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JULIET, MY MANIAC: ELIZABETH ELLEN INTERVIEWS JULIET ESCORIA (AGAIN!) photo

A year ago I wrote my own boarding school memoir/novel but it wasn’t very good.* Juliet’s is much better. Mine wasn’t about ‘going crazy’ or trying to kill myself or doing drugs or having sex with boys or kissing girls. Which is all infinitely interesting and all of which you’ll find in Juliet the Maniac. Mine was about being a chubby geek with zero social skills and zero experiences with sex or drugs, all while wearing braces. Which is kinda/very boring. I just kind of eat a lot of moon pies and vending machine sandwich cookies in mine. Not even Oreos. But the lesser kind. The not Oreos. I don’t think Juliet (the Maniac) ever even eats. She’s too busy being complex and having complex thoughts and talking to cool boys who aren’t as complex as her. That’s why Juliet Escoria has this pretty pale pink book on my desk and I have a zillion boring Word docs on my computer desktop. So read Juliet’s new novel Juliet the Maniac. which is way cool and has section headers like GAY SEX and HAUNTED and THE BITCH and photographs of secret teen notes and copies of psychiatric health documents and a cool blurb from cool, new guy Nico Walker.**

-e.e.

*my agent literally told me she was exhausted of reading it (and I empathized).

** I, of course, realize this intro - and some of the subsequent questions - makes me sound like a narcissist and an asshole, both of which, I admit, I am, but neither of which should detract from how much I LOVE JULIET THE MANIAC, how much I LOVE JULIET ESCORIA, nor how much I appreicate her putting up with my narcissim and assholeness. Thank you, Juliet. 

Recently, I agreed to interview this male writer for Hobart after he asked me multiple times for an interview, but he refused to answer my first question, which I thought was a very interesting, unique, somewhat droll question. Then he had the audacity to tell me what to ask him instead. Naturally, I never replied. Why are people such assholes right now, Julia? And are you going to refuse to answer this question and then tell me what to ask you instead?

I blame it all on the internet. I was listening to the radio or a podcast or something, and they were talking about how fake news isn’t a new thing, and gave examples of the yellow journalism of the 1800s and political pamphlets, but like… if you wanted to make a newspaper or a pamphlet, you had to go to the trouble of printing them, which was neither cheap nor easy. Now, all we have to do is get on a device, and then we can broadcast our stupid opinions to everyone we know. It turns us all into assholes.

But maybe this guy would have done the same thing face-to-face. Maybe he’s just a singular asshole and this interaction says more about him than the world. I want to know who the guy was, and what the question was.

 

What would be an example of something in Juliet the Maniac being fiction? when we were at Marshall, one of the students, having just been assigned (my novel) Person/a, asked me where in Mexico I went (because in the novel the narrator goes to Mexico). “Oh,” I said. “Person/a is a novel. I never went to Mexico.” I think if people recognize three generalities from your life in your novel, they assume everything in the novel is equally true. It’s a fair assumption, though a wrong one.

I never shot a bird.

Publishing this book has taught me how easily people are fooled. You create some fake documents, scan them, and put them in a Word document, and suddenly people are deciding that even though the book says it’s a novel, it’s not actually a novel, it’s nonfiction. Very strange.

 

You told me, recently, that you’ve never read Girl, Interrupted, and I was astonished, both because it’s a book I thought all of my female writer friends obsessed over (okay, maybe just Chloe and me), but also because she includes documents from her breakdown/hospitalization/doctors, and you also include documents like that in Juliet the Maniac. What books were you inspired by? Are you a fan of Elizabeth Wurtzel? More, Now, Again  (another obsession-worthy book, imo)? Are you influenced by your husband, Scott McClanahan and his writing, like in The Sarah Book? What about Harriet the Spy?

I think maybe I didn’t read it because I assumed I’d be disappointed in it, the way I was with Prozac Nation. I don’t know. It seems strange that I haven’t read it, now that you’re forcing me to think about it. Guess I’ll have to read it now. I read Bitch when I was a teen. I liked carrying a book around that said a bad word in big red letters on the cover, but I found the book itself pretty boring.

I love novels, more than any narrative art form (possible more than any art form, period? Hard to compare it with music though) but I don’t know if I am inspired by them, or at least inspired by them on a regular basis. I get that feeling from certain poetry, though, and also by movies. We read William Blake in my class a few weeks ago, and it made me want to write. We watched Under the Silver Lake last night, and it made me want to write.

 

If you’d asked me for a blurb instead of cool guy Nico Walker, my blurb would have been: “I love when Juliet the Maniac is a mean girl cuz she reminds me of a kitten trying to hiss for the first time.” But you probably didn’t feel like a kitten at the time. What did you feel like? Was it better to be the mean girl or the girl facing a mean girl? Be honest.

I felt fucking horrible! So horrible that I wrote a book about how horrible I felt!

It seems obviously better to be the mean girl, because then you are the one with the sense of agency, the person doing the thing to someone else. Powerlessness is such a shitty feeling.

But my experience with being a mean girl was not fun. It felt super precarious, because it was.

The one scene in the book, on the first day of school, where Juliet is mean to her old childhood friend? Apparently that actually happened. I don’t remember it, but my BFF Alana told me about it, that I had done this to her, and I couldn’t believe I’d been such a catty bitch. (We were good friends as little kids, then lost touch for several years, and have now been consistently very close since we were about twenty or so.) I put that scene in the book to punish myself.

 

Have you given any thought to who you’d want to play you in the movie version of Juliet the Maniac? Like, if Winona Ryder was young enough, and hadn’t already been in Girl, Interrupted, would you want her? I found the first page of a play I wrote in, like, the early 90s and next to the one character’s name (okay, the one based on me) it says, “Winona Ryder type.” That was a thing for a very long time. Everyone wanted to be a "Winona Ryder type," I think. Did you? (Just last weekend Winona’s name came up and my mom said, a little under breath, “Didn’t she go a little crazy, though?” and I was shocked. I said, “Mom, I thought you liked crazy women. You made me watch Frances,* like, a zillion times!” By the way, have you watched Frances yet?)

No, I like Winona, and thought she was cool as fuck in the ‘90s, but I always had more of a thing for Christina Ricci. Big forehead, big eyes, and big tits – a true winning combination.

When I fantasize about my book being made into a movie, I think more about directors than actors. I want Josephine Decker or Andrea Arnold to direct the movie version of my book. I’m sure they’d both do a great job at casting. Feel like newcomers are often more interesting than famous actors. Like in American Honey – the lead girl is amazing in that role.

*1980s movie starring Jessica Lange as 1930s actress Frances Farmer who was institutionalized for either being rebellious and a badass and an alcoholic or mentally ill or both/all of the above

 

You have a lyric from Marilyn Manson as an epigraph for your book. Why does everyone (and by everyone I mean you and Elle Nash) love Marilyn Manson so much? Where is the love for Trent Reznor? Did you think Manson was hot? Or, did you just like his music? What about NIN? What about TRENT, Julia? When will I see a NIN lyric used as an epigraph in a literary novel?? Did you consider using one but the M.M. one won out?  You know, Trent’s dog fell from a music venue’s balcony in Columbus and died. I didn’t know if you knew that.

This is funny to me, because the Marilyn Manson quote was a pretty arbitrary choice… I wanted a ‘90s song lyric as an epigraph, as a sort of counterbalance to the Rousseau quote (the Rousseau seems pretentious on its own), so I came up with a list of possible lyrics. I picked the Manson quote because it seemed fitting, to both the structure of the book and its themes, and also Marilyn Manson has always seemed… like sort of jokey to me? NIN has a seriousness to it, and I wanted something that wasn’t serious.

Trent, and NIN, are way cooler and better. Also Trent is fucking hot.

I just opened the Word doc that had the song lyrics. Here were some others:

Fiona Apple: I'm gonna make a mistake / I'm gonna do it on purpose /And when the day is done, and I look back / And the fact is I had fun, fumbling around

NIN: there is a game I play / try to make myself okay / try so hard to make the pieces all fit / smash it apart / just for the fuck of it

Metallica: Now see the black cloud up ahead / That’s me / And this poison ivy chokes the tree / Again it’s me (I liked the idea of this one, because of Black Cloud, and because my first “successful” poem was written at age 8, and was about ivy choking a tree lol. The quote itself is pretty dumb.)

Eminem: And everytime you think you gotten past it / it's gonna come back around and tackle you to the damn ground

blink-182: mistakes are hard to undo

 

I love your take on virginity, on Juliet the Maniac’s losing it. you say, “My first credit card had way more of an impact on my life than losing my virginity.” And this is after a meta sentence or two in which you contemplate “how the fictionalized version of myself should lose her virginity.”

I know. who frickin’ cares? It’s such an old-fashioned, sexist way of looking at female sexuality. I still have (very ‘liberal,’ self-described ‘woke’) friends who champion their teen sons getting laid any way possible but say of their teen daughters, “As long as she’s in a loving relationship.” What bullshit. What hypocrisy.

 I love that Juliet the Maniac had stronger feelings for her first credit card than her first fuck. Do you think we’ll ever, as a society, get over the idea of female virginity being something ‘special’? Or the idea that girls should be in loving relationships to have sex?

We should treat virginity as special, because there’s so many potential consequences, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Maybe? But then I start to disagree with myself, when thinking about acts like fingerbanging and dry humping, and while the consequences are less severe, there isn’t really that much of a difference. I do feel like oral sex should be viewed as what it is, which is more intimate than intercourse, even though you can’t get pregnant from oral.

When I was a teen, I’d been under the impression that losing one’s virginity was a clear demarcating line, that there would be a before and an after, and that there would be something inherently different about me once I’d lost mine. Which is so dumb!! I also felt like society was telling me, “Don’t do this, only lose your virginity thoughtfully, it’s dangerous,” and I’ve always been contrary, and at that part in my life I was drawn to things that seemed dangerous, so of course I wanted to lose my virginity as soon and as recklessly as possible. These seem like such stupid motivations. Teenagers are weird.

 

In one of my favorite scenes in Juliet the Maniac, Juliet and her friends go to a big teen party at the house where the Heaven’s Gate ‘cult’ people committed suicide in their bunk beds with their Nikes and blankets two years earlier. Did you actually go to that house ‘irl’? did you see the bunk beds or was that part fictionalized? Do you think it’d be cool to ride to Heaven on a comet? Did you think so when you were a teenager at that party? do you think we would have paid as much attention to the Heaven’s Gate suicides if not for the Nikes? I mean, the Nikes pretty much made it, right?

The Heaven’s Gate house was owned by the family of a girl I went to high school with. They had a party at the house after the suicides, and I went to it. My parents dropped me off, which I was extremely embarrassed about. They didn’t usually let me go to parties, but they let me go to that one, for some reason. When I got inside the house, I was really disappointed, because it didn’t feel scary like I wanted it to. They didn’t let us go into the bedrooms where the people had died, but I peeked in the windows. At the party, I saw two of my nemeses/friends, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and they were nice to me, which I found surprising.

That is the factual basis of that scene. Everything else is made up.

I love just about everything about that cult – the Nikes, the purple blankets, the website, how crazy Marshall Applewhite’s eyes look – just the whole aesthetic, in general. The Nikes helped, but I think people would have paid attention to them even if they didn’t have matching shoes.

 

Here is a picture of me from almost exactly ten years ago, when I dressed up as a Heaven’s Gate member for a themed party. Not pictured is my purple shroud, the $5 bill and three quarters in my pocket, or my shoes (I didn’t have black Nikes so I safety-pinned a paper Swoosh logo to black shoes). I was twelve days sober; I still had that nice alcoholic bloat.

 

It’s funny that it still seems OK to say you “love just about everything” about a suicide cult. What’s wrong with me?!!

           

Another of my favorite parts of Juliet the Maniac is when you describe the teens at her boarding school for troubled kids 'dipping.' Using chewing tobacco. Both girls and boys. Because at my small town Ohio high school, some of the guys dipped, obviously, but also this girl, Joby, dipped. And Joby was gorgeous. My secret crush. Well, both she and her football player, blond boyfriend, Steve, were my secret crushes. And they both dipped. I thought it was totally hot. Did you actually dip as a teen, Julia? Have you dipped since? (Also, I just really like using that word, dipped.) Did you find it totally sexy when I hot guy dipped?

Yes, that part is true, too—it was hard to smoke at the boarding school, so we all dipped. I stopped immediately after leaving the school. I have done it since, but just for novelty’s sake when someone had some. IMO, it’s a subpar method of nicotine delivery. It sticks in your teeth, and it’s disgusting, overall. You look like you have a big wadded up thing of mush in your mouth, because you do, and then you spit out nasty brown juice. When I was in the boarding school, Sobe drinks were really popular, and we’d spit in the Sobe bottles and hide them under our beds and they were so fucking disgusting—an entire Sobe bottle filled with brown spit. Nicorette gum and smoking and e-cigs are just so much better. So no, I don’t find it sexy. Sorry.

 

Here’s a very simple, straightforward question, what’s a rockabilly girl? There’s a teen girl you describe as such in the book and I didn’t really know what that meant? Like, Stevie Nicks?

LOL, no. Maybe it’s a Southern California thing, or a late ‘90s/early ‘00s thing. I had no idea that rockabilly girl was an obscure reference.

Gwen Stefani in the ‘90s was rockabilly. It’s a Betty Page look, or a Traci Lords in Cry-Baby look. Cry-Baby is a rockabilly movie. Sort of punk/goth but with a heavy ‘50s influence. In my mind, that character had Betty Page bangs, Creepers, wore a lot of skulls and studs and red lipstick, and loved The Cramps.

For a while, when I was maybe 20, 21, I tried to be rockabilly, but the music is horrible. (I like The Cramps, though.)

 

Who are some male writers you’ve read in the last year? Can we still read male writers? I ask because I am undercover (like Gloria Steinem in the Playboy Club) in two all-female book clubs, presently, and one explicitly has a rule against reading straight, white, male writers and the other one simply hasn’t, and I’m not sure, yet, if it’s intentional or coincidental. Richard Powers just won the Pulitzer for his novel about trees. Guess we won’t be reading that in either book club, though. Even if everyone can agree that trees are good. We all like trees.

That whole thing makes me roll my eyes, for a few different reasons. The two biggest: 1) If you need somebody (Twitter, a literary journal, a book club, etc.) to tell you to read plenty of books by people who aren’t straight white males, then you need to do a lot deeper soul searching about your inherent racism/misogyny/homophobia than simply by changing up your reading list, 2) It’s so laughable that what makes a person an insider or “privileged” is based solely on these three characteristics. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia are real issues that need to be addressed, in the world in general and in publishing, but it’s way more complicated than that.  If you think these are the only ways a person can be privileged, then you need to check your privilege!!!! But I guess it’s a lot snappier to say “My book club doesn’t read straight white males” than “My book club places an emphasis on reading authors from diverse and historically disenfranchised backgrounds.”

I’d like to pit one of your book club members against one of my straight, white, male students and see who has experienced more privilege in their lives—a bougie Ann Arbor woman, or a straight white male from some weird rural town in West Virginia who is the first in their family to get any sort of higher education, who is visibly a former drug addict, vet with PTSD, and/or ex-con. (I don’t want to encourage negative Appalachian stereotypes, though—most of my straight white male students don’t fit this profile. Plenty of straight white male community college students in southern West Virginia are indeed privileged.) You should suggest that your book club read Elie Wiesel and see what happens.

I really liked Brad Phillip’s book. Have you read it? You’d like it. I also like Joseph Grantham and Bud Smith and Scott McClanahan and Noah Cicero and Jordan Castro and S*m P*nk and yes, Nico Walker. If you look at the backgrounds of these authors, it starts to become clear how much more complicated things are than simply race, gender, and sexual orientation.

I guess deciding that your book club should exclude books by straight white males is kind of like going on a missionary trip: sweet but misguided, and benefitting you more than the population you’re supposedly helping. I probably shouldn’t be so hard against this type of thinking; at least people who think this way are trying to be better, which is an admirable trait.

 

Related, the larger book club I've infiltrated just finished reading Educated by Tara Westover and at the end of every meeting we close our eyes and hold up zero to five fingers, as a way of rating the book. Educated got almost all 5s, a few 4s, and the 4s were explained mostly as such: “I took off a point because as much as I enjoyed/loved the book, by the end, I didn’t know what the book was about or what I was supposed to take away from it, what the point was.”

I sat quietly, judging, these women. Haha. Noooooo, but I did think about that later, like, why they felt they needed or wanted something more than Tara gave them, because, to me, she gave us a lot. So much. And does it need to be more than just her experience, her story? When you were writing Juliet the Maniac, did you think of it having an overall point? Or the novel being about something other than (loosely based on) your experience?

I really don’t like that about people, that they watch movies or read books and want to get some sort of cohesive, thesis-statement-like message from them. It seems insulting to both the artist and the audience. But like, this is very real. People do indeed want a spoon-fed “message.” You can see evidence of this on any Goodreads page or movie review site, or in any English classroom, or even in reviews written by professional critics.

No, I really didn’t want it to have an overall point. It’s so easy to get didactic when discussing mental health treatment, especially in the ‘90s, especially in relationship to teen girls. I purposely stayed away from having a point. The thing that I used as my sort of guide was what it felt like to be a teen girl who expects a lot from life and is suddenly held hostage by her brain. When deciding what to include, and what not to include, and how, exactly, to write it, my main concern was getting across how it felt. I figured if I did this completely and honestly, then people could get their own message about mental health care, gender, class, etc. I’m sure a lot of people who read my book are going to end up disappointed.

 

I thought it was interesting: in Juliet the Maniac, Juliet tries to kill herself, twice. I think. Later, another girl, at Juliet’s boarding school, tries to commit suicide, and, of her, Juliet says, “It seemed like I was the only one who saw the truth, which was if she really wanted to hang herself, she wouldn’t have gotten caught like that. She wouldn’t be standing on a fence with just a tiny red mark on her neck. She’d be dead.”

It reminded me of a special feature I watched on The Royal Tenenbaums’ DVD, recently, in which Luke Wilson says, regarding his character’s suicide attempt, “Ritchie’s suicide to me is definitely not like…’I’m thinking of killing myself’…I think it’s definitely, like, where he’s going to do it. I mean, I have to say, a few times I’ve heard about people, like, ‘attempted suicide,’ and, you know, like, entertainers and all. Like, come on, if you’re going to do it, DO IT. Don’t take a couple pills and have some bourbon – and you got your roadie right there and you know you’re not going to die.”

Of course he was interviewed about that before his brother Owen’s suicide attempt. (It should also be noted, Owen co-wrote the screenplay of The Royal Tenenbaums with Wes Anderson, also, so probably co-wrote Ritchie’s suicide attempt.)

Why do you think Juliet is so hard on the girl who tried to hang herself when she herself wasn’t successful in her two suicide attempts? Is this a natural human instinct, to not be empathetic to suicide attempts we decide were never really suicide attempts, but were, instead, cries for help or attention-getters?

Logically, it shouldn’t matter if the attempt was a “cry for help” or not. The person felt shitty enough to act on their feelings, and that is something we should have empathy for. But this is an illustration of sick thinking. I’ve felt this way about other people who’ve attempted suicide. I’ve heard other people talk about their own experiences with addiction and thought something like, “Oh, but you weren’t really an addict.” When some people have said they’re bipolar, I’ve silently judged them and thought, “You’re only really bipolar if you’ve completely lost your shit and hallucinated the voice of God.”

It’s a shitty, petty way to think, but it seems honest to include, and points to how warped the brain of a mentally ill, self-destructive person can be. That’s something I don’t think “normal” people understand—just how warped your thinking gets when you’re suicidal or mentally ill or an addict. Your brain rearranges itself and you follow an entirely new logic. Maybe it’s about self-esteem or self-worth—when I feel shitty about myself, or less-than in some way, maybe my mind is grasping at a way to mark myself as special.

When I was doing research for the book, for the “Fact Sheet from the Future,” which is about antidepressants and their relationship to suicidality, I started reading about suicide attempts and their effectiveness. Pills apparently have a very low rate of completion. I attempted suicide four times, all with pills. Two of these were “cries for help,” and with the other two, I sincerely intended to die. I’m glad I didn’t know that pills were so ineffective, because I might not be here.

 

Why do you include your husband in your author bio, but he doesn't include you in his?

Melville House wrote that bio for me. I was relieved to have someone write me one, because it’s always been hard for me to determine what I was supposed to put in it, and what I wasn’t. I haven’t won any awards, or done any residencies or whatever, and some of the other things I’ve “accomplished” in my writing “career” feel pretentious, or something, to mention on my own—like the translations and the “best of” lists. When I’ve been asked to provide a bio on my own, I just used the one they gave me because it seemed easier. I contemplated deleting the husband line because it did seem a little patriarchal to me, but concluded I really don’t care, especially because I like being married to the writer Scott McClanahan.

 

Last question, while I was (re)reading Juliet the Maniac and working on this interview, you and Mary Miller asked me to join you on a small, Midwest tour this July. (THANK YOU!)  In my experience, there are two types of writers on literary tours: those who eat gas station shitty foods, and those who bring their own healthy foods and/or make the tour go miles out of the way to a Whole Foods or the like for ‘healthy food’ like coconut cream and fermented food stuffs. In which category do you think you fit? Also, will you actually drive? Almost no one I’ve ever toured with would drive. or could drive. Writers are pathetic. And I mean that in a very loving way, of course.

You know the answers to both these questions already. I love Slim Jims and candy bars and processed cheese. And I am an excellent driver. One time, Scott and I were driving somewhere and we got into an argument and I yelled at him that I was a “better driver” than he is. That’s how confident I am in my driving ability. Although I can’t promise that I won’t want you to drive so I can space out and stare at my phone, or that I won’t want to occasionally eat a salad.

Bonus Question: will you dip, on tour?

If you want to buy the dip, I’ll dip, you’ll dip, we’ll dip. Maybe not regularly, but at least once. I’d prefer we get the kind that comes in packets, though.

 

image: photo taken by Elizabeth's mother at Marshall University in April


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