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Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of the quirky, optimistic arts and literary journal The Believer. She teaches at Columbia University and has published four novels, been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and suffered through uncomfortable interview questions about half-million dollar book deals. This weekend at the Arkansas Literary Festival, she'll be speaking about The Believer and about her newest book, "The Vanishers" — a work of paranormal noir that features psychic attacks, vintage porn and the aftermath of maternal suicides.
When did you start writing fiction?
In fifth grade I began my really inefficient habit of writing half or three quarters of a novel and then throwing it away. I've thrown four novels away as an adult, and I suppose this habit began when I hand-wrote about 50 pages of a novel, in pencil. It was the adventure of two kids who were sailing. There's a burn hole on the map, in the place they are trying to go. And of course there's a storm, and they lose consciousness and wake up in a castle. It was sort of Narnia and then, I don't know, if I had read Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" at the time, you could say it was inspired by that. But of course I hadn't. My writing process is to have an idea, think I have the right approach, and usually around 270 pages, decide that the execution's all wrong, and I have to scrap the whole thing and start again. I've come to call these books my prequels, because I have to write this pre-book each time, it seems, before I write the book that I eventually publish. So since I've published four novels, I have four prequels kicking around in some storage box in some attic.
Do they have anything to do with the novel that actually follows?
They do. What it ends up being is me finding my way into how to tell this story. With this novel, the original conceit was that a woman lost her daughter, the daughter died at age four and 20 odd years later, some woman shows up at this other woman's door and claims to be her reincarnated daughter. So it's this person who may or may not be who she says she is, and how that relationship evolves. That idea, I think, of living people taking the place of dead people, is something I explore in "The Vanishers" — people disappearing from other people's lives, the hole that that leaves, the artificial ways you fill that hole. Also, the question, does it make a difference, if you're never going to see somebody again, if they're dead or if they're alive? That relationship that you have to, say, a person who has killed themselves, who has in effect taken themselves out of your life, how that is different than your relationship to a person who has taken themselves out of your life and is still alive somewhere else?
What is your usual writing process?
It's different for every book. "The Vanishers" started with the idea of a psychic attack. I had never heard of psychic attacks until I stumbled upon a book written in the 1930s by an occult writer, Dion Fortune, who wrote this self-help book titled "Psychic Self Defense." Fortune talks about how, when she was an initiate at some occult lodge, her mentor was jealous because her talents were obviously far superior to the mentor's. And suddenly Fortune fell ill and had to leave school. And she was sick for a year. Finally, she went to some guy who said, "Oh, you're being psychically attacked." Anyway, I thought that was a fantastic launching point for a novel, so I essentially just lifted that exact scenario.
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