Heidi Julavits by Fiona Maazel

BOMB 119 Spring 2012
Issue 119 119  Cover Replacement
Heidi Julavits Body

Heidi Julavits. Photo by Jill Goldman. Courtesy of Doubleday.

Listen to an excerpt from this interview.

Call me populist, call me lazy, but to help prepare for this interview, I posted on Facebook that I was talking to Heidi Julavits for BOMB and asked if anyone had any questions for her. Turns out they did. “How does she pronounce her last name?” Jewlavitz. “Is she ever going to collect her short stories?” I forgot to ask. “How does The Believer, the magazine she co-founded and edits, continue its reign of excellence?” I forgot to ask that, too. Other questions came in private and were rhetorical. “Why is she so smart and funny?” “How is she pulling off this career with two kids?” “How does anyone that intelligent also dress that well?” “What does she know that we don’t?” And so, Heidi, who tends to inspire this kind of awe among her readers and peers.

I don’t remember when we first met; I do remember one of the last times we met, at the MacDowell Colony, where I spent our two-day overlap slavishly trying to keep up with her wit, and fledging my girl crush with evidence that I had not, and would not, succeed. Because what’s most winning about Heidi—in person and on the page—is the alacrity of her mind, the way it will scope the room for what’s of interest and make something memorable of it in about ten seconds. Memorable, often hilarious, and in all cases shrewd, she is a real thinker, which sounds condescending until you consider the way so much contemporary fiction and—I’m just going to say it—so many women writers refuse to enter arenas of debate or stir us to a sense of bigger things. Refuse to stir or, just as often, are denied the chance. Heidi is a prolific novelist— The Vanishers, which publishes this March, is her fourth book. She is also a founding editor of one the most relentlessly compelling venues for nonfiction extant today, a teacher of literature and creative writing, and, in all these ventures, very much engaged with the big stuff. In her new novel, the big stuff comprises nothing short of identity politics, apprehensions of selfhood, and an allegorical rendering of self-sabotage whose MacGuffin is already pleasingly complex—a girl whose mom committed suicide when she (the girl) was just a month old, and who, at 26, is now vulnerable to assaults of grief. And that’s just for starters. The novel is by turns moving and funny and tanked up with ideas that stay provocative well after the novel ends. We talked about just a few of them in my apartment, over soup and beer and my cat, who kept molesting the recorder as Heidi spoke. Not surprisingly, neither lady lost her cool.

Fiona Maazel Congratulations on the book. It’s fabulous, and your fourth novel, which means you are enviably prolific, or—

Heidi Julavits Enviably mid-career. (laughter)

FM So is it getting harder or easier? Does the accumulated wisdom you get from book to book help when you start a new one or does it just get in the way?

HJ This novel was by far the hardest one for me to write. Like most people, my life is a gazillion interconnected moving parts held together with bread ties, and right around when I had my second kid, my Rube Goldberg machine totally failed. I was maxed out on every front, and I “lost perspective.” I passed a version of this novel to Bill Thomas at Doubleday in the summer of 2010, thinking it was pretty close to done. And then it turned out that it was not remotely close. Which really unnerved me. It was like learning that your husband was a long-practicing pedophile or something. You’re like, Wait! How could I not have seen what was right in front of my face all these years?! (laughter) I love being edited and I value honest, even depression-inducing, feedback; what unnerved me was that I had so wrongly estimated where I was in the process.

FM So for previous novels you had a much better sense of where you were?

HJ I did! Or at least I think I did. Another reason this book proved such a challenge was because, after writing a number of novels, you’re much more aware of what you can do easily and what you are forever avoiding doing. I was determined this time not to avoid what I’d been forever avoiding, which is earnest, unironized explications of emotion. Whenever I interview other writers, I always ask, “Do you read your own reviews, and have you ever read a review that influenced how or what you wrote in the future?”

FM What a good question.

HJ Years ago I read an interview with Michael Chabon in which he claimed that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay had been inspired by a review of his previous novel, Wonder Boys, about a down-and-out writing teacher. The reviewer complimented him but expressed the wish that Chabon apply his talents and imagination to a bigger canvas. And so Chabon took this as his next challenge. I vowed to remain as open to constructive criticism as he’d been, because look what might happen if you do?

My last book, The Uses of Enchantment, was reviewed by Sarah Kerr in the New York Review of Books, and since then I’ve let my subscription lapse. (Sorry, New York Review of Books.) I’m not allowed onto the website and thus I can’t read this review again, and I kind of don’t want to, because my memory of it, even if that memory doesn’t factually check out, provided the marching orders for The Vanishers. Kerr said that the book was smart and intricately structured and other nice stuff, but she thought I had it in me to write a book that was more emotionally resonant. That criticism made a lot of sense to me. It emotionally resonated with me. I’m very aware of preferring oblique and even slightly ascerbic approaches to feeling. But I’d grown tired of that, maybe in part because I’d identified my approach as reactionary. Maybe I worried that I might be tricked into writing something that would doom me forever as a sentimental, unserious writer. I suppose for every writer emotion is tricky and it’s hard to execute effectively. Let’s say you have an unemotional character, how can you stir emotion in your reader? How can this experience not be a big numbfest for everyone? And is it stupid to talk about emotion at all? I don’t think it is, because as a reader, I care about feeling things, but then again I can get emotional highs from all kinds of emotionally inhospitable books. I’m trying, however, to be less oblique and acerbic, because I understand that it’s my tonal way of dodging what comes least naturally to me.

FM You answered the call—in this novel the emotional predicament you’ve set up for the main character, Julia, is pretty dire. Her mother commits suicide—that’s not a secret, I don’t think that’s a spoiler—when she’s only one month old. The upshot being she’s got to mourn someone she never knew, a someone who put her in the awful position of having to mourn—the fallout there’s pretty complicated! Grief, rage, and a horrible sense of abandonment and self-loathing.

HJ I became fascinated by the emotional futility of missing a missing. Julia is missing an emotional experience more than she is missing a person.

This experience of missing an emotional state happens to everyone, because initial feelings—of love, of grief—mutate over time. Your mother dies, say. You miss the person, you miss the person, you miss the person, but then you—I’m using air quotes here— “heal,” and as a result of that healing process it’s harder and harder to recapture the visceral experience of missing them. Trying to summon it will actually make you feel like you’re pulling a muscle in your brain, which is part of the problem. You’re intellectually calling up an emotional response. It can’t be done on command. You cannot simply decide to reoccupy an emotional state from your past.

FM There’s always that level of remove.

HJ Right, so then you are grieving the fact that you can’t grieve anymore, you can’t be that person anymore. That’s like a funeral for everyone.

My goal wasn’t to write a novel about psychics, but to show how what psychics do is analogous to activities in which we all pretty regularly engage. We often try to access our past lives. We often fail. For example, I’m looking out your window to the place where the Twin Towers would have been—at, as Don DeLillo phrased it, the “nothing in the sky.” And while the months following 9/11 were some of the most emotionally harrowing I’ve ever experienced—which maybe sounds ridiculous given I didn’t know anyone who died—I cannot, even though I’m staring right at that nothing in the sky, make myself reinhabit that feeling. Is that tragic or is that proof of “healing”? I’d argue that it’s both. But every once in a while I’ll smell burning plastic and I’m transported back to that past self, and I’m oddly reassured. That person isn’t lost to me. I didn’t “heal” her out of existence. These portals exist but you can’t predict when you’re going to stumble upon them.

FM Just to complicate things a little, someone in the novel contends that memory is actually an act of murder, for two reasons. If you remember the dead incorrectly, which is the only way to remember people, you basically kill them again. Or, if you remember people, you keep them alive, which means you supplant the past with the present, which means killing off the past. So it really seems like it’s lose/lose.

HJ All of my novels are lose/lose. (laughter) That’s where the most generative storytelling happens, in the nexus between lose and lose.

FM One of the most interesting things in the book is all that stuff about surgical impersonation. Throughout your work you seem to return often to issues of selfhood and identity, so I got to wondering if you have a cemented ideology about selfhood—for instance, is the self engaged, always, in so many chameleon-like renovations that it’s just silly to try to pin it down?

HJ There’s no part of you that can’t be renovated. Contrary to popular wisdom about selfhood—you know, “it’s who you are inside that counts”—I decided to write a book that locates the self on the outside, and to try to claim that this is not superficial. Why is the outside any less valid or revealing? You can renovate your soul and change your behavior and lie to yourself, but maybe the face is the last frontier of truth. There’s only so much that plastic surgery can do for you.

Maybe too I’m obsessed with faces because I’ve reached an age where my face is actually different. I look in the mirror now and for once I like what I see, I think, “Oh, that’s me.” Whereas until a couple of years ago, my face just made no sense to me. I didn’t feel like it was at all representative of me, and it was my own face! I don’t know, this all sounds quite ludicrous, I suppose. But I did reach this place recently where I look at my face and I think to myself, Yes, that is the face that belongs on this person.

FM That’s just alarming.

HJ Really?

FM Yeah. I’ve had similar experiences but not so much that I don’t recognize my face or think it doesn’t belong with my personality. It’s more that the longer I stare at it the more grotesque it becomes, to the point where I just disassociate and despair.

HJ But that’s fun. That’s what a person does for fun on a Friday night.

FM (laughter)

HJ For the purposes of this book, I figured I’d take self-renovation and self-expression to the extreme. Since we live in a time when everyone is messing with their faces, why be inhibited by the original at all? For example you could say, “Fuck it, this is not my face. I’m going to have the face of that woman’s dead mother.”

FM It sounds extraordinarily pleasurable to have that experience of harmony looking at yourself in the mirror. Or to feel like your self is being excavated in some kind of pleasurable way. I was recently going to this hypnotist—

HJ Excellent.

FM Yeah, well, I was unable to be hypnotized. I wanted to be hypnotized, but she spent most of the time telling me that I need to know myself, and I just completely freaked out and left. And this was all as I was reading your book, and so I just thought, Oh, God! Help me, Heidi! Maybe if I got someone else’s face, that face could tell me who I am.

HJ To clarify, though, in the novel, surgicial impersonation is about taking on the face of a dead person, so it’s not like you’d be twins. Your “twin” is dead. You never met them.

FM Right. That would really change matters, wouldn’t it?

HJ I view surgical impersonation as filling a vacancy. There’s an emotional hole in the world, so you take the face of the person who used to occupy that spot.

FM I want to ask you about all the “regression scenes” in The Vanishers, where people literally horn in on each others’ pasts. Was it enjoyable to write those scenes? Did they feel liberating insofar as scenes like that allow you to depart even more from consensus reality, or were they hard?

HJ They were extremely enjoyable. As a writing professor, you can’t help but be confronted by, and existentially tortured by, the technique of the flashback. This is one of the many ways that teaching has taught me how to write. Why are we flashing back? This is a seemingly rote and effortless memory action that only exists in novels. The characters are, in a sense, like psychics, who can regress on mental command into a fully “felt” past. Which is not to say that writers shouldn’t employ them—I enjoy a good flashback—but I felt the need to escape the burden that can occasionally result from availing myself of this technique.

I notice that you have a copy of Remainder by your desk. One of the reasons I fetishize that book is because it eliminates flashback entirely by establishing in the first paragraph that the protagonist has been hit on the head by a heavy falling something, and he can’t remember his life. No flashbacks allowed! No need—or rather, no ability—to write about the neglectful parents or the scarring divorce or the excruciating shame of learning to downhill as a teen. Tom McCarthy freed himself from the burden of having to represent his character’s past in fiction. I wanted to similarly liberate myself. So I got rid of Julia’s mother. And yet Julia still had a past. Then I thought, Because of this odd gift Julia possesses, what if her past is really not her past, but a past comprised of the pasts of other people? Suddenly the flashback became newly exciting to me. Julia can flash back into somebody else’s life. This freed me from a constricting linearity. Most characters must hop backward on a single timeline, whereas Julia’s “past” became infinitely pronged.

FM I thought of those scenes almost exactly the same way, except I imagined they liberated you from something else as well. I read someplace that for you the appeal of constructing novels out of multiple narratives that talk to each other is that this defends against “the potential solipsism of a single narrative thread.” Of course for this book you have adopted that single, consolidating voice, but it doesn’t feel solipsistic.

HJ You asked before what I’ve learned about writing novels—every time I write a novel it’s about choosing a new form of suffocation. My process is to write two-thirds to three-quarters of what I’ve come to call “the prequel,” then I realize that the novel sucks and I throw it away. The first time I did this, I was devastated and I grieved; the second time I did it, I grieved slightly less; and the last time I did it, when I threw away the prequel to The Vanishers on the day before the July 4th partyfest of 2008, I don’t think I grieved after I mixed my first cocktail.

For the second prequel that I wrote—for The Effect of Living Backwards—I decided that my main character would remain in the bathtub for the entire novel. This was a corrective measure. When I wrote my first novel, The Mineral Palace, I wasted hundreds of pages externalizing psychology into landscape. So I thought, Okay, this person will be in a bathtub for 362 pages; there is no landscape. I tried that, it didn’t quite work, and then I thought, Airplane, these characters are going to be hostages on an airplane! Again, no landscape! Unlike the bathtub, the airplane ended up being a beneficial suffocation, or a productive, generative suffocation, versus a nonproductive, nongenerative suffocation. Novel writing for me is a process of finding the right form of suffocation. Productive, generative suffocation forces you to be wily. Because I went kind of crazy on that airplane, I needed to get the fuck out, and so I decided I would write these little Decameron-like stories between the chapters. So that’s how that book structurally came to be. I strive to drive myself crazy in a positive way, make myself feel trapped by rules so that I’m forced to come up with innovative structural solutions. I have to find a loophole. Regressions were my loophole this time around.

FM What was your process, particularly for this book? It’s a heavily plotted novel that reads like a thriller. So, okay, you write a lot and you ditch it all, but even so, once you get it going, are you the kind of writer who plans ahead?

HJ No, no. Though after this book, I want to be that kind of writer. There are so many plot points in this novel. If it weren’t for my editor Bill Thomas, my husband [Ben Marcus], and my friend Vendela Vida, this book might have been called House of Holes: A Book of Illogic. But I’m always very plotty. Plot is currently my landscape curse. That’s my next challenge, to write a book without a plot.

FM How about a book about a man in a bathtub?

HJ That’s why writing short stories for me can be such a relief. They’re not long enough to accommodate the kind of intricate plot I seem fated to spin. If you don’t have a plot, you have to come up with some other ordering system. For example, I wrote a story called “Multiples of Cohen” whose ordering system was a recurring wrestling singlet. That’s liberating for me. Because sometimes plot can make you feel like you’re a deluded, underpaid mechanic. While I was rewriting The Vanishers and replacing all the plot plugs, I felt like I’d spent weeks with my head in the hood of an old pickup, but I worried when I finally emerged from my ceaseless engine tinkering I’d discover that there was no longer any truck.

FM Can we talk about consensus reality some more? The Vanishers is, in some measure, about psychics and mediums in a universe that’s like ours in every way except that everyone seems to agree that psychic facility is completely normal. There are very few naysayers. Was it difficult to create an entirely realistic universe whose one “deviance” is to embrace what we here in the real world generally find nuts?

HJ Novel writing is about artful prohibition. You have to corral reader curiosity, you have to prevent readers from asking questions you don’t want them to ask so that they can focus on the questions you do want them to ask. And I didn’t want people to wonder, Are these people really able to regress themselves into the past? I saw the psychic stuff as a fictional fact, the particular foundation upon which all novels are built and from which a certain economy of plausibility between reader and writer is spawned. I created a world that was in all ways familiar save one: the characters have abilities that most real-world people don’t believe exist. I didn’t want the psychic stuff to be a metaphor for, say, psychological self-deception. I wanted it to be a fact, because then the reader is free to make of that fact a meaningful metaphor that they assign. Of course, I’m still guiding this metaphor’s assignation. For me, psychic power mimics the way we expect to be able to know everybody’s business and everybody’s thoughts, because that information is supplied to us online in various voluntary and involuntary forms. I’ve actually caught myself wondering whether somebody was mad at me and thinking for a half-second that I could Google “Faye is pissed at Heidi because she didn’t call her back”and receive a few hits that provide me confirmation.

Also, real psychic powers, it’s a bit of wish fulfillment, at least on my part.

FM That’s a tried and true technique—if the narrative takes it for granted, we’ll take it for granted.

HJ Still, you’re taking a chance. I once taught The Fermata, Nicholson Baker’s novel about a guy who can stop time and undress and fondle and have sex with people whenever he wants—talk about wish fulfillment. But I had a student who kept saying, “But you can’t do that. You can’t stop time.” It was fascinating to encounter a reader whose response is to say, “I will not take that leap of faith. Even though the book is telling me that this is how it is, I refuse to believe it.” I guess it’s always a risk when you veer from the real. But veering from the real is what fiction does, even in the really real fiction.

FM But it’s not like these people have powers that are completely unheard of, like being able to fly; they’re doing things people claim to be able to do in the real world.

HJ Right. And who hasn’t at one time or another suspected that they had psychic powers? You’ve thought that, haven’t you?

FM Daily.

HJ I had this thing happen the other day, which isn’t really a psychic power, but it felt like some kind of power that I, like Julia, wasn’t able to manipulate to my advantage. I needed to endorse a check and realized I didn’t have a pen. I thought, If I look down on the sidewalk, I’ll find a pen. And I looked down on the sidewalk and found a pen. A half-hour later I was in the library, and I’d bought this undersalted soup. I thought, Gosh, I wish I had salt, and I looked on the ground and there was a packet of salt! In the freaking catwalk of the Columbia library! So then I went, I need a million dollars! That’s where my powers failed me.

FM Baby steps. (laughter)

HJ I do think that everybody has these moments. Like déjà vu, serendipity, or these unsettling, inexplicable experiences of knowing or preknowing that which you cannot know. Freud examined such moments in his essay “The Uncanny,” which he defines as “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” One such bit of uncanniness that happens to me a lot is this: I’ll see a person on the street and think, There’s Ted! I haven’t seen Ted in years! Then the person turns out not to be Ted, he’s just a Ted doppelgänger. Two blocks later I’ll see the real Ted. You know, weird shit happens.

FM See, I just think that’s the universe playing with you.

HJ Or maybe that’s you refusing to know yourself and harness your intuitive powers, as your hypnotist I’m sure would be quick to point out.

FM (laughter) Well, thanks to this conversation, I’m going to go back to her. I would love a psychic power.

HJ I’ve never even been to a psychic. I first got the idea for this book from what can best be described as an occult self-help book called Psychic Self-Defense that was written in 1930 by this woman named Dion Fortune, who was psychically attacked by her mentor. I kind of want to get her okay for having borrowed her story. Maybe I’ll conduct a séance or something.

FM The Vanishers certainly feels like it’s well versed in the occult. Did you do a lot of other research?

HJ I did some, or as much as I could manage. What’s interesting about certain occult books is that they are practically, and I think purposefully, unreadable and dense. One of the books that frequently gets cited in this category is Madame Helena Blavatsky’s theology tract, The Secret Doctrine. Reading these books is supposed to put you into some sort of trance; comprehension is not the point. Maybe that’s your key to hypnotizing yourself, you need to read The Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky. Give it a shot!

FM I’ll put it on my Amazon wishlist. And send this interview to my mom.

HJ Some of the books that Dion Fortune wrote were very available, sensewise, to the noninitiate population. Psychic Self-Defense tells you how to diagnose a psychic attack, what you should avoid if you suspect you’re being psychically attacked, and the different varieties of psychic attack. And what’s cannibalistic about the whole thing, what’s so awesomely lose/lose about it, is that you can unconsciously be attacking somebody else. No one is ever totally innocent.

FM So, do you think a psychic attack is actually possible? Not literally, but more that other people can make you sick, that the body can take over the discharge or rendering of certain feelings?

HJ Think of the language we use. We say stuff like, “she’s toxic,” or after hanging out with a certain undesirable person, “I need to take a shower.” Something bad has been released. The body does not contain people’s selfhood effectively. You can feel physically altered by being around people, in good and bad ways.

FM Great, so now that I don’t want to be around anyone ever again, I’m ready to ask some big-picture questions. Going back through basically everything you’ve ever done, I naturally landed on my first introduction to you, which was that essay in The Believer that everybody read.

HJ Actually I don’t think everybody did read it. Everybody commented on it.

FM No, everyone I know read it.

HJ Okay, well that’s good to know.

FM So back then, you were talking about the rise and fall of the novel being cyclical, which seemed optimistic and lovely. But you also noted that the cycle would take its toll. That was in 2003, so how do you think we’re doing now?

HJ We recently published a collection of Believer essays, and when our managing editor sent us a preliminary list of essays for inclusion, one of which was mine, I voted to yank it. I’m essentially bemoaning something that is no longer a problem—shrinking real estate for book reviews. Real estate is not an issue anymore because so much book activity is on the web, where reviews can be as long as the writer wants. Which brings up another interesting issue to me, less to do with the literary world and more just to do with writing in general, which is—see my earlier point about suffocation—productive forms of containment, productive limitations on your imaginative space. Word count can be one of those productive limitations. And so I wonder how this boundless space is changing the way we write. There’s no barbed wire out there any more, you can just ride and ride and ride and ride.

FM So people given this opportunity to write at length have seized it at the expense of design.

HJ But they haven’t, or not necessarily. The Millions is already a highly respected institution; it runs incredible pieces. There are so many online venues that publish finely sculpted essays. But I’m looking ahead to writers who will be entirely formed in this space where there are no boundaries. How are we negotiating the boundaries of no boundaries?

FM Poorly, it seems.

HJ I see it less as a state to bemoan and more as something fascinating. It’s the lack of an obstacle that becomes an obstacle. And I’m curious to see how that’s going to continue to evolve.

FM I have one more question.

HJ Is it really hard?

FM No, it’s dumb.

HJ Go ahead, ask a dumb question.

FM Okay, I will. I see you enjoy specific psychiatric conditions, or maybe just their names, like acquired situational narcissism. Do you ever think of titling diseases for yourself? I have self-hating anachronism disease.

HJ There are so many awesomely fake-sounding real diseases out there, you don’t need to make one up. Like Williams-Beuren syndrome.

FM What is that?

HJ The elf disease where you have elfin features and are happy all the time. (laughter)

Listen to Julavits reading an excerpt from The Vanishers here.

Fiona Maazel is the author of the novel Last Last Chance. Her new novel, Woke Up Lonely, publishes in the spring of 2013 from Graywolf. 

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Originally published in

BOMB 119, Spring 2012

Featuring interviews with Charles Long, Liz Deschenes, K8 Hardy, Heidi Julavits, Nicolás Pereda and Gerardo Naranjo, Mohsen Namjoo, Dean Moss, and Ingo Schulze.

Read the issue
Issue 119 119  Cover Replacement