To Write the Way We Live: A Conversation with Jonathan Escoffery

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When it comes to Jonathan Escoffery and his linked story collection, If I Survive You—out now from MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux—you should absolutely believe the hype. Believe everything you’ve read, too, like how stories from the collection have won prestigious awards such as Passages North‘s Waasnode Fiction Prize, Prairie Schooner’s Glenna Luschei Award, and The Paris Review‘s Plimpton Prize for Fiction. Or how Escoffery has netted both a NEA (Prose) Literature Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, among others. Or how his collection has received glowing praise from all-stars like Ann Patchett, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Aimee Bender, Marlon James, and Charles Baxter.

The prose in If I Survive You is lush and tight and precise and heartbreaking and hilarious, all at the same time, and Escoffery’s ability to capture a Jamaican-American family’s unsteady existence in and around Miami is telescopically fantastic. Centering around the younger son, Trelawny, and the trials of his brother Delano, his father Topper, and his mother Sanya, the collection examines just what it takes to survive when the world isn’t sure about your place in it, and when you aren’t either.

Escoffery and I had the chance to talk recently about punishment, private islands, and the pure joy of second-person point of view.

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Rumpus: I’m curious what the genesis for the collection was and how you branched out from there. Did you know ultimately what you wanted with each character’s fate or was that a surprise?

Escoffery: I’ll say that the ending of the final story in the book was a surprise. When I wrote “In Flux,” the opening story, I’d been working on some of the other stories beforehand. But it wasn’t until I wrote “In Flux” that I realized that I actually had a book. And this gave me the chance to explore these characters’ backgrounds more in stories like “Pestilence,” where we get to see what Topper and Sanya were like when they were married, and then in a story like “Under the Ackee Tree,” where it gets more into what they were like before they were married. I swear, I think a working title for the collection was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Jamaican-American Family. For me, that’s what is so good about fiction, that we can move in and around these characters for different perspectives.

Rumpus: Another thing that I really loved about If I Survive You is just how much shit you like to put your characters through. It feels like it’s almost punishment. When you know what you’re going to do to your characters, is this something that you have in mind before you start writing the story? Do you let these punishments surprise you? In short, are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser or a plotter?

Escoffery: Mostly, I let these kinds of things surprise me. I was a plotter for the story, “If I Survive You” because, for one, it’s the longest story in the collection, and it was also the story that I wrote last. I was working with my agent, René, to tighten the stories and to figure out how linked I wanted these stories to be. Once I decided that I wanted the stories to be deliberately linked, I wanted to get deeper into the arc of the overall book, and to where it leads and leaves readers, and there was this final, standalone story that I wanted to close out the narrative for everything that’s happened before. And it was a question of how in the heck I could do that. This sounds difficult, I thought. I’m going to have to forge myself into a better writer.

Rumpus: Well, shit, how do I pull this off?

Escoffery: Right. So there’s that opening scene with Trelawny and Topper on the steps of the boys’ childhood home, and Topper has this ask of Trelawny, for him to buy the home outright from Topper. And Trelawny is wondering: If I buy this house, will this make me whole in the eyes of my family and my father? But that was the core of the story, and then I had to work backwards and figure out how to build a story around this arc.

I think keeping readers interested involves keeping this series of turns going. Things get a little better, and then they get a little worse, and this is all to keep the characters on their toes so the story doesn’t get monotonous.

Rumpus: And it’s not being punitive to your characters for the sake of being punitive.

Escoffery: Right. One example of not making it so punishing for the reader is how Topper, in a sense, does achieve the American Dream. He has his house at the end, and he’s been able to build himself and his business up. He achieves some of those things, but so many things go wrong, as well. I’d say, then, that I’m really interested in the cost of things, the cost of achievement. Is it more important to be a provider, for example, or is it more important to be a good husband? Sometimes things like this are going to be at odds with each other.

Rumpus: There’s so much desperation behind trying to achieve both those things. And no joke: some of the situations you put Trelawny in are just downright, hilariously fucked-up, and I love that.

Escoffery: Yeah, I think you definitely need to have some sense of pleasure to go along with the pain, right? For the readers, at least, if not for Trelawny. But I do think Trelawny gets himself to this place where he’s exuberant about his own pain and trauma. It’s almost as if he’s addicted to it. And while that’s a bad thing, I think at a certain point he is able to accept this as his own fate. He sees the universe as assigning him a specific role, so he decides that he’s going to play it up and have a little bit of fun with it.

Rumpus: Kind of along those lines, I love reading about shitty jobs.

Escoffery: Me too!

Rumpus: And I love reading about the details behind those shitty jobs. I love it that you throw Trelawny, for one, into so many of these horrible jobs. One gig has him collecting data on tenants in a government-funded living facility, and then he has these other, less glamorous, Craigslisted gigs going on. I was curious, then: What is the shittiest job you’ve ever worked?

Escoffery: I’ve worked some shitty jobs. I’ve found it’s always a choice between what kind of shitty job you want. For example, I worked as a distributor for the Miami Herald, in the warehouse, back in high school, and I would have to take out the trash and clean the toilets. I was kind of a janitor because I was dealing with literal shit, and I had to do it really early in the morning before going to class, and I would try not to smell, you know? And part of my standard operating procedure for the job was climbing into the big garbage bins to make sure they were as compacted as possible.

Compare that to working on Fisher Island, which is a private island off Miami Beach and South Beach, and it’s one of the cleanest places around the city because you have billionaires and millionaires living there, at least part-time. And it’s absolutely pristine, but the downside is that you have to deal with people and with their egos, and if one of the members—who they called ‘owners’ because they invested in the island—came out of the restaurant drunk and wanted you to drive them to their apartment or wherever, you never knew what was going to transpire once you were taking them back in the golf cart. Were they going to hit on you? Were they going to do something else?

Rumpus: Did any of the jobs you worked find their way into Trelawny’s timeline? Or Topper’s, or Delano’s?

Escoffery: I’ll say that I’ve been the guy who dragged branches to the truck for the landscaping company. The main job that I borrow from in the book, though, is Trelawny’s in “Independent Living.” I worked that job. I would find people dead in their apartments all the time, and this was at an independent-living, low-income facility for the elderly. I’ll probably get sued for this, but people think those places exist so that the elderly can live out their last couple of decades with dignity, but they actually exist to drive up property values. Those notebooks that pop up in the story where the facility kept its waitlist? Yeah, those exist, and that’s how it was done.

Thankfully, I wasn’t living out of my car at the time, but I was broke.

Rumpus: I know you’ve written before in defense of second-person point of view (POV)—and I’m right there with you as someone who loves working in second-person. I’m curious why Trelawny’s and Topper’s stories in the collection get the second-person treatment, and not the others. What made it so that point of view got preferential treatment?

Escoffery: I think for both of them that I wanted to explore specifically how they moved in the world. I think Trelawny, for example, is hyper-analytical and hyper-observant, and I think this creates an opportunity for him to become obsessed with the choices he’s made.

Going back, I think I noticed a change in him as a character once he goes away to college. He’s a little more responsible for the choices he’s making, because, in his childhood, he was the recipient of a lot of questions about who he was, but he leaves for college as an adult, and he’s an active participant in those questions about identity now. And that’s when the voice changes to be a bit more biting and a little bit more critical about the choices he’s making. He knows he’s at least partly responsible for the phenomena that are coming at him, and how people are approaching him because of how he looks, and the assumptions they’re making, and the demands they’re making of him. He’s one of those people who can oftentimes take bad situations and make them so much worse, but at least he’s aware of the fact that he’s made the wrong choice in hindsight.

And I wanted Topper to have a similar sense of situational awareness. He’s had privilege basically his entire life, and I wanted to start him off as a character who’s almost blindly optimistic. He thinks he’s deserving of a life that turns out well, and that, at first, things are going to turn out well for his family, but he’s eventually going to come to the realization that he’s a source of some of the harm that comes to his kids.

Rumpus: I like that sense of how second-person POV can evolve to be more analytical, more empathetic to the characters.

Escoffery: To me, it’s a little more difficult when a first-person narrator is so aware of their mistakes in the present. And that awareness forces me to question just how much I trust their point of view, you know? I don’t buy it, in a way. And I know it’s true that great writers will just make you buy whatever they’re selling, but it’s a little more difficult with hyper-aware, first-person narrators. I start to question why they’re being so self-critical and down on themselves, and it feels almost performative sometimes. But that’s what I wanted to avoid with the second-person POV.

Meanwhile, Delano is someone who’s largely blind to his own faults, and he’s someone who’s going to live constantly in the moment. That’s the reason that he’s squarely not written in the second-person. He’s not necessarily going to be aware of his own actions and how they direct his fate.

Rumpus: Watching Delano make one bad decision after another, and then watching him recover a bit is just pure comedy. It’s so much good tension, and you know exactly when and how to let up on that tension.

What made sense to you in terms of building up your characters’ narratives as a linked story collection versus a novel?

Escoffery: With this first book, I thought I was going to be this genius writer who put together a novel where each chapter could serve as a standalone short story, and that it could all work to tackle these deep, philosophical questions like an essay might. I wanted to do it all, you know? Still, though, I kind of wonder what stopped me from trying to format it as a novel. In the lead-up with editors and publishers to the book sale, several of them told me that it was a proper novel in their minds. In Germany, for example, it was sold there as a novel, and I don’t think that’s dishonest as a marketing ploy. But to be honest, I think there was so much experimentation with form and against the expectations we have of novels that I just couldn’t in good conscience try to format it as such.

But I really did want to celebrate the short story itself. You know how they say, “Stand on your square?” Well, I see myself as a story writer, and that’s just the best thing ever. I wanted to write these stories and give readers these interconnected worlds where they didn’t have to start over someplace between story #1 and story #3. In a sense, then, you’re not starting off fresh with each story, but you’re instead getting deeper into the worlds of these characters. That was the thing that was most important to me, and as long as we’re really enjoying the ride along with these characters, and as long as things are building and you’re learning more about them, then that gives me the chance to take readers along to pretty much the end of their connected stories.

But who knows? I might want to write lots more about these people and their lives. But with the book itself, I think there’s a certain momentum and a certain expectation with novels where you already know by the end of each chapter what the questions are that need to be answered in the following chapters. In a linked story collection, though, that’s not how the book is set up to operate.

Rumpus: Who were the writers you had to read in order to pull off this collection?

Escoffery: You know, I’ve been thinking lots and lots about Nella Larsen. I mean, I’ll move toward the contemporaries, but I’ll start with Larsen, who’s most known for Passing, which is now a movie, and her other novel, Quicksand, which is this really wonderful and short narrative. It’s about a biracial Black woman who is dealing with her experiences moving from expectations that are put upon her in the south, and then when she goes to Chicago and then Harlem, and then Scandinavia, and all these different treatments she receives and all these expectations people have of her in those different environments. I feel like, without having read Quicksand, there would be no “In Flux.” I mean, it’s more of a male, Caribbean perspective based in the US, and it’s viewed largely through what I’ve experienced, but still.

So many others, though. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which also does some very cool stuff with second-person over a long amount of time. And grad school was when I first got to know Junot Diaz’s work, and that was really encouraging to think about how I could vary up and use language. Not so much in terms of how to use English and Spanish, but how to use ‘high’ versus ‘low’ language, and as someone whose family is Jamaican and who’s lived all over the country, and who’s moved between classes, I feel like reading Diaz has given me the chance to explore these class distinctions between what I’ve read and what I’ve lived. He’s opened up that up for a lot of us to be able to write the way we live.

Rumpus: And I love it how he’s able to bring back Yunior in both collections, too.

Escoffery: Absolutely. And you’ve got ways in which he’s able to tell a story from one character’s perspective and then another character’s perspective, who’s able to say, “That’s not how it went.” Those perspectives might not necessarily align, but you’re also able to have characters who say, “Well, this is how I experienced it.” And that’s how we live, too, you know? That’s how we revise our own stories.

And then Justin Torres’s We The Animals was such a wonderful book where the chapters are able to function as standalone stories, and the prose is consistently so flowing and musical. And then Tiphanie Yanique is really interesting with her use of syntax in the Caribbean dialects. Obviously, they’re different dialects, but her presentation of it in How to Escape from a Leper Colony really opened my eyes to it and pushed me further when I was writing stories like “Under the Ackee Tree.” I have more in my toolbox now thanks to her. And of course Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is another gift from grad school. I’m embarrassed; that’s such an MFA-bro thing to say.

Rumpus: But it’s so damn good! It’s a collection that you can assign to non-English majors and have them fall in love with stories.

Escoffery: Absolutely. I think reading that collection allowed me to push Trelawny to really fuck up, you know?

 

 

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Author photo by Cola Greenhill-Casados


Barrett Bowlin (@barrettbowlin) is the author of the story collection Ghosts Caught on Film (Bridge Eight Press, forthcoming in spring '22). Links to his essays and stories can be found at barrettbowlin.com. He lives and teaches and rides trains sometimes in Massachusetts. More from this author →