Juliet Escoria Wants to Bring Back Fistfights

Juliet Escoria’s new collection of short stories, You Are the Snake, is a work of impulse, restraint, and catharsis. Like her 2019 novel, Juliet the Maniac, the writing in these 19 stories is meticulously raw, minimally descriptive, and sparsely elaborated. I talked with Escoria about tarot, fistfights, and the pitfalls of publishing.

Charlene Elsby: How did this book come together? As in, how did you ultimately impose order on this collection?

Juliet Escoria: I really like moving things around in space. I’ve done that with all of my books. Ordering this one was really hard and I made myself a little crazy over it. I ended up writing the titles on cut-up pieces of index cards and then color coding them based on themes and also just general vibe. The weirdest I got with it was trying to assign them to different suites in the Thoth tarot deck? I was really lost in the weeds at that point. Scott [McClanahan, Escoria’s spouse], Blake Butler, and Mesha Maren all gave me feedback and helped snap me out of it.

CE: Your characters tend to be young. Something I found interesting in this text was how the story “Little Bitch” flips the vantage point by taking on the perspective of an adult woman who suddenly has to deal with the constant presence of a small child. Which aspects of youth do you think we should fight to retain, and which aspects are better left for dead?

JE: I love play and stupid jokes and I think these elements of my personality are good for me, and good for people in general. If you don’t become wiser and less self-centered as you age, you suck. That said, I wish it was more socially acceptable to make prank phone calls into adulthood. I love prank phone calls. As the philosopher Mark Hoppus once said, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23 and are still amused by prank phone calls.”

CE: This collection engages with violence across several stories—as a random act, or as the result of some prior festering resentment. Based on your own experiences and observations, what are the necessary preconditions under which violence occurs? Do you believe it’s inevitable?

JE: I think you need a certain degree of rage and alienation. I think that’s the combination that has caused me to be violent in the past. And also mental illness; my brain has a sizzling point, still.

Honestly, I think violence gets a bad rap these days. Something broke in our society when fistfights became socially unacceptable. We should bring back the playground and bar brawl. In internet fights, people use this faux veneer of politeness, where they will veil something nasty with corporate HR language, and I find it morally repugnant. If you want to insult somebody, just insult them. If you want to hurt somebody, just punch them. It’s more honest and less damaging. I guess that’s an aspect of violence I’m interested in, too. It’s nasty but it’s honest, and there can be integrity in unvarnished nastiness.

CE: Do you believe that humanity is ultimately teeming with violent impulses constrained only by habit, convention or force?

JE: I guess I both do and don’t? I mean, obviously we can be pretty terrible, but I think the terribleness mostly comes at a group, rather than individual, level. I do think our capability and propensity for violence makes our gentle/loving actions that much more meaningful, and I also believe that we are more good than evil.

I definitely—obviously—am more interested in writing, and also reading, about our worse sides, and find them more compelling. At least more recently, that has to do with an interest in how people change over time. We’re sometimes told, “People don’t change,” but that is a total lie. We do change. I think about everyone I’ve known for a long time, or even the writers I’ve known over the 14 years I’ve been publishing, and they’ve all changed. There is an essence that stays the same, but we still dig into things, or release them, or otherwise morph. I think I’m specifically interested in the temporary set of conditions that can make an otherwise “normal” person violent.

CE: Is there some minimum amount of normal you have to maintain in order to write? In order to publish?

JE: Eleven years ago, I wrote an essay-thing about how I thought this Flaubert quote was bullshit: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.

I feel like that essay has come back to haunt me. As life has become more and more bourgeois, I feel simultaneously like my writing has gotten better and weirder. I don’t think that quote is bullshit anymore. I don’t think it’s universally true, but it’s been true for me. My writing has also become a relatively healthy outlet for the self-destructive urges that at one time nearly killed me. If I’m dead, I can’t write, and I need a bit of normalcy to stay alive.

But really I think it’s a sense of duty that is required, and that some normalcy is required to fill that duty. You have to be a consistent control freak to finish a book. But too much normalcy also can kill writing—it’s a balance. But oh God, publishing is rough. I think you need normalcy to not have publishing turn you into an insecure mess, or an ego-driven monster.

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