Juliet Escoria has always played with how to expose the truth of a sometimes harrowing lived experience through a balance between self exposure and protection. In her debut novel, Juliet the Maniac, she blurs the lines of fiction and memoir through the terrifying telling of the disintegration of her protagonist, Juliet, who is not the “real” Juliet. It is a sometimes excruciating, but always powerful, read.
Juliet the author, not Juliet the character, recently re-released two of her early titles in one gorgeous volume, Witch Hunt & Black Cloud: New & Collected Works. In this re-release of her early collections, sometimes you are witnessing a tragedy, and sometimes you are brought into a game. Through fiction and poems that span a life (so far), this work gives readers a rare insight into the evolution of an artist. The contents are gritty and tender and painful, mundane and spiritual. Some version of Juliet feels “shaky and split open” through this process, and so do her readers. It is a gift to have the work in print again.
I was able to speak to Juliet about the co-mingling of some of her identities, including those of maniac, former addict, and writer, across time and context.
Sam Heaps: I want to start by asking you about one of your poems from Witch Hunt, “Paragard.”
The IUD will stay for ten years,
a length of time I cannot fathom
because the person I occupied
a decade ago
is someone I do not know,
someone I cannot understand,
someone who now makes me
I was really compelled by this image of the unchanging IUD surrounded by the constantly transforming body and self—and this real disgust for that past self who experienced the insertion. Throughout both of these collections there are prefaces that reference the Juliet who wrote these books as a separate woman from the one you are now. I just wanted to start by asking, how does this re-release feel, and what is your current relationship to the person who wrote them?
Juliet Escoria: I think that’s one thing I was both expecting and surprised by. Someone who was me wrote these books, and now I’m able to view them in a different way, which is strange.
This division of self happens a lot in writing in general, especially with the things I’m interested in writing about—which is primarily rooted in myself. Seeing the splintering that happens is cool. And that’s true for everyone, but when you have something that’s as concrete as a book, you can see, “Oh, that’s what I was thinking about and obsessed with and interested in and what I wanted my writing to be like.”
There are certain affectations that I see in my work, especially Black Cloud. Witch Hunt I feel is more fully crystallized, but Black Cloud is me still trying to figure out who I am as a writer. And, I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in that, but it’s more like, “Oh, I was still figuring myself out with that one.” Looking at the stories—most of which I think are still pretty good, if that’s not vain to say that—some of them I cringe at certain lines, but I still feel a strange sense of pride that I don’t yet allow myself to feel about my new collection [You Are the Snake]. It’s like, “Oh, good for her.” (Laughs.)
You do talk in the collection about the order that the books are written in, and Black Cloud was the first, and it’s the first one I read too. There was so much in it that I related to but, said without any condescension, it does sometimes feel younger than Witch Hunt.
Yes, it’s a young person’s book. Or that’s how it feels to me, as a middle-aged woman now.
This is something I’ve had to think about a lot with Juliet the Maniac and having a character named Juliet Escoria. My name is not Juliet Escoria; I write under that name. Juliet Escoria’s birthday is mine, but she’s one year younger than me. I feel this paper-doll-mirror-effect of this idea of self.
I think that effect is created in the act of writing a book, but it’s also created in the act of living. We’re all slightly different versions of ourselves, and we’re bouncing off the various things that we’ve lived through and experienced and thought about. I think that’s one reason I’m interested in reading other people’s work that’s based in themselves, and writing it too. It’s about identity and memory and all of these things.
The “paper-doll-mirror-effect”—you’re not flattering this image of yourself though. You’re talking about UTI’s, Seroquel, the sliminess that comes with addiction, the pain of toxic relationships . . . How do you decide how you’re going to portray this “doll” of Juliet?
Black Cloud is very much a curated image of myself and it’s a little flat. In the other books I wanted to be vulnerable and not “cool.” Every book that’s come out since Black Cloud has been more purposeful with, “I don’t want to do this hard-edged version of myself.” I don’t want it to just have this one dimension.
But I’ve always wanted to write whatever story I want to tell right now. I want to write about the stories I tell about myself. Everybody has this backpack of stories we tell our friends or people at parties, and I think that’s a big part of how we make our identities. That’s what I’m interested in writing.
Yeah, I want to come back to friendship in particular. There’s a section of this book that is just a series of odes to writers, which was one of my favorites. But I agree with you that there is this cool “sheen” in Black Cloud, and maybe part of that has to do with youth, but a lot of it is how we talk about pain and mental illness—and do we make it too beautiful sometimes? I really love this book, but Black Cloud makes these topics beautiful in a way Witch Hunt doesn’t always. I was really interested in your ability to minimize some pains, and sometimes your own pain—but simultaneously take that minimized pain very seriously? You do both at once. For example, in the poem “Teen Angst” from Witch Hunt about someone (a Juliet?) who is in a mental hospital after attempting suicide.
My roommate was a girl named Charlie,
the best cutter I ever met,
scars on her thighs thick as ropes.
She said it went so deep she nearly bled
to death but that she never
intended to die.
Tiny windows in our room scratched-up
shatterproof glass. Through them
we watched the fireworks from Sea World.
As someone who has also been inpatient for mental illness I was very drawn to its brutality, and its softness which felt so real. It’s obviously not about trivial “angst” but real pain and connection.
I think some of these choices have to do with my upbringing, or myself as a teenager. Like I had nice parents I grew up in a nice neighborhood—there wasn’t really anything wrong there. I wasn’t abused or anything. So what was my problem?
There is this human instinct to rank pain or rank trauma, but you can be a nice middle class girl with nice parents who is going through just otherworldly pain—I cannot believe sometimes the shit that I went through as a teenager. I made it out alive, from that?! On the other hand, I had a nice life, I have a nice life now. Is that something we’re allowed to feel? Is that something we’re allowed to acknowledge?
I went to a continuation school for a bit and one of our classes was group therapy. I started to realize that there are people who live and exist right beside me, and they have objectively so much more that they’re dealing with. But for me it’s just mental illness, apparently. I started to feel like, “I’m just broken, I guess.” That feeling, of just being broken and wondering why, is in these books, and I cover it a lot in Juliet the Maniac too, just wondering, “What the fuck is wrong with me?”
Everybody suffers, it’s just our methods of suffering look different.
You capture the suffering so well. This “brokeness”—there are a lot of self-loathing conversations in here, and then a lot of places where you desire goodness, I’m thinking “Grunion Run” when you’re saying this is a “good man” and I’ll be “good.” I guess I want to ask if you still feel broken, but we all feel broken.
I think you’re getting at something I’ve struggled with and it’s rooted in addiction. I was just a nerdy kid who wanted good grades, and then all of a sudden I sort of broke, and then I got into drugs, and then I was like, “Okay I’ll be bad now and I’ll steal and lie and be a degenerate, and that’s who I am now.” And through recovery I’ve been able to get back to that nerdy kid I was.
I think a lot of my perfectionism came out in my addiction and also comes out in my writing, of just wanting to be good at everything. It’s a personality flaw but it’s also something that serves me. I used to lean into being a shitty person because I couldn’t exist at the standards I wanted to.
Now I try to be good. I try to do good. But I still have this nastiness in me and a grumpiness and they both exist and that’s something I’ve been able to appreciate as I’ve worked through my recovery and therapy. I can be both things, it’s fine.
I also think there’s so many overlaps of mental illness and addiction and writing. They all feed into each other. For me, they’re all the same thing.
Scott [McClanahan] and I have been watching Intervention. That TV show likes to place a defining reason that person became an addict. And I think there’s this human tendency of wanting to separate things. Is this bipolar? Or, sometimes, lately, I’ve been like, “Do I have ADHD? Do I have OCD?” But it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to separate the strands. I can’t separate the writer from the mentally-ill person. I think a lot of the things that don’t serve me as a writer and a person is this obsessive tendency, this need to get things right, and it’s something I have to fight against. But that instinct also makes me want to write, and it makes me want to write well and do stuff I don’t know how to do.
The odes were really fun for this reason. They’re more formal in terms of meter and I just wanted to see if I could do this. Can I write odes about my friends that have this formality to them? Especially because with Witch Hunt—that’s exactly the opposite of what I was doing. I was trying to be extremely informal and fuck with the idea of what poetry is.
The odes were the part that I connected with the most. There were times reading them when I cried. Actually, I cried a few times—often—because there was so much love in this book. Obviously, these odes but also Scott’s presence, but maybe also there was a lot of love for yourself? Juxtaposed with so much contempt? But with these odes in particular, I was really struck so much by their tenderness.
With the odes . . . I have this joke thought of, “Why do we have anniversaries and Valentine’s Day but no Friend’s Day?” I think my friendships are one of the highlights of my life. I was reading a Robert Lowell poetry book and there were odes in it for some other writers, and I was like, I want to write odes for my friends who are writers.
They’re in the order that I wrote them. They were really fun to write, and I wanted to see how many I could do before getting the manuscript back to Leza at CLASH—so I wrote nine.
They’re recent then?
They’re recent and were written within a few months.
This might be a projection—but there are times in the odes or when you’re talking about yourself in your books—where you say like, “A girl like you,” or where you reference this image of a mentally ill Tumblr-era “girl” writer—that you complicate or tear down the simplicity of the image and the misogyny of it. . . . Do you mind if we talk about misandry?
I know it’s not right, but I think misandry is funny. (Laughter.)
I don’t think it’s cool to hate a gender, but it’s funny to me. If I were to make blanket statements about men, I would say, “Men are dumb.” I can come up with reasons why I think misandry is funny, but when it comes down to it, it’s just funny to me. I could place an intelligent analysis on there, but I like the dumb answer more, of, “I just think it’s funny.”
That’s such a playful answer that I really like? It reminds me of your writing about horses—I don’t think it’s necessary to over-intellectualize that.
I don’t actually hate horses. They do scare me. And when I was growing up we did live briefly in Arizona and there were a lot of horse girls and I didn’t understand them. But I don’t hate horses. It just seemed funny to me to hate something as neutral as a horse.
There are lots of parts of this book that are funny. Especially Witch Hunt.
That’s the book where I look at it and I think, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I wrote that,” in terms of how obnoxious it is in certain places. I think, “Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t have the instinct to tone it down.” I think of it as my joke book. There’s a lot of stuff in that book that’s really fucked up, and of course the “Letters to Ex-Lovers” is not funny, but generally speaking I think it’s a joke book. It’s not a joke—
—but I think it’s got a lot of jokes in there.
Do you think your new collection has that same sense of humor?
There’s some stuff that I think is funny and that is funny in the same way of being obnoxious—but it’s also leaning more towards a vulnerability and a softness. I don’t know about “trying to be more mature,” but maybe embracing the maturity that comes with getting married and having stepkids and enjoying my life. It’s like, “Wow, I’m a functional adult. This is a cool and unexpected turn of events.” I wanted to allow for that, as opposed to picking at the scabs of “I used to do a lot of drugs.”
How quickly did you write Witch Hunt?
Mostly very quick, over five months in the laundry room of our old condo. I hated that place and was so glad when we moved. The laundry room was very moldy, like there was mold along the walls. And I would eat a Reese’s candy bar and drink a Red Bull and then write poetry every day. And I thought that combination was essential.
I feel that pairing’s spiritual presence here, for sure.
The presence of sugar?
Sugar and caffeine, and maybe youth. Maybe there’s a lot of youthful energy in this too.
Yeah. And that’s what was so fun about writing this too. It was, “Let’s have fun. Let’s write some poems and not really think about what I’m doing.” Whatever I felt like that day is what went into the poems. I would write like five in a couple of hours, and revise them later. I was calculated in my being uncalculated, again.
How do you usually write? Bursts? Always with a special spiritual diet?
Yes, I’m a burst writer, which is frustrating because Scott is slow and steady. He writes literally every day, except for when we have the kids. And he writes for at least two hours. It’s really frustrating because when I’ve tried to make myself more structured it doesn’t go well. I feel sometimes like I’m a lazy writer because I don’t write every day, but I’m a burst person, and I’ve had to be okay with that. But it gets very . . . I want to do this for five hours a day, I want to do this for eight hours a day. It gets very insane feeling.
Scott came up, and I was interested—we don’t need to spend too much time on him, but he is all over the book. The introductions, the dedication. You talked a little about being jealous of having different workstyles. You talked too about you two maybe feeding from each other, or creating with each other, is it in “True Romance”?
Which I thought was so beautiful. I’ll try to be succinct. What is it like being in a relationship with another artist?
Generally good, but of course there’s more complications than that. When we first started dating I hadn’t really published anything, and I was so self-conscious of being known as “Scott McClanahan’s girlfriend” that I didn’t want anyone to know that we were dating. Which was weird and insecure of me, but that’s where I was.
But now, I write for him—I mean, I think I write for myself more than anyone—but he’s the person I show my work to first. And, there will be certain lines that I know he’s going to tell me to take out but I leave them in there anyways. And it is weird, because we work at the same college, we have the same job, and we both write, and it’s very much twin lives. That means our relationship has so many different dimensions, which I feel lucky for, but there’s obviously going to be some jealousy that comes up at some point. I don’t think that’s the dominant thread of our relationship as writers, but there are some times when it’s like—Ooh you’re getting all the attention and I’m not. I also think I have some uppity feminist shit that comes up that’s like, “Well, it’s because I’m a woman,” and I think there’s some truth to that—
Definitely some truth to that.
Yeah. But I do think our writing has become more similar over time. Just borrowing from each other, borrowing interests from each other. I like that neither one of us are territorial about subject matter. Scott has this bit in his book that covers the same event as in one of my short stories from my new collection.
When Scott and I first got married, my stepdaughter did not like me. She’s kind of a cat-like person, where she takes a while to warm up to you. And I was trying to get her to like me, so I bought her some Play Doh and we were playing with the Play Doh and I was like, “Yes, we’re bonding!” And I was humming, and she smacked me in the mouth. It’s in the story and it’s in his book called Fights!, which is about fights.
I think that’s kind of cool to be able to see the same event from two perspectives.
Before we end I also wanted to touch a little bit on the recurring theme of beauty here.
Beauty was something really present in Witch Hunt, and me thinking about how stupid it is to obsess over relatively small things. I had acne throughout the course of my life that would come and go. In 2017, I finally went on Accutane and it went away, but at the time I was writing Witch Hunt, my acne was horrible. Actually, it wasn’t that horrible, but I was completely obsessed with it. I was just thinking about how obsessed I was with my skin and how stupid it was to be obsessed with my skin and also thinking, “I’m in my thirties now. I’m not a hot girl who is twenty-two or whatever.”
Every age you have to grapple with something. I’m now forty-one, so I have to grapple with that. I’m in a different phase now and there are good things about that, and bad things about that—and all the shit that is placed on women and appearance. The idea of wanting to be smart but also wanting to be pretty . . . and those are treated as separate desires.
I think there’s lots of great conversations happening around that right now, but it certainly isn’t resolved. I always thought I would age gracefully and instead I’m aging so resentfully. It’s the most miserable experience and it feels so silly—but do you really think it’s silly?
Acne is so strange. Objectively, it’s so small, but it does hurt, and it does leave scars. But what I was interested in with the poetry is that with acne, there’s this idea that you’re gross if you have it: you’re eating improperly, or you’re not washing yourself, or your hormones are off—so there’s this internal part that seems manifested in the external. And it relates to my obsession with, “Am I a bad person? Am I a piece of shit? I have to make everybody realize that I’m not a piece of shit.” It felt like the same thing. Something internal that is releasing itself through my pores.
Yeah, it feels like a morality judgment. Which of course leads me back to Witch Hunt, the titular poem, and this feeling of being bad and wanting to be understood as bad. There’s this witchcraft and evilness . . . but that also leads to recurring themes of magic and beauty. And I love that binary. Do you want to talk about any of that at all?
The idea of magic is something I consciously made a choice of when I got sober. In my daily life, I try to see beautiful things and decide to not see an indifferent world, but instead choose to see that there’s something that cares about me. And that is a choice. It’s not an easy thing to believe, it’s faith-based, but it’s how I’m able to make it through my life without killing myself.
Are you working on anything now you want to talk about?
I’m not working on anything now because book publication is stressful and time-consuming, which I feel resentful about, because I was excited about the project I was working on. But I feel like I can’t be mad because this is what I wanted—to publish You Are the Snake and to republish this collection.
But I’m looking forward to getting back to my new book, which I think is going to be nonfiction. It’s not about myself for once. It’s more about the outside world, which I think is exciting and also scary. It’s about my hometown where I spent the biggest chunk of my life—Del Mar, California—and it’s the history of it, based on some murders that happened on the beach, but also other weird shit like a man who dug a cave into some sandstone and just lived there.
For how long?!
He carved out this cave and it got more and more elaborate—there was a bunk bed and multiple rooms—and I think he lived there for like a decade before they filled it in.
I cannot wait to read it. I enjoyed reading these collections so much. There was so much I related to, so sometimes it was hard, but deeply pleasurable, too, for that reason.
I think that’s my favorite reading experience. And I felt that with Proximity too! Just, “This is AWFUL, and I love it.”
(Laughs.) I’m so glad we could do that for each other. As a final question, what are you hoping that people get out of this re-release?
I would like people who haven’t read it to read it. That’s my main goal. You want people to read your work. I feel proud of these books. I want people to read them.
Sam Heaps lives in Philadelphia. Their debut essay collection, PROXIMITY, was released from CLASH Books in 2023. They are a 2022 Tin House Scholar and a VCCA Fellow, and you can find their work in TBQ, Write or Die, and Rejection Letters. They currently teach writing at the University of the Arts. Reach out at samheaps.me.
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