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It Never Goes Away: West Virginia, Witch Hunt and Onesies With Juliet Escoria
Luke B. Goebel , July 24th, 2016 16:41

Following the release of her newest book, Witch Hunt, Juliet Escoria speaks with fellow author Luke B. Goebel about mental health, relocating from San Diego to West Virginia, intra-marital artistic jealousy and the mechanics of breakfast buffets

Juliet Escoria is awesome – a killer writer and poet who published her first book, Black Cloud, in 2014, which people always compare to my book, except then they say she's cooler than me and that's partly right because she's not afraid. If she is, she conquers that shit.

Juliet is also absolutely not playing it safe or networking or being silenced for the TV cameras of Real Life TV. She's still punk. She eats glass. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, Scott McClanahan, who is also a writer. She wrestles alligators who eat toddlers and she is stockpiling weapons in case Obama tries to take her guns. I'm joking. Relax. I know guns and gators aren't funny anymore. She's not stockpiling.

Escoria is a cult-figure indie-author and poet and she's a force of honest living and telling the world who she really is. She has a new collection of poetry out, Witch Hunt, and her poetry in this latest collection is raw AF. I have inside info that she's going big, big places. She's a force.

In this interview we talk about — well, Juliet especially comes correct about mental health and poetry and honesty and life in West Virginia and why she writes and how terrifying her trailers were for the book and teaching while being bad as fuck and living & surviving trauma and physical attacks and about living without the shell, without the mirrored glasses and mirrored shield and without the lies.

She's worth the read and I'm so grateful I got to talk to her and I hope that I haven't said anything too awkward.

So. You have a new collection out called Witch Hunt, which reads like a deep space journey into the fuckedest parts of someone’s mental health/trauma/survival regions. Is this factually correct? Give me the better elevator pitch?

Juliet Escoria: That’s funny because I thought this book was lighter in tone and subject matter than Black Cloud, which I acknowledge is bleak as fuck. But I guess I am wrong. I guess you could say Witch Hunt is a deep space journey into the fuckedest parts of someone’s mental health/trauma/survival regions, with jokes.

If this book were a breakfast food or a restaurant buffet what/where/when/how?

JE: Obviously it is Ryan’s—there is a little bit of everything, all of it is sort of good but also sort of disgusting, and nobody is going to judge you if you get four desserts.

The local Ryan’s closed recently. Apparently, everything was normal, until one morning the employees came to work and the doors were locked. Shortly afterward, moving trucks came to take things away. I feel bad for the employees, but I also feel really bad for me. Ryan’s was one of the best things about my town. Beckley Ryan’s RIP.

What’s with this unicorn outfit onesie I keep seeing? You wear it. Scott McClanahan wears it. You two are married. Are you guys furries? (What’s going on? Who is he? Who are you? Why are you two together? Is Scott scary? He scares me.)

JE: I bought it at Walmart. It’s really cozy and I would recommend it for winter wear. We’re not furries, we just like to be warm and look cool.

We got married because he is the best at dealing with my crazy and vice versa. Plus he is the funniest, smartest man I’ve ever met.

Scott is a sweet little baby and not scary at all. We watched The Jungle Book this weekend and he cried twice. Who cries during a movie with talking animals? Not a scary guy. You are wrong, sorry.

What it's like to be married to another writer? Do you two ever get jealous? Are you both always writing notes in your heads about each other, during sex, during breakfast, scrutinising each other’s every move, impulse, aura, authenticity? Will there be a tell all?

JE: I listened to the J. Fran episode of Fresh Air a while ago and he was talking about how he and his significant other got into a fight because they wanted to write about the same event. I was confused by this. At least a hundred other writers have written about the same things I do – mental illness, being institutionalised, drugs, self-destruction, blah blah blah. It’s not the topics I’m banking on to be unique, it’s my viewpoint. I am hoping that no one has ever looked at these topics in the way that I have. Pretty sure Scott feels the same. So our jealousy doesn’t work in that way, or at least not yet. Scott is actually stealing my own personal stories for his writing and that is fine by me.

Scott’s novel The Sarah Book, which will come out in not too long from Tyrant, is fucking amazing and it makes me jealous. It is weird to feel jealous about the work of someone you love. I want him to do well and kick ass and get all the cash and prizes, but I also don’t want him to leave me behind. He claims to be jealous of my work, so hopefully this type of jealousy is OK, since it is mutual.

The Sarah Book is about his ex-wife yet is dedicated to me which is weird but whatever. We got into a total of one fight about it and then I got over it. Maybe I wouldn’t be OK with it if I didn’t write nonfictiony fiction myself.

Mostly it is nice to be married to another writer. He does not mind that I spend the majority of my days in a dark basement staring at a computer screen and making shit up, and vice versa. Also if you get mad at someone online, you don’t have to explain concepts like ‘alt lit’ or ‘AWP’ before you vent about being angry.

What is/are the point of poems in 2016?

JE: I honestly don’t know. I teach introductory English classes, and I try to explain poetry by telling my students it is more often about a single moment, or the parts of life that you can’t really capture in words. But in 2016, you can transmit these things in little movies or photos or even Tweets. So there is definitely something antiquated and romantic about it.

I also am pretty sure that the only people who read contemporary poetry are people who write poetry, which is kind of self-reflexive and gross. Calling oneself a poet seems embarrassing and pretentious.

But like… there’s a lot bigger crimes in this life than being antiquated and romantic and self-reflexive and embarrassing and pretentious. Maybe these are even qualities we need to uphold. Who knows.

You have sections in Witch Hunt. What are the different sections about? Why?

JE: I’ve always liked things with sections, because then there’s a convenient place to stop reading once my sleep medicine starts to kick in, and it also guides you how to read things but in a way that feels open for interpretation. Here are my definitions of the sections.

AXL ROSE AND OTHER MEN is about Axl Rose, and some other men who are mostly conglomerations and/or conflations. It is generally not a very positive way to view men, because most men are stupid. (Most women are stupid too, don’t worry bros, I am an equal-opportunity hater.)

HOW DO I MAKE THE BAD THOUGHTS STOP is about all the nasty things I think. It seems useful to write nasty poems because I assume if I have a nasty thought, it is not unique and probably a few other people have had a nasty thought identical or at least similar to mine. I feel like the world would be a better place if we were able to be more open about how shitty we are/can be.

BIPOLAR NATIONAL ANTHEM: Some people act like being bipolar is such a burden, and it is… but it’s also kind of awesome. Parts of being crazy have been hard as shit and I wouldn’t want to wish that kind of pain on anyone, but I also wouldn’t change it. Long live Bipolar Disorder.

NATURE POEMS ARE BORING… I actually love nature, and nature poems, but these aren’t exactly idyllic, because nature isn’t idyllic either. It’s creepy and full of violence and decay and sex.

RELOCATION is about moving from San Diego to West Virginia. I’ve read a couple pieces of press that directly mentioned this section and neither seemed to notice this. Weird.

TRUE ROMANCE are all poems about Scott. He is different than all ‘other men’ to me and therefore gets his own section.

FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING is about hating myself and ANXIETY ATTACKS is self-explanatory. Sometimes I had some difficulty differentiating between HOW DO I MAKE THE BAD THOUGHTS STOP, BIPOLAR NATIONAL ANTHEM, and FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING because all of those things have a lot of overlap. Am I angry because the world is stupid, or because I am crazy, or because I hate myself? It’s a mystery!

We are awash in confrontation. Your collection feels seasoned by injury and performed with confrontation. We are witness to so many types of confrontation. How do we reward confrontation and outrage and how is it still risky and pushed back on? Is it hard to write and be true to the confrontation you need to provoke when it's being performed by so many for so many and do you have to up the ante and how you keep it true to your life? Is all of our rage and confrontation negotiated now?

JE: I guess we reward confrontation – look at Trump. Lots of evidence there.

I hope what I am doing is not Trump-like, though. I’d like to think that a more confrontational attitude in the literary world is necessary and would be a positive thing. A lot of ‘edgier’ works are actually polite-edgy, about low-grade alienation or low-grade depression rather than death wishes or mania. The kind of edgy that wouldn’t embarrass your parents, the kind of edgy that you can discuss with charming self-deprecation at like a Paris Review party or whatever. And even if the actual content or tone is more confrontational, the form is still traditional… the plodding, careful construction of the 20th-Century Novel. It’s fucking boring.

I don’t think the way to change the boringness is by sitting around and complaining about it, though. I’m way more into Emma Goldman, problematic as she was, than like… I don’t know, Beyonce? I don’t have any intentions to assassinate anybody, but I’d like to actually do something, rather than talk about doing something and then sell you my talk as a product. I think people, and especially women, would benefit from being more honest and less polite. I think we shouldn’t care so much about what literature is “supposed” to do. So I hope to make work that actually does these things, rather than merely talking about these things.

The Beyonce-Goldman thing doesn’t quite line up but hopefully you get what I’m saying.

What do you like about living in West Virginia and what do you miss about living in a city?

JE: I miss soup dumplings, good coffee, the ability to find a good doctor without too much trouble, the ability to find a good hairdresser without too much trouble, independent movie theatres, art museums, and buying clothes at Forever 21. (Yes it is gross to shop at F21 but I am lazy and also cheap/poor.)

I miss driving on the freeways at night, the smell of the air, the landscape of California, and my family and friends. A lot of my friends in San Diego— I’ve been friends with them since we were children, and they’re like sisters to me. (I don’t have any siblings so I don’t know if the ‘like sisters’ thing is actually accurate.)

One example of why I love WV:
I was sitting at a stop sign maybe 100 yards from my house. There was an accident up ahead and we weren’t moving anywhere. It was really frustrating, because I was sooooo close to my front door. I wanted to take my car into the grass on the side of the road (there’s no sidewalks in Beckley) and bypass the accident-related traffic, but I was worried a police officer or somebody would get mad at me. Then I remembered I was in West Virginia, where nobody, including the police, gives a fuck if you drive on the grass next to the road to get to your house that is 100 yards away. Punk rock is not teenagers sitting around St. Marks. Punk rock is actually West Virginia.

It’s also insanely beautiful. There’s waterfalls, mountains, wildflowers, animals all over the fucking place. I don’t understand why more people don’t visit this state.

Have you seen any good movies lately?

JE: Sometimes I think I love movies more than books. Scott & I watched The Tin Drum last night and it made me sick (there’s a really disgusting scene in it that I couldn’t get out of my head) but it was really amazing… so many shifts in tone, so many different interpretations of what it all means, so many reasons why people on Twitter could get mad about it.

I also finally saw Repo Man. I don’t know if this makes me not having seen it until now more or less embarrassing, but I thought I’d seen it already. Turns out I was mixing it up with Falling Down for some unknown reason. I have a terrible memory and am kind of an idiot sometimes. Anyway. Repo Man was great. How the fuck did that get made, anyway?

It’s not a movie, but I also finished Horace & Pete a couple nights ago and hot damn! It made me feel so excited! Who does that?!! Who decides to make a somewhat boring, totally depressing, morally ambiguous (morally ambivalent?) show that they paid for out of their own pocket and released on their own website? There’s hope for the human race after all.

So you are or you have been a drug addict and have been “crazy”. Does that ever go away – how do you deal with both/either on a daily basis? I have also had problems with that, but I haven’t written about it so straight as your Witch Hunt deals with things. You’re very head on. How is that? Did it alleviate any of those aspects of self? Worsen? What’s it like teaching with these things in the world? These poems? Other art you’ve made?

JE: Hell no. Those things never go away, and I wouldn’t want them to. Both the addiction and the mental illness (or maybe they’re two branches of the same beastly tree) have their advantages… I don’t have to worry too much about being boring, and they make me work hard and work obsessively, etc. The thing that has changed is how I channel the energy. I try to get obsessed with healthy things now, like exercise and writing, rather than being obsessed with self-destruction.

I have no idea if it alleviates anything. I guess it makes it impossible to not be somewhat transparent, and I think that’s a good thing. What Joan Didion said about being on at least nodding terms with our former selves, that kind of thing.

Juliet Escoria isn’t actually my name. I teach under an entirely different one. I made the fake name up because I was working at an extremely conservative university and I didn’t want to get fired. I don’t teach there anymore, and the higher-ups at the schools I teach for know about Juliet Escoria now, but most of my students don’t. It’s not a secret or anything, and I’ve told my made-up name to the few who have been curious, but it definitely is comforting to know that my landlord and almost none of my students have ever seen me in a bra and underwear rolling around on a pile of psych meds (this is an image from one of my videos).


Luke B. Goebel is in Morocco. His first novel was Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours. It won the Sukenick prize. He's working on his second book, PS We're Bl-wing Up Los Angeles.

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