on living the path of the seeker: esmé weijun wang in conversation with jeanna kadlec
and also on haunted residencies, co-star, and writing with limitations
Esmé Weijun Wang is at the vanguard of many things: the form of hybrid memoir, cultural conversations around mental health and chronic illness, and the democratizing of the publishing industry.
Esmé is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Border of Paradise and The Collected Schizophrenias. She is also the creator of the extraordinary Unexpected Shape Writing Academy (currently open for registration!), which we discuss towards the very end of this interview. An accomplished novelist, memoirist, and writing teacher, Esmé is someone who, for me, models that vaunted idea of “literary citizenship,” which is to say, someone who invests in and supports other writers.
But she’s also, at the end of the day, a friend, and someone who I just really love talking to, who, when we do catch up on the phone, I block hours off for. Which is why this is much less an interview than it is a conversation between friends who occasionally try to hold to the construct of “an interview.” As the interviewer, I take full responsibility for that, but listen: Esmé is a delight of a person, a beloved friend, and someone who has a lot to share.
In the front half, there’s a lot of astrology talk, and Esmé lobs in some hefty questions of her own (she’s an accomplished interviewer in her own right, and she finally gets me on the record about Co-Star). In the back half, we dive more deeply into Esmé’s writing practice, and she shares some wild stories about haunted writing residencies.
It is the longest author interview to date. I hope you enjoy.
This interview has (believe it or not) been edited for length
Jeanna Kadlec: So I know and love you, but for anyone who may not know and love you and adore your work and have seen you all over all of the socials, if you could introduce yourself to astrology for writers readers.
Esmé Weijun Wang: So my name is Esmé Weijun Wang. I am a writer. I have published two books. One is a novel called The Border of Paradise, and the other one is a New York Times bestselling essay collection called The Collected Schizophrenias. And that one came out in 2019. Right now, I'm working on a novel that will hopefully come out in the next few years about a queer portrait photographer who inherits a haunted luxury hotel.
I also run something called the Unexpected Shape Writing Academy, which is a writing school for ambitious writers living with limitations. [Note from Jeanna: it’s currently open for registration! You can sign up here.]
JK: And since I know that you are very fluent and conversant in astrology, can I ask you what your big three are?
EWW: Absolutely. So I am a Gemini, Sun, Capricorn Rising and Taurus Moon, and I feel like this is all very accurate and very much like me.
It's funny because yesterday my best friend and I, who is also into astrology, were talking about various celebrities’ big three. And so we were talking about Taylor Swift and Harry Styles and Andrew Garfield. You can look [some of] those up and it'll say at the top, like, this is fairly accurate. And other ones, like the Taylor Swift one, was like, this might not be accurate at all.
JK: Oh, the Rodden rating for the accuracy of the birth time?
EWW: Yeah, like they are not exactly sure about the birth time for some of the celebrities, but other ones, they definitely know. So we were talking about various celebrities’ big three and whether or not we felt that it was accurate. So that was fun.
JK: I have to follow up with that and ask which birth charts of celebrities you were inclined to think were more accurate than others?
EWW: Well, it's interesting because one of the celebrities I've done an interview with was Andrew Garfield. And so he's actually quite into astrology, as far as I can tell, because in various interviews he's talked about his big three. He is in a Leo Sun, a Pisces Rising, and an Aquarius moon, which I feel is very accurate. He mentioned it in the interview with me, because I knew what his big three were.
Celebrity is interesting because it's this phenomenon where we often feel like we know people really well when we don't know them at all, or they have some kind of persona that we think we understand. I have a very, very, very minor amount of celebrity — like I can be a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle, but I'm definitely not being followed by paparazzi or anything. But I do experience people who think they know me. And I think that's only become more common with celebrities being on social media and being able to express themselves in ways outside of the media. So fame and celebrity is something that I find very interesting.
JK: The parasocial relationship with guessing people's astrology is always really interesting to me. I think also because, as an astrologer, it's always — I shouldn't say always — but it's often very interesting to me how much folks will pick up on other people's midheaven before the ascendant. Right? Because the midheaven is the most visible part of the chart. Especially if people have personal planets or the luminaries around the midheaven, that becomes very potent.
I think often folks think about the ascendant as being that point of self expression, but the midheaven is actually where we're being public, the midheaven is actually the most public point [of the chart]. I think especially with celebrities — like Taylor Swift, for example, definitely a Venus in Aquarius, definitely a Mars in Scorpio. I also have both of those placements, so I personally very often relate to her music in that capacity, but we don't know her birth time! And I often wonder if people who are estimating her birth time because they're trying to guess her ascendant are actually picking up on a midheaven placement.
EWW: I have a Scorpio midheaven, which I feel like is very true to me. And I actually kind of love that.
JK: And it’s so interesting — I think we’ve always known each other more personally than professionally.
EWW: I agree.
JK: And like, knowing you, I’m like, yeah she’s obviously a Capricorn rising, like the earth just jumps.
EWW: I just got a planner in the mail!
JK: Like, I just watched you carry your computer to the front of your house to collect your planner at the front door from the FedEx guy.
But I think, to put myself in the perspective of someone who more had a parasocial relationship to you, I think I could see like the, you know, the vulnerability and how you talk about these really transformative topics and how you really take us into the abject of society and the water — I might guess a water placement instead. I might not know which one, but I might guess water more so than like the Gemini with Capricorn, you know. Which would be that Scorpio midheaven.
EWW: Do you feel protective of your chart? Like, is it the kind of thing where you want to get to know someone well before you reveal your stuff?
JK: I will say I've talked about my stuff publicly enough that it's available if anyone wants to go find it. But like in personal relationships with people — I'll share it, but I am definitely more hesitant to share with people who are making snap judgments and who don't have the maturity and discernment that's necessary to treat people's charts as holistic.
EWW: I also find there are all of these things like, Ooh, watch out for Scorpios, watch out for Geminis.
What are your feelings about Co-Star and apps like that, or Co-Star specifically?
JK: Well, now that I no longer work for any apps, I can actually go on main saying this. Co-Star has finally hired a few astrologers. They used to not employ any. Chris Brennan at the Astrology podcast did a really in-depth interview with the founder of Co-Star. He gave her a really fair shake. So I would encourage folks to check that out.
Personally, I've never used Co-Star. I don't recommend it. And not because what they're saying is technically wrong, but because I do not enjoy — and this is coming from both my astrological background and also my marketing background — I do not like apps that play to people's fear and that deliberately exploit and activate people's fear and nervous system to elicit a reaction. And Co-Star explicitly writes their copy in such a way as to exploit negative, reactive emotions and addictive behavior in that way, which I personally find reprehensible.
EWW: I used Co-Star for a bit just because I loved their visuals. But you're so right. Sometimes I would just log on and there would be some incredibly dark, mean thing that it was saying, and I wondered, why do they do this? Playing to people's fears. And it’s how I was starting my day!
JK: I see the screenshots that folks post — and I see this less these days, since there's more diversity of astrology apps now, which is great, some of which I have worked for and written extensively for. So I would recommend those, not just because I worked for them.
Like, I worked for Sanctuary for a good long while. Sanctuary has employed astrologers since the start. I think that that speaks well to them. They do some other stuff that I have feelings about, but they have always employed trained astrologers, both for their readings and also to actually be writing their work and the horoscopes. And then of course the CHANI app, which Chani brought me on as the Director of Content in the year leading up to the release, so I was both editing a lot of people's writing for the app, and I also wrote — I don't even want to estimate how much of the app I actually ended up writing.
EWW: But it's so interesting to me that you can even use apps for astrology now as opposed to finding an astrologer and being like, Hey, let's talk, and then we'll have like an hour long conversation in person or on the phone.
I wrote about this in The Collected Schizophrenias. But when I went to Hedgebrook, the writing residency for women, you just have a cottage in the middle of the woods. And I saw a flier for an astrologer in the main building, and for some reason I was just like, I'm going to call this person. So she came to my cottage, in person!, which I feel is such a unique experience versus using an app. Then we just talked for an hour or so, and it was such a different, more intimate experience, obviously, than using an app.
But I do wonder, how do you feel about people using apps in general for astrology?
JK: Well, the app I have on my phone is Time Passages, which is a very old school astrologer app that astrologers use to keep track of some transits. I don't have any of the apps that I used to work for on my phone. Like, I wrote and edited them, what I know got poured into them — I don't need to use them as a reference. I am the reference.
But I think that [apps] are useful for reference [for other people]. Especially for people who are beyond 101 conversant in astrology. It's like, Oh, where is the moon today? if you don't happen to have a paper ephemeris. That’s incredibly helpful to be able to check on an app.
But in terms of the one-o-one reading and the quality that you're going to get from an actual person actually sitting with you and interpreting not just what the planets in your chart indicate, but also the transits that you're receiving, and then much more in depth techniques, right? Like profection years or your solar return chart or, like, I recently had a reading with my dear friend Diana Ross Harper, who is an astrologer who I regularly see, and she brought up decennials, which is a technique that I literally never use. And so you're just going to get so much more, which you know, but for anyone reading this, you're going to get so much more out of developing a relationship with an astrologer who you see regularly.
I think the app is a nice complement, but I would never solely rely on it.
EWW It’s so interesting to think about apps as opposed to like horoscopes that you would read in the newspaper where it's just talking about your sun.
JK: So I do want to get back to asking you questions and not just you asking me questions.
EWW: I’m sorry!
JK: It’s a fun conversation.
EWW: I do love this.
JK: Okay, okay. So with the solar horoscopes. It’s so interesting because I feel like a lot of folks these days are like, oh, I have to know my rising sign, but, I don't have a relationship to my rising sign. I have one to my sun sign.
Where it’s like — rising signs are what everything really used to be based on, and also are still based on significantly if you look at like Vedic, you know, Indian astrology, which is an unbroken tradition for thousands of years, whereas in quote unquote Western astrology that came out of this very multicultural tradition in the Mediterranean, around the Hellenistic period, it gets disrupted by Christianity. It gets disrupted by Rome going full on tilt Christianity with Constantine, and then astrology gets very suppressed and very broken up over the years. The lineage of what we call like western, whatever, then gets carried through the Middle East, which is where we get the integration of Arabic parts and lots.
The whole point being that a lot of what astrological practice used to be with ancient astrology, quote unquote, got lost in the tradition that has now been reconstructed. And so when it is starting to become more integrated for the general masses post-spiritualist movement in the late 19th century, and then what happened also in the early 20th century, you have the birth of some royal baby, and they did a horoscope. I think this was in England. And they did a horoscope for the baby, and it was so popular, that this paper then proceeded to continue to do horoscopes.
EWW: This is a wild story!
JK: Which used to be done according to rising signs, and which like prior to even like the Greeks doing rising sign stuff like if we're talking Babylonians or Egyptians were done with like stars and your heliacal rising star and all of that stuff. It's wild.
But people in the early 1900s don't fucking know any of that, because this tradition has been broken and has been lost and people don't know. Also, astrology, pre-app! You had to be really good at math! So people don't know how to calculate their rising sign. That's too hard.
But people do generally know the day that they were born, which is where we get the idea of cusps that becomes so popular, which is actually not really a thing. Like you're definitely one sign or the other, but you have all of these newspapers that start printing sun sign horoscopes to give people a general idea, because risings are way too difficult to try to re-introduce, and also people don't know about them. A lot of people don't know about them. But sun signs? That we can do.
That’s my very long answer!
EWW: No, I love that answer because it makes me think about when I was a teenager and my family would go to Costco. My main thing when we went to Costco was just to go to the book section, because I didn't want to wander around and look at giant packages of like 500 croissants that you could buy or whatever.
But I remember going to the book section, and they almost always had the birthdays book. It was just this huge, massively thick book and it would have two pages about your birthday and what your birthday meant. But very clearly that was just sun sign stuff. But it was this massive book that I feel like was very popular for years and years, like in the nineties and early aughts. I haven't seen those in a while. I'm sure they're still being printed somewhere. But I remember and this is way before I knew anything about astrology, just being very interested in this birthdays book that I could look at at Costco.
JK: That's so interesting. And that actually does segue into something I wanted to ask you, which is how we met almost a decade ago now, which is wild.
EWW: It’s so wild! And I'm so grateful.
JK: Me too. It’s wild to me that we didn't meet through books first. We met through tarot, and being in Instagram, Twitter, tarot circles together. And you were one of the first people who encouraged me to write about astrology professionally, which I don't think I've ever properly thanked you for.
But I did want to ask, how you became interested in — because you're so open in the literary world, and I so admire how open you are in [your work] about your interest and your use of tarot and astrology and the occult. I wanted to ask how you discovered it, explored it in the first place.
EWW: I think I started getting into astrology and tarot when my life was starting to feel like it was falling apart. I say that in a very non-sarcastic or sardonic way. I started getting interested in it when I started getting really mysteriously ill.
And this is something that I wrote about in my second book to some degree, but I think often when life is full of mystery and no answers or whatever, like it can become very useful to try to grasp for something that can explain what's going on when nobody can explain what's going on. I was going to all these doctors and stuff like that because I was sick, and they would either shoo me away and say, it's all in your head, or there was just no real answer. And so I started getting into astrology and tarot to form a scaffolding for me to be able to exist from day to day.
I feel like to talk about that now is interesting. I was using tarot a lot for a couple of years. I actually didn't touch it for a number of years because I felt like I didn't need it as much anymore. And it's interesting now because I'm starting to feel that chaos and stuff is going on in my life that we were talking about before the interview. And I found myself reaching for tarot again. And I think it's not irrelevant to people who look at the Christian God as like a kind of Santa Claus where it's like, let's ask him for something. Or like, let's only turn to him when life is chaotic. And I have to admit, like, my interest in these things is kind of tied to a feeling of chaos.
That’s probably also why I'm deeply into planners and things that can keep me organized. Or right now, my big thing is Notion, because my assistant got me into Notion.
JK: What’s Notion?
EWW: It’s an app that's a little bit like Evernote, but I find it more useful than Evernote in that you can kind of play with the visuals a lot more. And that's something that really matters to me. So I have all kinds of databases for my business. My book stuff is all in Notion, chapter by chapter. I keep records of all the books I read and I rate them and I have records of, oh, now that my husband is sick, we have a whole database for myself and the people who are helping out about like, what's his medical information? Like what doctors, where is the doctor's information? Where are our grocery lists? All this stuff can be kept in a database.
I feel like in some ways, astrology and tarot and things of the occult are, for me, like Notion are. They help create a structure for my life that otherwise wouldn't exist. And I feel a little bit weird admitting that. But life can be so strange and so hard to understand, I think. And so instead of being evangelical and turning to Christianity or discovering some other organized religion, I think I just ended up turning to astrology and tarot. I don't know why exactly, but it came into my life.
JK: I love that you talk about this very frankly, because I do think that the appeal and the pull of those things for a lot of people is that they provide structure, or at least some kind of structure in a profoundly random and disorderly world.
So with that in mind, I do want to ask, what is spirituality to you in this moment?
EWW: I feel like that varies so much to me, depending on the year, depending on what's going on in my life. There are definitely times where I feel closer to spirituality than I do at this moment.
You were just mentioning Bri [Saussy; who we were discussing before we recorded, and whose astrology for writers interview is here], and Bri was my spiritual consultant or spiritual mentor for years. I talked to her on the phone every single day. She’s wonderful. I took so many of her classes, and I mentioned her in my book.
The thing is, I often feel very jealous of people who have a very close relationship to spirituality. One thing you might not know about me is that throughout my life, I've always been drawn to people who are very strongly religious, and it kind of happens by accident. But I have been friends with people who were part of a very strict Lutheran sect, where every single person in the religion in the United States was in a phone book that was like this big [*indicates a very thin book*] And I saw it! And if you left the church, they will call you and try to get you to stay. Or like, I was friends with somebody else who was evangelical, and we were friends for years. My best friend is very, very Jewish. I wouldn't quite say orthodox, but she is very observant.
Throughout my life, I've always been attracted to people who have very strong relationships with churches or synagogues or whatnot, or in [another mutual friend’s case], she was telling me about the spirit of the little girl who was murdered in her building and how she was helping her cross over. I always find myself drawn to these people because I find it so interesting and I lack that in myself.
When my husband and I were deciding to get married, we were trying to decide whether to have a Catholic ceremony. And if you want to have a Catholic ceremony, both of you have to be Catholic. So I spent a year reading Jesuit and Catholic things and going to mass every week. And I would never go up for a blessing; I never even did that. And I tried to ask myself, am I feeling drawn to this? Should I become a Catholic?
I think I've had that kind of feeling throughout my life just to be like: what makes sense to me? What can help the world feel less chaotic? I have yet to really find something. I haven't become like a strict Lutheran or an evangelical —
JK: Thank goodness for that! *both laughing*
EWW: Or a Catholic. The thing that I have come back to again and again is astrology and tarot. And so that's what I find consistently interesting.
JK: I love hearing this. I love that the thing that you are continually following is your curiosity, that you're so compelled by these strong explanations, but you want to learn about them and then be like, okay, that’s enough, off to the next one!
JK: I find that really beautiful and again, not that every religion is like this by any stretch, but I think of how dictatorial the God of evangelicalism is and why that may not appeal to the curiosity and to the prioritizing of paths that allow more spaciousness for curiosity and more spaciousness for intuition.
EWW: I also find the cultures that surround various religions interesting, like the parts that are not specifically religious. Like, I don't watch The Bachelor, but I know a lot about Bachelor lore.
JK: I've watched too much Bachelor. I've watched enough for both of us.
EWW: One of the first things that I learned about The Bachelor, is that a lot of them are evangelical, but they don't talk about it on the show. They just say things like, “do life together” or these code things.
JK: The Christianisms.
EWW: So now there's a part of me, like if I follow someone on YouTube who never talks about religion, but then I hear them say something like, “do life together” or “this season,” I'm like, oh, I think this person might be an evangelical.
JK: That’s a phrase that I still use, usually ironically when I'm around other people who also grew up in the faith. But that's so interesting that your immersion gets to the point where you do pick up on and [become] familiar with, these are the ways that these people code and code switch when they're in mixed company or when they're in the “secular” world. This is how they show up and also kind of fly under the radar.
So, to change gears. Do these rabbit holes, interests, that you go down — does that end up seeping into the creative practice at all? Or things that you end up writing about? Do they impact or like influence the work in any capacity?
EWW: I don’t consciously think so. I think they might come into my work in some way, like Catholicism was definitely in The Border of Paradise. But the new book that I'm writing — there used to be a fair amount of tarot in it, but I think all of it, all of that has been taken out.
I think this is the component of me that is a seeker, you know? Who is seeking and will go down these rabbit holes and — not really “try on” different things, because I don't think I actually try them on. But I do find them interesting to the point where I ask myself internally does this speak to me in a way that I would want to pursue this in more than an interest. Like, during the year of learning about Catholicism, I would try to memorize certain prayers.
But it never seeped into my life in a way that it became me. And it never has seeped into my life where it comes into my writing very much.
There was a book that I was working on at some point. This was a very different version of Border of Paradise, where Gillian, who is in the Border of Paradise, becomes part of a cult that is mostly Christian. And so I knew that in order to write that plot thread, I would have to write these sermons. But the problem was, I had not immersed myself in enough sermons to be able to write sermons in a realistic way. There was a period of my life where I found a bunch of sermons online, and I was just like listening to them —
JK: Oh my god, Esmé, I’m having a physical reaction to this. You’re voluntarily listening to sermons!
EWW: I'm friends with Kelsey McKinney [who has also done an interview with astrology for writers here], who you probably know also came from evangelicalism. And I've listened to interviews with her. I blurbed her book, God Spare the Girls.
JK: Which is wonderful.
EWW: I love Kelsey so much. And I listened to an interview she did where she talked about how writing the sermons for that book was so natural to her because she had grown up listening to so many sermons. And so when she was writing the sermons that are in the book, they were just very natural and came out of her very easily.
But for me, I never got to that point just because I listened to them, but they were not in my bones.
JK: I think there are probably advantages and disadvantages to both of those perspectives of like, I grew up in the church so I can pull this out of me in a way that also might be retraumatizing. And then the, I can research and listen to it and there's a structure that you can [identify] while also, in that D&D way, you’re not taking psychic damage when you write it.
EWW: I'm sure if I really wanted to, I could start analyzing sermons.
JK: You’re brilliant. You could do this.
I did want to ask about your creative and writing practice and about what it looks like right now, and if or how it has changed from book to book over the years. Now that you've been doing this for a minute.
EWW: Now that you mention it, I've never talked about this with anyone. So this is like a deep secret scoop.
There are things that I do as part of my writing practice. For example, when I go to residencies, and I'm thinking of Yaddo in particular, but I think this happens at basically any writing residency I go to. If I have a studio space and I have a living space that's separate to different rooms, I will have a whole ritual that I do that includes crossing myself before I enter the studio, which I find really interesting because I'm not a Christian! So it's kind of like, why do I do that? But it just feels like something that makes the act of entering the studio and sitting down to write more holy in some way. I'll do that and then light a certain candle and then start writing in that particular way.
I have [also] gone through phases where I would say a little prayer before I sat down to write. So there are things that I do, and it’s constantly changing depending on the project, depending on where I am, depending on how I'm feeling in my spiritual life at that time. It’s the structure; it's the scaffolding.
JK: I think there's so much power in whatever rituals are consistent and create the space. When I am here, I do this, and I am showing up for the work, and the work meets me.
EWW: Did you read the piece that Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is a very good friend of mine, wrote about mesmerism and her process of writing?
JK: I did not. But I've also interviewed Reese [R.O. Kwon] for this newsletter, and she also spoke about this.
EWW: *laughing* Ingrid is part of our writing group, and we are all friends. But yeah, Ingrid does this form of mesmerism that's very similar to what I do, or like listening to a certain playlist. And the playlist she listened to at a particular time included a lot of audio that came from the sounds of planets, which I find very interesting. I think she got them from NASA.
But yes, read that piece. I definitely recommend it to anybody who's reading this interview, because then she came to my Unexpected Shape writing academy and she guest lectured a class that was about writing about trauma.
Part of what she talked about in writing about trauma was about how to care for yourself, or how to create a space that you can enter very deliberately, but then you can exit just as deliberately. And I have a very similar class that I teach — I call it, writing about what hurts. But I, without having talked to Ingrid about this, also had a very similar thing that I taught about deliberately entering this space, like having a ritual that you have when you enter this space so that you can then very deliberately exit the space and not have the trauma follow you everywhere when you're going about your day.
JK: It’s so interesting that you bring that up. That was such a huge thing for me when I was finishing Heretic, because I had thought so much about like, Oh, and I'm sitting down to write and I'm very intentional, but I had not connected that to how I exited.
And it wasn't until I was talking to my therapist about how heavy I was feeling during revisions because I work from home and I write full time and teach full time and I'm just carrying it around with me. And my therapist was the one who had to be like, Do you exit your space? Do you create ritual around that? And the act of doing that immediately cleared it all up. Immediately was a game changer. I love that you teach this.
EWW: I feel like I need to be more deliberate about that with the book that I'm writing now, because the book I'm writing now is the hardest book I've ever written, and it's also damaged me more than any book I've ever written.
So I was in France for over a month last year, and I was working on this book and I was so immersed in the trauma of the book and the trauma that I was writing about that I had to talk to my therapist on the phone every day. She’s been my therapist for about a decade, and we've never entered a point where I had to talk to her every day. And she also told me, after I left the residency, she said, I was afraid that you would have to leave early. Because I was so stuck in the trauma that the book is partially about that I was having like ten nightmares a night, just waking up screaming. My psychotic symptoms started to leak into my days. It was just really hard.
And I do think that it's really interesting that sometimes the things that you're really drawn to write about can be the things that are the most damaging to write about. I think that's where I really need to take my own lessons and create a safe space.
JK: That’s real. Can I ask how you created space for yourself to recover after that intense residency period?
EWW: It was funny because it didn't take anything deliberate at all. As soon as I left France, all my symptoms just went away. I was totally fine after I left France.
My best friend thinks that it's because Europe is a very old place, more [so] than our America. I'm not talking about the indigenous cultures that were here before. She believed that I was in a haunted place, and I have in at least three residencies had experiences that I felt like were hauntings or that there was some kind of ghost.
I mean, I have a lot of stories. The first residency I ever went to had the scariest haunting experience that I've ever experienced. A lot of times when I go to residences, I'll have some kind of weird occurrence. And then when I came home, it just all got better.
JK: You’re home with your husband and Daphne [her dog], and you were like, I’m good. My house is safe.
JK: But you do go to residences a lot, and it seems like your time there is often very productive. This is a very off the cuff question, what has been the intention [with residencies] and also with the hauntings, what has kept you going? What continues to be the allure?
EWW: I try to go to at least one residency per year because I feel like they're very productive for me. And the first residency I went to, I, of course, had no idea what my relationship with the residency would be, but I can tell a very brief version of what happened there.
So I had a friend who recommended this residency. It was on an island in Canada. I got in, and before I left to go to this residency, she told me, by the way, that residency is haunted. And I didn't believe in ghosts or anything like that, but I did think, you should have told me this before I applied for this residency! *both laughing*
Once I got there, I started experiencing weird things — flashes out of the corner of my eye, or at night, there would be these weird groaning and moaning sounds to the point where they sent a plumber to check out my room because they were like, What is this? Other people heard it too! They would come and stay with me for the night, and they would hear it.
Then the head of the residency, the person who was managing it, was like, Oh yeah, you're in the most haunted room that we have here. And I was like, Oh, great.
Then the night before I left, I was in the room, and all of a sudden this frantic knocking started happening at every door down the hall to my room. I could hear the knocking start down the hall. This frantic knocking, just hysterically knocking at my door. And I was like, Oh, wow, this is horrible.
So I got up and I opened the door. I looked around. Nobody was there. I went to the head of the residency, and she was like, okay, well, we have to check out if someone broke in, because that was one thought, right? Is that maybe there’s a person in here.
So she actually got a shotgun, and we were walking around, trying to see if anybody was there, and nobody was there. So she was like, okay, well, I do have a kit. And so she had a kit that was her witch kit that she used to sage my room.
Step number one: make sure it's not someone who broke in. Step number two: sage the room.
JK: Okay, the fact that she was like, step number one, get my shotgun! Step number two: witch kit! And we're doing a banishing!
EWW: And that was my first residency that I ever went to.
JK: And you were like, you know what I need to do? Is keep doing these!
EWW: I even have an audio recording on my phone; it’s one of the voice memos of this horrible groaning or whatever that I experienced at this other residency.
JK: ESMÉ YOU KEPT IT?
EWW: Yeah, I have it. It's on my phone. *both laughing very, very hard*
JK: That’s incredible. I’ve heard some little, like, oh some residences are haunted, but I have never heard a story like that.
EWW: The first one was the worst. It was bad. The one in France was also kind of bad. Like, I would hear crowds of whispers. Lots of weird stuff.
JK: But cleared up once you were back. I'm glad.
I love this though, like, because the thing about your work and also you as a person, is that you are describing this world in which you are not necessarily like “oh I do this one thing all the time and it works for me,” but also the supernatural is continually at the edges, always.
EWW: Oh, absolutely.
JK: Before we wrap up, I do want to ask about the Unexpected Shape Writing Academy and how it came about and what you’re doing with it right now and what’s really exciting you about it right now.
EWW: So the phrase “the unexpected shape” — which I have now trademarked! — comes from this idea that we have these limitations or boundaries in our lives, whether you are disabled or chronically ill, that can be the main thing that you think of as limitations. But really, everybody has limitations. Like maybe you're a caretaker or you have kids or you have a certain amount of money. You can think of limitations as these very negative or pejorative things, or you can think of them as the shape of what creates your life.
The analogy that I frequently use is baseball. There are three bases and there's home plate. And to play baseball, you hit the ball and you run around the bases. And maybe it would be great if you could run from home plate to third base. But that's not how baseball is. Baseball has its rules. The shape of a baseball diamond is just how it is. The rules of the game are how they are. You can think of your limitations as being similar; it’s just the shape of your life. It can change, but there are certain boundaries that they place on what you can do.
The way that I think of them is, okay, what can I do with this unexpected shape of my life? Whether that's caused by mental illness or chronic physical illness or things that arise in your life that are difficult.
I found myself interested in teaching writing to people who had some kind of limitations in their lives and felt that perhaps the shape of their life was making it hard to be a writer. And so I have this thing that I created as a writing school called the Unexpected Shape Writing Academy, and it goes from pre-writing all the way to publication.
There are two versions. There's one called the Writing Intensive, and there's one called the VIP Experience. The VIP experience has a little bit more personal support, and the writing intensive is more just the classes and our Discord group. But they all go from pre-writing, thinking about, for example, about ethics or about what you're going to write all the way to publication, which includes us having agents and editors doing panels with us, and we have guest lecturers. But I think all of the classes do tend to speak to people who have some kind of limitations in their lives. And so I find that the students tend to experience the learning of writing or the learning of the skills of writing or learning their own ways of being a writer in a way that feels more comfortable because they're around other students virtually; they're around other students who are also dealing with limitations. They are dealing with teachers who also have limitations. They get to hear from me about how I deal with my own limitations, as in writing. And so that's the writing school that I have created.
JK: Which is incredible. And I love seeing everything that y'all are doing. Like you said earlier, you have incredible guest lecturers come and just visit and do awesome classes. Like, your own editor Cal Morgan, comes to visit, too?
EWW: Yeah. Cal Morgan has come. My agent Jin Auh, Hanif Abdurraqib, T Kira Madden, Suleika Jaouad. All kinds of writers have come and guest lectured. If you join the academy, you get access to all the guest lecturers, or most of the guest lectures anyway.
And then the Academy, like the entire academy, is open for registration.
JK: So amazing. And hopefully people who it's for will check it out!
My last question for you. Ugh, I’ve just really enjoyed this!
EWW: This has been so great!
JK: Like, would I have prepared in any way for us to talk about haunted residencies? No! *both laughing* But this is perfect, I love this.
My last question for you is just like if you've had any particularly magical or otherwise heart filling creative moments this last year.
EWW: I think any time I write something where I feel like I've gotten that something that's so hard to describe in words.
I think one of my fascinations as a writer is to write about things that are very ephemeral and are difficult to describe. Like with my first book, before I ever thought about writing nonfiction, one of my main goals was to try to write about mental illness in a way that could get at my experience in a way that I hadn't seen in other books. And I think that with my current project, I'm trying to write about chronic illness in a way that I haven't seen in other books, and that's also a very ephemeral and weird experience.
So when I am able to put that into words, and I read it back and I'm like, Oh, that's like a magic code or like some kind of there's some kind of magic thing occurring there that's able to convey from one person to another through words this very strange and ephemeral human experience. I think that's always a magical experience when I'm writing.
JK: Absolutely. And you do it so beautifully. I love everything you write. I'm so excited for your next books. Whenever they come.
Thank you so much for talking to me today.
EWW: Thank you for talking to me. This has been really fun.
You can learn more about the Unexpected Shape Writing Academy here, and be sure to follow Esmé on Instagram and Twitter.
I love these intimate conversations with people you know well, Jeanna. Much more fun to read than a traditional interview/Q&A - it feels like eavesdropping. And now I think all of your subscribers need to consider "grab your shotgun and your sage" as a writing prompt because that is too, too good not to work with!
Thank you so much for doing this with me. It was so fun.