'The Mystery Is in the Ordinary, Uncool Things' - An Interview with Author Juliet Escoria

Reading Juliet Escoria's <i>Black Cloud</i> feels as if you are reading a diary that someone wrote with the intention of it one day being found, for both her and your benefit. In other words, it is intimate.

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Jul 17 2014, 1:54pm

Photo courtesy of the author

Like the narrator in Juliet Escoria’s story “The Other Kind Of Magic” flirts with her boss and then ends up in a hotel room with him despite having a boyfriend, I, after a brief flirtation with Black Cloud, went back to the much-lauded novel by a famous established author I'd been reading, but then about ten minutes later somewhat guiltily found myself back with Black Cloud (which I’d laid to the side, face down on my bed), which I read exclusively until finishing it. I should say that Black Cloud had been sent to me through the mail. I didn’t order it and had no idea if I’d like it. The novel I’d been reading before was engaging enough but my critical apparatus never quite turned off as I was reading it, and unlike Black Cloud when I held it I didn’t have the feeling of holding something that bled. Because Black Cloud is at the same time gritty and dream-like and involves drug addiction, Denis Jonson immediately came to mind. But this book is very female. It is about hard, dark things, but these are enveloped by a softness—which you could maybe call the tenderness that comes from having learned to forgive one’s self and other people, from coming to know the opposite of tenderness in a very direct, personal way—and by the clear light of the author’s voice. Here is Escoria writing through a character having a dream on DMT, in “Heroin Story”:

I had a dream, and in the dream I was a lot older. I knew I had aged because my skin felt light like paper but the inside of me was solid and dark. The sun was low in the sky and thick yellow like tree sap, that gorgeous time of day right before the sun begins to set. I was with the boy and he was older too—a man now—and we were married; there were vines growing up the fence and the leaves were buzzing with new growth and his skin was warm under my fingers as I kissed him. I looked in his eyes, the man in the dream, and couldn’t believe that I had known, and hated, and loved this person for so long. In him I could see who I was, who I had been.

As I read, the dream felt like my own, in the way of something uncovered—in the way of one part of the self explaining to the other what being a human attached to another human was.

Black Cloud has that rare quality of feeling almost as if you are reading a diary that someone wrote with the intention of it one day being found, for both her and your benefit. In other words, it is intimate. I read most of it in one sitting because I was in one of those strange moods in which I both didn’t know how to talk to anyone and longed for some unforgettable conversation.

Juliet Escoria and I communicated through email.

VICE: The first thing I noticed that’s unusual about Black Cloud is that the names of feelings and emotions appear in larger and bolder font above the titles of the stories—for example, “RESENTMENT” appears before “Fuck California” and “CONFUSION” before “The Other Kind Of Magic”—and that a photo (some but not all featuring you) appears before each story, on a separate page, with the name of the feeling or emotion above it. 

For example, beneath RESENTMENT, there is a photo of you in profile, the light sky (what looks to be a California sky) illuminating the outline of your figure entirely in shadow, and beneath CONFUSION there is a photo of you wearing fishnet tights, a black demi bra, and a necklace with a long, elaborate pendant. You are sitting cross-legged on the floor in a white-walled room that seems empty. Your hair is up. Your hands reach behind you and appear to be in the process of unclasping the bra. Then before APATHY there’s another skyline at dusk but by now, because from the other two images I’m used to seeing the figure of you, you seem absent from it.

Will you tell me more about this arrangement of the book as an art object—how you came up with it, and why you chose to do it in this unusual way?
Juliet Escoria: When I make things—whether it is writing or more visual types of art—I do things for stupid, shallow reasons first. Usually the stupid, shallow reasons can be reduced to “Because I felt like it.” To elaborate on the stupid reasons behind the pictures… I like taking photos, I like books with pictures, and it’s my fucking book and I want there to be fucking pictures in it.

Later, I question the stupid, shallow reasons, and oftentimes they’re not that stupid or shallow after all. Oftentimes they’re much more intelligent and complex than anything I could have come up with were I trying to construct some sort of effect or convey some sort of philosophy.

When I was in high school, I read a lot of rock star biographies—Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison, Grace Slick—and I always liked the books better if there were pictures in them. I liked reading about the rock star and then looking at the photos and trying to find the actions I’d read about inside the looks on their faces. The thing about rock stars like that—you can read about them, you can study them, but there’s an element that will remain forever mysterious. And a lot of that mystery has to do with the fact that they are still just people. People who poop and call their moms and get embarrassed and bicker with their girlfriend or boyfriend and brush their teeth. The unknowable things aren’t the sexy or exotic or cool things about them. Those are present in the music and the interviews and the concerts. The mystery is in the ordinary, uncool things.

I wanted people to look at my book and wonder what was real and what wasn’t, what was vulnerable and what was bravado, in the same way I did with the rock stars. I wanted the pictures to play into that.

Part of this is certainly egotism, but there’s all sorts of more complicated, less ego-based implications in that… things about reputation, the impossibility of ever really and truly knowing another person, outer appearances versus internal feelings… these are aspects of life that have really fucked with me in the past, and they’re things that the writing covers, although if I’m doing it right, it’s doing this at least somewhat indirectly.

And the emotions paired with the pictures—I liked how it seems to provide guidance in some ways, or a directive on how to read the book, but in a lot of ways it just gives the reader more questions. For example, one could be: Why does this book have so many fucking gimmicks?

By saying you want people to wonder what was vulnerability and what was bravado, do you mean that it’s sometimes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins? I think of the difference between being nude and being naked, and I apply it to writing. I feel like it is hard to tell which is which sometimes. Though the bodily response (what is happening chemically) in writing naked is different from writing nude, I think. Writing nude is about ego, and writing naked is about moving towards connection, making connection possible. Yet without the former the latter wouldn’t be possible. What do you think?
It makes me think of what goes on at 12-step programs, rehabs, mental hospitals, etc. In these environments, you have people telling each other horrible, ugly, ridiculous stories about things they did or things that happened to them. Maybe they've never told these stories before because maybe they're ashamed about their role in things. Sometimes the only way to tell these embarrassing, messy stories is to dress them up with a little bit of swagger and humor. Part of this is protective—humor as a defense mechanism—but part of it has to do with being completely honest. A true story, a whole experience—they are never only one thing. Addiction and mental illness are tragic and sad and devastating, but they are also funny and ridiculous. You need to have one in order to stay true to the other. You can't be naked without being nude. If there's no bravado in your vulnerability, then all you are is a gaping wound.

The stories have a sort of seamless hypnotic quality. I’m curious about your process. Would you describe the process of creating “CONFUSION; The Other Kind Of Magic” and “POWERLESSNESS; I Do Not Question It,” for example.
“The Other Kind of Magic” was based on a bad breakup I went through. The process was atypical because it was a really easy story to write. I think the only things I changed about it were little things, like punctuation and phrasing. It was the kind of story that writers write in hopes of—the effortless story that almost writes itself. It was less than a month between me starting it and it being published on Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

“I Do Not Question It” was a lot more typical in that it gave me trouble. I originally wrote it in January of 2013 as a journal entry. I was still pretty manic and thought it was amazing, but it was just sort of OK. It sat on my computer for several months. I’d open it every few weeks and add a paragraph or take one away or something. Eventually I was able to turn the reality into a fiction that worked: Two characters were condensed into one, a name was changed, I made some stuff up in terms of the history between my friend and I. That blue ball was some crazy shit, though.

What’s it like having another writer as your significant other? I read that Fitzgerald used to complain that it messed him up when Zelda used a shared experience as a basis for her fiction. Like, that it altered the experience in his mind and he couldn’t use it in the way he would’ve. It irritated me that he seemed to think he should get first dibs, as I understood it, and I also found it amusing. Is there a sense of competition in the household?  Do you write at the same time or at different times and to do it do you need to be in separate rooms?
I don’t really know yet but I will soon because Scott [McClanahan] and I are marrying in four days, and then I’m moving across the country to live with him. It’s been long distance so far, which is very different than actually living with a person. I’ll let you know how it goes.

So far it’s been supportive. So far it’s been a good thing, because we can talk shit about the same people and tell each other when our work is good or not.

The thing that makes me uncomfortable is that Scott is a man and I am a woman and Scott is so much more well-known than me. I don’t want to be a Zelda. I don’t want to be a Rita Marley.

Who do you want to be?
Juliet Escoria

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