Jonathan Escoffery on Playing Out Some of His Worst Fears on the Page
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Jonathan Escoffery about his new short story collection, If I Survive You.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: The main character in your book is named Trelawny. He’s featured in all these connected stories, and I wanted to ask you about his trajectory. He has all these odd jobs and some difficulties with his family. He’s lived in his car and was an English major and ends up a teacher, which still makes him very poor. I’m curious what you were interested in with this character who is kind of stuck in this poverty and stuck in his life.
Jonathan Escoffery: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There was a lot of conflict in my stories and in this book. I think of Trelawny having left Miami for university, thinking that he was going to come away with this bachelor’s degree, and that was going to allow him to come back home this great success. I don’t know that it’s ever quite written on the page, but I imagined him as this first-generation college student. It explicitly says in the book that Delano, his brother, escaped the horrors of working for other people, and that included going to college. But Trelawny believes he’s going to come back, and that degree is going to guarantee his success to some degree—and beyond success, he expects that he will garner some kind of prestige and respect from people, including his family, when he comes home, and he finds that’s just not the case.
I’m really interested in the ways I’ve experienced people in Miami, maybe because I’ve run in a lot of blue-collar circles, where people can be very, very successful in those jobs, and oftentimes, what they understand—again, I’m speaking about the people I’ve experienced, I’m certainly not trying to speak for all of Miami—is concrete measures of success, especially if that material success is garnered through means that they understand.
For instance, if I say I can get a contract to do all of the landscaping in a particular housing community, and that’s going to pay me $50,000 or $100,000 for the year, they understand what work I’m doing and what the pay is. When you talk about putting a lot of value in things like reading and art, I’ve found that at best, it baffles a lot of people. At worst, people think you’re kind of dumb. You think you’re so smart having gotten the education, but we actually think you’re kind of dumb because you now may have college loan debt, and you come back and you can’t even get a job.
Maybe I was writing onto the page some of my worst fears, because I actually never returned to Miami when I left. For me, I just could not imagine what I would do if I returned to Miami. I just didn’t think there was a job there for me. I played that situation out to either the inevitable conclusion or the worst conclusion, however you want to look at it. And so, I thought about Trelawny doing the same and thought yeah, if his parents didn’t throw him a lifeline, then he probably would end up living out of his car or on the street in general.
Jonathan Escoffery is the author of the linked story collection If I Survive You, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a National Book Award Nominee, and an Indie National Bestseller. Jonathan is the winner of The Paris Review’s 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and is the recipient of a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts (Prose) Literature Fellowship. He is a 2021-2023 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.