Jonathan is a Miami-based writer of Jamaican heritage. He is currently studying Fiction as a MFA candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing program, and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Florida International University. He is the current Fiction Editor at dislocate Magazine. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming in Interrobang?! Magazine, The Coffin Factory, Radioactive Moat Press, Sliver of Stone Magazine, and elsewhere. His songwriting is featured in the movie, Totally Baked. Jonathan is currently working on a novel.
Escoffery was recently featured in the first issue of Middle Gray Magazine where his fiction piece, "The Pickle," was published. This talented artist kindly accepted to be part of the magazine's blog as well, so for our first artist feature Jonathan tells us about his artistic process and his take on literature and success.
The Middle Gray: How has the process of writing—of learning the craft, researching, and seeing the final product—changed you as a person? What do you think the relationship is between the work you produce and yourself as a human being?
Jonathan Escoffery: It’s been a humbling experience. The more I learn, the more I realize that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know so much (and still don’t). It’s a very good thing to stop and acknowledge how little you once knew, so that you can tread more carefully in your future assumptions about how well informed you are. The terrific thing about writing is that there’s a paper trail of your growth. I look back on things I wrote in my early and mid-twenties and cringe. It’s different from looking at what I wrote as a teenager because when I was a teen I knew my writing was supposed to be bad. In my twenties, I’d heard enough praise that, in my mind, I was supposed to be good at writing. Yet, I’m not so arrogant that I judge that writing as necessarily worse than what I’m doing now. I can see the obvious mistakes of a writer who hadn’t been taught certain craft tools, though, and hadn’t written enough yet to figure it out intuitively. So the writing process has certainly humbled me.
My research process has changed over the years, and that in itself is indicative of my growth as a writer and as a person, I think. It used to be that I would do just enough research at the start of a project that I felt I could write the story front to back, and then I’d go back and research more to fill in certain gaps in the story. The problem I find with this method is that you fall in love with the way you’ve written something, and then when the research indicates you should change it, you’re more likely to search out alternate, sometimes obscure evidence to support the way you’d prefer to keep the story. Falling in love with the way you’ve written something is a mistake to begin with, but for me, if a scene worked for the story, with the only exception being that it fell far from the facts my research indicated, then I was more likely to want to rationalize that my story, as fiction, doesn’t need to reflect reality.
Now, though, I prefer to research as I write. While I run the risk of becoming distracted or falling down the rabbit hole of internet information, I find that I become so much more knowledgeable while doing the research, so if I wait till the story is finished to begin researching, I’m severely limiting the story’s potential. If I know more about the world after I’ve researched the first scene, I better know how to proceed to the second. The research almost always sparks new ideas that change the outcome of the story. Consuming so much information makes me a better-rounded person, writing aside. It’s why you shouldn’t try to bullshit your writing professor. They’ve researched everything.
As far as my relationship with my writing, I think my urge to give voice to the neglected comes from any feelings of childhood neglect I felt, whether real or imagined, and I don’t necessarily mean parental neglect. I’ve spoken with a lot of writers who’ve felt invisible at one point or another in their lives, ignored by peers or society or whoever, and I think this creates the need to express not only their own experiences, but the experiences of others who have been similarly muted. My stories are always going to be filtered through the way I see the world, and the experiences I’ve had, so I can say there’s that direct connection.
TMG: Reading your fiction, an obvious element of satire or humor is often present, but it seems to always be accompanied by a serious, profound, almost critical view of the world and characters being presented in the story. Is this something you do intentionally? How do you balance the humorous aspects of your writing and the more poignant, darker tones of your work?
JE: I don’t think I’m very conscious of whether a story I’m writing is humorous or satirical until after I’ve written it, except maybe in the case of the story Middle Gray is publishing. I knew it was satirical the moment I chose to have an alien enter this particular world and be treated no better or worse than the other undocumented workers. I’m not sure how humorous “The Pickle” is, but it’s certainly absurd. But the world we live in is absurd, and the story is only slightly more so because it features an alien from another planet. The alien draws attention to the absurdity of a situation that happens every day in America to human beings, though Bert’s predicament is accelerated.
I remember sitting in my eleventh grade English class one day, when this classmate whom I had never spoken with turned around and said, “I like the way you talk.” She’d evidently been listening in on a conversation I’d been having with a friend. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “I can’t tell if anything you say is meant to be taken seriously or not.” I don’t think I’m quite the sarcastic, monotone kid I once was, but perhaps I spoke or speak this way because I receive much of what I hear on a daily basis with the same inability to distinguish what is genuine. I hear self-proclaimed proponents of limited government telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies. So…which of these contradictions am I to believe? I hear pro-lifers ranting about wanting to cut free lunch programs in elementary schools. Can they possibly be serious? These are the people who care about the lives of children? Is that not hilarious in the most profoundly sad way? It’s the stuff sketch comedy acts are made of, and these contradictions exist all around us. So I think in my writing, in some cases, the humor arises from pointing out these absurdities and sad contradictions, which means the seriousness or sadness balances the humor naturally, since the one element creates the other.
On the other hand, my characters and narrators often struggle to find ways to deal with impossible situations, and often times they fail, but I think a sense of humor is something I arm them with unconsciously, since it’s the only coping mechanism I have to deal with the kind of world we live in. I am critical of the world because I’m not sure the world is critical enough of itself. We criticize each other, but often not ourselves. Sometimes this apparent lack of self-assessment seems intentional, but it’s scarier to think that people really are oblivious. I want to hold up a mirror to them and scream, Look! Look at yourself!
Ultimately, I just want to tell a good story, but I don’t think it can be good without being honest, and that means viewing the world with a critical eye.
TMG: Who would you say are the most influential authors you’ve read? Is any of their work present in your mind as you write?
JE: It’s difficult to narrow down the list of authors who have influenced me the most, without feeling like I’m denying some author his or her due credit. I remember wanting to write after reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” in elementary school. I’d liked stories and story-telling prior to this, but when I read Poe for the first time, something changed in me. It was the first time I realized how special this medium is—more so than TV or movies, although I always have, and still very much do, love both. But the way words triggered images in my head, which, in turn, triggered emotions—that was what I wanted to be able to do. That was pure magic to me.
It wasn’t long before I had read all of Poe’s stories, and though later on I would appreciate his use of narrative voice, it was his plotlines that first hooked me and, if I stop to really think about it, still inform my love for plot today. It’s his details—the way he takes the time to break down the science behind the mysteries in his stories—that made me realize how intelligent one must be to construct such a story. In a way, a great story-teller is like a puzzle builder. This, possibly, is the part I enjoy most about writing. Writing a story from scratch is like solving a puzzle that hasn’t been built yet. And only a specific combination of puzzle pieces can make it fit together, and you’ve got an infinite number of pieces to choose from, which makes it so difficult. Writing fiction can be like trying to escape a labyrinth with walls that keep shifting and cutting you off, just as you think you’ve reached the exit. That’s not to romanticize writing. It is to say that it’s the scientific properties that first made me want to write. One must employ a certain level of logic, and have an understanding of the world, even if the story being written resists logic and the mundane. So, yeah, I’d have to say Edgar Allen Poe has been a major influence, even if from long ago, and even if I’m rarely conscious of his influence.
In thinking about this question, I’m trying to pinpoint the times when I finished reading something, or maybe I was still in the middle of reading it, and I knew I would never be the same (writer) again. Any lover of literature can experience this, but for a writer, especially a young writer in the making, this is like having a religious experience, or an awakening. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had that effect on me. I had a realization about what I might aspire to; like I thought I wanted to be a great power walker, not realizing till that moment that I could aspire to run. The Grapes of Wrath is probably the most beautiful, most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever read. I can’t really imagine a more perfect book, especially one so grounded in realism. Its ending, or non-ending, gets criticism, but for me, that’s what makes the novel that much more beautiful. When I look on my bookshelf and see it, it’s like there’s a world that’s still in turmoil, still moving towards hope, between the covers. What Steinbeck does with language and point of view is like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere. There are so many characters in the novel, yet there’s never a time when I have trouble sympathizing with even the most minor of them, nor do I get them confused. I could go on and on about the dialogue and plot, too, and the sheer amount of information that went into the story—while fact checkers take issue with some of it—is astounding, especially given the technologically-deprived era in which he wrote. Imagine if he’d had the internet at his disposal? Grapes is one of the few novels I go back to just to read passages for inspiration or just the pure enjoyment of it.
There are others who have influenced me along the way, including Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Alice Walker, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter, and more, but I especially have to mention Kurt Vonnegut in my answer. Vonnegut is one of those authors I continue to read and be amazed by. Reading his work, especially the more experimental meta-fiction like Breakfast of Champions, gives me courage to attempt to write stories that I’m not certain there is even an audience for, but which still need to be told. The humanity that makes his work so profound supersedes the logical aspect of writing that I mentioned earlier. A good writer, in my opinion, can’t just be intelligent, but must have empathy for human beings, and Vonnegut’s novels and stories have that, even in their most critical forms. Don’t get me wrong, his stories are wildly inventive and brilliant, but also, they have heart. I’ll take heart over intelligence any day.
I strive to write stories that haven’t been told or, more specifically, could not be told by anyone else, so I don’t normally have authors or their work in my head when I write, at least not consciously, but a story like “The Pickle” would not exist without there having been a Kurt Vonnegut.
TMG: Where do you find inspiration for your writing? What role does your personal experience—where you are from, what you’ve gone through, things you’ve seen or heard—play in the work that you do?
JE: I can find inspiration to write in almost anything. The sound of a certain word might trigger a sentence that triggers a story, or I might meet someone at the bus stop who I feel compelled to write about. Or I might touch on more personal, autobiographical experiences from my youth. What really gets me going, though, are the things that anger me, which usually revolve around some unfairness in the world. Some writers say they can’t produce when they are too happy or content, but I don’t have to look too far to be angered by some injustice or another, big or small. Thankfully, I’m good at compartmentalizing these feelings so that they are productive.
What angers me most are the individuals or groups who fail to see themselves for what they are. This goes back to my first answer, about the hypocrites and those who lack self awareness. I feel it’s a writer’s job to point these people out wherever they may hide, which is usually in plain sight. Also, I find almost any ironic situation worth writing about.
I like to write about the submerged populations; those so marginalized they rarely appear in literature or else they aren’t very well represented. I feel like I can write about anything, but since I have a very specific perspective given my ethnic background and where I grew up, I ought to spend the time I have writing what so few can or do. For example, I’ve read good books that take place in Miami, that accurately depict a side of the city, but there are so many different versions of Miami, and my Miami has never been written about, as far as I’m aware. And so one of the projects I am currently working on tries to give voice to a place and people who have till now remained voiceless in literature. Seeing that gap in literature inspires me to fill it.
TMG: What themes are you most interested in exploring at this stage in your career? Why do you find them relevant?
JE: I’m interested in the ways family members break themselves upon each other. I find family dynamics fascinating, because they’re so inescapable. I’ve spoken to successful men and women in their forties and fifties and older who seem to have achieved autonomy in every imaginable way, yet when I ask them about their parents, the pain rolls out, and you can see their parents’ actions still have a kind of grip on them. When the tears come, at first I think it is nostalgia or the lingering pain caused by their parents’ deaths. But when they get to talking, it’s the childhood memories that always come out. The, “My mother did this to me, but never my sister. Why did she do that?” Those childhood traumas are inescapable, no matter how small. I’m interested in the ripple effect that follows these traumas, and seeing how they manifest.
I’m also interested in the way the so-called mainstream denies accurate or well-rounded depictions of various marginalized communities, which I admit is self-serving, as I belong to one in the U.S. and in English literature. I’m not saying I feel the need to write wholly anthropological fiction that serves only the purpose of reminding “mainstream” America that these people exist and are as varied within their communities as variation exists within the human race, but I do want to write honest fiction, and much of what I’ve read just isn’t honest. There is a consequence to systematically stripping a people of their voice—this is a very important theme in my writing, and it is relevant because we experience the world through various forms of media. I cringe, thinking about how non-whites are depicted in the media. It’s unbalanced, and this dehumanizes them, especially in the eyes of those who don’t regularly come into contact with non-white Americans, and are thus more susceptible to believing these false portrayals.
TMG: In a society that places tremendous emphasis on financial stability and success, and in which we often see English, Creative Writing, and Liberal Arts degrees listed as some of the least profitable or least important, how do you manage your personal and financial life alongside your creative work? How much do you prioritize writing over other things?
JE: At this point, I’m definitely making financial sacrifices in order to make writing my top priority. There have been large portions of my life in which I sacrificed writing to pursue money. I don’t have to ask myself under which circumstance I feel more fulfilled and happy. We have to define “success” for ourselves. The minute you let someone else determine what it means for you to be successful, you’re lost. This is one of those things you hear, but it never makes sense until it does, then it just clicks. I like to think of it this way: When I’m on my deathbed, what will I be more proud of; that I chased material wealth, spending countless hours doing something I loathed, or that I spent my life pursuing the thing I felt passionately about, despite the risks? I live my life according to what I believe that answer to be.
The trick to maintaining a healthy social life while pursuing writing is in surrounding myself with people who see value in what I do. I don’t think it’s necessary to run off and join a writer’s commune, but it’s not healthy for artists to surround themselves with people who see the accumulation of material wealth as the end-all goal. The wrong values can get into your head, and make you very unhappy, since what you’re working toward, doesn’t likely support or guarantee that lifestyle. This is something I had to learn the hard way growing up in a place like Miami where money is God.
Writers have an uphill battle, no matter how you look at it, but the scariest thing, to me, is seeing so many people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, despite having the jobs they prepared for in college. They have the money, the house, the car—society’s definition of success—and they’re still not happy. I’m not saying this is everyone who goes this route. But I hear this all the time: What should I do with my life? From the outside looking in, you would think they have it figured out at this point. I can’t even imagine asking that question. Even if I fail to accomplish all that I aspire to with writing, I don’t think I’ll ever question what I’m supposed to be doing, and what I love to do. I don’t mean to understate the importance of money or the security it brings, but if what you spend your life working at doesn’t bring you joy, aside from that paycheck, then how can you expect to lead a meaningful life?
TMG: We know that this is a very broad (and perhaps unfair) question that begs a very subjective answer, but we’d like to ask it anyway: What is your definition of art? What do you deem artistic, and what do you think the value is of such a definition for both the artist and its audience in today’s world?
JE: Wow. Unfair, indeed. Well, I question myself about this periodically. My answer fluctuates, but this is how I feel about it right now. Art, in terms of writing, is more introspective than escapist. It speaks on humanity. It prods and provokes. It seeks to discover something or bring something to light. It’s unsafe. It, hopefully, is a new angle or perspective. It seeks truth. I think that’s the main distinction I hold for art, versus fluff: Is it honest?
You can put something out into the world for entertainment’s sake, which usually means for the sake of financial gain, and sometimes it’s obviously just that, and that, in a general sense, is okay. If you’re painting an unrealistic picture of the world that slants audiences toward small-mindedness, that’s another story. Some books or paintings or movies just make us feel good, and that’s all they set out to do. I’m hesitant to call anything that’s sole purpose is to comfort art, though.
In terms of sorting out what is and isn’t art, I actually worry more about the intentional navel gazers; the ones that feel nothing can happen in their writing in order for it to remain “artistic,” and I resent that belief. These are the same people who write for other writers exclusively. It’s an elitist mentality that makes my skin crawl. The system that only considers a certain kind of book literature if the author holds an MFA or a PhD worries me. Where is the honesty in such a biased system?
I don’t know about the value of the word “art” to writing, but the definition I’ve given to it is, I believe, pretty basic, and obvious to audiences when they come across those elements I described. You know the difference between watching a film that you forget ten minutes later, versus one that makes you not only remember, but question the assumptions you hold. Art holds a mirror up to humanity, and that is its value.
From the perspective of the (potential) “artist,” I forget the word exists, at least while I’m writing/creating. If what I create is not honest, I can feel it. I’m sure others can as well. If my writing is honest, nothing else matters.
TMG: How do you see yourself within the world of literature? What are your most unabashed ambitions as a writer?
JE: How do I see myself in the world of literature? Honestly, it’s a terrific question that I don’t have an answer for. I’ve mentioned the gaps in literature that I hope to fill, but my interests are too wide to box myself into a position. Plus, the literary world will gladly do that for me, if ever it deems me worthy of taking note.
As far as ambitions, I just hope to be in a position to write books that are meaningful content-wise and that are accessible to that younger version of myself. When I write, I write to excite myself and I’ve never finished anything that didn’t give me that feeling of excitement. My ultimate ambition is that this excitement translates to whoever reads my work and they feel it too.
TMG: What are you working on at the moment, and what can readers expect from you in the near future?
JE: I have some poems coming out in the next issue of Interrobang?! Magazine’s next issue that readers can check out. I’m currently adapting one of my short stories into a novel. It’s about a boy growing up in a brothel in the Florida swamp, and how his obsession with discovering his father’s identity puts him in mortal danger. The novel is my main focus at the moment.