed to write an entire fucking series of books because of a pastry.
JE: This sounds corny as hell, but I really am influenced by nature—the canyons and the beach in San Diego, and the woods here in West Virginia. Natural environments are peaceful and pretty on the surface, but underneath there is a deadliness and a scary indifference. I’ve been on hikes by myself, enjoying the quiet and beauty and solitude, and then it occurred to me that I could twist my ankle or whatever, and the beautiful trees and birds couldn’t care less; I could die and rot and bugs and animals would feast on my corpse. That feeling is something I try to emulate in my writing: a beauty, but with a scariness boiling underneath.
AB: Does music have any effect on your writing? I’ve found that depending on what I’m listening to, it can alter the cadence and overall rhythm, sometimes thematically, of what I’m working on. If given some time to consider this question, would you be able to come up with a soundtrack for Juliet the Maniac, based off existing music or dream compositions by favorite artists?
JE: Yes, for sure. Music is integral to writing for me, and helps me both drown out distractions and also create the sort of mood I am going for. Here are some of the songs I listened to on repeat while writing JTM. I wanted to show all the different elements and sides of mania in the book, so I listened to music that felt manic to me, in some shape or form.
I also went through this brief, weird, misguided phase, where I thought that the “secret” to the book could be found by following different “color palettes” for each scene. I went through the trouble of creating a playlist for a particular color palette (here), but it took a lot of time and also ended up not being very helpful.
AB: How has social media shaped the way people communicate their lives, do you think it has allowed people to be more open/vulnerable with the shit they’ve gone through with their lives? Do you think there’s been more of a positive or negative impact on the kinda writing you see published nowadays?
JE: Oh, god. Well, the didactic line I give my students when we’re discussing online sources is this: The internet is a powerful tool, and with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, I don’t see much responsibility in action, either from individuals or from corporations. Of course, the internet is great for the democratization of knowledge and different viewpoints, but it’s also great at democratizing bullshit and lies and self-righteousness. I think we’re at a really icky phase, where people seem to conflate “speaking out” on Twitter and lazy thinkpieces with action, and where values like feminism are co-opted by companies to get you to click on links and buy useless shit. So right now I see it as more of a negative force, but that definitely seems subject to change.
AB: When BLACK CLOUD came out, you created a series of short films that complemented the stories. Is this kind of multimedia something you’d consider doing again for your future work, or is there a hope that the writing speaks for itself?
JE: I’d like to do that again – I had ideas for videos for JTM – but the issue is time, more than anything else. When I made the videos for Black Cloud, I was working as an adjunct and only teaching a couple classes. Now I have a full-time job. I like making videos and other multimedia-type projects, but I like writing more, and I don’t have the time to do both. If anyone wants to hire me for a cushy teaching job where I would have time to write and also make videos, hmu.
AB: Though JtM has aspects of autobiography and fiction, has there been anyone you made reference to as a character read it and reach out to you about it?
JE: Not yet, anyway. My mom has expressed concern, about the mom in the book coming across as mean or something, but I told her that the parents are very much characters (which is true), rather than representations of my actual parents, and also that it was important for me to show the parents as flawed but good-intentioned and loving. The character Holly is a fictional creation, but she was loosely based on an actual person. I shared an early version of a partial rough draft with that actual person. She really liked it, and it made her cry, so I was very happy about that. I’m both excited and nervous about sharing the book with my old friends, who knew me when I was a teenager. I wish I could pin a disclaimer to it, though, for these readers. This book is definitely not meant to be a representation of my actual high school experience.
AB: Do you have any future projects in mind at the moment, are there any challenges you’d like to face in these projects to keep yourself on your toes? And I know some writers are very humble, but is there anything about JtM you feel especially proud about now that it is done?
JE: I’m working on a story collection now. There’s a novel I really want to write, but like JTM, it’s going to require me to pick at emotional scabs and I need a break from that. So stories for now.
I’m just proud of writing the damn thing. Nothing about it was easy. It also was something I wanted to write for so long, and it feels really weird to have it now be a finished product.
Beyond that, I’m proud that I stayed true to the book. I went through drafts multiple times with my agent, and with two separate editors (the editor who originally acquired the book left the industry), and I also got feedback from my husband and various friends. I feel like I did a good job with wading through the different voices and only listening to the feedback that helped the book become more like itself. I imagine (and hope!) that this will be a divisive book, but each choice I made was deliberate.