Jonathan Escoffery, IF I SURVIVE YOU

Jonathan Escoffery, IF I SURVIVE YOU

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda is joined by national bestselling author Jonathan Escoffery to discuss If I Survive You, a spectacular debut collection of stories about a Jamaican immigrant family in Miami that is blazing with wit, heart, and humor (and was longlisted for the National Book Award!). Jonathan describes his central character Trelawny, who navigates homelessness, racism, bad luck, and several hilarious jobs; his decision to write individual stories in different narrative modes; his complex relationship with Miami; and other details of his personal life, writing background, and journey to getting published.


Alisha Miranda: Welcome, Jonathan, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We are here today to talk about If I Survive You — you are absolutely incredible — a novel in linked stories that has just been — it’s hard to keep track of how many awards you are getting and are nominated for and are winning. You’re just absolutely slaying. Congrats. Welcome to the podcast.

Jonathan Escoffery: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here speaking with you.

Alisha: I just completely immersed myself in the book for the last couple of days. As I mentioned to you before we started this, I grew up in Miami about the same time and not super far from the same neighborhood. There was definite accuracy in a lot of that Miami experience. It was beautifully written. It also really made me reflect a lot on my own experiences growing up. I absolutely bought into that melting pot of Miami theory. My family is Cuban. It was extremely diverse where I grew up. It was much later in my life that I came to more nuanced reflections on my own experience and that of others around me. I think you just masterfully handled that in this book. I absolutely loved it. Why don’t we start, for those who have not had the good fortune to read it yet, with you telling listeners what If I Survive You is about?

Jonathan: This is that scary part where I have to see if I know how to describe my book. It is about a family of Jamaicans who immigrate to the US in the late 1970s. Specifically, they move from Kingston, Jamaica, to Miami, Florida. It’s a married couple named Topper and Sanya. They move over with their infant son, Delano. It’s in Miami where their second son, Trelawney, is born. Trelawney gets the most stage and page time in the book where we follow him as he’s trying to figure out who he’s going to be in the world as the recipient of these multiple cultures, in a sense, his US culture, his Jamaican culture, his Miami-ness.

Alisha: A culture of its own, for sure.

Jonathan: A culture of its own. Nobody who’s from Miami ever disputes that. He is having a difficult time figuring out who he’s going to be in the world and a difficult time fitting in, even within his own family, which leads to a major falling out with his father after Trelawney has moved home from college. He’s living with his father, Topper. They have a big fight. Topper winds up throwing Trelawney out of the house. For much of the book, we follow along as Trelawney is picking up odd jobs as he’s trying to put a roof back over his head. He’s living out of his vehicle for much of the book. He’s balancing jobs that are testing the boundaries of his morals, I should say. He’s put in a lot of complicated positions where he has to decide whether to choose his own well-being or choose the well-being of others. A lot of these jobs are kind of the vehicles for seeing whether he’s going to choose himself or do what he thinks might be the right thing or the better thing.

Alisha: I think you don’t take the easy way out. He makes different decisions at different times based on what the situation is. Nothing is simple in the way of life. I totally hear that. I definitely got that from the book. I have a bunch of questions about your process because I thought the format was perfect for the story that you told but not necessarily the most obvious choice if you’re writing a fictional story. What made you decide to write this as novel in stories?

Jonathan: For each of the different stories, at certain points in the writing of this book — it took a lot of years for me to eventually get this thing right, or as right as I felt I could get it before I let it out into the world out of my hands. Through each of the stories, I felt like I needed to figure out, what’s the best kind of container for a given story? That’s why a few of the stories are told in the second-person point of view. Some are told from the third-person point of view. Some are first person. Some are first-person present tense. Some are more retrospective where Trelawney’s looking back on his childhood and trying to figure out where things might have gone wrong between him and his father or the different relationships with his brother and his cousin and his family in general. Had I thought, all of these stories, this larger narrative, it all belongs in past tense, present tense, second person, first person, then maybe I would’ve wound up publishing it as a novel, but I just felt like each of the individual stories needed their own individual narrative modes. That made me decide on these being linked stories, essentially.

Alisha: That’s very cool. It’s probably like asking you to pick a favorite child, but do you have a favorite story of the bunch?

Jonathan: I don’t know. Every once in a while, somebody will ask me to — this is at book readings. People will ask me to sign not on the title page, but on my favorite story.

Alisha: Ooh, controversy.

Jonathan: I always freeze. I’m like, oh, my god. Inevitably, I have to choose something. Every time I sign, I flip through the book, and I choose a page, a story. There’s always this, really, that one? They’re always disappointed in my choice of favorite. Either the first story, In Flux, or the title story, the last story, If I Survive You. I’m fond of the Trelawney stories. Though I will say, Under the Ackee Tree, which is told from the father’s perspective, Topper, that’s the story that kind of breaks my heart every time. What’s your favorite story?

Alisha: I thought about this before putting together this question in case you asked. I think it was Pestilence, probably.

Jonathan: I love that. I feel like Pestilence is — sorry. Why?

Alisha: No, you go. You tell me why you think it’s my favorite. I was there. I was just absolutely there. The language was really beautiful. The description was beautiful. Again, that was a Miami story. I could feel being there. I liked all of it.

Jonathan: I love that. I almost took Pestilence out of the collection because I wondered if it was too quiet or too nuanced, in a way. We have some of the other stories where these big, violent things are happening. There’s the loud violence of the hurricane in Pestilence and all these animals being slaughtered, so actually, maybe it’s not as quiet as I think. I’m glad. I’m also happy when I’ve heard that that is a standout story because I just wasn’t sure that it was going to get the love that I feel for it.

Alisha: It has my love, for sure, but they were all — it would be really difficult to actually pick one to cut. Did you have stories that you wrote that didn’t make it in the book but in this universe of the family?

Jonathan: I did. The very first story that I wrote about this family got cut. I think it was the right decision. It was the story in which I discovered who these characters were for the very first time, which was part of a writing sample that I was submitting for my MFA applications. I became a better writer in the process of discovering these characters and going through grad school. It was one of those kinds of stories that I just kept revising and revising. I think it got progressively worse. I was just trying to save something that shouldn’t have been saved. The spirit of that story is very much alive in the book, including in the actual literal what happens in the book. It’s definitely still there, but that story had to come out. Then I had a few flash fiction pieces that came out. In a way, they could’ve still been in the book, but I think a lot of ground that those shorter pieces were covering are also covered in the longer stories that stayed. I wanted to make it as lean and powerful a book as possible.

Alisha: It’s definitely tight. I’ve done my research. I read The New York Times profile on you. Can you give our listeners a bit of a sense of your journey to writing and to this incredible book that’s out now? Did you always want to be a writer? We know you grew up in Miami, but that’s not where you were born. Give us your potted history.

Jonathan: I was born in…

Alisha: Way back in the day.

Jonathan: Houston, Texas. My family, they moved from Jamaica to Houston and lived there for a short time. I did grow up in Miami. That’s the town I know the best. Even though I’ve been away from Miami for eleven years, I’ve been moving cities about every two or three years since I left Miami. I’m just tired of moving at this point. It’s been wonderful. It’s given me lots of perspective. The point being, you don’t know the ins and outs of a city if you’ve only lived there two years, so Miami’s still the place that I know. It’s the place where I don’t have to really throw on the GPS to get around town. I always wanted to be a writer as a kid. I received a balance of encouragement and discouragement in terms of being told things like, you better get a job, which is true, but I found it discouraging still. I’m an all or nothing kind of person. I would be very much focused. My life is going to be all about writing, or I’m just not going to write at all. To that end of deciding I wasn’t going to write at all, I put it aside for a bit but came back to it when I went to college, or returned to college, in my mid and late twenties and started taking a lot of creative writing workshops. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do with an English degree. I wasn’t sure I was even going to do an English degree. I kept showing up to workshops. I kept showing up to literature classes. That’s where I was actually finding the joy in my day, in a sense.

I realized after a while, hey, you don’t have that many credits left. Obviously, this is what interests you, aside from any promised future paychecks. I learned about MFA programs while I was in, it was some kind of creative writing workshop. A grad student came into the class, gave a presentation on MFA programs. I thought that was really useful information because I’d never heard of programs, especially fully funded programs, that might allow you to just focus on your writing while providing enough of a stipend, hopefully, at least theoretically, for you to live on, which is when I started doing a lot of research. After I got my bachelor’s in literature, I applied to MFA programs and wound up getting into a few and wound up going to the University of Minnesota because they offered the best funding. I was also fairly familiar with the work of the faculty. Had three years in Minneapolis. Again, I started to figure out how you write a story. I think I did. I always wanted to be a writer, but I was also someone who definitely needed — I needed the education to write anything good. Then I traveled. I bounced around a bunch. I’m in the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. I’m also kind of still in the PhD program at the University of Southern California. It’s been a lot of years of workshops.

Alisha: Kind of still?

Jonathan: I’m not physically there.

Alisha: I’m sort of a doctor.

Jonathan: Yeah, something. I’m all over the place. I have found it useful to just follow the funding when it comes to creating a life in which I can write stories. Not always, but oftentimes, that funding is attached to some kind of graduate education program.

Alisha: You could just keep going.

Jonathan: I think I’m hitting the end. I don’t know where else to go after the — whether I finish the PhD or whether I don’t finish the PhD, I don’t if there’s —

Alisha: — I just feel like, probably, you should be teaching classes now, maybe.

Jonathan: I do. The consequence of moving around the country all the time for years is that I’m no longer super interested in doing the thing that most people do when they go into the academic job market, which is put out a ton of applications all over the country to colleges and universities that are located all over the country. At least for the time being, I’ve used up all of my moving energy. It’s done. Now I’m keeping my eye out for interesting things in California. I don’t think I can move anymore out of state.

Alisha: Fair enough. So California feels like home now or at least where you want home to be?

Jonathan: It does. It does, yeah.

Alisha: What is your relationship like with Miami? Do you have lots of hometown love and pride? Do you have a complex relationship with it? It’s one of those places where — I don’t know that everybody feels — I guess everybody has a relationship with where they grew up, but the city of it, not just the home and “this is my childhood” part of it. I do feel like people are negotiating their relationships with Miami after they leave sometimes and even when they’re there.

Jonathan: Yes. I’m skeptical of people who don’t have a complex relationship with Miami, people who just think it’s a wonderful playground.

Alisha: Have you been there? Have you spent a lot of time there?

Jonathan: Right. It’s usually people who are not originally from there. I have to say I was a little bit nervous about going back to Miami with the book once the book was actually out, from different angles. There’s the angle of, people might think I’m too critical of Miami in my depiction of it. Some people from Miami might just think I got it wrong. I’ve honestly had a really warm, wonderful reception from readers in Miami. People keep writing me. I was just at the Miami Book Fair. They come up to me. They said, “Thank you for writing a book about the real Miami.” It’s a real Miami. I’m not saying it’s “the” because it might be so complex with all the different communities and cultures there. Since the book has come out, I’ve never gotten so much love from Miami or in Miami as I’ve written this book. I just need to keep writing about books in Miami, that take place in Miami. Then I’ll like Miami more and more because Miami might like me more and more. It’s definitely a complicated relationship. Part of the complexity of it is that — I’ve actually had to be in Miami a lot over the last three months. Miami’s just such a beautiful place that it’s possible for you forget the problems. If you are in a position to just look at the beauty or primarily look at the beautiful side of it, you can forget. That is a tricky thing. You can trick yourself into believing this is a wonderland that doesn’t have problems. I have to remind myself that when the book fair pays for me to fly down and puts me in a beautiful hotel, I’m looking at nothing but the most beautiful parts of Miami, visual, aesthetically.

Alisha: And it’s November everywhere else in the country. People are freezing.

Jonathan: The weather, it’s been very nice lately. It’s easy to believe that you could go there and not deal with the more difficult situations, such as flooding. When is our city going to sink, finally?

Alisha: Do you have a date? Do you want to put some money on this right now? Oh, my god, I’d rather not, actually. It was an accurate reflection of the complexities of what is a very beautiful place and a place that gets fetishized a lot because it is so gorgeous. A lot of people go straight from the airport to South Beach. Then they go back. That’s all they ever see. I, selfishly, really loved seeing you tell that story of what it’s like in different parts of Miami and to grow up there, and obviously, not from personal experience. It is a novel. There were certainly a lot of details in there that you could only have written if you had grown up in Miami, everything from Mount Trashmore to the ubiquitous response to the “What are you doing?” question. I don’t know, actually, if Zibby lets me curse on the podcast. I’ve never heard the answer to that anywhere outside of Miami, when someone says, I’m just eating shit, bro. Sorry, Zibby. You can delete that if you want. She’s never going to have me back on to guest host. You must have had to reach back into some of these memories to craft the world that you were building. Did you find that easy? Was it challenging? What was that experience like for you?

Jonathan: I don’t know if I’d use the word easy. It was kind of cathartic, maybe. On one side of the line of reaching back into my memory, I sometimes wonder, is this so specific to my lived experience, or is this so specific to a place like Miami? It definitely has a global reputation and image. As you move outside of Ocean Drive and you start to delve into other specific elements of culture down there, I’m trying to think, will this translate to a larger readership? Does it need to translate to a larger readership? How do I get this past New York publishing, in a sense? On the other side of that is, oh, but this is an opportunity for me to show something that hasn’t been done a million times. It’s the same thing as, do I have permission to do a thing because I haven’t seen it done already? Then leaning into the positives of, this is an opportunity to show something that might come off as “unique.” Actually, it’s very exciting. Also, as somebody who, again, is writing pretty close to — what’s the term? The vest? The chest? The sleeve? Something like that. I’m so horrible at these sayings. Being able to bring that to the page, in a way, it is affirming my own lived experience that, yes, I’ve lived this, lived a version of, and so have so many other people who may not be seeing their experiences in literature. For us, this is a wonderful thing. Before your book deal, you don’t really know if it’s going to make it out there, but you’re optimistic. You’re like, when this makes it out, we will be able to see ourselves. That’s an exciting thing.

Alisha: Let’s talk a little bit about your publishing process and your process to being published. How did that go? How did you find your editor? How did you move into that, from having the idea on the page and then to having your fully finished book?

Jonathan: Another reason I went with the linked story form is I suspected that it would be helpful to start having some kind of presence in the literary world if I started putting out stories, even from this singular project. Again, at certain points, I was thinking of it as a novel, and so I was thinking of these stories as excerpts rather than just single stories that I was going to be sending out. I wasn’t sure that they all needed to be. Not all. All of the ones that I wound up sending out, I wasn’t sure that I needed to be doing that. It was helpful to start to test the waters of publishing just through literary journals. I eventually wound up having the story “Under the Ackee Tree” picked up by The Paris Review. I know my editor, Jackson Howard at FSG, first came across my writing through that story and started paying attention to what I was doing. It was maybe six or seven months later, they awarded me the Plimpton Prize.

A lot of publishers, between that publication or the award, they started getting in touch with me. They started getting in touch with my agent, Renée Zuckerbrot. It was a moment where I realized that a lot of the people that I would be wanting to submit my book to when it was time to go out on submission, I realized a lot of those people were already waiting on the book, in a sense. I think that was the great benefit of having these stories to send out into the world before — had I just held onto everything and not — people maybe would’ve had the same excitement if they gave it the opportunity to actually read it. It’s a really wonderful thing when people are waiting on your project before you give it to them. We had a kind of longlist going before we ever went on submission. Then we went out on submission in spring of 2021. It was a really exciting book sale. I met with about twenty publishers, publishing teams, editors. Then we had an auction that was set up. It was fourteen people. Fourteen houses committed to the auction. It was the most exciting time of my life, for sure.

Alisha: How incredible.

Jonathan: It was so cool.

Alisha: Very well-deserved. Do you feel like everything you’ve written kind of turns to gold, or do you have a littered pathway of rejections behind you, like us in the writing field?

Jonathan: Um…

Alisha: It’s okay, by the way, if the answer is no. I think that’s pretty awesome.

Jonathan: No, no, no. I’ve probably said this elsewhere. I don’t know. That same story, Under the Ackee Tree, I brought it to a workshop a little bit before we sent it out. The workshop instructor told me to throw it in the garbage. Thankfully, this wasn’t the first story I’d written or anything like that. I’d had a lot of published stories before that. That is an example of the road where one person thinks your story is worthy of prizes and being published in places with the biggest circulations, and then someone else might think it’s literally garbage.

Alisha: I love that. I hope that person is listening to this podcast and having a Julia Roberts “Big mistake. Huge.” moment. Surely, you want to go back to that person and just be like, huge mistake. No, I’m sure you’re bigger than that.

Jonathan: I think it’s a learning. I think that was a terrible thing to tell any student, which I did tell her, actually. Besides that, I’ve had those experiences where it’s taken me a really long time to get pieces published. In a way, I suspect for some of us, we have to actually teach the literary magazine community how to actually read our work. That, at times, can take a long time. Even some editors who actually have published me, the first time they came across my writing, they didn’t understand what it was that I was trying to accomplish. Then by maybe the fourth or fifth submission, they’re like, oh, I kind of get it. It also helps that other people have been publishing you along the way. Sometimes those stories that they rejected go on to win awards and things like that. Then it’s like, maybe I should actually read it more closely and try to figure out what it is that I’ve been missing. I would say not everything I’ve written has turned to gold. The shorter answer.

Alisha: I love that. What’s next for you? What are you working on now? What’s ahead, besides finishing your PhD eventually? Maybe or maybe not.

Jonathan: Working on a novel that is set in Miami.

Alisha: Excellent.

Jonathan: I don’t know what else I could say about it. The thing is, anything I could say right now might change.

Alisha: It’s earlyish days?

Jonathan: It’s earlyish days, yeah. Promoting a book takes a lot of time. The better a book does, the more time you have to spend promoting it. I’m just sneaking time with the novel that I’m working on. I’m writing a lot on my phone and then copying and pasting that into Word docs.

Alisha: You have fast thumbs if you can do that. That’s pretty good.

Jonathan: It’s more out of necessity. Now the idea’s coming to me. I just don’t know that I’m going to actually sit down in front of the computer and take the time to remember it, so I’m trying to do that. There’s something that’s kind of fun about it because this way, I’m not having to actually face the blank page. You have the writing and the ideas. Even when it’s bad, I always say bad writing is a gift because now you can make it better. That blank space is just terrifying. This is the process I have going on right now.

Alisha: That’s awesome. I know I’m not the only person who will be eagerly anticipating your next project. Thank you for sharing some of your stolen moments with us on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We always finish with what your advice would be to aspiring writers who are listening to this.

Jonathan: Trust the process. Even though I could be salty and bitter about people who didn’t pick up certain stories that I submitted, sometimes you look back and it’s like, oh, I’m so grateful no one picked up that story and that I had to work towards making stories that were undeniable, which only made me a better writer, which has led to better outcomes in my writing life. Learn to understand what it is that you’re trying to accomplish on the page. I think that could be a really helpful thing to you so that you understand — one way you learn that is by reading people whose work appears to be in conversation with your own. That way when you meet the workshop leader who says, “You can’t do this in writing,” you’ll say, “Of course I can because I have ten books in which writers are striving to do the same thing.” That will give you confidence to just know when to move forward with your super awesome stories that not everyone’s going to get.

Alisha: I love it. Thank you so much, Jonathan, for your time today.

Jonathan: Thank you for having me. It’s been a joy.

Jonathan Escoffery, IF I SURVIVE YOU

IF I SURVIVE YOU by Jonathan Escoffery

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