Jonathan Escoffery began writing novels at the young age of nine.
Jonathan Escoffery, 43, was born in Texas and lives in Oakland, California. His debut, If I Survive You, about a second-generation Jamaican in Miami, where Escoffery grew up, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker and is currently on the shortlist of the Gordon Burn prize, announced on 7 March. The novelist Rumaan Alam has called it “a reminder of what fiction can do… It’s truly a feat that a book of short stories tackling such big stuff – family, love, violence, race – could be so damn funny.”
What was the significance of being nominated for the Booker Prize?
Despite the fact that my book had been available for months, it was as if I was discovering the UK for the first time. Through my writing, I had already connected with readers beyond the US, particularly those in Jamaica and the African-Caribbean diaspora. However, I was suddenly receiving messages from individuals in countries like India and Australia. As someone who had watched Marlon James receive recognition for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015, I was deeply moved. I admired how the book shed light on Jamaica’s past and was thrilled to see it receive such a prestigious award. It felt as though the novel was capturing the turbulent politics and increasing crime that my parents had matter-of-factly spoken about when discussing why we left during the 1970s.
At night, do you also experience suspense along with the rest of us?
It’s an unpredictable experience; I am unsure if the victor receives a secret message, but those of us who didn’t win were only notified when the name was announced.
Trelawny, the main character, reveals in the middle of the book that his parents departed Jamaica not for financial progress, but to flee the violence supported by the US government in the 1970s as a strategy against socialism.
Sometimes, we need to speak the truth, even if it’s not a work of fiction. I want to emphasize that Americans may have a different perspective on Jamaica compared to Jamaicans themselves. Even if we remove the influence of the US in political tensions, crime, and the importation of drugs and guns, there is still a prevailing image of the Caribbean as a vacation destination, overlooking the dreams, lives, and concerns of its people.
Is If I Survive You considered a novel or a collection of stories by different people? What is your interpretation?
Over time, I referred to it by either one or both names. I initially had the idea to write it as a novel, but ended up writing it as a collection of stories. Later, I attempted to piece it together into a novel again. As I got to know the characters, I realized a certain structure would be fitting: it would explore how we tend to make everything about ourselves, even when others are not thinking about us at all. Perhaps they should be thinking about us, but perhaps we are also too focused on ourselves. While I was intrigued by Trelawny, I also wanted to give his father and brother a chance to share their perspectives.
Did you find writing about your parents’ generation more challenging than writing about your own?
I had been familiar with the topic of Jamaica from my parents for as long as I can remember. However, I struggled with writing a story about a character’s mother returning to Jamaica in her 60s after living in the US for 30 years. Despite numerous attempts, I was unable to write the story, possibly because I have not personally experienced that type of transition. It was easier for me to write about the past rather than an imagined present.
What inspired you to include a section written in second person in the book?
Being truthful becomes simpler for a character when they only confide in themselves about their wrongdoings. When speaking to the world as an individual, there is a sense of being exposed and vulnerable.
Do you tend to plan out storylines?
I was uncertain about the conclusion of the initial chapter. I simply continued writing, connecting the main character’s struggles with his education in school and college. For the second story, I envisioned the ending before anything else and decided to tie it back to when his father was a young man, when choices were made that ultimately resulted in a strained relationship with his son in the US. The title story required the most planning – I had to use an Excel spreadsheet to map out each scene.
What books have influenced you?
From the time I was nine years old, I had been attempting to write novels. However, it wasn’t until college that I truly began to take it seriously. It was during a course on the Harlem Renaissance that I came across Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which greatly impressed me. Similarly, after reading Sandra Cisneros’s interconnected story compilation, The House on Mango Street, I was inspired to create my own version set in a Jamaican-American community in Miami.
What have you been reading recently?
John Vercher’s Devil Is Fine [out in the US in June]. I haven’t finished it yet but I’m really enjoying it. I loved Diana Evans’s A House for Alice and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Chain-Gang All-Stars.
Where do you typically write?
Over the past year, I have been constantly traveling and spending equal amounts of time on the road as I do at home. This was due to an extended book tour and also the Booker event. However, writing can still be done while on a plane or in a car (as long as you’re not driving), as well as mentally or on a phone, and then further developed from there.
This novel is simply set in Miami Beach and is meant to be enjoyed as a standalone work. Unlike my previous book, I intentionally wanted the first chapter to seamlessly flow into the second and third.