Juliet the Maniac: A Novel

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The Importance of Being Stubborn: Jeff Jackson in Conversation with Juliet Escoria

Over the course of several books, Juliet Escoria has shown a remarkable ability to portray uncomfortable situations and elicit visceral emotions. Her audacious debut novel, Juliet the Maniac, vividly portrays a teenage girl caught in a downward spiral of mental illness and self-destruction. It’s rightfully collected accolades from across the literary map: Publishers Weekly called it “searing and intimate” and NPR praised it as “a nightmare journal of the space between girlhood and womanhood.” The New York Times noted that “Juliet’s level of general intensity can make Martin Amis characters read like prudes.”

It’s easy to get swept up in the work’s raw immediacy and overlook Escoria’s prodigious literary skills. She draws on autofiction techniques, but bends them to her own needs. Among the drugs, sex, and suicide attempts, she carefully modulates the tone so there are also moments of connection and tenderness.

Escoria and I talked about the novel for several hours online. I started by asking her about one of the book’s most important elements, whose sophistication might be easy to miss.

‪The Millions: One of the things I admire most about Juliet the Maniac is its unusual and inventive structure, the short chapters that sometimes only last a few sentences. What led you to that form?

Juliet Escoria: This was my third attempt at the book. The two earlier versions were much more traditional in form and structure, but they didn’t work. I decided that this time I would let the book do what it seemed to want to do, and it seemed to want to be more fragmented. Later, when I had some material and was starting to evaluate what I had come up with, it seemed to make perfect sense, in terms of the content—mental illness is a choppy, fragmented experience.

‪This is generally how I work: just let the writing do whatever it seems it wants to do, and then later take a step back and evaluate it, trying to figure out if what I did makes sense.

‪I also just like lots of white space on a page, both as a reader and a writer. It’s aesthetically more pleasing to me, and I think it helps the reader not get so distracted by their phones or whatever.

‪TM: What inspired you to use the drawings, letters, lab reports, notes, etc. that appear throughout the novel?  Were those documents part of the earlier versions or something that came later?‪

JE: They came with this third version, and were something that I added early on.

‪I had gone through my parents’ old folders as “research,” and there were my old report cards, test scores, doctor reports, etc., and it felt very much like “evidence,” like solid proof that this version of myself had indeed existed. This seemed like an interesting feeling to have, like a splitting of the self, which was something I wanted to try and replicate for the reader.

Again, it was an instinctual decision, which I kept in because I thought it added another layer to the story.

‪TM: I love all the documents. Did you have to convince the publisher to keep them in?

JE: I knew that the images would be a strike against the book when it came time to find a publisher, because for whatever stupid reason, publishers don’t like images (maybe because they’re a pain to format?). I had argued to keep them in when working on the manuscript with my agent, and the more I thought about it, the more I knew the book absolutely needed the images. So that was the main question I had when I initially got on the phone with Melville: Will you let me keep the images? My editor promised I would.

‪‪TM: As you were going through your parents’ folders, were there any things you found about your younger self that you’d remembered incorrectly or forgotten entirely?

JE: I was under the impression that I had a 504 as a teenager, and not an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). To explain the jargon, they’re both accommodations for students with disabilities. A 504 is more informal than an IEP, while an IEP designates the student as needing special educational services. But it turned out I was wrong, I had an IEP, and it was for being EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED, on my IEP in big, bold, capitalized letters, just like the fictional IEP in the book. That was shocking to read, that I’d been officially labeled by the school district as EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED.

‪It was also shocking to see the quick downturn in my grades, from mostly A’s, to C’s and F’s when my bipolar symptoms started to manifest.

‪TM: The novel clearly draws a lot of energy from your real life experiences. The most obvious way it signals this is that the narrator shares your name—but it’s your pen name. Where you ever tempted to give the narrator your real one?

JE: Yes, I was actually! That was the initial draft of the book—the character was named Julia J*ckson, my real name—asterisk because while my name isn’t a secret, I like to keep my teaching self separate from my writing self, because I have a lot of conservative students. I thought it was funny, to give a fictional character my real name, and to give myself a fictional name. But when I came up with the title for the book, it made me uncomfortable to call it Julia the Maniac. For whatever reason, using my teenage struggles with mental illness as a basis for a book was fine, yet having my real name on the cover seemed too intimate. It doesn’t make any sense, but emotions are often illogical.

‪‪TM: Did you ever conceive of the book as a memoir or was it always going to be a novel?

JE: I never seriously considered it as a memoir, for two main reasons. One, I don’t like memoirs as much as I like novels, and, two, I enjoy writing a lot more when I am telling myself I am writing fiction, as opposed to nonfiction. I like the freedom that comes from being able to make stuff up. I also feel like “memoir” implies that there is some sort of lesson learned, and I didn’t want the book to have a lesson.

There have been times I wished I had been more okay with writing this story as a memoir, because I have a feeling it would have been easier to market and sell.

‪TM: This book had a long road to publication. Can you talk some about that?

JE: Part of it was my agent switched agencies right when I finished up the manuscript, so that added a couple month delay. Then my original editor at Melville left the business, so that added another month or two.

But it was not exactly an easy sell. I didn’t think it would be, given all the different elements of the book that could be taken as “experimental,” but it still sucked when I was going through it.

‪The first round was pretty much exclusively big publishers. I was rejected by most of them, and then we pulled it back from the remaining handful because I wanted to do more edits. I had realized that I needed to lop off a lot of the beginning—my idea had been that I would show the slow progression from normal teenager to mentally-ill teenager, but I realized that was just one idea too many. I spent a few more months doing edits, and then we sent it out again. This time, I had some interest fairly quickly.

‪I was used to the efficiency that happens with micro presses, so the waiting that comes with a larger publisher made me really impatient. Overall, though, I’m glad for all the time, because it meant I had the chance to examine each element of the book.

‪TM: It’s amazing to me how so many books publishers deem “experimental” are often experienced by readers as more immediate, involving, and immersive. That’s certainly how this read to me. And I’ve been glad that so many reviewers agree.

JE: I didn’t want to see the feedback from the editors because I knew it would just make me annoyed, but from what my agent did share with me, it seemed like they had issues with the episodic nature of the book, which was an important element to me.

TM: Juliet’s problems aren’t generated by outside forces—abusive parents or boyfriends, drug addiction, etc.—but by her own psychological issues. This is really powerful, but I imagine it’s also much harder to portray in a dramatic way. Were there parts of her struggle that were particularly difficult to get across?

JE: I think one of my strengths as a writer is description, so I knew I had to take my time and get the descriptions of her hallucinations and delusions just right. That was key to me, in terms of conveying exactly what it’s like to be a teenager who has a very normal, cushy life but is suddenly overcome by a mental illness.

In popular culture, a lot of times mental illness and/or addiction narratives are presented as: cause, effect, consequence, remedy. For me, this linear presentation was a lie. You have a normal day, and then a completely warped one. Certain events or symptoms come out of nowhere. You do something that advances your “recovery,” and then you slide back. An episodic structure seemed essential to convey this.

TM: As you were writing this, were there any books or films that served as inspiration or you felt were kindred works of art?

JE: I felt like I was directly addressing The Bell Jar throughout the entire process of writing the book, which I read for the first time as a teenager and has always meant a lot to me. After I’d written a first draft, I read The Things They Carried, and really related to what Tim O’Brien had written about the idea of emotional truth. I read Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon after I’d finished the manuscript, but they have a lot in common—it’s similar subject matter, and both books are fragmentary. And I didn’t read Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore until after the book was entirely done, but I think there’s a lot of similarities there, too,

Mostly, though, writing this book felt reactionary—trying to correct what I saw as things that were done “wrong” in other books and movies I’d read and watched. Silver Linings Playbook, for example—I hate that movie. It feels like a big dumb cutesy lie to me.

One thing filmmakers have going for them that writers don’t is the ability to create a certain atmosphere with color palettes, lighting, and camera angles. I at least tried to create something atmospheric with the book, taking notes from directors like Harmony Korine, Nicolas Winding Refn, Andrea Arnold, and Josephine Decker.

TM: I really appreciated the “Letters from Future” in the novel that address young Juliet and the unexpected perspectives they offer. There’s a nice sense of the selves being split, as you mentioned before, and that we’re different people at different times in our lives. If you could address your self when you started this book, is there anything about writing that you would want to share?

JE: I knew that writing a novel was hard, but I didn’t fully grasp HOW hard, and all the different ways that it is hard. Based on what I experienced and what I’ve heard from friends, getting totally confused and frustrated and overwhelmed by the book is simply part of the process. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong.

I also feel like I really stuck to my guns with my various odd choices with the book and I’m glad I did. But it was scary when I was going through it, so it would have been nice to have some sort of guarantee that I was doing the right thing by being so goddamn stubborn.

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