“Each of Us Has Our Own Personal Mythology” An Interview With Juliet Escoria

Juliet the Maniac, the third book and first novel from Juliet Escoria, has been earning rave reviews since its release earlier this month. In his review of the book for NPR, Gabino Iglesias noted, “Juliet The Maniac is a heartfelt, raw, powerfully told story about surviving mental illness and learning to cope with inner demons. Escoria is a talented writer who’s not afraid to write her truth, even when it will scrape viciously at the souls of readers.” Robert Lopez spoke with Escoria about the lines between autofiction and memoir, how she developed her prose style, and personal mythologies.

I’m curious as to the differences between autofiction and memoir. Did you choose from the outset that this was going to be an autofiction rather than a memoir? Lately, nonfiction writers have been transparent about their inventions and thus an Oprah/James Frey-like kerluffle seems to be a thing of the past. Did how the book might be received play any part in your decision or was it all about what was best for you as the writer and how you could approach the work? Did you read other autofictions or memoirs as a means of preparation? 

I never considered writing the book as a memoir, mostly because I am bad at sticking to the truth. I probably also have some silly, snobbish ideas about memoir as a genre; I feel like “memoir” implies there is some sort of lesson to be learned, or that the book contains something instructive, which I was not interested in writing. When I consider audience, I tend to run into trouble. I had tried to write this book two other times and failed, and I think part of that failure was trying to conform to ideas I had about what makes a “novel,” and considering the audience and the book’s reception too much. This time, I took the book on the book’s terms, and let it do what it seemed to want to do in the drafting stage, writing simply to please myself.

I read books as preparation, but I was looking toward subject matter, rather than genre. So, I read a lot of books about troubled teenagers, and also institutionalized settings… writing about being institutionalized is sort of like writing science fiction or speculative fiction, in that you’re creating this alternate reality, that resembles our reality, but has its own rules and cultural norms. 

I’m always interested in any writer’s relationship with memory. How does memory work in your fiction, in the composition of this novel, particularly since you’re writing from a baseline of your own experiences as a teenager? Your use of form here is both effective and emblematic of how memory works for most people. Fragmented but organized in a particular and meaningful way. Did the form present itself immediately or did you have to figure it out later?

Originally, I had thought that the book would follow a more traditional structure, but, as I said, that didn’t work out. When I was beginning the draft that eventually turned into this book, I went through a bunch of old files in my mom’s closet, of my report cards and test scores and notes from various doctors, etc. It gave me the idea to structure the book as a sort of scrapbook. I also read Jane by Maggie Nelson around the same time, and I had imagined my book as more like hers—even more fragmented. But the sections ended up longer than I had originally thought, so I just went with it.

In a lot of conversations about autofiction/autobiographical fiction/memoir, people talk about the unreliability of memory, and how these forms of writing highlight this idea. I agree with that. While writing this book, I would start out writing a scene and know that element X was true-to-life, and element Y was based in fact but inflated or reshaped, and element Z was entirely invented. But through writing and rewriting, the events and their factualness became muddied. Toward the end of the book-writing process, it became difficult to tell what I had invented and what I had not. It really underscored that memory is in fact plastic and malleable. But I think it also points to the unreliability of personality, and of identity. We have these ideas about who we are, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and our personality traits. But what if our ideas about ourselves are totally wrong? What if it is impossible to know who we truly are?

It’s all a puzzle and one we try to assemble and re-assemble and we’ll probably never get there, but still we keep at it. Along these lines, ideas of self and the impossibility of knowing who we are, the drawings and charts, photographs and patient logs that you included in the book serve as an evolving document of a former self. It lends an extraordinary authenticity to the work. Of course, the writing itself, the urgency and meticulous sentences pull the reader from one page to the next, but these documents provide some kind of tangible proof, a polygraph of sorts for Juliet the narrator. How did this process work, the assemblage of these documents? Did it create any sort of formal/formatting issues as you put it together? Did you know they should be part of the book immediately or did it come later?

That phrase, “tangible proof”— that was exactly what I was thinking about. My teenage self felt mysterious and unknowable to me, which seemed interesting and contradictory and therefore like something that was important to include in the book. While I was going through the old files in my mom’s closet, it felt like tangible proof that this person did indeed exist, that she wasn’t something I’d misremembered.

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of rock star biographies, and I used to spend a lot of time looking at the photo insertsexamining the look in their eyes, and the look on their faces. It seems odd that Janis Joplin and Syd Barrett and Jim Morrison were actual people, who were once little girls and boys that wiped their butts. Each of us has our own personal mythology, and I think that mythical quality is especially enhanced for those of us that have parts of our lives that are wildly inappropriate for polite conversation. I felt that the memorabilia pointed to this the idea of personal myths. And then Juliet is, of course, a mentally ill addict, and therefore unreliable, so the outside perspectives of the doctors and therapists seemed like they’d offer a counterbalance to her version of the story. (But the adults are unreliable too! One of the doctors spends a large portion of Juliet’s intake report by describing her physical appearance, and then concludes her judgement is poor.)

The images were essential to me early on, and were an element I was prepared to fight for. I knew I’d have to find a publisher that was willing to take risks, and feel very lucky to have found that publisher in Melville House. That was the main question I had before I signed a contract: Are you going to let me keep the images?

And yes, they caused problems. My notes about the galley version were almost exclusively about formatting. I’m very grateful to Melville House for being patient with me, while I got heated about line breaks and font size.

It’s great to hear about a writer who knows what she wants and is relentless in pursuing that vision. And it’s a relief to hear that there are presses out there like Melville House that will publish and champion challenging work. Let’s talk a little about prose and style. Your sentences, as I mentioned earlier, are meticulously crafted together and possess an urgency that is unmistakable. They feel chiseled onto the page, like a master sculptor. The reader has no choice but to follow this narrator on this difficult and upsetting journey as a result of the prose. How has your prose/voice evolved over time? Have you always put language together in this fashion, concise, spare, and cutting? You’ve mentioned sentence writers like Hempel, Paley and Hemingway as those you love, who leave things off the page. Who else do you admire for their sentences?

I think the “talent” part of writing is having an ear for musicality and interesting combinations of words. That’s something I’ve always liked—the way certain words sound when they’re placed next to each other.

The conciseness, though, is something I figured out in grad school. People bemoan MFAs and wonder if you can even teach writing, and while I agree that you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer, it really helped me learn more quickly than I would have on my own. In my first semester, Amy Hempel crossed out the first three paragraphs of a story of mine, and it immediately became better. I know now that this is fairly ordinary advice, but it felt like a magic trick. Later, I had Fiona Maazel, and that one little class really jump-started the way that I write. She completely decimated a classmate’s story one night, pointing out all the flab (which we were all guilty of including, at that point). I’m pretty sure he never forgave her for being so harsh, but it was an eye-opener for me—just how much you can cut. I have an obsessive-compulsive, detail-oriented personality, and I get a real pleasure from getting things to be just-so.

I like Chelsea Hodson and Elizabeth Ellen’s sentences a lot; they both feel controlled yet wild. I like yours; there’s a real fierceness to them, and a pop. I like my husband, Scott McClanahan’s. They’re so stark yet beautiful. He just shared an early draft with me, and one of his sentences got stuck in my head: “Nell saw a fat rat.” I don’t know why, but I fucking love that sentence. I could go on, but I’ll stop with those examples.

One thing that drives me crazy, though, is writers who seem to care more about sound than substance. I like the Gordon Lish school of writing, obviously, but it’s created a fair amount of garbage—sentences that sound pretty, but mean absolutely nothing.


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