The Rumpus Interview with Mila Jaroniec

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Mila Jaroniec’s Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is a speedball, a mood book that’s fast and bleary, clear and true. Jaroniec describes her debut as “a road novel with no road,” as the unnamed narrator sobers up in an airport after drunkenly buying a ticket to try to win back her ex. It’s there at the airport, a “perfume emporium,” wandering the duty-free stores, standing in front of the racks of strange books, where the narrator muses, “Why no one does a Worst Of section is a mystery to me,” that she begins sorting through her life in a way that suggests that memory is less a choice than a kind of dead end.

Throughout the book, with back-and-forth sections from home and New York City, you can hear the poetic influences of Jack Kerouac and the fiery drive and energy of Michelle Tea, in scene upon unique scene—the late night Washington Square Park visions or perfect depictions of finding your way home while trying to count how many you’ve had in that early morning blue when you feel okay, good even, about the things that ultimately make you feel badly.

Mila, who I was classmates with in the MFA program at the New School Writing Program, portrays a relatable, overly observed existence, one where a drink or ten helps. “With us, the little bit of raw soul is stuck under a hard layer of acrylic and alcohol is the acetone soak.” She makes a poem out of the things you’ve thought while staring at yourself in a graffiti-fucked mirror in a bar in New York or any other electric city you find yourself in, in some state of existential meltdown. She paints the city, the bar talk, the lonely journal jots, relationships, moving, loss, family, and waiting alone in airports all the perfect color of cobalt blue. You might say Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is the perfect airport book.

Because she and I are both juggling newborns in our prospective cities, Akron and Nashville, we talked via a Google doc, as we’ve been in the habit of with everything from notes on new work to planning an upcoming print journal for drDOCTOR.

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The Rumpus: Can we talk about autofiction? Like the narrator in your novel, I know you worked in a sex shop at one point. And you and I have drank to excess together to some degree of the drinking that goes down throughout the book. In all seriousness, or close to it, can you speak to how this book came together and where you are on the spectrum of, say, writers like Knausgaard or Kerouac and someone who makes it all up, who doesn’t weave in autobiographical elements? In a recent Times piece on Zadie Smith and her latest novel, Swing Time, the first of her books written in first person, Smith says, “The most autobiographical part in the book are the passions.” Is that true for you, or does it extend beyond that? How do you decide which parts of your life to use?

Mila Jaroniec: We can talk about it. I love that this is the first question, because it’s the first thing I always hear—“How much of this book is real?” That part always gets me. “Real.” All of it and none of it, depending on which way you’re looking from. But I’ll be serious. The book wasn’t a book until I figured out the character. There were these scenes and snippets I’d been writing for years that I had no idea what to do with. I was trying to write short stories, but they always turned out flat and every time I thought I’d ended one there was always a “but also” so I could never finish. It didn’t occur to me until the summer of 2013, half blind from a hangover on a lawn chair in Poland, that I was mapping a novel. The form became clear then. My narrator is unnamed save for her nickname, La Maga, the woman in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. La Maga doesn’t have an “I” in Hopscotch, so I wanted to reimagine her as a lost person in the modern day. She’s me, in a lot of ways—the sex shop, the drinking, the searching for something nameless that keeps you up at night—but she’s everyone else, too. She’s braver than me. More reckless in the ways that matter. Writing her was more than just slapping together a bunch of experiences. I didn’t do most of the things my “I” does. But if they read as real as the true-to-life parts of it, then I think I’ve done my job.

Spectrum-wise, I’d say I’m a key down from Kerouac. I’m more manipulative. Knausgaard strikes me as someone whose entire MO is to work out how he got here and how things got to be this way. I’ve never actually read him and probably never will, but it says a lot that My Struggle is the work that brought him success after he’s written several novels. We love this idea of nothing but the truth, as a society. On that note, I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t use autobiographical elements to some extent. You can’t help what you live and what you notice. It creeps in. I don’t think it’s possible to make it all up. But a lot of people tend to view that as some sort of badge of honor, making it all up. Like it’s some impressive exercise of the imagination to keep your life at arm’s length. Maybe it is, but I don’t think that’s interesting. I can’t think of one example of transcendental literature that’s bone to skin artificial. But that has a lot to do with the kind of reader I am. I would much rather get to know someone’s mind than watch it do gymnastics.

When fiction is written in first person, it’s tempting to conflate the narrator with the author. And it’s true to some extent – we’re writing ourselves, but our other selves too. I’ve discovered that I don’t like writing in third person. It feels writerly in the way painterly work feels painterly. I like work that’s more personal. As Ken Kesey tells us in the first chapter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” This is the way I aim to create.

So as far as what parts of my life to use, if something I’ve lived through fits with the story, I’ll tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But most of the time, it’s just reference and manipulation.

And for everyone who keeps asking how much of the book is nonfiction, I recommend Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia. “I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.”

Rumpus: I can’t get away from thinking about Kerouac when I read your work. In part it’s the way you strain the real life stuff through your fiction, but it’s also the language, these great blasts of light and color you shine into some pretty dark places. There’s a Kerouac-like spontaneity with poetic stretches of language that land on the truth lines like, “All the holy women were blue.” There’s a boldness there along with an idea that ecstasy can heal us, that the ecstatic moment, which Kerouac was also obsessed with, is about more than transcendence, that the ecstatic might be healing or transformative. Do you know what I mean? There’s a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the novel, and sure those things can be unto themselves, but it feels like rather than being about escape, these things are really but about being there, being present. Or possibly not?

Jaroniec: Yes! I’m so happy you saw this. I find a lot of healing and transformation in what is more commonly—and more tritely, in our hypersensitive, mental health-obsessed culture—viewed as self-destruction. There’s always been a link between ecstasy and holiness, a lightning in the mind. Ginsberg is also obsessed with this idea. The Christian mystics got to this phoenix rising moment through starvation, solitude, meditation, thirsting, drugs. There’s an escape from the muck of everyday consciousness, baseline neural activity to arrive at the heart of the moment and open up inside it, expand to its size. You can’t understand a subatomic particle until you yourself become small. Does that make sense? If the thing you’re trying to see is inaccessible in your daylight mind, you have to go out of your mind a little. The trick is, you have to know how to come back.

Rumpus: In one of the journal entries, the narrator muses about what would have happened if Kerouac stayed in school. She writes:

Kerouac with his crazy scrolls of text, drunk on whiskey and visions, rolling on about holy nowhere and giving everyone a headache. A collective of class-taught writers cutting the scribbled parts of Desolation Angels and telling him to tighten up his prose. If Kerouac had stayed in school he would’ve given up on writing and started an emu farm.

How did a workshop environment impact your work, your process in putting this together?

Jaroniec: This question made me laugh. I’m happy I put that in. It’s something I always find myself giggling about—Kerouac is one of the greatest visionary writers this world has produced, and yet I’m absolutely certain he would have been chucked out of an MFA workshop. Truman Capote famously accused him of “typing.” But then, how soul-baring is Truman Capote? Look at this:

But the new Big Sun Autumn was now all winey sparkling blue which made the terribleness and giantness of the coast all the more clear to see in all its gruesome splendor, miles and miles of it snaking away south, our three jeeps twisting and turning the increasing curves, sheer drops at our sides, further ghostly high bridges to cross with smashings below—Tho all the boys are wowing to see it—To me it’s just an inhospitable madhouse of the earth, I’ve seen it enough and even swallowed it in that deep breath—

That’s from Big Sur. What would a workshop do with this excerpt? Too many adjectives. Messy structure. WC on “terribleness,” “giantness,” “winey.” Omit needless words. Don’t write cliches, and so on. That’s one pitfall of a workshop environment—confusing style and energy with ineptitude. There’s a reason we now have a genre called “MFA writing.” It all reads the same. An MFA program should help you develop your own voice, not homogenize it. For me, workshop wasn’t too detrimental because I’m stubborn, and pretty good at feeling out whether the criticism comes from a place of genuine insight or blindness. I was lucky enough to meet a handful of good readers of my work. Workshop is a good experience that way: You either get the advice you need to make the necessary changes, or you become that much more set in your ways. Ideally, both. But what I turned in for my thesis was just a super-rough first draft. It took being alone and out of that environment to really free up the prose.

Rumpus: Appropriately, I ended up reading a lot of the book in an airport. In the novel, the narrator’s absurd, kind of existential insight about airports is amazing. She’s pursuing books at one point, thinking:

Why no one does a Worst Of section is a mystery to me. Now that would be something to look at. A carefully curated collection of books that have not been critically acclaimed by anyone and never will be, that will never make it onto a required reading list, that have been stamped with no awards, have not been hailed as worth the time by any tastemaker committees, backed by no celebrity endorsements, maybe even lacking a description to begin with. Featuring absolutely zero plot, unbelievable protagonists and issues relevant to no one. Worst Of Contemporary Fiction. Imagine the possibilities. Worst Of Art & Design. Light installations designed to short circuit, a touring exhibit of frames without pictures and a line of high-end umbrellas made of paper maché. Worst Of Nonfiction & Memoir. Featuring kindhearted satanists and drug addicts who are not sorry.

There are excerpts like this throughout. These deadpan (no pun intended) lines like, “The first time I thought about killing myself was in a Steak & Shake.” Those kill me. You mention having to find the character. When did the humor begin to make it in? It feels like there’s a really crucial relationship between the tragedy and comedy for La Maga. How do you see those two playing together?

Jaroniec: In a lot of ways, the humor was there to begin with. That’s just the way I think. Maybe it has to do with being Polish. But making it make sense for La Maga to think that way was challenging. That’s part of why I gave her my own background. Eastern Europeans have a natural feel for absurdity. I had to show her as someone who sees the dark and light simultaneously, and often, interchangeably. And with this excerpt, well. What’s more absurd than the publishing industry?

Rumpus: In addition to working at the sex shop and writing, have you had any other interesting jobs?

Jaroniec: I feel like my jobs have been pretty standard. I’ve put a lot of years into the retail and service industries. Selling butt plugs and vibrators is not all that different from selling books, candy, or overpriced makeup, which I’ve also done. I’ve been a bartender, a barista, a dishwasher, a Maitre d’ on Park Avenue. I had a brief stint as a fetish model. I’ve done phone sex. This was when my ex moved out and I was stuck with double the rent. I made more money doing that than the freelance copywriting I was also doing. I’m actually working on an essay collection about this right now. It’s called REAL JOB.

Rumpus: You mentioned earlier that we can’t help what we notice. James Woods describes the writer as noticer. In The Nearest Thing to Life, discussing Chekhov’s story “The Kiss,” Wood writes, “What a serious noticer a writer must be to write those lines. Chekhov appears to notice everything. He sees that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one, because we are internal expansionists, comic fantasists.” In the same chapter, suggesting the sacredness of detail and the idea that “a story is story-producing,” Wood writes that details are “lifeness itself.”

Your narrator, a writer herself, notices and obsesses about the world to an excruciating degree, to an extent that’s harmful, possibly. You write:

Sometimes when you look in the mirror you see a stranger in the place you used to be, especially if you fixate too long on one particular point, a single pore or a stray hair on your chin. It’s the same thing that happens when you say a word twenty times in a row, over and over until you don’t know the meaning of it anymore. Something gets lost between the worlds.

In a novel of details, of extreme dilation, and a kind of cataloguing of people and places, the keepsakes of the narrator’s brother, how did you go about selecting those things, those details that, as Hemingway put it are the “unnoticed things that [make] emotions… the things which moved you before you knew the story.” Basically, how did you do this? How did you choose what to show when the character is one I’d argue notices everything.

Jaroniec: Well, as Hemingway also notes, a novel is as much about what you don’t say as what you do. Arguably more. “Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in.” He also says, “There are many more explainers now than there are good writers.” It’s a comforting thought, that the writing world is the same now as it was then. And has been, and will be.

Not that Ezra Pound would have liked this book, but it is driven by imagism. All the parts are there for the reader to put together. I have a lot of respect for the reader. They don’t need me holding their hand to play hopscotch.

Rumpus: The narrator has a pretty specific relationship with reality and how she’s willing to alter it, including a list of drugs she does and doesn’t like to take. I’m curious how much of losing control is about control for her? What is it that appeals to her about getting fucked up?

Jaroniec: A lot of it is about control. But I think it’s the same for many people who are, as you’ve mentioned, noticers. Reality is like a big rollercoaster. It can be fun and there are thrill points and points of lightness and flying and then there are uncomfortable turns, plummets, heartsqueeze stops. Except you don’t get to get off of it and go get in line for something else. Some of us deal with it, some of us panic. That’s why we have all these things to help when our brains get overheated. Alcohol, drugs, exercise, sex, religion, raw veganism, home improvement, materialism, gambling… with all these possibilities of making yourself forget how bad you feel, it’s hard to find someone who is completely addiction-free. La Maga is a raw nerve. She’s a very sensitive person, but also a very conscious person. She uses alcohol in part to soften, to dissolve and accept, but also to sharpen, to zoom in on the thoughts and feelings that, in the daylight, are uncategorized and prickling. She likes to dilute reality according to the needs of her mind. She also knows that her mind has a more delicate build than most. If it’s pushed too far, it could break. This aspect of her was inspired by my own personal fear of hallucinogens. The first person I was ever in love with broke his brain on acid. He was this extremely talented musician, this kind and effluvient soul. One day the lights just went out. He never came back. It was heartbreaking to see. La Maga’s not after blinding oblivion like a really gone addict. Maybe if she were a better writer, she would call up the energy to stay sober a little more. Do something with these things crawling around inside her head. Or if she were more sober, she would be a better writer?

Rumpus: That calls to mind what you said in “Artificial Ecstasy,” a recent essay on motherhood and sobriety, where you wrote:

There are addicts and then there are addicts: the ones who meet their substance at a young age and mate for life, and passerby depressives who latch onto whatever helps at the time and become addicts by default. A sickness versus a sickness from a sickness. So writes Elizabeth Wurtzel, more or less, in More, Now, Again.

I read this with a death hangover in the summer and felt superior, firmly in the second category.

La Maga seems like the latter as well, right? There’s an idea that it serves a function, whether to help connect with people or slow down the rollercoaster.

Jaroniec: Yes, exactly. She’s dealing with a lot. I actually feel like she deals with her set of losses way better than I would be able to. But, you know. There’s a difference between someone who drinks a little too much to blur the edges and a violent drunk who beats their family and can’t hold down a job. This is why I can’t get down with the whole “everyone is powerless over alcohol” AA rhetoric. I love alcohol. It helps tremendously. But I love sobriety, too. I don’t take feeling clear-headed for granted. And obviously I didn’t drink during pregnancy, because what kind of monster do you have to be? So, I know I’m not powerless. La Maga, on the other hand, never has to be sober. It makes me wonder how she would handle it.

Rumpus: You started the book before having a child and ended and edited after your son was born. Did that change anything for you? Having a new life around? Not just in terms of time and energy, but in terms of your outlook?

Jaroniec: It changed everything. I finished the book in June 2015, four months before I got pregnant. I didn’t look at it again until it got picked up by Split Lip. My son was born at the end of June 2016, and my edits were due a little after that. So the draft had just been sitting there for a year undisturbed until suddenly I had to go back into it and clean it up for the outside world, all bleary and sleep-deprived and riddled with postpartum depression. And the first thing I thought was, The next book is going to make money. Is that ridiculous? I didn’t write this one with money in mind. I’m happy if ten people read it. But it’s not just about me anymore. My life doesn’t belong exclusively to me. Now, it matters whether I’m around or not. The work I do matters. Practically, I mean, not in the way art cosmically matters, or fifty years after it’s created. I was perfectly happy sleeping on a yoga mat and eating dollar pizza until Silas came along, but that doesn’t apply anymore. I’m not setting out to write a bestseller, but I want to do right by my son.

As far as the writing itself goes, giving birth shifted something in me. I have a sharper eye now. New clarity. The sentences I write now, they’re harder. Shorter. It’s like the prose also has no time.

Rumpus: Michelle Tea, whose work you seem to admire and is actually woven into your novel, said she could only ever write one Valencia. Is that true for you? As you consider what’s next, how are you balancing motherhood and writing, and, because it’s both a theme in the book and something a lot of us former New Yorkers can relate to, what’s it like being home? How has that impacted your work?

Jaroniec: As in, could I ever only write one Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover? Yes and no. I mean, the themes and images I’m obsessed with will keep showing up, but not like this. In a way, you only ever really write one book. But the work evolves with the writer. This book has a place in my heart but it’s a skin I’ve shed. It’s outside of me now. I’m incubating something else.

Right now I’m working on another novel, and that essay collection I mentioned earlier. I’m not very good at balancing, because if I choose to write I feel like I’m neglecting my baby, and vice versa. The mom guilt runs deep! But I just suck it up. I take my anxiety to work. I’ll always feel anxious about something, or not good enough, but so what. You can’t count your anxiety at the end of the month, but you can count your pages. I try to give myself two hours a day every day, which realistically means I’ll get them three or four days out of the week. But I’m always thinking about it, taking notes. There’s a lot of time to do the non-writing part of writing.

And home, well. It kind of took me by surprise, because I wasn’t planning to stay. I really just meant to take a mini-break. I was actually planning to move back to New York around the time I got pregnant. But, you get pregnant in Ohio, you’re stuck in Ohio. At least for a little while. I was very uncomfortable at first, very homesick. But I’m starting to warm up to it a little more now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to raise my son in a more hospitable environment. As far as the work goes, it’s good that I’m here. There’s a lot of home in the second novel.

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Author photograph © Allison Good, Catcake Photography.


Luke Wiget is a writer and musician who lives in Nashville, TN. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Millions, Smokelong Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, among others. He co-curates and hosts drDOCTOR, a podcast and reading series. Find Luke on Twitter @godsteethandme. More from this author →