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.
Sarah Schulman and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore are both iconoclastic queer writers known for their activism and analysis (and their activist analysis), their fiction and nonfiction (and everything in between), their instigation and experimentation (all or nothing). Sycamore first became aware of Schulman’s work in the early ’90s while coming of age as a radical queer in San Francisco, looking to Schulman’s already extensive history of writing against the grain, her activism with ACT UP, and her journalism of the time as incisive examples of interventionist queer troublemaking. A decade or so later, she invited Schulman to contribute to one of her anthologies, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (published in 2004), and the two became friends.
This past fall, Schulman and Sycamore collaborated on several East Coast book release events for their new novels—Schulman’s Maggie Terry, hailed by Oprah as one of “18 Brilliant Books for Fall,” and described as “off-kilter neo-noir,” and Sycamore’s Sketchtasy, described by NPR Books as “not just one of the best books of the year, it’s an instant classic of queer literature.” Here Schulman and Sycamore talk about the problem of nostalgia, the writing process, the gentrified gaze, a collaboration with Marianne Faithfull, linear time, a political history of ACT UP, film adaptations, the creative impulse, the theater, Todd Haynes, Palestinian solidarity, a Baltimore artist, Boston’s queeniest tower, Seattle’s suburban imagination, an elevator in New York—and, the future.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I love this idea, but can we talk about the past for just a second first? Specifically, nostalgia. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to talk about why I hate nostalgia. To me, talking about the past is a great idea, as long as we’re learning something. But a nostalgic lens replaces all the lived experience, the nuance, the contradictions, the daily struggles, and the heartbreak with a whitewashed product ready for mass consumption.
SS: Well, your new novel Sketchtasy is about Boston queens in the 1990s, but it is also about reaching a revelatory level of craft as you are able to evoke, rather than describe basic experiences—dancing, getting high, freaking out about imminent death—making canonical 1995, the year before the protease inhibitors allowed people with AIDS to live, but the characters in the book don’t know that the corner is about to be turned. So, turning to the future, is the subsequent unpublished book, The Freezer Door, also set in the past?
MBS: For better or worse, I am generally stuck in the present. The Freezer Door, my next book after Sketchtasy, is set in current-day Seattle, and is part sexual diary, part social criticism, and part rumination on the creative process. I’m trying to figure out how to have an embodied self in a world that doesn’t allow it—in a gentrified city where people walk around with a white picket fence in their eyes, where the suburban imagination has a stranglehold over city life. Where the sexual culture that exists for me only exists if I minimize everything that makes me alive, and what violence does this enact, over and over. What happened to the dream of the city as the place where you meet everyone you never imagined? The dream of queerness as ending borders rather than creating them. I know these are themes that come up in your work as well.
SS: My past work. Old, old! That’s the problem with being ahead. Why is it called The Freezer Door, a title I love, and what can you say about the writing?
MBS: It’s funny, Sarah, because you want to talk about the future, but I find myself thinking, wait, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Because we both have new books out now, and here I am planning the West Coast book tour for Sketchtasy, paying such close attention to every element of the process that it’s hard to focus on anything else, although I do have the manuscript for The Freezer Door right next to me, so of course I am focusing on other things too, and I’m thinking about something a few people have said about Sketchtasy in reviews, that past, present, and future merge, right, and that’s trauma, that’s drugs, that’s the queen’s vernacular, but also it’s the suspension of linear time, which I always dispense with when not absolutely necessary, to move toward feeling, and one thing I can say about The Freezer Door is it is a quest for feeling, for connection, for self-expression and intimacy. Against all odds.
So it’s an intensely personal interrogation of culture—dominant culture, counterculture, gay and queer cultures—the ways all of these cultures end up limiting the possibilities of the body, or of connection, or of self-expression and communal possibility—in my life, anyway. I would call it a lyric essay because I’m trying to move through the gaps between analysis and feeling. And there are times where the text literally breaks open because of the disconnection, so, for example, at one point it becomes a conversation between an ice cube and an ice cube tray. And when the ice cube tray says, “Open the freezer door,” this is the invitation of the whole book—the invitation to feel, to risk, to experience everything.
I know that you don’t want to talk about the past, but isn’t it true that you are now writing very specifically about the past, in a new book about ACT UP?
SS: I have two book-length manuscripts right now—a political history of ACT UP called Let the Record Show, which right now is running about 800 pages. And a novel I have been writing since 2003 called The Rise and Rise of Jamie Robbins, of which I only have 153 pages. It is about the history of psychiatry, the death of Carson McCullers, and a closeted lesbian actress named Jamie Robbins. It is the slowest thing I have ever written.
MBS: Sarah, Let the Record Show is the perfect title for a book about ACT UP. The original ACT UP piece using that name was a call for accountability by Gran Fury 30 years ago with the slogan “Silence = Death” in neon, right? What will your call for accountability look like now?
SS: Let the Record Show is not really a call for accountability, more of an analysis that coheres ACT UP’s strategies and tactics in a way that will be helpful to activists today. But, moving along from books—what is happening right now is that I am starting to be able to bring my novels to screen—which would be very new. About half of my novels have stories that would be exciting for film/TV but the kind of lesbian perspective and how far left I am just kept it all from happening. However, I am hoping to break the curse with my current detective novel Maggie Terry, which came out this year. Nothing is a better antidote to stress than losing yourself in the fun of a pulp novel, enough with the gravitas. And Maggie is very suited to television. So, hopefully I will have some good news about that soon. What about your work, what do you imagine when you think of your novels on screens?
MBS: I generally don’t think about that much because most film adaptations are so unbearably awful, but I will admit that I do keep thinking that Sketchtasy would be fantastic as a movie, I mean it’s already written in scenes, right? It’s intensely visual, and it already has a soundtrack, because music comes up so much in the book, and changes the narrative. When I was reading from Sketchtasy in Boston, where the book takes place, I kept walking around, and seeing the exact angles of the buildings that would make perfect shots. I mean there’s one building in particular that keeps coming up in the book, the John Hancock Tower, which the narrator, Alexa, a 21-year-old queen, renames Jeannine Hancockatiel because she thinks the building is the most glamorous queen in Boston, and I could see it all. And, if we really want to get meta, there are scenes in the book where Alexa watches movies of the time, particularly Todd Haynes’s films Safe and Poison, so wouldn’t it be great if Todd Haynes made the movie? Todd Haynes, are you there?
SS: Did you know that I got Todd his first review? Jim Hubbard and I showed Todd’s first film, Assassins, at an early MIX Festival, and I chased down the gay experimental-literature critic at the Village Voice, Elliot Stein, and Jim and I gave him a private screening in Jim’s studio with Jim’s projector. I remember Todd was still a boy. He said, “What should I do?” and I said, “Send him a thank you note.” But that is THE PAST.
MBS: Sarah, I love that story about Todd Haynes—and, strangely, I’ve never heard of that first film. I thought his first film was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and I remember when it would show every week at the 99-cent Queer Video Fest in San Francisco in the early ’90s, in protest of the lawsuit by the Carpenter family that banned the film from showing, but I would always miss it because I was at ACT UP meetings. But I know that’s the past—and, before I get really weird and mention that for my senior page in my high school yearbook I used a T.S. Eliot quote—yes, the one about time present, time past, and time future. OK, just for a second: “If all time is eternally present / All time is irredeemable.” Sorry—what could be more past than the dead white men of the literary canon? Tell me about the future.
SS: The other things I am doing now are plays. I just had a reading of my play Roe Versus Wade at New York Theater Workshop and I am waiting. My play Between Covers was in New Works at The Goodman Theater in Chicago and I am waiting. The play is about what happens when corrupt institutions are terrified of liability suits stemming from sexual harassment. Marianne Faithfull and I are doing a stage collaboration, The Snow Queen, that is being commissioned by John McGrath, an old East Villager, at The Manchester Factory, and Elyse Cogan, from the Theatricals Division of Marianne’s music publisher BMG. At least they decided, now we are waiting for dates for the workshop. And my passion project love of my life, my movie about Carson McCullers, Lonely Hunter. What is the book you are writing now, after The Freezer Door?
MBS: I’d love to tell you about Touching the Art, the next book I’m working on now, which loosely is about the creative impulse, trauma, legacy, and what art can and cannot provide, but first I want to pause here because you’ve just mentioned all this great news in the theater world—so, you’ve written a musical with Marianne Faithfull, and two of your plays were just workshopped, and some people might not know that you are a theater queen, so to speak. Before I tell you more about Touching the Art, tell me what it is about theater that speaks to you so much.
SS: To quote Jeff Weiss, “The theater shows that we are all living in front of each other, at the same time, together.” Now, your next-next book is about painting, and a painter. Have you ever painted?
MBS: I painted as a child, in my grandmother’s studio. And art class in grade school was always my favorite place to escape. But for some reason words ended up speaking to me more than visual art, as the way I could express my place in the world, and its failings. So Touching the Art is about my relationship with my grandmother, who was a visual artist from Baltimore.
As a child, spending time in her studio was a rare time when I could dream in the actual world—I could imagine a creative life, because I was living it. She gave me that. But as an adult, she tried to take all of that back, to get me to follow the narrow path of upward mobility that was everything that would destroy me. And that’s one of the contradictions that I’m exploring in this book—how this woman who was so nurturing of everything that made me different, and queer, as a child—my creativity, femininity, empathy, softness, inquisitiveness—once I became an adult, and was creating work on my own terms, to her, my work was vulgar. Why are you wasting your talent, she would say, over and over. I realized that what truly mattered to her, at least in terms of my life, were the same things that mattered to the rest of my family, educational attainment and class status, and all of that I needed to reject in order to search for a place in the world without violence. Of course I’m still searching. What about you?
SS: My future is Palestine Solidarity. I am on the board of a think tank called RAIA (Research on the American-Israeli Alliance). Our Director, Eran Efrati, authored a mind-opening report called Deadly Exchange, in which he shows through extensive documentation that U.S. police have been doing exchanges with the Israeli military, using their tactics here at home, and also using Israeli weapons and surveillance equipment. I am also on their advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose brilliant director Rebecca Vilkomerson has grown the organization to 15,000 members at this point, and has been activating that information in their Deadly Exchange campaign aimed at the Anti-Defamation League’s role in facilitating these programs. So more of that in days to come. For myself, I really need an apartment with an elevator. My friends are getting too old to visit me on the sixth floor. Fortunately I have some younger friends. Where would you like to be living in the future?
MBS: I have absolutely no idea.
Over the past year, I’ve thought so much about what a novel can actually do in the world. I have to agree with Airea D. Matthews, when she recently tweeted “I love poems…Poems, however, will not make the world a better place. What makes the world better is individual & collective action. That’s work requiring a giant step outside the circle jerk radius…I think about the importance of signal and map songs during American slavery. They weren’t special because they were written, they were special because they were sung & signaled info. to aid escape.”
So, acknowledging the limits of literary work, while also their potential to be part of a wholesale response to the world when it becomes untenable, I’ve tried to commit to reading books that answered the question “What is a novel good for?” in original ways.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy is that kind of book. If there’s any justice in this world, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy will become the definitive novel of life in Boston, reducing all those sad Southie boy ballads to ether. Sketchtasy is one of those rare things—a literary novel with energy. It’s the story of Alexa and her group of friends, playing and partying and thinking and reading and working and organizing through mid-’90s Boston. Sycamore is a master of stream of consciousness narrative voice. In lesser hands, this style can lose focus and circle around itself but in Sycamore’s novel, it drums straight through to the end, a sure shot. Sketchtasy slyly trades 1990s nostalgia for a complicated queer narrative that is mesmerizing and heartbreaking all at once.
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