Heidi Julavits: ghost writer 

A Q&A.

Heidi Julavits image
  • Heidi Julavits

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.

So have you consulted a psychic?

I am so glad you asked me that question, because I went to see a psychic after I finished the book because I figured someone would ask me that question. There's only so much that I want to know about myself, and I was worried that I would go to someone who would tell me something horrible. The psychic that I chose is not much of a "crystal ball, let me tell you about your past lives" type. She used to be a social worker and now she speaks of herself as a life counselor, and she actually was really helpful. I compared the experience to five years of therapy accomplished in one hour.

At this point there was a digression, where Julavits gushed over the boots she stalked all the way to Seattle and purchased once her book deal landed her in Seattle, alongside the boots. If you come to the Lit Fest, she'll show you the actual boots. Also, you should know this, the best fashion advice she ever got, from "a sartorially brilliant man": If you buy nice shoes, the rest of your outfit doesn't matter. Due to following this advice, when she went into the store where everything was "seriously thousands and thousands of dollars," the clerk approved of her outfit, which probably totaled less than $100. Also, you should also know that Heidi Julavits did not pay even $1,000 for her boots, primarily because she is a great deal stalker.

Back to writing...

Oh? Isn't that sweet! Okay, let's go back to writing.

You already have another novel in mind?

I have an idea. The thing that's just so tragic is that this could just be another novel I write to throw away. I want to write a book that's under 200 pages, because some of the books I most admire, like Roberto Bolano's "Distant Star," are short, and I think it's so much harder to write an under-200 page novel than it is to write a 600 page novel, because it takes so much more control. You have so much less space to accomplish the same amount of intensity.

How would you describe your style?

I am a hyperactive prose stylist, and I am constantly, constantly trying to calm that down, and what's interesting is that I read this novel and it seems to me to be the most minimalist novel. I think, "This is so stark, there's no language in this novel," and then I get feedback, and everyone's talking about the acrobatics, and I'm like, "really?" I feel like I've barely even used a single poetic turn of phrase in this thing, like it's the Dick and Jane book.

I think it's your sentence structure that's pretty distinct.

Maybe that's what it is. I like the sound of that better. I'm really gleeful, I have a lot of fun, I get really overexcited about language, I suppose, and I think that reads as showoff-y, and obviously that's not how you want people to read your novels. And if they're getting stopped by the language, the language is impeding their ability to get into the other elements of your novel, and you know, I take that kind of feedback really seriously. I also get overexcited by plot, so that's the other thing — I mean, obviously it has to have some kind of a plot, or maybe it doesn't, I don't know. I was joking that I'm going to write an all-male plot-less sports novel.

Which would be a whole other conversation, so instead, let's talk about The Believer.

Let's talk about the magazine, because that's what I'm supposed to be writing about right now, for some essay that was due last week...

Do you see them as breaks from each other, working on a novel and working on the magazine?

I feel so grateful to have them as counterbalances. You get to apply your logic brain, to really look at something and try to fine-tune the structure, and obviously, that's an intellectual structure. It's also really great when you can read someone else's work and so clearly see where the gaps are. I like to think that it helps me when I go back to my own work. Of course, there's only so much of that you can do with your own work. I love working with editors, and I really respect everything that they say, and they're almost always right. I like that kind of collaborative creative process, and I like being on both sides of that collaborative divide.

The Believer is published by McSweeny's, and some people have coined McSweeny's a phenomena or even a new American literary movement. Do you think it's actually as definable as that?

I don't know. I mean, they publish such disparate types of writers. I think that definitely is based on what McSweeny's first became, and that very distinct Dave [Eggers, founder of McSweeny's] style, at least as an editor, for irreverence. Now you look at who they publish, and you can't possibly classify any of those people under one movement.

Are there any current American literary movements?

I think less about movements and more about writers that I see making a tremendous amount of impact, especially on the young writers that I teach. Probably the writers who have had the most impact on other people who write American fiction are George Saunders and Lydia Davis. George is, in a completely original way, synthesizing all of these usually mutually exclusive literary movements. So you get Carver and Barthelme, two people who were writing at similar times, but they represented the polar opposite approaches to American fiction at that time. And some would say that Carver and that whole dirty realism movement was seen as almost an antidote to the '60s Barthelme post-modern era. And yet George does both of those things, and he has this incredible heart, but then this post-modern impulse to take the lowest-brow aspects of our culture and turn them into a place where your heart will bleed. Lydia Davis, in a similar way, does this cerebral type of writing that is seen as sort of contra-feeling, and yet it's the kind of writing that, through this really painstaking logic, arrives at a variety of feelings.

On the magazine panel at the Arkansas Literary Festival, you're going to come face to face with Marco Roth. Years ago, in an editors' column in 'n+1', he and his more vocal co-editor, Keith Gessen, attacked what they called 'the Eggersands,' and they particularly targeted The Believer as the Eggersands' intellectual cornerstone. Think there will be fireworks?

I come to face to face with those guys all the time. I hugged Keith Gessen not two months ago. I did, I hugged him. You know, I just see that as, they were defining themselves, and they were defining themselves in opposition to what was seen as the reigning literary cabal at that time, and there's a long history of that — not to say that they were being unoriginal or anything. I think that n+1 is doing exciting things, and I don't feel like in any way they're positioning themselves against us anymore. I feel like we're all just doing our thing, and that thing is not that dissimilar.

When you're dealing with unsolicited submissions, how do you decide what makes the cut?

A lot of times it's, "Am I already bored by this topic?" Sometimes it's about poker or Scrabble or something, and I just feel like that's something I've heard enough of already. Weirdly, one of my favorite Believers was written by Peter Lunenfeld, and it's called "Gidget on the Couch," and it was essentially connecting Jewish Hungarian intellectuals who moved to Los Angeles and Freud and surfing culture. You've read a lot about Freud and a lot about modernist houses and a lot about surfing, but have you read about those things in the same article? No!

How do you think of The Believer? As an academic journal or an upscale fanzine, or what?

Definitely not academic, that would be ascribing way too much, I don't know, formality to our approach, and I don't think most of our writers have that many degrees — they do have a lot of degrees actually. How would we describe ourselves? I think we were all pretty inspired by the New York Review of Books and places that ran longer critical pieces about books and politics and film, and we just kind of wanted to mix it up a little bit more.

Have you been to Arkansas before?

I can say yes to that question! I came last summer to go to the Oxford American conference in Petit Jean. But I didn't get to spend that much time in Little Rock, so I'm excited to come back. I've heard there's really good vintage [thrift] shopping and BBQ, so that's what I intend to do with any free time that I have.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julavits ("The Vanishers") and Lauren Groff ("Arcadia") will take part in a panel discussion titled "The Magic of Happiness and Grief" at 10 a.m. Saturday in Arkansas Studies Institute room 124. Julavits will also take part in a panel discussion titled "Magazine" at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Oxford American building.


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