As Mental Health Awareness Month unfolds, it seems extremely fitting to share my interview with Juliet Escoria. Her latest novel, Juliet the Maniac, was voted by both Bustle and Nylon as a most anticipated novel of 2019 and was described as “a combination of Denis Johnson and Joan Didion” by Dazed magazine.
At 14, determined, talented and ambiguous honors student, Juliet finds herself spiraling into a world she can’t control, a place she can’t understand. Fights with her parents turn into social anxiety, self-harm, drug use, suicide attempts and eventually a mental health diagnose which lands her in a world of prescription medication, mania, hallucinations and therapy. This work of autobiographical fiction is unapologetic as Escoria’s narrator self analyzes in real time, which feels as though the reader is also grappling with Juliet’s confusion and inner demons.
In our interview, Juliet Escoria talks about writing autofiction, how mental health care has changed since her teenage years, the intensity of being a teenager and how Juliet the Manic came into being.
Your new novel, Juliet the Maniac, is described as an autobiographical novel. Why autofiction? Why do you think you were drawn to fictionalize your experience instead of writing a memoir, for example?
This book was never anything but a novel. I’d thought about doing it as nonfiction on occasion but this never lasted for more than thirty seconds at a time. When I’ve written nonfiction, I caught myself outright lying and had to rein myself back in. Writing is a more enjoyable and natural-feeling experience if I am not bound to the truth.
I also feel like with personal nonfiction, especially memoirs, and especially memoirs about addiction/mental illness, people expect or at least leave room for plenty of explanation, like “Here is a chapter where I reflect on my actions,” and “Here are five pages in which I explain how my experience connects to society as a whole.” I absolutely was not interested in explaining my rationale, thoughts, behavior, etc. Instead, I wanted to get at the feeling of bewilderment that I experienced: you are fifteen and suddenly accosted by a severe mental illness. You cannot get that across if you’re writing in a genre where people expect for you to explain what it all means.
This book delved into the world of mental illness. Do you think mental illness, especially among young girls, is not being discussed properly in our society? Was this novel a way for you to speak out on the inconsistencies or challenges within the mental health care system?
Things have gotten better than they were when I was diagnosed in the late ‘90s. Based on my own experience and that of people I’ve known, doctors are not as prone to over-prescribing as they were twenty years ago. At the time, I would complain to my doctors about fairly awful side effects, like obvious tremors (Paxil) or diarrhea (Zoloft) or constant body and stomach aches and hair loss (Depakote), and they’d just sort of shrug their shoulders, like, “Well, that’s the price you pay for being bipolar.” They’d put us on these insane combinations of multiple drugs, some of them meant to counteract the side effects of the original medications, this never-ending cocktail. I don’t hear about or experience this over-prescription as much, anymore. I take two medications now, not four, both fairly low doses, and the only side effect I have is I’m groggy in the morning until I have coffee.
One thing that really upsets me is how much class comes into play with receiving quality mental health care. I wanted Juliet’s experience to highlight that, at least in a subtle way: she receives flawed yet beneficial treatment, but only because her parents have the money and time to get this care for her.
I also feel like we’ve gotten better about discussing things like suicidality and self-harm, but we’re not quite there yet. A mental illness is potentially terminal; when they are fatal, it is usually due to suicide (or habitual self-harm, like addiction). I don’t yet hear suicide discussed in this way. Like, last year with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, you heard a lot about what great lives they had. Nobody speaks that way about famous people who die of cancer.
And self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s not a good one, but sometimes it can prevent even more harmful behaviors, yet we treat it as though it is something that must be avoided at all costs. I’ve had people tell me how sad the scars on my arm made them, but people don’t react that way when I talk about my alcohol and drug addiction, which was actually much more dangerous.
The coming of age story, especially of girlhood, is so fascinating to me (my favorite genre to read) and I know I’m not alone. Why do you think we—as writers, readers, humans—love to explore our adolescence? Why was it important for you to write this novel?
My favorite things to read and write about are things in a gray area—morally ambiguous, constantly shifting, a liminal space, where there’s not one right or wrong way to look at it. This all applies to adolescence. It’s complicated and horrible and wonderful and confusing.
There’s also an intensity to adolescence. Everything feels like the only thing. A song, a friendship, a party, an important assignment, an expensive pair of jeans—they all feel like they have the possibility to be the answer, or the beginning of your destruction. I don’t miss being a teen, at all, but sometimes I miss that intensity.
This book tells your story without judgment, rather it seems as though you are watching the events unfold, as you try to make sense of them. Did rehashing some of the more difficult or confusing parts of your adolescence feel therapeutic to get them on the page? Or did you have an entirely different experience?
I had a hard time forgiving myself for the things I did as a teenager. I understood on a logical level that I was reacting to something very difficult—being a perfectionist who is suddenly overwhelmed by their own brain, and made very imperfect—but emotionally, I had a hard time reconciling my choices. I also have flawed but wonderful parents, and I’ve felt a lot of guilt for what I put them through.
It was useful to create this character Juliet (my real name is Julia, so it’s probably easier for me to distinguish between this fictional character and my real self than for the average reader) who went through a similar but not identical experience. I felt a lot of sympathy and empathy for Juliet, that I wasn’t able to feel for myself. This eventually translated to a greater level of sympathy and empathy for myself. That was therapeutic, yes.
But, of course, writing is not therapy, and if it is, then you shouldn’t publish it. There is something that feels masochistic in writing about the most painful parts of your life, the opposite of therapeutic. I’ve joked that if this book were a person, I would have cut it out of my life for being emotionally abusive.
I love the structure in this book, as the story is told in short vignettes. Did this happen naturally for you during your writing process or was it a conscious decision?
In my own reading experience, I feel much more compelled to continue reading a book if the chapters or sections are short. I might look ahead in the book to see where the section ends, and if it’s many pages ahead, I’m much more likely to put the book down than if it’s on the next page. The addict in me finishes that section and then says, “Just one more.” It is the writer’s responsibility to adapt to the times that they live in, and long chunks of text feel like anachronisms to me, in this time where we have an infinite amount of choices of things to read, all competing for our attention.
I also wanted this book to be episodic. One thing I’ve seen in other works about addiction and mental illness is that they are presented as one event, or one storyline, following the traditional rising action, climax, denouement plot diagram, which, in my experience, is dishonest. There is no linearity to either mental illness or addiction. They’re both many-headed hydras, where you cut off one head and suddenly there’s nine more of them. It seemed important to have a structure where there were multiple climaxes, and where things were placed beside each other, rather than to the front and behind. The short sections seemed like the best way to communicate this.
You have also published a short story collection, “Black Cloud” and poetry collection, “Witch Hunt.” Did your novel writing routine differ from these other works? Did you find it more challenging or just a completely different experience altogether?
This was much more difficult, but also more rewarding. It was a bipolar experience: high highs, and low lows.
There’s so much more to worry about in a novel: not only are you concerned with language and exposition and character and images, etc., but you also have to be worried about structure, in a way that’s much more complicated than with a short story.
One of my favorite quotes about writing is by Mary Gaitskill: “You need to be alone, in the dark, feeling your way along as if you’re on a tightrope—because you are.” The thrill of writing, for me, comes from this feeling. I got the tightrope-feeling during the writing of all three books, but it was much more intense with this one.
What are some coming of age novels that you were inspired by or stories that you have treasured over the years?
S.E. Hinton’s books are ones I’ve read and re-read since I was a child. She is able to pinpoint a certain fragility that comes with adolescence, and our sudden awareness about life’s fragility in general, that first comes to many of us at that age.
I read a lot of more contemporary novels about similar subject matter as my book while writing it. My two favorites were Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon and The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner. Both books are equal parts beautiful and devastating.
Juliet Escoria is the author of the novel Juliet the Maniac, published by Melville House in May 2019. She also wrote the poetry collection Witch Hunt (Lazy Fascist Press 2016) and the story collection Black Cloud (CCM/Emily Books 2014), which were both listed in various best of the year roundups. Her writing can be found in places like Lenny, Tyrant, VICE, The Fader, Dazed, and Hobart, and has been translated into many languages. She was born in Australia, raised in San Diego, and currently lives in West Virginia with her husband, the writer Scott McClanahan.
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