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Birnbaum v.

Heidi Julavits

Our man from the north country toasts the new year by conversing with the novelist and editor about her thoughts on the state of therapy, storytelling, and the novel.

Writer Heidi Julavits—born and raised in Maine, educated at Columbia University—is a woman of many parts: novelist, journalist, literary magazine editor, teacher, and mother. She has published short fiction in Esquire, Story, Zoetrope, and McSweeney’s, among others. Her non-fiction has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Time and the New York Times Book Review. She is a founding co-editor of The Believer and has published three well-regarded novels: The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, and most recently The Uses of Enchantment. She lives in Manhattan and Maine with her husband, writer Ben Marcus. In the conversation that follows, we talk about the preternatural qualities of adolescent girls, Freud, psychotherapy, Adam Phillips, literary criticism, and having more children.

The Uses of Enchantment (the title is a bow to Bruno Bettelheim) is a deft tripartite novel revolving around the unverified abduction of 16-year-old Boston-area schoolgirl Mary Veal and the havoc her disappearance creates in her family—especially the rift with her old Yankee mother, a descendent of a Salem witch. Fifteen years later, on the occasion of her mother’s funeral, Mary finds evidence that her mother intended to reconcile with her, which among other things causes her to revisit and in some sense relive her past. Dare I suggest the New York Times review offers some illuminating insights?

A story with this many moving parts could easily feel overclever…But any small off notes are outweighed by the book’s disarming strangeness and steady flow of mordant one-liners. ‘‘Amnesia was not a disease, it was a practical use of storage space.’’ The dark exchanges between Mary and her chosen abductor amount to a kind of screwball therapy. “There’s nothing funny about implied child abuse.” “I’m not implying. You’re implying.” “I’m not implying, I’m accusing.”

…But the book is most successful at exploring the psychology of a particular type of teenage girl, an apparently colorless figure who reveals under pressure a perverse bravado. Oscillating between vampish provocateur and blank slate, Mary may not be precisely realistic—her dialogue is so arch it practically bends backward—but there is something recognizable about this mess of a teenage girl, so enraged at the lies of adults that she is willing to take on any mask to expose them. If she lied, the young Mary explains to Dr. Hammer, it was ‘‘because the truth is so clearly unbelievable.’’
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum, all rights reserved.

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Julavits, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedRobert Birnbaum: Do you have a middle name?

Heidi Julavits: Suzanne.

RB: Tell me about the starting point for this complicated novel.

HJ: Well, the starting, starting point—I feel like there are probably seven different starting points that sort of happen sequentially.

RB: Your own therapeutic experiences, perhaps?

HJ: No, not really. Yeah, in part that influenced my personal connection to it. But I really did come at it with respect, which is why the title is the perfect homage to this interest—the intersection for me of psychoanalysis or therapy as it’s usually practiced and story telling. And how to me that act of going to therapy has become our mode of oral story telling. But I also think that mode—as much as you are hearkening back to these old story templates, and you make yourself—you are the bedraggled Cinderella heroine who is being mistreated by everyone but you emerge in the end victorious and I feel as though it’s obviously a very hermetic experience now. It’s not as at all this cultural sharing kind of thing, so that we do kind of all walk around with our own kind of story bubble, you know?

RB: Because it’s been superseded by other kinds of self-help strategies and gimmicks?

HJ: More I mean the act of entertaining somebody with a story that used to be a story that had to have deep cultural significance and everybody could relate to, and now it’s just a story about you.

RB: [laughs]

HJ: And those are the stories we tell now. We tell stories about ourselves. We don’t tell stories…

RB: My next-door neighbor just this morning was telling me about her daughter, who has a two-year-old Labrador. The dog got out of the yard and a jogger came by and the dog, who is friendly, ran after the jogger and the jogger, an off-duty policemen, shot the dog.

HJ: Wow.

RB: Which I am now telling you because it was an interesting story [it didn’t end there] and I guess it depends whom you talk with—

HJ: Yeah. So anyway, that was an initial entry point. I feel I have for a long time had a fascination with Freud, and then the Dora case study was something that always totally fascinated me because it just seemed so apparent how he was manipulating her throughout her entire [laughs] treatment and yet presenting it as if he was this totally objective, almost omniscient narrator.

RB: He could and did get away with it.

HJ: Yes, absolutely.

RB: Do therapists still do that?

HJ: Probably not—it’s like I said, we have become our own kind of therapists—so yes we can get away with it. James Frey got away with it. You can get away with manipulating a story.

RB: What about professional therapists? Can they get away with writing [bogus] case studies?

HJ: A good question—

RB: Adam Phillips, do you think—

HJ: I love Adam Phillips. You don’t feel he’s manipulating necessarily with a goal in mind. Which Freud very much was—he had an idea of a theory and he was looking for people to [prove it]. And he was going to force them to prove it. Phillips, I don’t see him manipulating people toward a specific end—I don’t find him manipulative at all. I do think that the fact of the matter is that when you are having a conversation with another person, you are a person, too. You are not just this totally objective, disinterested person.

RB: We really shouldn’t expect that.

HJ: No, I don’t think we should.

RB: We expect this unexamined sense of objectivity in the sciences and history, everywhere—

HJ: The problem with psychoanalysis is that it became a science—it was trying to play ball with the other sciences. And so it had this veneer of science around it. Which is why Adam Phillips is so fantastic, because he seems as if he is going to restore some of Freud’s reputation by classifying him as he should have been classified from the beginning as a basically a form of a novelist. He is a literary figure, not a scientist.

RB: Unfortunately, novelists are not highly ranked [laughs] in the U.S.; I don’t know about the rest of the world

HJ: I know. I guess it’s better than being a total has-been [laughs] with a completely out- moded, woman-hating theory. [laughs]

RB: Could one say that this book was another instance of the Rashômon story?

HJ: It is and it isn’t. The Rashômon thing comes up a lot. I feel like it’s slightly different. In Rashômon, it’s the same incident told from three different perspectives, and what happens in this story is that it’s almost like a baton pass [in a relay race]. Mary comes up with a lie. And then her therapist interprets that lie in his way. And then another therapist takes that story and reinterprets it as her story. So it’s almost like a game of telephone, where the story keeps getting co-opted by other [people], and with each iteration of the story it gets further and further away from what actually happened to her.

RB: I am focused on the multiple perspectives, which don’t present the same story.

HJ: Definitely not.

RB: Which may be a bigger statement about subjectivity.

HJ: Essentially in my structuring of it I wanted each section—especially the therapist- patient sections and the girl-man [the abductor/abductee] sections, it’s definitely a dualistic relationship. What I wanted to have happen is for the power to continually shift. So you have, “This person is on top; no, this person is on top; no, this person is on top.” So you see both of the people exerting manipulative influence over the other.

RB: I found Mary—I wasn’t convinced that she could be that smart, that alert. What do you think?

HJ: Uh huh. I don’t know. I feel very much that she was giving voice in a way to things that as an adolescent girl that you are extremely aware of that you are not really allowed to articulate. You know? I feel like adolescent girls are actually so on the ball, and they know what they are doing. They are. It’s actually a kind of frightening—where they are not adults but they are actually—I remember from my own adolescence and all my friends—it definitely was this preternatural ability to take stock of a situation and to manipulate it. And you don’t really have the maturity to handle it. But you do have the intellectual wherewithal to know what’s going on. Not emotional wherewithal. Emotional in terms of being able to manipulate people, but ultimately it’s a mind-body chess game.

RB: I was struck by the cruelty of the three sisters to each other. Maybe I read it wrong. Was it something else? It reminded me of a movie called Heathers.

HJ: I loved that movie.

RB: The girls seemed incredibly cruel to each other.

HJ: Yeah. [laughs]

RB: Is that what you are talking about when you refer to this preternatural insight and calling it the way you see it?

HJ: It’s actually not calling it the way you see it. It’s so much more stealthy than that.

RB: Stealthy?

HJ: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I feel like you say something and it’s not necessarily what you mean, and then you feign ignorance about something that you are not actually ignorant about. That’s sort of Mary’s role and also her sisters’ roles. They are all so extremely wounding—sometimes through not saying something rather than saying something. It’s all very calculated. It’s calculated to wound and always does.

RB: Is there a way that you read this family as broken? Is this a normal family?

HJ: I see it as an arrested family. Essentially, everybody in that family has sort of—and it’s only when Mary is around, she comes back in and she is this family member with this unresolved past that has affected all of them, and whenever she reenters the family situation they all are brought back to this unresolved—

RB: Because no one could decide whether she was telling the truth?

HJ: And no one has forgiven her for it.

RB: And in the story the book that was written on her case was a bestseller and that didn’t resolve the issue?

The problem with psychoanalysis is that it became a science—it was trying to play ball with the other sciences.HJ: Well, no because that ended up being debunked by the second therapist. The first therapist writes a case study, and then that’s debunked, and then Mary doesn’t really make it clear who has the right story. And in fact both kind of do and both kind of don’t. But she never actually makes it clear what happened to anyone in her family, and so no one has forgiven her. And so they are all in this arrested state of resentment and she is a kind of an unforgiven character—

RB: Right, no one is forgiving her in any case—but in any case wouldn’t she be forgivable? If she made it up, she should be forgiven because she is a mess. Or if it happened and she was a victim she should be—

HJ: No, no. First of all, for the sisters, she completely hogged the limelight. All three of them are these three adolescent girls. They get no attention. All the focus is on her. There’s a book written about her and she gets famous. It’s like whether she has done something good or terrible, I think when you are that age if you are getting attention you don’t really care whether it’s for something good or bad, [laughs] you know? And so she hogged all the emotional energy in the household and they are resentful of that. And the mother doesn’t forgive her because she feels that Mary has cast a stain upon the family, in a way.

RB: The mother is concerned about her sexual purity, not her emotional health.

HJ: Exactly. That’s where she has fixated her attentions.

RB: Her mother is also focused on rehabilitating the reputation of some long-dead witch relative.

HJ: Yeah, so everyone has these kind of in a way misplaced—their energies are very misplaced. Their priorities are a tiny bit off.

RB; Do you feel like you have succeeded in this novel?

HJ: [emphatically] I do. I actually do. [both laugh] It’s funny because I am really into multiple-part books; I love books that work in parts. The book I was totally influenced by, very heavily influenced by, was In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. That also has a three-part structure. And I loved the way that book has this inexorable plot pull that you start to do that hungry, page-turning thing, but then suddenly you realize the deeper in you get the fewer answers you have. And the possibilities are actually fracturing off; with every page you turn you get further away from the quest that you thought was your initial quest—which was to solve this mystery. I loved that. I loved that—

RB: In reading this story, I didn’t care about was really true.

HJ: Really? Well, it doesn’t matter.


HJ: I don’t think it matters.

RB: Isn’t that part of what you are setting up?

Julavits, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedHJ: Well, yeah, that’s the whole idea. You get people thinking that’s what they are going to find out. But really what it is a book about is her grappling with her mom and her mother’s inability to forgive her. And whether she can come to terms with what she did, now that her mother is dead and is not around to forgive her anymore. And again that’s the kind of—I love books like that, that are, “OK, on the outset it looks like it’s just going to be a whodunit, what happened?” And that’s what gets you turning the pages. But then actually the goal of the book or what you are going to find out is actually much more emotional—in the end it’s an emotional quest, not an information quest.

RB: Any feeling that you might want to revisit this character?

HJ: Uh uh. No, but I never feel like that after I finish a book. I feel it’s done, it’s done.

RB: I was reminded as I started reading Richard Ford’s newest book [The Lay of the Land] that I spoke to him after Independence Day and asked him about writing another Frank Bascombe novel and he rejected the idea of a third book.

HJ: Right. It seemed like it needed more?

RB: No, it seemed that there could be more.

HJ: I don’t know, I haven’t really—

RB: If you establish a character with great detail and you put them in a slice of their life, it does leave open the possibility of revisiting them in another time, in different situations.

HJ: That’s true, but so much of this book is already about her revisiting this point in her past and the way this past has been fractured.

RB: And then you might pose the question, “What happens to someone with these kinds of past issues? How do they go on?”

HJ: I guess I am hoping at the end there is the indication that that is what she is going to do. I don’t really feel like I have had that—every novel I have written the structures have been such that they feel like they—

RB:—are done.

HJ: Yeah. They feel like a sphere. They don’t feel like they are part of a sequence to me. I could change my mind about that.

RB: What do you think the impulse is for writers like William Kennedy and Susan Straight and Faulkner to inhabit a specific local and interchange characters and stories?

HJ: I think it’s interesting—there are writers who are very geographically identified—their imaginations are geographically identified. And so that makes sense to me.

RB: It’s also a way of bringing in characters—Ed Jones, besides his bow to Hitchcock in each of his books, his stories seem to be never finished in the sense that he will reach back in a story before something that he has actually put on the page and find a character that is tied to the story—

HJ: You mean the stories are interconnected? I have never read his stories, so I don’t know.

RB: Not connected in an obvious way. A character [in one story] may have an ancestor present in an another story. Or a locale may be the setting for something that also is involved in an another story—the world that he writes about seems interconnected. Some of it is clearly implied, not explicitly referential. I’m at a loss to make it articulate it better.

HJ: It sounds good actually.

RB: This novel took you three years to write?

HJ: I am on a three-year turnaround thing right now—so yeah.

RB: You gave me one answer for a starting point, which was the psychological—

HJ: Oh yeah, and so the other part was—I was definitely interested in inverting a victim novel. I feel like starting in the ‘80s—and I actually would place it back to the recovered memory boom—that this then produced as these memoirs and novels, and it produced its own genre of victimology—a victimology genre. [laughs] It was victim fiction and victim memoirs. And I really, as much as perhaps some of these voices were first released—the abused girl who was never able to tell her story and now she can tell it—as much as that represented a kind of a break from the past or a progression forward, it soon developed its own predictable contours. And it became this redemption story and la la la la. And it just felt to me that it in the end was more complicated than that; that there were way more nuances involved.

RB: Does it matter to you if someone has written a hoax?

HJ: A hoax?

RB: Like Frey or that book Fragments?

HJ: Obviously it’s funny because it seems like some people will say, “Oh well, James Frey didn’t hurt anybody, so who cares about him?” Or, “Well, that was the Holocaust, so that’s different.” It does seem that arbitrary lines get drawn. Or J.T. Leroy because he pretended he had AIDS and that’s unforgivable. You know? [laughs] They’re both interesting because both of them basically indicate a devaluation of the imagination. There has been a serious devaluation of the imagination in out culture and that we saw it from both perspectives. Essentially J.T. Leroy really exacerbated a weakness—

RB: In attempting to replicate truthfulness, you devalue imagination because you are not creating something, you are relying on something plausible and—

HJ: But no, that’s what we need now. We actually don’t want someone to imagine what it would be like to be the truckstop prostitute son of a crack whore. That has no value to us. If you are going to write fiction, then you have to have had the same experiences as your characters or else what you have produced isn’t of value to us.

RB: I don’t think that’s true.

HJ: Well, which is what J.T. Leroy was based on. That’s how he succeeded.

RB: What of all the writers who, the male writers who create female protagonists, all the white authors who create ethnic characters—

HJ: Oh of course. And none of them are on Terry Gross.

RB: [laughs]

HJ: Because she actually doesn’t want to talk to you unless there is a personal hook to your story. I literally had an editor tell me once, an editor I brought in to speak to a class of mine, and the class was asking why nonfiction got so much more play than fiction in the media. She said, “Why would you be on someone’s radio or TV show if you wrote a book? What are you going to talk about? Your novel?” [both laugh]

RB: Curtis White wrote an essay in his collection called The Middle Mind, which has a refreshingly contrarian take on Terry Gross. Anyway, it is much easier to write and talk about nonfiction because the narrative is more reducible or amenable to summary. In 200 words you can give a taste of a nonfiction book, but it’s not really fair to circumscribe a novel in that way.

We actually don’t want someone to imagine what it would be like to be the truckstop prostitute son of a crack whore. That has no value to us.HJ: No, it’s true.

RB: By the way, what bothered me about Frey is not what he did—I could care less. I didn’t like his trash-talking when his first book came out. He was bellicose in asserting that he was “the greatest novelist and he was going to bury Eggers…” and so on.

HJ: I do kind of remember but I was actually not around when that happened so I was playing catch-up when I got back.

RB: How much of your time is spent with editing a magazine?

HJ: It takes a long time.

RB: [laughs]

HJ: It takes a long time.

RB: Does Andrew Leland [managing editor of the Believer] get some time off now that you are back from your novelist turn?

HJ: No way. Andrew is the secret to it all. [laughs] He’s so fantastic. He makes it all happen.

RB: He’s from Ohio, yes?

HJ: He went to Oberlin. He went to high school in southern California.

RB: I was considering whether you will be most remembered in your New York Times obituary and known for the so-called Manifesto published in the first issue of the Believer.

HJ: That would be so depressing.

RB: I was just considering that, and then I looked at the New York Times review, and it of course mentions the Manifesto.

HJ: It’s been the lead for two straight books.

RB: Really.

HJ: I just don’t know how many more books I have to write before that’s not cited. I don’t know. [laughs]

RB: Well, it was an interesting salvo fired across the bow of contemporary literary journalism. It did roil the waters. Do you still get mail on it?

HJ: Not so much. No, no. Mostly it just make me realize I have to write something at least so I can be identified with something else—I was joking with my editor because I recently wrote this piece for the Times about hating lobster and I was thinking, “Why isn’t that the lead? My really famous lobster piece.” [laughs]

RB: Because David Foster Wallace is known for a lobster piece.

HJ: That’s such a great essay. An amazing essay, yes.

RB: At the time that you wrote that anti-snark essay, there was a lot of carping and seemingly gratuitous attacking. It did cause me to recall the old saw that the reason “literary squabbles are so bitter is because they are for such small stakes.” Do you have the sense that literary journalism is more civilized today then it was two or three years ago?

HJ: Yeah, it’s changed a little a bit, but still much the same. The thing I feel most is—the thing I find myself most clarifying about that article is that I definitely was not coming out against really harsh criticism. I was coming out against the mocking, disdainful, knowing tone with which books get dismissed sometimes when they are not being taken seriously.

RB: By people who have never written a book and will never write a book.

HJ: Yeah, yeah. Whereas Daniel Mendelsohn just wrote what constitutes an extremely harsh review of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay collection [The Discomfort Zone]. He always supports his claims really cleanly, but he pulls no punches. This could be a questionable maneuver—he used the essays as a platform to revisit the book [The Corrections] and find it wanting.

RB: That’s called revisionism.

HJ: I guess. We are doomed to have a lot of revisionism because I read a lot of reviews and then read the book and it was nothing like I was told it was going to be. And so I think this person just got puffed to the heavens, and so now they are going to get taken down. It’s like a set-up for a slam volley [laughs]; puff them up, and then it gives us this really nice set-up so that the next book, which clearly isn’t going to be very good because this one wasn’t very good even though he’d said it, was—we can just be like SLAM! [laughs]

RB: In Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, one character is a brain scientist of repute with a well-regarded oeuvre, whose latest book gets bad reviews, and he realizes that reviewers don’t get anything for positive reviews; they get points for taking people down. But here’s the thing: More people end up reading the reviews of a book than read a book. So often a book’s reputation is falsely established. What was your sense of the response to the essay you wrote?

HJ: It was classified by the [New York] Observer as this earnest goody-two-shoes kind of essay, championing all books, all books are good and blah, blah, blah. And all it took was that one piece to be out there and then that became what the essay was. It was so unbelievable. It was like, “WAIT, NO, NO!” [laughs] But then it was like, “It’s too long; we can’t actually read it.” Or people who did read it: “It’s just so long.” [laughs] And books, they’re really long.

RB: Maybe you just have to bite the bullet and say, “Those aren’t people I’m writing for. Those are not readers.” Ultimately, why value the opinion of people who don’t read, or read very lazily or carelessly?

HJ: Yeah, right.

RB: They are not going to read the books we are talking about. Or the essays. Or anything we care about. So why do they have any voice or say?

HJ: That’s the horror of the internet—there is this alternate reality that can exist out there that’s all split from one cell, in a way. [laughs] If that cell isn’t really an accurate portrayal of the thing its trying to describe, then it’s just this mad thing that has now taken the place of the actual thing.

RB: It’s easy for people to posture as experts as if they have read all the stuff. I manage to complete 70 to 100 books in a year—that’s not very much—and I am reading more than many people. So the sampling of what’s published isn’t well represented. And there are so many journalists blustering with a dubious expertise and with a lack of generosity. It’s discouraging. And even the honest people who say, “I read 50 or a 100 pages of this or that.” Maybe that’s a way of judging, but I have read enough books that paid off past rough beginnings.

HJ: There are different reasons for tossing a book down. If you feel that writing is really wretched then you are perfectly justified to toss a book down.

RB: Ultimately, it’s one subjective response.

HJ: Absolutely.

RB: What if you have headache or your foot hurts, or what if [and so on, as you are reading a book]?

HJ: Yeah.

RB: About the time the Believer came out, it seemed there was a resurgence of literary magazines—Swink, N+1, Land-Grant College Review, Black Clock, Maisonneuve, Lawrence Weschler’s Omnivore.

HJ: Esopus is another great one. Essentially, as long as people find a way to support themselves that’s really all; that no one’s trying to retire on the proceeds from literary journals. [laughs] So as long as you find a formula to break even and not be taken to jail, I think it’s considered a success. [laughs]

RB: Was there a clear threshold of success that you envisioned for the Believer?

HJ: No, my only threshold for it is that we currently pay $500 per essay. And I would really like to be able to pay more than that. I think the bigger-is-better mentality is not necessarily the mentality to have, and as long as you’re solvent that’s probably to be rejoiced over; but I wouldn’t mind expanding our circulation just so that we could pay people more. We obviously can’t compete moneywise with Harper’s, which it would be nice to come a little closer [to]. A thousand dollars per essay or something; get into the quadruple digits.

RB: What’s next for you?

HJ: Oh—a book. [laughs]

RB: Do you take a break, some kind of breather? Or do you just get right back into a writing mode?

HJ: No, I definitely take a breather and that’s why the Believer is great for fiction detoxing. And I also do a lot of nonfiction now for the Times. I have been writing a lot of food pieces. Which is another really great way to detox from fiction.

RB: You have one child?

HJ: One child, yes. You, one kid?

RB: Yeah. And a dog.

HJ: Should we have another kid or stick with one?

RB: Oh, at your age I would say have more.

HJ: Really? My age is getting older. [laughs]

RB: I would have more kids—anyway, thanks so much.

HJ: Thank you.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum