As noted within its title page, Pay As You Go is technically a ‘fable.’ As opposed to a novel, a fable implies a wild journey, a hero to root for, and deeply memorable characters. Eskor David Johnson’s debut novel has it all and then some.
We meet his protagonist, Slide, complaining about his apartment in the city of Polis, only for his speech to be interrupted by his roommate, who says that he’s only lived there a week. And so begins Slide’s quest to find a new apartment, dealing with landlords, real estate agents, all in search for in-unit laundry. The novel is grounded until a biblical-level flood wipes everything out, causing him to start anew at a mountain at the highest peak in Polis, where he integrates himself within a group of gangsters and earns his keep while cutting hair. Once the flood resides, he sets up a proper shop in one of Polis’ neighborhoods, but he soon finds out he has more debt than he previously thought. After he rants that people aren’t paying attention to a sword-swallower, instead cheering on an inept comic, he goes viral and everything he wanted before is seemingly in his reach. Wildly imaginative, exuberant and hilarious in all the ways that count, Pay As You Go is a surreal tale that announces David Johnson as a supremely talented new writer.
Our Culture sat down with Eskor David Johnson to talk about form, planning, and different cities’ influences on the novel.
Congratulations on your amazing debut novel! How does it feel for it to be out?
Exciting, obviously. I started to get an early dose of the excitement because all the pre-orders shipped, so it wasn’t as I imagined it beforehand, whereby only tomorrow would people even be able to see it. Friends are starting to read it, so that deflates the climactic excitement, but it’s allowed it to have a longer lifespan. So, a tradeoff, I think.
I have so many questions about form to ask, since this is such a rich and vibrant novel. First, since it revolves around Slide’s continuous journey, where did the first sparks of the idea come to you?
It follows the arc of the hero’s journey, so that archetypal story form has various touchstones or checkpoints the plot is supposed to have. It loosely follows that. But as to where the idea came from, it was an unusual turn of events — the title came first, many many years ago. I think I just liked it as a phrase, ‘pay as you go,’ this notion of a perpetual motion machine, something that continued to move forward because it was already moving. It was only getting enough fuel to make it to the next step. I wanted a character to embody that, and I began to hear someone who very incessantly needed something. It was in a period of my life where I began to need something as well, I was fresh out of college. It took me a failed draft, it took me a year and a half of a much worse version of Slide. It’s only when trying to rework that previous version that I landed on this novel’s first sentence: “My first apartment in Polis, it was shit, complete shit.” And that, to bring it full circle, allowed everything to finally crystallize. I was able to hear the voice clearer than I’d ever felt, it also felt as if that momentum to move forward was embedded in that first phrase. I was able to follow that voice a lot more clearly and easily.
I love that answer — I’m someone who also writes from the first sentence, and everything else usually follows.
I think that’s all you need! [Gabriel García] Máquez speaks about that a lot. He’s like, if you get that ingredient right, it’s all you need, and if you get it wrong, there’s no amount of writing down the line that will fix things. If I don’t feel that, from, ideally, the first sentence, it’s not even something I think is worth pursuing.
I can’t even imagine how long this must have taken you. Every turning point in his story is so rife with energy, complex characters, and it’s immersive to the highest degree. I mean, you have a map! What was it like enveloping yourself within the city of Polis and developing these storylines?
It was really really fun. Yeah, it was a lot of work, something like five years, depending on when you want to start counting from. One of the hardest things I’ve done, but very fun. I started it when I was in Iowa, but the bulk of it was written in New York. For me, it became the inverted world of my life in New York — it’s one thing to be living there day-to-day, living with the struggle of finding rent, seeing your friends, putting up with traffic. To be able to endure that, but every morning, be able to return to this quiet, controlled space, my studio at the time, where I was able to turn off the noise of New York and wake up as early as possible, 5:30, ideally. I like that it felt as if for all of the energy and mania that I knew was beyond those walls, I was able to curtail it all and retreat into what was physically a very private, quiet world where I’d draw my curtains and everything. But within the pages themselves is an even wilder version of New York, or at least one that I’d hoped to be. It felt as if I needed this other world that I was able to retreat to on mornings, both for the sake of the story and also as a talisman for me to be able to endure New York. If you’re here without some kind of drive, something where it feels like you’re moving forward, it can be very overwhelming and all over the place. It was my sanctuary, in that sense.
That goes right into my next question — even though Pay As You Go is a surreal satire, it really does read like a love letter to cities everywhere and all the nooks and crannies that make each one unique. It seems like New York was the basis, but did any other areas influence the novel as well?
I’ve been in and out of New York over the years — my dad was a professor here. I’ve had a bit of exposure: in the first few months outside of college I was here, during COVID I left for a bit then came back. All that to say, there’s something attractive and repellent about such an overwhelming place. I’ve often felt the need to leave and take breaks. But as soon as you leave, you feel as if you’re about to miss out on everything that’s happening. It really does feel like you’re closer to the center of the world. It’s a bit of an illusion, but it’s a very attractive illusion.
New York is for sure the main ingredient, but there’s some Chicago in there. When I lived in Iowa, I had friends in Chicago and I remember one weekend I spent walking around downtown with a painter friend. And there’s been Portugal, where I spent four months out of college. Though it may not look or seem or feel like it, there’s also a bit of Port of Spain, which is the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. That’s not so much in the architecture of the place, but the frenetic sense of happening, talking, chatter, crowds, gossips, eavesdroppers within the population itself. For me, that has a very large Trinidadian dose in it.
Let’s talk about your writing process. Because this story is so imaginative, I wanted to ask if you were a writer that comes up with everything on the spot, letting the words flow, or if you’re a big planner.
No plan! I can’t plan. In my life I can, I hope, but when it comes to writing, I actually find plans are detrimental for me. I need to not know what’s going to happen so that the moment the characters, the scenes, can unfold in any way that seems true to themselves. I think if you have a character enter a room and you determine beforehand what needs to happen before he or she leaves that room, it can have a constraining or forced feel to the unfolding of those events. I know writers for whom that is not true, but for me, it is. My general approach is to get people in trouble and find a way for them to get out of it, but for them to not know what that is. Instead of it becoming my problem, I like to make it my character’s problem. Therefore, if you really sit with them in that moment, you’re better able to draw on the resources of the world present around to make it real.
So even these huge world events, like the flood, where he has to change neighborhoods, that was all off the cuff?
Yeah, I think with the flood, I wanted to wash everything clean. The flood marks a real turning point in the novel. Ostensibly, when you tell people what it’s about, ‘Just a guy finding somewhere to live,’ it’s very straightforward in that way. He’s viewing apartments, has a real estate agent, but after the flood, things begin to get stranger. I knew I needed some kind of means of allowing the novel to head to that next tier. A large event would rearrange things, and what better than a flood? So it came out of a practical desire to push things further.
Slide is the ultimate example of going with the flow. He leaves his awful apartment to work for a room in a hostel-type building, survives the flood and camps out with intimidating men on the top of the city’s mountain, sets up a barber’s shop, and all seemingly has a good attitude about it. Why do you think he keeps going, to this unknown endpoint?
Great question. Speaking again of the failed draft: I had this earlier version of Slide whom you wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with. He was older, or at least felt older, and was supposed to be wiser. It made him a little bit insufferable. With this version of Slide, I did two things: I made him stupider, but I made him braver. I think the combination of things made him a ‘yes and’ type. He’s not a ‘no, but.’ It allowed that for any situation that unfolded, all I had to do was have Slide crash head-first into it, and see what unfolded. And again, I think it goes back to the first line. It speaks to someone who will quickly get enthusiastic about things and who will quickly change his mind. He’s also going to say yes to a lot of things, and will go out of his way to see what those things are. In some sense, it’s not so much a question of why that was a feature, rather, it couldn’t have happened if not for that intrinsic ingredient.
Slide gains some notoriety after a rant about finances and capitalism he goes on while he’s on a date — he’s then scooped by agents and offered a wide range of luxury promises, like a memoir, ads, and a TV show about his life. But he still feels something is off — there’s a great line that says “The world had become my oyster but I’d lost my appetite.” When everything is right in front of him, why do you still think Slide is apprehensive?
To Slide’s credit, I think even though more often than not he articulates what he is trying to find — ‘I want Scandinavian furniture, a nice coffee table’ — he does it in these material aims. Unbeknownst to him, until those goals are laid out in front of him, there is something more fundamental and spiritually fulfilling he does want. I’m thinking, for example, when Osmond the real estate agent is asking him what he wants in an apartment. As best as he can manage, he says, ‘I want somewhere that I can offer a cup of coffee for my friends who come over. My friend who owns a cat, I want to be able to give it a saucer of milk.’ What that speaks to is that, he’s not saying to him, ‘A one bedroom, laundry in-unit, etc.’ That’s the obvious physical manifestation. What he really wants is a home. He wants somewhere to care for others and be welcoming and be welcomed himself. I don’t think Slide has the language to say it in that way, but what he does have is this sense of persisting, dissatisfaction, even in the face of overabundance of material objects, which is ostensibly what he was trying to find.
The book is formatted as a speech to Jim and Jean, two TV pundits that we see somewhat infrequently, but to whom Slide spills his life in Polis to. Talk a little bit about this decision and how it influenced the writing process.
Yeah, going back to causing myself problems I don’t know how to solve. It’s one of things that, at the end of it, feels as if it’s plotted in advance. But at the end of the first part, he’s leaving the apartment, saying goodbye to everyone on the train, he heads and enters the subway. Because it was such a force of momentum in that scene, I got quite foolish and I wanted to take it up one more notch. I decided on this line, ‘And that, the two of you, is how I got started in this mess in the first place.’ I didn’t know who these two people were and how we’d end up to them. But it was a problem I made for myself, a problem I made for the character, but my hope was that it’d allow for some kind of urgency. There had to be more of a reason this story was being told, other than having fun. That undefinable promise rose spontaneously, and then I had to spend a number of years trying to fulfill it in some way.
Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any other ideas for a future fiction project?
Right now, I can’t say anything for certain — I have some ideas I have a few pages on, but I’m quite fortunate in that there’s a lot of energy and excitement around Pay As You Go, I have too much on my mind now to find that quiet, concentrated space. When things settle is when I’m hoping to return to exploring. I’d like to do some non-fiction for a bit, because even though I love fiction the most, the novel was very much creating my own world. And I have thoughts about the real one as well, which I’d like to articulate if even for my own self.
Pay As You Go is out now.