“The Human Part is Now.” – A Conversation with Mila Jaroniec

Mila Jaroniec has been part of the Flapperhouse family since way way back: her poem “Window Glass” appeared in our very first issue, and she was the very first reader to perform at our very first reading.

Mila’s work has also been published at Hobart, Teen Vogue, and LENNY, among many others. She’s an editor for the wonderful team at drDOCTOR, and her excellent novel Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover was published last November by Split Lip Press. (Check out an excerpt over at Joyland.) She recently exchanged emails with our managing editor Joseph P. O’Brien about her new book, as well as the afterlife, airport novels, hilarious Polish proverbs, and much more…

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JO’B: You’ve aptly described Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover as a “road novel with no road,” and it also struck me as a novel about living in limbo. It resonated especially strongly with me, and reminded me of whatever I can still remember from my own early/mid-twenties. There’s plenty of excitement in the sex & drinks & drugs & uncertainty, yet that same uncertainty also creates this restless, stuck-in-a-rut, waiting-at-the-airport sensation, constantly anxious for something to “HAPPEN.” And while that feeling of limbo has certainly ebbed for me as I’ve progressed through my late-twenties & into my thirties, I still find myself there on occasion. With this book, did you intend to create an atmosphere highly specific to that particular stage of late adolescence/early adulthood, or was it meant to be even more universal & accessible than that?  

MJ: It wasn’t planned that way at all. I mean, I didn’t think about stages or accessibility. I just wanted to do a portrait of a person. A young messed up person, in this case, but there are many, many older adults who are stuck in this eternal adolescence. Drug addicts especially.

JO’B: At one point in the book, your narrator (aka “La Maga”) and her friend discuss whether an after-life of non-existence is closer to heaven or hell. Do you side with one character more than the other in that debate? Do you have any unique theories on human existence post-death, or do you think we just cut to black?

MJ: I wanted to think we just cut to black for so long – it’s so easy – but I can’t make myself believe that. It’s just a comforting thought when I feel afraid of dying. Blackout is a comfort. But, you know, I don’t necessarily believe we retain our consciousness as it is now. It changes form. We are souls being carried around in bodies, for now, and then we are set free to do something else. There’s no human existence post-death. The human part is now.

JO’B: PVBS is kind of an “airport novel,” in that much of it takes place in an airport, even though [SPOILER] La Maga never really gets where she’s going. The book’s also overtly inspired by Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which La Maga refers to as “the perfect airport book.” Of course, when most people think of an “airport novel” they probably think of fast-paced, plot-heavy thrillers by Dan Brown or James Patterson. So if a publisher offered you a lifetime of financial security to write a more typical airport novel, what would the title & plot summary be? (And your pen name as well, if you prefer to keep your literary & genre work separate?)

MJ: A lifetime of financial security to write one fast-paced thriller? I’m not above that. So maybe it could be about this housewife with humble beginnings, maybe an immigrant, married to this very high-profile multi-millionaire, and she has everything she wants and an extremely lavish lifestyle, but then she starts to suspect he’s killing and dismembering women, something like that. Which he is. And hiding them in the house. There’s a whole torture chamber in the mansion. So what does she do with this information, and does she make it out alive? He treats her completely normally the whole time. Until he finds out she knows…

Is this convincing? I might actually write this. Get a how-to book, like Ottessa Moshfegh did to write Eileen, and go to town. And of course I would keep my name. I’m not precious about stuff like that.

JO’B: It’s completely convincing, and I would totally buy that book for my next cross-country flight 🙂

The sex scenes in PVBS are beautifully & fascinatingly written, stimulating on a sensual level but also engaging intellectually. No small feat, I think, considering how often I read literary sex scenes that are clunky & unintentionally comic. They made me think of how, in my more intimate moments– or essentially whenever I’m in the middle of an intense sensory experience– I can have trouble staying in the moment ’cause I keep slipping further into my head to think about how I might write about it later. Do you find that your writer brain works similarly, or are you generally able to stay within those intense moments & vividly recall them later if you want to mine them for material?

MJ: Thank you! I appreciate the compliment, and I have also recently been turned on to – ha – how badly sex is rendered in books. It’s mystifying. I think if you try to write sex the way you write other things – like any other thing in life, because it is any other thing in life – it doesn’t end up as grotesque. But on the other hand, voice is vision. If you’re reading a clunky and unintentionally comic sex scene, chances are the writer is clunky and unintentionally comic in bed.

About the moment: I don’t think about writing when I’m in a moment. There are things that reach me, images that stick, and those are the images I start at and climb up when I sit down to work. I guess there’s nothing to “mine” in that sense. It’s already all there. All you have to do is follow the threads.

JO’B: PVBS is a very impressionistic book, driven by memories & feelings & vignettes rather than plot. Did you write the book in a particularly free-form manner, or were there any structural limitations or guidelines you placed on yourself while writing it? Did you write a lot of sections which later got edited out, and if so, why?

MJ: Structuring this book was difficult. It makes me laugh when people – not you, I know you’re a good reader – think it’s just a directionless free-for-all. There are keys and signs all over. Everything links. You just have to be paying attention.

I think this book was twice its size before I started the cutting process. I like to work with image and suggestion, so whenever I felt like I was being too obvious, I cut that part out.

JO’B: You’re very open about the literary & musical inspirations in PVBS, and the book even has some handy reference lists in the back. I kind of wish more novels did this. Did you intend for these lists to enhance the reading experience in a particular way beyond providing some added context? Are those lists something you included in this particular book because of La Maga’s artistic personality & the mixtape-like feel of the work, or might you plan to do that for future books too?

MJ: Not really. The lists are just a collection of everything that appears, kind of like a handy character map for the reader. If they want to know what she knows and hear what she hears, they can. This was inspired by my T.S. Eliot seminar in college – ADVANCED ELIOTICS, see, it’s exciting already – in which we read every single thing he read on his way to make The Waste Land. So, after following his path of literature, it was easy to see the connections. And yes, this key is very specific to the book. I don’t think I’ll do it again.

JO’B: In one scene, La Maga wonders why bookstores don’t have a “Worst Of” section to complement their “Best Of” sections. If you had your own store, what kind of merchandise do you stock in your “Worst Of” section? I don’t necessarily mean things that are poorly regarded by general consensus, more like things that might be widely esteemed but which you personally think are The Worst. And I understand if you’d prefer not to dump on contemporary artists, so feel free to stick to terrible things made by people who’ve been dead & canonized for some time now. Then again, it doesn’t just have to be art, it could be any terrible product that would potentially be sold in stores. (For the record, my Worst Of section would stock DVDs of The Brothers McMullen, Mark Rothko paintings, green olives, and greeting cards covered in glitter that scatters all over you & your stuff after you open the envelope.) 

MJ: That’s funny because I’m actually about to have my own store! Rubber City Tales, Akron’s first independent bookstore, is opening this May. I have a FLAPPERHOUSE I’m planning to put in the lit mag/zine section, by the way. I don’t own it, but I will be doing the ordering and curating and essentially get to build the catalogue from scratch. So yes, I will be able to have my own Worst Of section. And it will be full of all the best things! Those worst-but-widely-esteemed things you mentioned already have a place. It’s called the bestseller list.

But hang on, what do you have against Mark Rothko?

JO’B: It’s mainly Rothko’s “multiform” paintings of just colored rectangles that bug me; I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to pull something over on me. I do kinda like his early stuff, though.

Anyway, in the book you quote a wonderful Polish saying which roughly translates as, “You have to make it work somehow, said the mountain man, lacing up his boot with an earthworm.” Do you know any other fantastic & enlightening Polish proverbs you can share?

MJ: Dziecko, pijany i głupi zawsze prawdę powie. Children, drunks and idiots always tell the truth.

JO’B: Finally, you spent much of the past year working on producing the first print edition of drDOCTOR. What were the most rewarding parts of that process? The most frustrating? Did the rewards outweigh the frustrations enough that we can expect future drDOCTOR issues?

MJ: As far as frustrations, my biggest one was people being rude. We reached out to several writers we liked to solicit work, and of course that’s a big ask. A lot of them were thrilled, some respectfully declined, and then there was the mysterious set who said nothing. What is that about? Write back “NO” if you can’t be arsed to write an actual email. But at least acknowledge being thought of. It kills me. You’re not J.K. Rowling, you’re not busy enough to be unreachable, get over yourself. Beyond that, the usual frustrations of putting together a lit mag, as you’re familiar with, but amplified because you’ve also got a baby to take care of and deadlines and life and sometimes it just feels pointless.

I think the most rewarding part of it, besides the for-itself beauty of having made a good thing, was the power of seeing it there, physical, alive. Watching people interact with it. When I took it to AWP, I didn’t know what to expect. I guess part of going was to gauge the response. But it was overwhelmingly positive, so in a way I feel like we would be doing ourselves and our audience a disservice if we didn’t make more. But at the same time, we’re writers. Writers with children. We have to focus on our own work. Maybe Vol. 2 will be just our work.

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