DISCUSSED: Discussion Guidelines, The Big Terrible, Sisters, Academic Conference Papers Circa 1988, Fright Distance, Titling, Lost Documentation, Role-Playing, Literature of Confinement, The Perfect Novel, Bruce Jay Friedman, The Believer's Agenda, Woodworking, The Vocabulary of Flowers
"Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!" ran the bold type across the first full page of The Believer's debut edition. The essay that followed meant to start an argument, and it succeeded; Julavits, articles editor for the fledgling McSweeney's periodical, got people in the book industry talking immediately. Prominently, the magazine's cover announced, "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing: We're sick and tired and really excited." Either you're with us or you're not, it seemed to be saying, and if you're not that's fine, but kindly get out of the way.
Now, more life out on the limb: Julavits's second novel manages the neat trick of entertaining while relating the story of a hijacking. The Effect of Living Backwards is a book about sisters. About identity. About choices. "A wonderfully absurdist game of chess," Aimee Bender called it. The hijacking at the center of the story may have been staged to test the passengers' reactions. The blind terrorist may, in fact, have his vision. Alice and Edith can't say for sure.
"In one fell swoop," author George Saunders marveled, "Heidi Julavits establishes herself as the Scheherazade of the new Anti-Terror Age. Funny, unnerving, sophisticated, and dazzling in the range of its invention, The Effect of Living Backwards is a terrific and important addition to our literature."
Dave: I don't usually come prepared with printouts, but see, I have here a list of potential topics we could talk about.
Heidi Julavits: Crazy.
Dave: Well, the problem is that they're not actually questions. There's only one question mark on the entire page.
Julavits: They're just observations?
Dave: Right. Which is why even when I prepare I'll occasionally get into trouble once the conversation begins.
Julavits: I see. Because there's no question there.
Dave: Exactly. I'll just say something and then there's a pregnant pause as the author waits for me to get to the question.
Julavits: You say something, and I say, "Huh."
Dave: Or, better, you take the topic somewhere.
Julavits: That's actually a good interviewing technique, though. It challenges people to find the question in the statement, right?
Dave: When it works, you, the author, can address the topic in the way you find most relevant. Because it might be a worthwhile topic, but how am I supposed to know what's most interesting to you about it? I only met you ten minutes ago.
Julavits: That's true. No leading questions here. So you just say something. We could be associative. Just exchange words back and forth.
Dave: I've often thought of sitting down and reading aloud a series of short excerpts from the author's book. I can read back what they've written and they can take it wherever they want. No questions at all.
Julavits: This is sounding like Lacanian therapy.
Dave: Why don't we start with the most obvious thing, and hopefully that will lead somewhere.
Dave: The word on the street is that you'd finished the first draft of The Effect of Living Backwards two weeks before 9-11. How did the book change after that?
Julavits: It had to change on a practical level, as opposed to tonal or jacking up the paranoia or whatever. Basically, the biggest change is that prior to 9-11 the typical captive response to being hijacked was to sit back and wait until the situation improved; don't call attention to yourself because you'll get a bullet in the head. Obviously, that choice is still there. Is every hijacker from now on going to use a plane as a bomb or will they be doing things the old-fashioned way? If they are doing things the old-fashioned way, you don't want to tackle them because you might wind up killing everyone on board. So 9-11 introduced lots of new decisions and options that had to be weighed by the hostages, my characters.
Also, I wasn't so crazy about setting this in a particular time period. I was interested in the not-so-distant future, but not specified. That suited the absurdist tone I was going for. To try to attach it to a specific period in time made me feel like I was limited in what I could and couldn't do. All of a sudden, it's like, This is a realist novel. Once 9-11 happened, I had to decide, Did this happen before or after?
I ended up referring to it euphemistically with the phrase that Thomas Friedman was using in his column in the Times, which was "The Big Terrible." I reference it once in a while without actually talking about it. It's a ghost presence.
Dave: And yet beyond all that, the book is about two sisters. Ultimately the novel is about Alice and Edith.
Julavits: I see it as a love story between two people who hate each other, which is my favorite kind of love story, you know? It is, ultimately, a family drama, but on a plane with a hijacking and all this other stuff.
It's interesting, though. I was on a radio program in New York NPR, Leonard Lopate, which I love; it's totally great, I listen to him all the time, and I'm always happy to go on that show; he's fantastic. But I was sitting in the waiting room, waiting to go on (it's live, so everyone shuffles in with their cello or whatever they're doing, then they shuffle out), and they were announcing, "Next will be Heidi Julavits with her book that explores family tensions." And I was thinking, Seriously, what does a woman have to do? There's politics and hijacking and terrorism, but it's still a family drama. I don't deny that's in there it absolutely is but if a guy wrote this book, they'd say, "It's about terrorism."
Still, I agree with you: it's about all those things. And obviously my publisher was very happy to say that it was a love story between two sisters. They didn't want to mention the H word.
Dave: Edith says at one point, "I decided to make everything that happened to me appear as if I'd engineered it." Alice says similar things at other times. They're both role-playing. All their lives, they've been playing off each other.
Julavits: Absolutely. To be honest and this is going to contradict what I just said yes, it's a love story about people who hate each other; yes, there's terrorism; yes, yes, yes. But to me, it's an identity book. Not Who am I? and I know this sounds so academic conference paper circa 1988 but it's about how identity is constructed. All these people have fake identities. Even the people who supposedly have real identities, you also start to peel those away and everything feels engineered.
Dave: And it just keeps on peeling.
Dave: I really like the concept of "fright distances." Where did that come from?
Julavits: I made it up. There's something called "flight distance." I'm pretty sure that's actually a term. Every animal has a different flight distance. If I were to scare you, you would run twenty feet from me. If I were to scare the flea you have on your arm, the flea would hop two millimeters or whatever. So I was messing around with that.
Dave: But you take it beyond physical distance.
Julavits: Right, I ended up messing with the concept and having it be misunderstood by the daughters of this entomologist.
Once something is misunderstood, you can take it anywhere. Those things that as a kid make no conceptual sense to you? I remember the whole idea of "untouchables" in India. I thought, That means they must be the highest-highest, right? You can't touch those people. So then trying to reconcile that they're the lowest of the low?
Dave: In terms of constructing histories, last night I read now I'm forgetting the title? "Marry the One Who Gets There First" [from Best American Short Stories 1999].
Julavits: Yes. Not my title. Not. My. Title.
Dave: Do you have one you'd like to use instead?
Julavits: Actually, no. The title I had was no better, so I shouldn't say anything. I just wanted it to be "Outtakes from the Sheidegger-Krupnik Wedding Album."
Dave: Which is now the subtitle.
Dave: You structured that story around photos discarded from a wedding album, which reminded me thematically of the father's films in Living Backwards.
Julavits: Yes. It's this whole idea of lost documentation. Those films are locked away in a storage unit in Des Moines, Iowa, so no one's actually seen them for a long time. Alice and Edith are operating on the memory of a film, which is always complicated. Everyone's had the experience where you'll have seen pictures as a kid, then you can't remember if you're remembering the experience or the picture of the experience. These two sisters end up having this huge fight over what happened in one of these movies.
Dave: Alice and Edith, quite self-consciously, engineer their identities over the years. You, meanwhile? As a writer, you've published short stories here and there, but your first novel was very different from this one.
Julavits: Role-playing! I was role-playing the serious novelist.
Dave: Because you felt like you should be serious at the time? The best quote I read, and I can't remember where I found it, but after The Mineral Palace was published your brother tried to convince a reporter that you really were funnier than you seemed from the book.
Julavits: It's true. I don't know. Even now, I sit down and read that book and I wonder, Who wrote this? And Whose idea was it to write this? I love a book that's flat-out brutal and depressing, but I don't know that I want to be known as a person who writes those books.
I guess I feel like I wasn't really using all my abilities in that book. I definitely had to turn off the irreverent, humorous side of my head entirely. It felt okay at the time, but definitely at the end I was getting tired of that, which is why I think the second book happened so quickly. I was so claustrophobic in that other world. I didn't even take a break. I started writing this one right away.
So maybe that's the key: Write something that makes you feel like you're in a box. Then the next book, you break out. The problem is what to do with the third book.
Dave: I was thrilled to see that you cited Donald Antrim as a role model for the new novel, in terms of working with a character in a confined setting. He's one of my favorites. But then you broke the rules you'd set for yourself.
Julavits: It didn't work out. I swear, I'll do it someday. In fact, the next book I'm working on, I'm trying to have the main character be in the bathtub for the entire book. Again, it's not working.
I think I'm going to keep experimenting with ways to keep characters in confined spaces because, honestly, I read The Verificationist as I was finishing my first book, and I was so impressed. It's so concise. It's a big book with so much going on, but it's like boom! a punch to the gut. You can read it in a few hours. And also, he has the literal Bernhardian confinement: instead of man-in-wingback-chair, it's man-in-perpetual-bear-hug. Reading the book, you could sense how the act of this character being squashed and stifled by a colleague let Donald's mind go wild.
I wanted to try to have that experience myself. I was seeing my characters, and by extension me, in a tennis-ball canister: the plane. The shame stories came out of the fact that I was feeling confined. That's how it happened. I didn't really set out to write a book structurally in that way, but because I was feeling so hot and bothered in that airplane, that's how I was letting myself out.
Dave: Another reference to Donald: One of my favorite, strange literary sex scenes appears in Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, the scene in the couple's backyard. I thought you did a damn good job of matching that at the end of this book.
Julavits: Interesting! In the non-sex sex scene?!
Dave: Whatever you want to call it.
Julavits: Those are the best sex scenes, where there's actually no action.
Dave: Well, we don't want to give everything away. There will be action.
Julavits: Sorry. There's so much sex in this book! There's tons of sex. Or, at least, there's an adequate, perfectly decent amount of sex.
Okay, confinement? Maybe you've forgotten about it by now, but you wrote an essay that a lot of people were talking about in the spring.
Julavits: What was the title?
Dave: I don't remember. I saw it in a magazine somewhere. But you talked about, among other things, the idea of "the ambitious book." You mentioned Underworld, which I think is a great example.
Julavits: Yes. And good, I think, because it's not a perfect book, whatever people mean by that. What is a perfect book? Who decides? Is there a book that everyone agrees, "Oh, yes, indeed, this is a perfect book"? But part of what is impressive about Underworld is the flaws, in a way. The way it just runs wild on itself, that's part of what makes it so incredible.
Dave: Because of what it's willing to take on.
Julavits: Totally. It's like a bar-raiser. I just remember reading that book and thinking, Okay, the bar has been raised.
Dave: I finished The Effect of Living Backwards the day before yesterday, and I haven't entirely wrapped my mind around it yet. You need to figure certain things out to understand what's going on, which takes time because in the beginning there's a lot of misdirection and noise. And this is a completely leading question, but here goes: Maybe it's not a "perfect" novel, but how would anything great ever get written if authors weren't overly ambitious?
Julavits: Absolutely. And in a way, I'm amazed so far with this book. I don't want to say I've been let off the hook, but people have asked whether I think the book has been reviewed differently because of what I wrote, and my first response is, "I hope not." Ben [Marcus] actually said, when he read my Times review, "You're so lucky. They don't typically like books that are weird." The reviewer indicated he was a little annoyed with it, but that's much better than dismissing it out of hand, which is what they often do with books that aren't easy to fully get.
Who knows? If anything in that essay makes a critic think twice, I hope it's that. There are all sorts of things that will never change it's a matter of numbers and pure ad dollars and all sorts of other things but if people will give just a little more room when they're reviewing something and not put a wall up right away. Give it room to not work, but at least see what it's trying to do.
That was a big issue with this book. I had to fight a lot with my editor because a number of drafts ago she didn't think it worked. I agreed, but I said, "I know it doesn't work, but I want to make it work. If it doesn't work perfectly that's okay with me, but I don't want to take these scenes out." She wanted to take the shame stories out. I was like, "If we take them out, this isn't interesting to me anymore."
That was a big change for me from my first book, where I was trying to play around with a lot of stuff and I chickened out. Part of it, I felt like I wasn't good enough. Not that I'm "good enough" now, but I felt like I needed a little more practice then. With the first book, I backed down and tried to say, "Okay, instead of the bells and whistles I'm just going to try to write a straight narrative."
When I was a student, in a class with a teacher, to work with lots of small pieces was easier for me than to make something that was one big piece. Sort of like the Best American story. With The Mineral Palace I thought, Alright, I can't do that very well. I keep making things piecemeal so I better go and figure out how to make one big whole. Anyway, now I'm back to pieces. I think I'm back forever now.
Dave: Part of The Believer's agenda as you've expressed it is to turn readers on to books and authors they don't know. So what has editing the magazine turned you on to?
Julavits: A lot of stuff. That's what fabulous about this. For example, Bruce Jay Friedman. Do you know him?
Julavits: It's funny because no one our age has heard of him. Well, Ben has because he's actually a fifty-year-old in a thirty-five-year-old's body. But I gave a reading in what is known here as the "other" Portland: Portland, Maine. Someone asked me a question like this and I mentioned Bruce Jay Friedman. Everybody there because, of course, it was all my parents' friends they'd all heard of him, they'd all read him. It was crazy.
He's from Brooklyn. He wrote a book called The Dick. I think what happened to him and this is according to the essay, which I'm currently editing the character was very racist. Then the question is, Is the author racist? Conflating the ideas in the book with the person who created it. Anatole Boyard, I guess, reviewed it for the Times and just buried him forever and ever. Rest in peace. One of those reviews you don't come back from. But Friedman is someone who has really influenced a lot of people. I guess Woody Allen has put him in his movies, given him cameos. He actually wrote a book that's very much like Portnoy's Complaint, but he did it about five years beforehand. I kind of agree with the thesis that this writer is working on, which is that sometimes when the first person does it, it opens a door, but it's the next person who gets all the credit. Bruce Jay Friedman was a trendsetter in all these ways, but whoever walked those paths next, they're the ones we think of culturally as being the instigators of these things. So he's one.
Another example, not a book that I discovered but one that I was prompted to go back and reread: Sven Birkerts just turned in a review on The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Or, not a review exactly. He had been reading that book by Paul Elie that just came out [The Life You Save May Be Your Own] about writers who are very Christian in their life and their writing like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. He'd been reading that, and it sent him back to read The Moviegoer. He talks about the idea of the quest and the search. Is it religious? Is it not religious? Was it religious for him at the time? Et cetera.
At this point, most of the "discovery" pieces are pieces that I've assigned, so I've discovered the authors already. Hopefully that will start to change. But writers like Steve Erickson; he was someone I was just dying to have covered and written about.
Dave: That must be one of the most satisfying parts of the job.
Julavits: Completely. You do it with your friends, push books on them, but now you get to do it with thousands of people. These people totally deserve it, I think. With other pieces like the Bruce Jay Friedman, this guy just made a good case, and I said, "Go for it. He sounds really interesting."
Dave: I think it's time to stop. What time do you have?
Julavits: My watch says 10:12, but it's very fast and it's three hours off. East coast time.
Dave: Oh, wait. The clock says it's only 7:05. We have plenty of time. Five bonus minutes with Heidi Julavits.
Let's forget about the new book and The Believer and definitions of snark. What do you like to talk about? It could be anything? Gardening?
Julavits: Well, it's funny you mention it because I was just going to say that. We live in Maine, as you know. It's really far away from most produce centers of the United States, so you can't get a lot of things up there. By default, I've become a gardener. I like arugula. I like escarole. I like these things that you can't buy, so I've become a gardener. Then this year I started to get into flowers, but I've found that I don't have the vocabulary for it. You need a special vocabulary to grow flowers. I went to the Farmer's Market, and I bought a rose bush. The man gave me this whole spiel: "You gotta cut it to the five-leaf and bury it and?"
I walked away, and I said to Ben, "Did you understand anything he said?" No, he didn't understand either. So I went back, and I said, "I just want to clarify. The five-leaf." He says, "Yeah, just cut to the five-leaf," and so on. I said, "Okay, great," but I still didn't know what he was talking about. Then I was just in Seattle with my sister-in-law, who is an exquisite gardener. I said, "Roses: I need to know, how do you do this and that?" And she said, "Well, you just cut to the five-leaf..."
It's sort of like when you've never had a computer and you call for tech help. They start talking in that other language at you. I don't even have the words to communicate with you what is wrong with my computer. I will send you a drawing. So we've actually both, Ben and I, become profoundly un-literary and possibly uninteresting since we moved to Maine. He basically just talks about wood. He has become really into woodworking.
Dave: That's a new direction for him. When he was here last year he was looking to get away from his obsession with wind and breath.
Julavits: It's true. Exactly. And he's found it: it's woodworking.
Dave: What has he built?
Julavits: He's building us a bed right now, as all good husbands should! He said it sucks, though. I talked to him today. Our neighbor across the street is a master carpenter at the wooden boat building yard, which E. B. White's grandson runs so you see the woodworking and literary dovetailing that goes on up there. He came over to look at it, and he was like, "Hmm." Ben said he didn't say anything.
If we're up there too much longer we won't even be able to give book interviews any more. We'll be tossing around words like "five-leaf" and "the rabbit."
Dave: The real-life living.
Julavits: That we all dream of.
Dave: And there go our five minutes. I guess that's enough. I've had enough of you now.
Julavits: Good. I think I have, too, thank you.
Heidi lives with her husband, author Ben Marcus, splitting time between Brooklyn, New York, and Brooklin, Maine. On the drive from one to the other they pass the dirt road that leads to the house where I spent twenty summers with my family. Heidi went to Deering High, a couple hours south in Portland, it turns out, with the brother of my college roommate.
Ben visited Powell's last summer. When he was here, he bought Heidi a book about Danish Modern furniture.
Heidi Julavits visited Powell's City of Books on July 8, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State