The Writing Life on the Road: You’ll Never Be an Appalachian Writer
Juliet Escoria on writing from Beckley, West Virginia, and why New York City is bad for writers.
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Electric Literature’s contributing editor Michael J Seidlinger is on the road as part of his project, #FollowMeBook, visiting writers and exploring the limits of social media. As part of a limited summer series called “The Writing Life on the Road,” he’s sharing his conversations with writers as he makes his way from New York to California. This week, Juliet Escoria, author of Black Cloud, Witch Hunt, and the forthcoming Juliet the Maniac, shares details and insights from her writing life in West Virginia.
What follows are highlights from Juliet’s interview with Michael. Her responses have been edited for clarity.
Setting the Scene
We’re sitting on my front porch in Beckley, West Virginia in my neighborhood full of smallish houses that were built mostly in the 50’s. I think our house has a fair amount of lead in it, I’m guessing. Our porch for some reason has carpeting on it. I’m not sure why our landlord thought it was a good idea, but it’s here.
My dog, Jelly, who’s obnoxious but very cute, is out here. There is also a cat named The Snow Leopard, not officially, but that’s what we call it. That’s its reputation on the streets. It is a very intimidating cat that will fuck you up.
Where She Writes
I am specific to a certain spot, and if I don’t have my spot then it’s hard for me to write. I work in the basement, and I have a very small desk that has seen me through three books now, and now I’m superstitious about it. Say I had a bunch of money and for some reason I wanted to buy a really big, expensive desk, I wouldn’t do it. I’d keep this tiny, little, shitty desk that I got on Craigslist.
How She Writes
One thing that changed my writing process was not caring if the section or story is good at all when I get started. I will write the worst draft ever, just to get it down. It’s almost outlining, in a way. Like the first draft is figuring out where it’s going to go, and then I redo it and redo it and redo it, over and over and over again. Toward the end, I change the font and spacing, then go through it again. The last thing I do is print it out, read it aloud, and then make a few more go-rounds that way.
When She Writes
I used to exclusively write late at night. But then when you get married, you have to maintain a relationship and stuff so staying up till 6 in the morning doesn’t fit in so well.
Creating (and Sometimes Missing) Deadlines
Sometimes I’ll create arbitrary goals for myself, such as “I have to finish this by this date” and that helps me. For a while, I wanted to write one section of the book per week. Sometimes I’d have really good weeks where I’d finish four, and then Christmas would come and we’d be out of town and I wouldn’t work on it for a couple of weeks. I don’t think it’s good to get hung up on small stuff like that. Still, I feel bad when I don’t write. When I finished the draft of Juliet the Maniac, and I was waiting to hear back from my agent, I wasn’t writing for a while, on purpose just to give myself a break. But then I started to feel generally purposeless.
When I finished Black Cloud, I wanted to work on what eventually became Juliet the Maniac but it wasn’t working out. I think I was still preoccupied with the story collection. And a few months ago, in between waiting for my agent to get back to me with her notes, I wanted to write a short story, because I’d been missing short stories. Again, I couldn’t focus on it. I feel very much held hostage by whatever my writing wants to do, which is frustrating.
Being stressed out about money is not good for writing.
Life Outside New York
New York and I were not good together, when it came to writing. I had to work so much that I was barely writing at all. It got better when I moved back to California. I think West Virginia has been the best place for me, though, by far. It’s quiet here, and there is not a whole lot to do. I like it. We have plenty of space too, I think that helps, so I have my little station and Scott [McClanahan] has his. And, like I said, I definitely need my spot that I work out of.
Scott and I don’t have a lot of money but it’s comfortable here anyway because everything is so cheap. We’re not stressed out about money. We can do, not like, everything we want, but reasonable things, so that is good. Being stressed out about money is not good for writing.
Writing in Appalachia
There’s an Appalachian writing scene that neither of us are a part of. It’s very insular and academic, very niche and there’s only so much funding. A lot of these people you never would have heard of, but they work at this university and have won these prizes. They don’t like Scott because they think he plays into the stereotypes. They want you to write about apple pie or something. They like stuff about coal mining and mountaintop removal and those types of topics. I don’t count as an Appalachian writer. I just happen to live in Appalachia.
I don’t count as an Appalachian writer. I just happen to live in Appalachia.
There are some guys who have put together a music and reading series called Travelin’ Appalachians Revue, that comes through the state every summer, and that’s always really nice. The crowds are supportive and interested, and there is not an ounce of jadedness or cynicism. Beyond that there is not a whole lot in terms of scene.
Finding Your Community
We have some friends here who write and they’re great — Mesha Maren and her husband, Randal O’Wain. But mostly I find and maintain my community through my phone. Texting other writers and then of course, social media. I value the chat functions a lot more than the social media platforms themselves.
But I feel like we’ve reached a saturation point of social media. I think something is going to happen to it, like we’ve reached some sort of tipping point. But maybe we haven’t, maybe it’s just going to get worse. The current state of politics doesn’t help. It’s hard to pay attention to books when you read that people are going to be deported, and are worried about the possibility of World War III. And then there is everyone’s need to show what a great person they are via their social media, and that is frustrating.
I like doing readings because you can go to different cities and meet the people that you know from the internet, and suddenly they are actual people, as opposed to internet people. That I think is good enough in itself. I don’t know if readings help in terms of book sales or visibility. Mostly I do readings to hang out with friends who live in different cities, and then I can write off the traveling expenses on my taxes.