The Storyteller | Juliet Escoria
Jet-black eyes under jet-black bangs– it’s assumed her closet is jet-black, too. She’s well dressed but doesn’t give a shit about fashion. Delicate features, nice skin– she’s pretty– and she emits warmth without ever smiling. Her disposition is focused and unaffected. She does not succumb to formality or nerves. In meeting Juliet Escoria for the first time, one registers her ability to crush your strongest conviction with a single glance. She is potentially three thousand years old.
By all counts of aesthetic, fiction writer Juliet Escoria is a real life version of the antagonist from one of those witchy 90’s cult flicks. Replace the Satanism with stony inclinations and deadpan, and we arrive at a writer who’s new book, Black Cloud, draws readers in with a startling undertow of sex, drugs and sordid reflections.
Escoria’s own life experiences with addiction and mental health are woven into many of the book’s short stories; though, what’s real and what’s not is a mystery to all but she. Black Cloud’s prose reads starry but concise– tales of life in the grim become crisp cinematic pictures that latch onto the reader’s every mode of sensation. Definitely not a paperback for your Mom, Juliet Escoria elevates all the sexy topics popular culture makes cheap by breaking down the beauty of dark corners in this evocative first collection.
You forwent the picket fence approach to childhood and adolescence. Mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction– your book reads almost as a memoir at times. How much of your own life do you bring to Black Cloud?
It really depends on the story. There’s a good deal of my life in most of them. I thought one of them was entirely true, or at least 90% true, but then I went through and realized there were plenty of lies in there too.
Who is your narrator?
I don’t think I necessarily think in terms of a narrator. I guess you could say they’re all narrated by some sort of exaggerated version of myself. Except for “The Sharpest Part of Her.” I’m not sure who that girl is. I’m not sure where that story came from, either.
In one of the book’s stories, your character snorts cocaine from her boyfriend’s erect penis. Were you nervous for your family to read the book?
I’d prefer it if my parents didn’t read my book, but they’re both very involved with my life and they weren’t having it. I ended up letting my mom read the advanced review copy, but I told my dad that he would have to get a copy on his own, and that when he did read it, I didn’t want him to talk to me about it – that I preferred to pretend he never had read it, and never would. I have also reminded them both numerous times that this book is fiction.
You dedicated your book to a man by the name of John A. Jackson. Who’s this?
My uncle. He died about ten years ago, and I’ve always felt a certain kinship with him. He was a genius, one of those people who’s just a little too smart for this world. He was on welfare for most of his life, and in terrible health due to his food and cigarette addictions. I remember that he sent me a copy of The Satanic Verses when I was ten, and the book just reeked of cigarettes. He spent a couple years in a mental hospital. He was always getting fired from jobs.
The kinship comes from the fact that he was bipolar and a writer. My dad’s side of the family has been engineers for three generations; so being a writer feels a bit like an aberration. I also think he’d be proud of me, and so I dedicated it to him.
The book is broken down into 12 different stories– each with its own titled emotion. What was your thought process behind this?
The process of the book went something like this: I tried to write a novel and failed. Shortly after I gave up on it, I went to visit New York. I was talking to Halimah Marcus, who is a friend and a former classmate and one of the editors of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. I was telling her that I’d written a story out of spite. She told me that I should make a collection, with each story corresponding to a certain emotion. I liked that idea, ran with it, and three months later I’d finished Black Cloud.
To be honest, I’m not sure the emotion thing works. I considered taking them out, but I liked the way the pages with the pictures looked better with words over them.
Do you ever feel haunted by past experiences? How do you shed the grittier of life’s details, and how do you use them for your working life as a writer?
I used to, but I don’t really anymore. I think I worked through a lot of that stuff by going to therapy. Maybe writing helped too – I’ve always thought that the whole “Writing is therapeutic” line was bullshit, but maybe it isn’t. As far as the writing things – the fucked up stuff is what makes good material.
What was the hardest part about getting clean for you?
I read a Russell Brand article recently, and he said, “Drugs and alcohol weren’t my problem, reality was my problem.” I relate to that sentiment immensely. The hardest part about getting clean is having to deal with life and having nothing to blot it out. Having to deal with myself with nothing to blot it out. But over time, this has become preferable for me. Without substances, both the dark and light sides of my mind have become more intense, and I’ve come to like it that way. I like the clarity of sobriety now; I like the intensity.
You’ve been very open with your mental health issues, which I commend you for. What do you think about general perceptions of mental health today?
I mean, I definitely think there’s a stigma. I’ve gotten really frustrated with people when they don’t understand how, exactly, bipolar works. But I can’t blame them for that. It’s human nature to stereotype and categorize. We’re only able to remove these stereotypes when we spend enough time around whatever population we have stereotypes about, and even the most worldly of us can’t be familiar with every population.
What are your thoughts on pharmaceutical drug culture?
I hate pharmaceutical companies, I really do. I take medication because it’s difficult-to-impossible for me to function without it, but I sure as hell wish this wasn’t the case. In my experience, they really are evil companies who are more concerned about making money than making people well.
For example: I was diagnosed with bipolar type I in 1997, when I was fifteen. They put me on Tegretol and Welbutrin. I attempted suicide two weeks after I was put on the medication. Ten years later, they discovered that antidepressants oftentimes make adolescents suicidal. They discovered that antidepressants oftentimes make people with bipolar I suicidal. I could have died because pharmaceutical companies were more concerned about putting their drugs on the market so they could make money, rather than testing them for longer to make sure they were safe and effective.
Best drug of all time?
I always feel confused when people tell me they haven’t tried Ecstasy. It’s called that for a reason.
Your writing in Black Cloud is filled with visual imagery. Is this intentional?
I think the senses thing has to do with memory. I have a really, really terrible memory. I’m not sure if this is just how I am, or if it has something to do with the drugs that I’ve done, or the psych drugs I take, but it’s just really, really bad. I don’t remember huge chunks of my life. Even now, someone will tell me something that I said or did and I’ll have no recollection of it. Details are just something my brain doesn’t hang on to. I do, however, remember how things felt. How the air smelled, how the light was – that kind of thing. So I guess that comes out in my writing.
When I write, I don’t worry how it sounds in the first draft. Then I go back through, and make the language more precise, and cut out as much stuff as possible. I think people describe that kind of process as “minimalism,” but I don’t understand why you’d write any other way. Why would you say something in 3,000 words when you could say it in 300? For me, that’s part of having respect for the reader – saying what you need to say in as few words as possible.
Can you tell me about the book’s publishing house, Civil Coping Mechanisms?
CCM is run by Michael J. Seidlinger, who is a writer himself. He’s really supportive of the literary scene as a whole, is extremely hard working, and he seems to really believe in the individual “vision” of each of CCM’s writers. According to CCM’s website, they publish “innovative fiction and poetry,” and, as far as I can tell, that means literature that breaks genre lines or does something unusual with form.
Can you drop a few pieces of recommended reading by some upcoming writers?
Well, CCM has put out a bunch of great books – Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess, I am Ready to Die a Violent Death by Heiko Julien, Baby Babe by Ana Carrete, Because by Joseph Riippi, to name a few – and they have a bunch more of books I’m excited for that are coming out in the next couple of years. It was announced yesterday that they’re putting out Sean H. Doyle’s first book, and I’m extra excited about that one. Sean’s an amazing writer, not to mention a really good dude.
I am one of those folks who, after reading Black Cloud, needs to have explained to them what a ‘whippet’ is.
‘Whippets’ is the slang term for nitrous. They’re technically designed to propel industrial-sized whipped cream canisters. You buy them at sex stores, along with a balloon and a cracker. You use the cracker to open them up, and it blows the gas into the balloon, which you inhale. It fucks you up for only a few minutes, but if you do enough of them you will feel pleasantly stupid the next day.
Why do you live where you do?
I moved in with my mom in June of 2012 because I was sick of being poor and working all the time. She lives in a 4-bedroom home, and had just retired, so she likes having me around. I considered moving out a while ago, but she didn’t like that idea, and I really like living with my mom. Our relationship used to be very problematic, and we used to fight all the time, but now we get along really well and have a lot of fun together. Both of us stay up really late, and it’s pretty common that someone will be doing the dishes or something at 3am.
You’re from the West Coast, but did your graduate degree on the East Coast. Explain your California versus your New York.
California is home and it’s safe and comfortable and warm and pretty. I feel like I can’t speak too much about it, because I’m so familiar with it that it’s hard to be objective. I love New York. I love the subways and the intensity and the fact that there’s so much happening all the time. I love that you can walk super fast down the sidewalk and not make eye contact with or smile at anybody and that this is normal. If you walk that fast in California, people act like there’s something wrong with you.
I do, however, think that it’s an incredibly overrated city. Every time I go back there, I am enchanted with it less. It’s intense and there’s a lot going on, yes. But it’s also ridiculously expensive, it smells bad, it’s noisy, and everything is such a pain in the ass. Grocery shopping is a pain in the ass. Going to pick up a prescription: pain in the ass. Getting pizza. Going to work. Seeing a movie. It’s all so much harder there. Also, their Mexican food is terrible.
What are 3 things people don’t know about you?
I do a weird thing with my mouth when I’m thinking, or nervous. It’s kind of a cross as licking and pursing them. I wasn’t aware of this until my boyfriend pointed it out. I’m doing it right now as I type this.
I have a bunch of small physical abnormalities. I can bend my feet inward toward each other until they make a straight line. My left knee looks like it belongs to an entirely different person than my right. My middle fingers are extremely crooked, and both of my pinkies and one of my thumbs are double jointed. My eyes are two different colors, and I have considerable worse vision in one than the other.
The third thing is that I will only answer two out of three things when people ask me a three-part question. Describe your workspace.
I work at a desk. On top of it are some cheap speakers to plug into my laptop and a framed photo of my boyfriend at Joshua Tree, where he’s trying to look like Camus. There’s a bunch of stuff on my wall: purple Christmas lights, a ceramic deer head that I got at the Beckley Antique Mall for $6, a poster of Irish writers that my dad gave me, a drawing that I bought from Sam Pink for $8, and a bunch of other crap. It’s a cozy room.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting married in three months and then moving across the country. I’m going to miss my mother a lot. It really bothers me that they haven’t figured out how to teleport people yet.
For more about Juliet Escoria, visit www.julietescoria.com
Full Circle w/ Juliet Escoria (Interview 1 of 2)
Juliet Escoria’s 10 year decent into drug and alcohol addiction began when she was 15 years old and newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While other kids were splitting coolers and rolling their first joint, Escoria was mastering the art of drug amalgamation in her own private bedroom pharmacy. Pot and somas, champagne and ecstacy– it was all a case-study towards the right kind of numbness. Ketamine and alcohol were great together, and cocaine and meth proved interchangable. Opiates and benzos were fun to mix and match.
"At one point, I seriously thought I was a sociopath because I had no emotions,” the writer recalls. There were no emotions, but there was a sense of control.
At the ripe age 26, Escoria got sober. Given the weight of her usage, one could assume she’d spent her days at home in a housecoat patting a hypothetical pet cat, when she’d actually just graduated from university with a 3.8 GPA, and was looking into grad school. It took 7 years to complete her undergraduate degree, but the prospect of post-grad studies and startling results from a blood test caused her to shift away from over a decade of defining vices.
It’s been close to 2 years since Escoria completed her MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. She’s since moved from New York City back to her hometown in San Diego where she lives with her mother, teaches children at a hyper-Catholic boarding school, and works on her first book. Last June, Escoria began a blog Rapture Rapes The Muses as a means of documenting her process. It’s here where she speaks candidly about her history of drug abuse, current-day emotional flux (good, bad, and the neutral), and the clarity sobriety has brought to her life. Oh, and her writing. No, this is not Cat Marnell rebooted– Escoria isn’t going for shock-factor, nor sporatic streams-of-consciousness. Here we have the careful records of a writer who’s come full circle; a delivery of prose that weaves darker days into a more inclusive body of work. As a writer, she’s crisp; romantic without being sentimental. She’s a head you want to climb into and sit with for a while.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Juliet over Skype. You can find her writing in publications like Electric Literature, Black Book, The New Ohio Review, amongst others. In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, please enjoy the selection of bits from our conversation below:
How is life different now that you’re clean?
Oh, Jesus. I can’t even begin to describe how different my life is, and by different I mean better. Getting sober was, by far, the best thing I have ever done for myself. I’m still prone to cynicism, but I actually feel happiness most days. I used to think it was impossible for me to be happy, that it was impossible for any intelligent person to be happy because the world was a shitty place and life was shitty and there was no point to anything at all. Now I feel excited about life. I have passions. I have actual empathy and love for people. I’m generally on time for things, and if I say I’m going to do something, I generally do it.
I don’t like the term ‘miracles,’ so let’s just say these are wondrous, completely unexpected, and almost illogical changes for a person who used to be like me. Once I did an interview with Mike Doughty and he said something about how he preferred the term ‘grace.’ I liked that. Me staying sober is a total and complete act of grace.
Was it a particular “aha” moment that made you decide to change?
It was the intersection of two events: I was about to go to grad school, and I was scared shitless, considering how much of an effort it took me to get through undergrad. Also, I went to the doctor to get the tests you have to do biannually for Depakote. The ALT levels in my liver were at three times normal. I thought maybe I should try to quit drinking for a month to see if that was it.
What resources did you have to help?
I went to an AA meeting with a friend, who had been sober for around two years, because I knew AA helped if you wanted to quit drinking. I had a panic attack in that meeting, but I was smart enough to realize this was because I had realized I actually belonged there, in a tweve-step meeting – which is a horrible fucking realization. I probably should have gone to rehab, or at least detox, but I had no idea how physically addicted I was at the time (I got off the opiates and booze at the same time, which caused horrible withdrawal, and I took the Restoril for three more months, as prescribed, and kicked that separately. I have no idea what would have happened if I kicked all three at once).
Like a typical addict, I thought I had everything under control, until I had some sober time and realized I didn’t at all. I honestly don’t think I could have gotten sober when I did without the help of a couple of my friends, who were also in the program, and didn’t mind if I followed them around, which was a godsend considering I was incapable of making decisions for myself (this is, apparently, normal), let me watch movies at their house when I was afraid of being alone, and could explain to me about the God business. The God business really freaked me out. Also, I have to mention this: If you’re struggling with addiction and the God business of twelve-step programs, don’t let that freak you out. It isn’t a cult. Far from it. I know complete atheists who have made the program work for them. Give it a chance. If you don’t like it after thirty days, drugs and alcohol will always be waiting for you.
What was the charge you felt when you got your fix?
I’ve always felt things more deeply and intensely than most people. I’ve always been a little too sensitive to others’ moods/’energy’/’vibes’. I’m a total control freak. Drugs and alcohol temporarily deadened my feelings, and made me feel like I was in control. I’ve also always had some degree of self-hatred, due to feeling like I was ‘different’ and there was something terminally wrong with me, and drugs and alcohol made this no longer matter. Plus, I just like being really high.
How do you deal with bipolar these days?
I could write pages on the meds I’ve been on in my life; I haven’t been on all that many since I got sober. Well, I suppose that is only sort of true; I’ve been on six. I’m on a low dose of Seroquel and an average dose of Lamictal now. Seems to be working… so far. Nothing really major in terms of side effects – just dizzy spells and an ability (which is not a need, mind you) to sleep for twelve hours at a time.
In sobriety, what are your vices?
Coffee. Cigarettes (Oh, fuck, do I love / hate my cigarettes. My addiction to them is completely pathetic. I am totally powerless, and my addiction feels totally unmanageable.) Unconventional romantic entanglements. Sleep. Work. Writing. Compulsive book & make-up buying. Kombucha. (I’ve recently discovered Kava, and I love it.) I’d like to get into gambling, but every time I try, I just feel like I am throwing away money. I would also like to get into working out, but working out is boring and makes me feel like a housewife.
Is it difficult to maintain balance without exercising the quick relief you went to for so many years?
I don’t know what balance is. My belief about addicts is this: We are obsessive people, as well as emotional escape artists. We will most likely always be this way. You cannot eliminate this obsessive streak, although you can lessen it and invest it into less harmful vices. And, like the twelve-step programs say, you do have that option of a daily reprieve – but that means you have to work on your addiction daily.
By the way, I think the 11th tradition is totally misinterpreted. I hate having to say I am in a ‘twelve-step program,’ when I am in AA and I mostly totally love AA (although sometimes I hate it). I don’t work a perfect program, and am certainly not a model for how AA should be done. But I try, and I try hard, and it has worked wonders for me. However, it is certainly not for everybody.
Why do you write?
It’s something that I’ve always done. I started writing poetry when I was little– you know, that angst-ridden horrible stuff that people seem to write. And it’s something that helps me sort out my thoughts… and I’m not as good at talking as I am when I’m writing. And I think I get kind of fixated on things and I think I definitely have an obsessive streak…and that it helps me get that stuff out by writing it down.
What can you tell us about the novel you’re working on?
I’m hoping to have a first draft finished by June because that’s when i’ll have been in San Diego for a year. It’s fiction, but it’s based heavily on my life. I don’t know how much it’s going to divert from real life, but it will to some extent because fiction is sometimes more truthful than nonfiction. Also, I feel I don’t remember enough to weave together a complete story.
How is fiction more truthful?
You can create events that are more meaningful than just reporting the straight story, and I also feel like you can use it to get into the heads of people who aren’t you. There’s something kind of magical about that. It also seems kind of mysterious because you don’t know where the story is going, and in nonfiction you might not know where the story is going but you essentially know where the story is going to end up. In fiction, you end up creating this world that’s in your head but you don’t always have complete control over it and it does what it wants. I feel like when you write something you didn’t initially intend to write, you discover something about a character that you didn’t mean to discover… that’s when writing is really the most rewarding… for me at least.
What advice can you give to writers and aspiring writers?
Just start writing. Everyday. Realize that what you have in the beginning doesn’t have to be there at the end. When I first started grad school, my stories tended to have what my teachers called “writing into the story”, and so I would write 3 pages or a paragraph setting myself up for the story. There was a lot of exposition but not enough action. Being unafraid to put words down and knowing that they aren’t necessarily the final draft, and knowing that writing is a process where you may end up cutting a lot of what you originally wrote. It’s not a waste because you figured things out while you were on a path…
Photo Credit thanks to Katelan V. Foisy