‘If I Survive You’ author Jonathan Escoffery on humor, tragedy and coping

When Jonathan Escoffery got the news that his short story collection had been longlisted for the National Book Award, the Oakland-based writer was barely awake.

“I got a phone call at about 7 a.m. from my editor who’s in New York, and I was basically awake, but kind of pre-coffee groggy,” he recalls with a laugh. “Generally, if I get a call from my editor without an email coming first, then usually it’s something really exciting that’s happening.”

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The news might have come as a surprise to Escoffery, but it likely didn’t to the critics who gave rave reviews to his debut book, “If I Survive You,” published in September by Riverhead. The collection follows four members of a Miami family over the course of their lives: There’s Trelawny, a young man with a knack for making disastrous decisions; his older brother, Delano, whose track record isn’t much better; and their parents, Topper and Sanya, who have immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica.

The characters first came to Escoffery, who grew up in Miami, when he was an undergraduate student at Florida International University. He submitted a story featuring the family in his applications to MFA graduate programs in creative writing, one of which he ended up attending — the University of Minnesota, far from the tropical state he’d called home for years. The contrast between Miami and Minneapolis became apparent when he visited the Twin Cities before starting school there, showing up wearing bright “Miami Vice” colors.

“Everybody looked at me like, ‘This guy’s crazy. He’s wearing a pink sweater,’” Escoffery says. “Everyone else is draped in either gray or black or some kind of faded flannel, and I’m the guy from Miami in my stereotypically bright colors.”

The culture shock didn’t fade, exactly, but Escoffery grew to enjoy his three years in Minnesota, where he worked on some of the stories that would eventually be collected in “If I Survive You.” The process wasn’t quite as easy as he might have hoped, though — for one thing, the story he wrote as an undergraduate, which he had thought would kick off the book, didn’t actually make the final cut.

“I thought I’d be able to write the book in this very linear fashion, and that’s not at all how it actually worked out,” he says. “I started working on exploring these characters through individual stories and making sure I really understood what makes a story work, and then shaping them into a book with a kind of arc. And part of putting that together meant some of those stories no longer fit. Sometimes the stories were doing redundant work, and they would clash if they were actually put side by side in the same book.”

Escoffery decided to lead “If I Survive You” with “In Flux,” which introduces the readers to Trelawny, who’s having a hard time finding out who he is. He fields several questions from strangers about his ethnic background, often getting mistaken for Latino by his fellow Miami residents, and his attempts to connect with his Jamaican roots don’t work out as well as he’d hoped.

“There’s this phenomenon of people trying to tell him who he is and who he isn’t, or what he is and what he isn’t, and the way he’s internalized this is by taking up that question,” Escoffery says. “He’s asking himself, ‘What are you?’”

The story is told in the second person, a technique that Escoffery used to illustrate Trelawny’s self-questioning.

“I thought, if I write this from the first person, who would the narrator be speaking to that this is going to be so important to? Who’s going to actually grasp the weight of the telling of such a story?” Escoffery recalls. “And I thought Trelawny talking to Trelawny is going to have the most stakes involved, because he’s trying to understand who he is based on his lived experience.”

“If I Survive You” tackles weighty themes, but it’s also a very funny book, with much of the humor coming from the perpetually bemused Trelawny, who reacts to stressful situations with a dry, mordant wit.

“He definitely uses humor as a tactic to not get bogged down by [life],” Escoffery says. “It’s a coping mechanism — this particular situation is so tragic that he has to just laugh at it.”

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Escoffery is keeping busy as a Provost Fellow at USC’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and appearing at events to promote “If I Survive You,” including an Oct. 14 reading and book signing at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. And he keeps hearing from readers who have found a lot to love in the pages of his book — some of whom have faced the same questions about identity that Trelawny has.

“I hear people connecting to the book in all these different ways,” he says. “There are all types of ways that human beings come up with to exclude others. And I think anyone who’s ever been excluded in any way, which is probably a lot of us, can connect to a lot of what Trelawny’s going through, even if it’s not in the most straightforward, obvious way.”