Juliet Escoria‘s searing collection Black Cloud is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Visceral and perfectly controlled, it explores doomed relationships, addiction, and the harshest aspects of self-loathing across a dozen stories. (One of which first appeared around these parts.) After reading the book, I was curious about a lot of things–the way the collection was structured, the relationship between New York and California that runs throughout the book, and the music of EMA, who is nodded to in the collection’s first story. Thus, some questions were send via email, and this interview was the result.
Given that the first story in here is called “Fuck California,” and you’ve talked a bit about EMA, I’m curious: what are your thoughts on The Future’s Void?
I listened to it 2x when it was on NPR and then forgot about it. I wasn’t impressed. I’ll listen to it while I work on these questions and get back to you.
In the meantime:
I’m not a huge EMA fan or anything. I did really enjoy Past Life Martyred Saints, but the thing that got me was that it immediately felt familiar. It carried out a lot of the same themes that I had found in my own work – emotional pain, self-harm, drugs, bad relationships. So many of the lines were things I had thought, and it was startling to hear them coming out of someone else’s mouth. She also seemed to be doing a lot of things with her work that I was doing/trying to do with my own work, which is using the material that hurts the most.
I liked the title “Fuck California” and thought it seemed apt to acknowledge the parallels between her album and my book. Plus I didn’t know what else to call that story.
I’m a lot more impressed this time around, but I still like Past Life better. (Last time was at like 4am and over laptop speakers, right now it is 9pm and I am using headphones.) The Future’s Void is definitely more restrained and grown-up, and I prefer the rawness of Past Life. There’s some really good tracks on here, though. She sounds like some sort of industrial banshee in “Cthulu”(in a cool way) & “Smoulder” makes me want to turn up the volume so high that it hurts my ears (can you tell that I am far from a music critic?). “When She Comes” is really nice, too, and feels a lot more like Past Life than the other tracks.
Reading the collection, I noticed that there are a fair amount of New York stories, and a fair amount of California stories. Did the settings of each roughly correspond to where you were living when you wrote them?
No. The setting corresponds to the true thing that happened that inspired the fiction of the story. “Reduction” and “Heroin Story” were written in New York, but they’re about California. “Mental Illness on a Weekday” and “The Other Kind of Magic” were written in California. “Fuck California” was written in California. I didn’t intend to have New York play such a large role in the collection but it just kind of happened that way anyway.
There’s a very visceral sensibility about all of these stories; the piece that you read at Left Bank during AWP was even more so. How do you find yourself using this quality in your fiction?
I think it’s something that’s indicative of how my brain works rather than a deliberate artistic decision. I am emotional and I often have to intentionally filter my reactions through my brain. When I make decisions, I listen to logic but in the end I go with what I feel in my gut.
It also has to do with memory. Everything I write stems from some real experience. I have an unusually poor memory, like I have absolutely no mind for facts or specifics. Here’s an example: My boyfriend asked me yesterday if I remembered our conversation in that Spanish restaurant in October. I said yes. What I meant is that I remember the restaurant was dark and the server was nice but seemed tired. I remember looking across the table at him in the candlelight and feeling like there were magnets shooting or spotlights signaling between us. My steak was mediocre; I was a little bit grossed out because it was thick and heavy and textured in a way that reminded me of the bottom of a shoe or a cow’s tongue, but it was cooked and seasoned well. I remembered how I felt, which was happy and excited and light on the inside. It was a warm night and I wished I hadn’t brought my coat.
Then it turns out he was asking if I remembered the specifics of our conversation, which I have absolutely no recollection of. Maybe that’s why I don’t really like doing dialogue.
Black Cloud is structured where each story is paired with another title; how did you come to organize the book in this way?
I told Halimah Marcus, who is a friend of mine and one of the co-editors of Electric Literature, that I was working on a story that I was writing out of spite. She laughed and told me that I should make a whole collection like that – stories that came from sort of identified emotion. I liked that idea a lot, so I took it from her.
I considered taking the device out, once I was done. I was worried there were too many shticks for the book, with the pictures and the emotions and the videos. But after I examined them, I felt like there was a purpose for each, and so I decided to keep them in. And also I liked how the photos looked better with the one word over them.
I think Black Cloud wouldn’t have worked as well if it was a longer book. It’s short and it was meant to be that way; I feel like it would be exhausting if it was longer, the way a lot of punk albums would be exhausting if they were over thirty minutes. There are twelve little stories and they’re all talking to and over each other. The emotions and the videos and the pictures seem to facilitate that.
I don’t know – now that I’m thinking about it again, maybe I shouldn’t have included them. Maybe it’s too heavy-handed. Who knows.
I think the device of pairing titles with other titles works, at least for me. And I agree with what you’re saying about the book’s length as well. What was the process like as far as selecting work for this?
There really wasn’t much of one. I knew I wanted for there to be twelve stories total, because that seemed like a good number. There were five stories that I already had and liked, so that meant I needed seven more. I knew I wanted the stories to feel like they belonged together, but I didn’t define what this meant or try to alter my writing to accomplish this.
I feel like the selection process for this video was probably a lot more interesting than that for my book.
In the playlist you made for Largehearted Boy, you wrote about the sensation of self-loathing as it relates to “Grunion Run,” and I feel like it also factors into the ending of “The Other Kind of Magic.” What, for you, is the best way to explore an emotion through fiction: one specific story or poem or novel, or circling it with a variety of different works?
I have thought before that all of the stories could be retitled “SELF-LOATHING” instead. I think that book is largely about self-loathing. My writing in general is largely about self-loathing. A large part of my existence involves self-loathing. I’ve more or less hated myself since a person could begin hating themselves.
The funny thing is I have gotten way better – I only hate a small sliver of myself these days – yet nobody could insult me with something I haven’t already insulted myself with already. And this is after years of therapy.
Have you found that teaching has affected your writing in any way?
I’ve heard that it can, but the only way it’s affected mine is because work takes up time and sometimes you can’t write as much as you’d like because you have to work instead. Maybe this would be different if I taught more creative writing classes, but mostly I teach literature courses.
I love teaching literature. I do this thing that I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do, which is assign books I haven’t read yet but would like to. There is no way I would have gotten through chapter three of Portrait of the Artist had I not assigned it.
Last quarter I taught a class on masterpieces in art, music, and literature. I knew almost nothing about art or music history, so I had to do a whole lot of prep work and research in order to appear that I knew what I was talking about. This meant I didn’t write as much, but on the other hand, I feel like some of the things I learned affected my outlook on writing/being creative more than most pieces of literature. The same sort of thing happened in college. My literature and writing classes were enjoyable and it was easy for me to do well in them but it was the science classes that really set my wheels spinning. Coincidentally, I have decided to start lying more in my author bios; the one on my website currently says I have a BS in microbiology from UC Berkeley, which makes me feel way cooler.