28th Jun 2012
Juliet Escoria’s Three Favourite Authors
Juliet Escoria is a writer and editor. Currently living in Southern California, where she’s working on a novel, she still found time to tell us all about three authors she loves above all others…
I’m an only child who grew up with two educators for parents, in neighbourhoods that housed very few other children my age. So of course I grew up loving books, reading them as voraciously as a drunk drinks booze.
My favourite writers have changed over the years… if I had written this in high school, I probably would have included Francesca Lia Block, Jack Kerouac, and Katherine Dunn, due to their ability to spin a wild tale. Now Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, and Joan Didion make up my holy trinity of writers.
While different in terms of aesthetics and style, these writers do share some notable qualities. First, they’ve all been highly influential in my own writing. Second, each writes work that is striking, brutal in its truths, and completely and utterly devoid of any nonsense – yet they still manage to create stories that are beautiful and empathetic. And third, they all happen to be women.
I find this last quality to be the most interesting – especially in light of all the talk that’s been going around about how unfairly women are represented in the canon, the literary scene, and modern-day publishing.
Supposedly, women are statistically better at expressing themselves verbally, as well as at being sensitive to others’ emotions; these are two qualities that are obviously highly important for good writing.
So what’s the deal, here? Are my personal favourites all women merely by chance? Are we still living in a wildly sexist society? Are women really the better – albeit, more unsung – writers? I guess, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.
These three women have changed my life as a reader and a writer for the better, and if you are unfamiliar with any of their works, I highly suggest you change that, and fast.
I was lucky enough to have had Amy Hempel as my professor over two semesters while at Brooklyn College’s graduate writing program. One time before class, she was telling us how she had been walking her dogs (if you can’t tell by her writing, Ms. Hempel is a huge dog person) when she nearly got plowed over by a cyclist going the wrong direction down the street.
She was on the verge of becoming very angry and yelling at the guy, but then she noticed the cyclist was David Byrne and suddenly everything became okay.
I proceeded to blow my total fangirl cover and said, “Maybe David Byrne was thinking ‘Who is this woman with all these dogs getting in my way?’ but then decided he didn’t care because it was Amy Hempel.”
Why am I such an Amy Hempel fangirl? It could be the long white hair, the blue eyes, the perfect skin, but of course it comes down to the prose.
Perhaps the story that best exemplifies why I love her so much is her super short, The Orphan Lamb, which was published in Harper’s September 2010 issue.
In six short sentences, she manages to go from brutality to kindness and then backflip into a complicated vein of romantic love. Her writing is graceful, stunning, and pared down to only the essentials – just like good writing should be.
The first book I read by Joan Didion was Play it as it Lays. I was in my early twenties, drinking too much and swallowing too many pills, going down yet another spiral of a near-breakdown.
The book was either perfect for me to read at the time, or absolutely horrible – I’m still not sure quite which. Either way, it drove its way into me.
Maria was someone I could relate to, in a time when I felt like I couldn’t relate to much. Besides, there’s simply something incredibly bad-ass about a woman alone, driving around endlessly, subsisting on not much else besides hardboiled eggs, diet Coke, cigarettes, and bad decisions.
Didion’s sentences weave around in a way that is precise and cutting. Her mind works in a mode that could be compared to a bird of prey… first she circles the subject, sailing smoothly from a distance. And then she goes in for the kill.
For instance, there’s these lines, from the beginning of her essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Goodbye to All That”:
“When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was.”
And, at 77, she’s still just as sharp and glamorous as she was when she met her first dose of success in the ‘60s. I saw her read a few months ago at Symphony Space in New York City, and she looked (slim, stylish, & clad in nearly all black) and sounded (pithy as all get out) exactly as good as I hoped. And I had been hoping for a lot.
When I was young, my dad would take me to the bookstore for “Daddy-daughter book trips.” He would tell me that he would buy me whatever book I wanted. After a while of wandering around the store, I would come up to him with two or three books and ask him which one I should buy.
He, thinking it was incredibly important for me to love reading, would almost always buy me all three, without hesitation. Somehow, one of these books purchased by my father was Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To.
Needless to say, I was too young for such stories, but later I discovered the book on my shelf and re-read it and subsequently fell deeply in love.
I would be terrified to know Gaitskill in real life for fear that she might describe me in her head the way she describes her characters on the page. She doesn’t miss a thing, and the results are often brutal. For example, this is from College Town, 1980, which was published in her 2009 collection, Don’t Cry.
“Dolores knew the waitress. Her name was Teresa. She was a young, ungainly woman whose stomach seemed to be leading her around. She had a funny way of holding her forearms out in front of her at the waist, elbows bent, large hands dangling like flippers. Dolores knew that she had a snotty boyfriend, that she’d just graduated from the School of Public Health, and that she wanted to open an abortion clinic.”
Her stories tend to be about people with problems – drug, sex, mental – and, as a result, her stories can be shocking and unsettling. Still, I find a sweetness to them, which is almost exemplified by the often-sordid subject matter.
Her stories are about people trying to find their way in a world that is difficult to navigate, yet often these people find solace in each other.
The solace found may not be conventional or even well-defined, but it’s there. Her characters are doing the best they can with what they are given, and there’s something heartbreakingly beautiful in that.
Juliet Escoria teaches college and is a Contributing Editor to Electric Literature’s blog, The Outlet. In May, Electric Literature released their latest venture, Recommended Reading, a free, weekly online publication that is part salon, part digest, part journal. For more from Juliet, you can read her fiction in BlackBook, Pear Noir!, and Hobart, among other places.