Jamie: In Black Cloud it often feels like we’re dealing with the same narrator in all of these first person stories, but then sometimes it doesn’t. Some stories are set in California, others in New York at the same stage in the character’s life, and it feels like—if it was one character—she could have inhabited both places at the same time, which makes me feel like there must be more than one character. At the same time, I know from reading interviews that a lot of stuff in Black Cloud must be autobiographical. Still, it feels like there’s some fiction here. What’s the balance?
Juliet: “The Sharpest Part of Her” is the least true story in the book. My mom is a retired elementary school teacher who was married to my father until I was twenty and she is very sweet and not abusive and has never been any sort of drug addict. I don’t know what story is most true, because that would involve breaking down lies and truths into different sizes and severity, and that seems impossible.
I don’t think about who my narrator is or what is true and what is not when I write. I am often very sloppy in my first draft. That go-around, for me, is generally about feeling my way along and trying to think as little as possible and not stop until it’s time to stop and not listen to the voice in my head that is neurotic and nasty and says everything’s wrong. The only thing I’m concerned with is if I feel engaged—if I get bored I either stop or delete from where I began to be bored.
I think about technical things in the editing process, but most of these have to do with how the sentences sound and the connotation of the words. In terms of structure, I really only think in terms of “Does this or doesn’t this work?” Sometimes I will have written down something that is true and it isn’t working so I take it out, or vice versa.
Jamie: I think a lot about technical stuff too when I write. Do you have a systematic approach to revision?
Juliet: The revision process for each story is different, but some things that I do regularly include printing out the story and then either re-typing it entirely or copy editing on the print-out, reading the story aloud into my phone or webcam and then listening to or watching the recording, and going through the story many, many times to cut out as much as I possibly can. It all has to do with the same thing: Trying to say what I want to say in as few words and as gracefully as possible, and also eliminating laziness or falseness or staleness in terms of content and word choice.
Jamie: Places seem to be fairly important in your stories. The feel of California and New York is all through this book, which is nice because there aren’t a lot of overly “Californian” or whatever details—the beach, the lights of the airport, the fact that the character’s in a city, etc. How much does place effect your writing? I know that you’re going to be moving to West Virginia soon. Do you think that’s going to have an effect on your stories?
Juliet: To be honest, I’d prefer it if the book didn’t have any New York stories. I feel like it’s kind of a cliche, a territory that’s been tread so many times before. And it was never really “my” city; I only lived there for three years and was a student for two of them. But the New York stories—I like them and wanted them in the collection, and they really couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. That type of nightclub was a necessity for “The Other Kind of Magic.” And while I sometimes have the urge to drive my car off the road here in California, it’s not the same as occasionally feeling a desire to jump in front of the subway, like in “Mental Illness on a Weekday.” In California, you’re alone in the car, but when you’re going somewhere in New York you’re surrounded by people, which, for me, intensified my strange urge to die, and this difference seems integral to that story. (To be clear, this isn’t a suicidal urge, it’s just a strange thing that passes through my brain and then passes right out. Apparently the French have a word for it—l’appel du vide—which supposedly has something to do with the desire to jump from high places.)
The California stuff was a bit more deliberate. I’ve always had a strange relationship with California because I grew up here. I’m a fourth generation Californian, which is fairly uncommon and makes me feel pretty damn rooted in my Californian-ness. But I moved here when I was eight (I was born in Australia, and we lived in Northern California, Ohio, and Arizona before settling here), and that made me feel like a bit of an outsider when I was younger. On top of that, I’m pale, I walk fast, I use my car horn pretty liberally, and I have the tendency to be uptight and angry. These are traits that are markedly un-Californian, and so while I feel at home here, I’ve also always felt like a bit of a freak, and I think this makes me more inclined to see the darkness here. It also seems like something that hasn’t been done all that much—LA & San Francisco have been covered plenty of times, but San Diego is very different than those cities. Location wasn’t the driving force behind the California stories, but it is something that I intentionally want to incorporate into my writing.
I don’t know what living in West Virginia will do to my writing. In general, there’s a delay between my experiences and my ability to write about them well, so I’m sure it will filter in eventually. Except most of the fiction I’ve been writing lately has to do with my childhood, so these are all set in California and the states listed above.
Jamie: I’m from California myself, although I’m from a very different part of the state, the Central Coast, Monterey. While I agree with you that LA and SF have been covered a lot in literature, I often feel like the west coast is dismissed when it comes to American letters. I guess that, in comparison to NYC—that cliche you mention—the west coast just doesn’t matter as much, since it’s not the publishing mecca of our culture. Do you feel you want to write about San Diego because, unlike LA, it hasn’t seen a lot of literary coverage? Do you at all feel “protective” or “proud” of San Diego and feel like it deserves to be rendered in story?
Juliet: I don’t know if I would use those words to describe it. I guess it is this: if you look at San Diego, and particularly the part of town where I grew up, it looks like this safe, squeaky clean, pretty, sunshiney city. And it is, in a lot of ways. But it’s also got its own kind of mystery, which is something that could be easily missed. It seems like this is one of the purposes that writing can serve—a way of preserving things that otherwise might have been forgotten or unnoticed.
Jamie: The “black cloud” image comes up early in the collection as a literal kind of black cloud—the mosquitoes lifting in black clouds—but it feels like a “black cloud” hovers metaphorically over the rest of the collection. What would you say about such a reading of your book?
Juliet: The working title for the book was Drugs and Boys. I thought it was an annoying title, and kind of assumed that whoever ended up publishing it would want to change it and I was correct. I liked Drugs and Boys enough to send it out with that title because I thought it was kind of funny in its obviousness, plus I felt like it would grab an editor’s attention. It seemed to me that getting an editor to read your work is different than selling a book to the public.
After I signed the contract, Michael [Seidlinger] sent me a list of possible new titles and I liked Black Cloud immediately. I liked the way it sounded, plus it also seemed to fit in the way that you’re talking about. The stories in this book all stem from a specific aspect of my past, and that was of me feeling like there was something toxic inside me that I couldn’t get rid of that wormed its way into everything in my life.
Jamie: Do you think about stories being “publishable” when you’re working on them? Is that related to your response above about whether or not you’re feeling bored with a story? Have you ever written something that you’re not bored with, but you’ve worried that a reader could be? If so, would that deter you from continuing to write?
Juliet: I generally know what I’m doing when I sit down to write—if I want to write a story, that’s what comes out. Sometimes the story is not that good, so then I put it away. I give up on stuff pretty early; from previous experience, if something is going to be any good it’ll show itself as such almost immediately. This doesn’t mean that I delete the story I gave up on. A lot of times, a week or a few months will go by and I’ll have figured out how to make that story right. But I don’t force it. When I do, the story comes off feeling forced. This means that my hard drive and notebooks are littered with a lot of beginnings of things.
Sometimes things surprise me. Sometimes I am sure I’ll have something great, and all that comes up is shit. Sometimes I’ll be writing a blog post or scribbling down fragments of thoughts or nightmares and I’ll realize that the material is better suited for something larger. That’s always nice.
I don’t know if this is betraying some sort of arrogance on my part, but I use myself as a benchmark. I look at things I write and I ask myself if I would like it, if I came across it in a literary magazine or something. Conversely, a lot of times I will look at things that other people have written and think they are nice or whatever, but that I would not have published them if I had written them.
Jamie: In other interviews you’ve talked about getting sober, and the positive impact that’s had on your life in general. What impact has soberness had on your actual writing (that is, the process, your style, revisions, whatever)?
Juliet: Haha. I didn’t really write when I was using. I had this delusion that I needed to be fucked up in order to have the balls to write, but the proper amount of fucked up is a very fine line so I never got much done. The first time I wrote anything publishable was in 2010, and I got clean in 2009.
Sometimes I get jealous of all the writers who are able to use and abuse substances while still putting out books. I used to think of myself as someone who was really good at getting fucked up, in that I am small and I could consume a lot of substances and still mostly retain my composure, and when I couldn’t, I was always able to talk/charm my way out of trouble. But the truth is—I wasn’t good at drugs. If I was good at drugs, they wouldn’t get in the way of me writing, or anything else.
Jamie: Above you mention writing “something larger,” by which I assume you mean a short story, as opposed to scribbled notes. But have you ever, or are you now, interested in or engaged in writing longer form fiction, like the novella or the novel? If you have drafted in the long form before, how did that differ for you from the short story? And if you’re working on anything longer now, mind telling us a little about it?
Juliet: I tried to write a novel, and the attempt is chronicled here. The novel was bad. I think it’s because I was trying to write like other people. I’d like to write a novel—or at least something novel-like—one day, but I’m not interested in doing that right now. I like reading novels a whole lot, but the form has been around for several hundred years and isn’t exactly new territory. Right now what excites me is trying to do something new that no one has done before (without doing something that is weird for the sake of being weird). That’s one reason why I did the videos for Black Cloud.
I am pretty sure I am working on something longer now. I feel weird about discussing it in detail because of what happened with the column at EL and the novel attempt, but I am trying to write an alternate type of autobiography. I plan to use a lot of different formats. It’s a fun experiment, but we’ll see if I’m able to glue everything together in a cohesive way.
Photo By: Justin Brown