HEIDI JULAVITS ON ABANDONING WRITING BLUEPRINTS, LINEAR TIME, AND BIRTHING TUBS by Amy Feltman
Last year, acclaimed novelist (The Vanishers, The Effects of Living Backwards) and the Believer magazine editor Heidi Julavits collaborated with fellow writers Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton on the book Women in Clothes. In it, Julavits writes an essay that begins with a misplaced mitten. Throughout the course of the piece, the anxiety of all-consuming loss—recruiting others to attempt to locate the mitten, ruminating over its origin, allowing the mitten to serve as a metaphor for crushing and ubiquitous absence—escalates into a poignant frenzy. Julavits writes: "I worried about my ability, in the future, to accept that sometimes things or people are simply gone. It cannot be healthy, can it? To so confidently believe: I can conquer loss. I can love a thing so hard it must always come back to me."
This is one of Julavits's many talents: beginning in the crevice between two soup cans, ending in the moonlight. In her latest release, The Folded Clock, Julavits keeps a diary of her life for a year. Many of these entries have the emotional sucker punch effect of the lost-mitten essay, especially when she considers the fleeting nature of playing an excruciatingly boring game of spinning tops with her young son. Julavits spares little when depicting her contradictory actions and occasional irrationality, determined in her insistence that whether a female narrator is "likeable" is beside the point. In one entry, Julavits writes that she wants to be considered a threat in the literary community, as fierce a competitor as her male counterparts. With such insightful, stark, and wry entries, it's hard to imagine her as anything but.
This interview was conducted at a coffee shop in Manhattan that was decorated with a startling number of fluffy sheep figurines.
I: "I mean, when we're talking about beds and sweaters, I feel confident."
GIGANTIC: One of the first things I noticed moving through these entries is that they're not organized chronologically. How did you decide the arrangement of the entries? Do you think working on Women in Clothes, which had a similar sort of collage-like quality in its framework, influenced your thinking?
HEIDI JULAVITS: About a year after I started writing the book I printed it out, and then I cut it up and taped it so that each individual entry was a standalone item. And I came up with different thematic categories into which I sorted each entry. I think there were eight or twelve categories to begin with, but I can't even remember what they were—something like, "Kids" and "Food," "Attics" and "Galoshes." I came up with some kind of taxonomy for all of the sections, and then I realized, "Galoshes" also belongs under "Attics," or whatever. I started to shrink the categories, and they shrank and they shrank and they shrank, and suddenly everything was back in the same pile. I was back to one pile again!
I remember agonizing over this when I was in Berlin, I guess this was a year ago, fall. I was at a bar with the writer John Wray, and I never, really ever, talk about my work in bars, but he asked me what I was doing and at this point I was still struggling with the structure. Then he told me about this time he was interviewing Murakami, and he and Murakami were talking about structure, or how to move forward through a book when you're stuck, and Murakami said—I think—something along the lines of, "Put a currywurst in it." And so John Wray was like, "Put a currywurst in it!" And essentially his point was: I think you're overthinking it. I was like, you're right, I'm overthinking it.
Really the whole point of this book, to me, was not to overthink. It wasn't about having this massive structure that everything had to fit into. It was always of a smaller scale. It was just piece, by piece, by piece. At about that same time, we were having similar conversations about Women in Clothes. I will say that that book was much more of a challenge in terms of structuring; this one was fairly straightforward. Personally, all I want now are projects that require an intuitional structuring instead of this, "I've got a plan!" No more architectural blueprints.
II. "Next up is Heidi Julavits, and she's written a book about sisters."
GIGANTIC: Did you feel the need to create a plot and/or an emotional arc of your character or the characters of your life (your husband and children)? I'm thinking of the conversation in Interview Magazine in which you talk about being "obsessed with plot"—how did that instinct impact your work in The Folded Clock?
JULAVITS: This was the anti-plot book! This was the book to get away from plot. I literally sat down each day not knowing what I was going to write. I mean, I would write, "Today I," and then I would just see what happened. And so, again, it was not only about not overthinking but also about not thinking much at all. I've never really approached writing like that before. I was capturing this energy impulse, or this train of thought, and if I didn't catch the exact right last line, there was no re-writing my way to it later.
GIGANTIC: How do you feel like your identity as a female writer affects the way this project has been promoted and will be interpreted? It struck me that, even in the marketing materials accompanying the galley, there's an almost defensive tone to the copy: "What keeps this from being self-indulgent is . . . " What do you feel are the challenges you come up against in writing a "confessional" female text?
JULAVITS: Well, there was a moment where I didn't want to call it a diary at all for that reason. I remember when my second book came out and I had wanted so much to write a book that wouldn't be reducible to, "It's about a mother and a daughter!" So I wrote a book about a hijacking. And I remember being in a green room before a radio show and some guy had just gone on before me, and he'd written a book about his family and the announcer said, "We just heard from X talking about class struggle." Then the announcer said, "Next up is Heidi Julavits, and she's written a book about sisters." I was like—what does a girl have to do, you know? Women get hashtagged differently. So at the beginning I did think, What if we didn't call it a diary? And then, I thought, That's just reactionary. I'm just responding to some thing that I fear people will be assuming about it and me. The fact is that I wrote it as a diary. I really respect the form because it allowed me to escape the thing I was trying to escape for so long and never could, in a novel. So I felt like I had to give props to the form.
III. "In the first line I call someone about toy stethoscopes."
GIGANTIC: You talk about how your relationship to time has changed since you've aged—that the increments have expanded from days to weeks, months. How did your relationship to time change as a result of keeping this diary? When you were finished with this project, did the habit of maintaining a diary stick as part of your writing practice?
JULAVITS: I don't think I've ever been happier than when I was writing this book. It made me pay attention to my life in a way that I had not been paying attention to it. It made me . . . not try to make sense of things, because I wasn't trying to make sense, I was trying to excavate. It was more about making connections and associations and sending out these feelers to all these different time zones that weren't just related to the day that I was ostensibly writing about. And, when you were talking about selves—what was so liberating about this book was to not have to have a consistent self. To just be somebody different every day, which is true to how most people are. With a novel, you fall prey to these character consistency constraints. With a diary, I was able to be a wildly inconsistent person and that was okay.
GIGANTIC: Do you remember the first entry that you wrote?
JULAVITS: It was the one about the birth tub going missing in transit. In the first line I call someone about toy stethoscopes. That was the very first entry I wrote.
GIGANTIC: That's sort of nice, like, stethoscopes are searching for a heartbeat. I wanted to bring up the power of objects with you. It's a strong presence throughout the book—your trademark tap handle, the evil-ushering ring, the vertebrae necklace. Has that always been the case for you, that you ascribe such meaning to objects?
JULAVITS: Yeah, yeah. We talked about Women in Clothes earlier—I remember at one point, Sheila [Heti] and Leanne [Shapton] and I were talking, and Sheila said she'd never cared about objects. It blew my mind. I couldn't imagine—I couldn't imagine! From the time I can remember, being the smallest, smallest, smallest person, it was just all about . . . not ownership, not possession, not acquisition, but I would have emotional attachments to things. Super-duper emotionally intense attachments. There was a lamp I had as a kid that broke, and when my mom said she was throwing it away, I put it in my bed and slept next to it until she let me keep it. So—why is this? I don't know. As a kid it feels emotional; as an adult it starts to feel quasi-erotic. You want to do something physical with this thing, you know?
GIGANTIC: I do; I'm exactly the same way.
JULAVITS: Okay, good, so you understand! I don't have to try to sell you on this.
GIGANTIC: No, not at all.
JULAVITS: The tap handle was very much like that. I should've brought it, because honestly, you just have to hold it. It weighs quite a bit, which is why I couldn't wear it as a necklace the way I did with the vertebrae. It defied usage or appreciation or ownership. And that drove me crazy. So that's why I think I decided to try to draw it, because I do not draw—I am not an artist, and so doing an activity that's so foreign to me and having to experiment with different ways of drawing it, like sometimes I would just close my eyes and draw it, or draw it from memory—it was a way to, not own it, that wasn't the goal. I guess the goal was to achieve some peace.
GIGANTIC: There was something that your friend and collaborator Sheila Heti said in 2012, in an interview in the Paris Review, about how writing in first person becomes a form of acting. I'm wondering in light of that, what was the act of self-representation like for you? Did you find yourself engaging with certain ideas for the sake of the book?
JULAVITS: I feel like it was less about representing an I and it was more about having a conversation with another I that I am. So like, every day I would get down to work and I would be like, "Hey, you! What'd you think about that? Well, I thought this." It's not about being schizophrenic or bifurcated or anything, it's about having that other part of you to sit down and gossip with. It makes you feel actually quite whole.
GIGANTIC: Did you see Birdman, by any chance?
JULAVITS: No, I haven't seen it yet! He has another self he talks to?
GIGANTIC: Well, I had an interesting disagreement with my mom about it. She said, very confidently, "Oh, he's schizophrenic." But I argued—no, he's not schizophrenic, that's the voice that all of us carry around within ourselves. That's our internalized negative voice, and in the film it's amplified so we can hear it, but I didn't think he was mentally ill. And she was boggled by that interpretation.
JULAVITS: That diagnostic impulse is interesting. Like, when does a work of art allow you to just commune with that otherness, and when does it threaten you in such a way that you want to put a diagnosis on it and safely distance yourself? Like, "That person's crazy," instead of just, "That person's not me."
IV: "When am I going to lose my virginity? That question's been answered."
GIGANTIC: Speaking of otherness—I'm really interested in your relationship to your perceived Jewishness. Have you continued to investigate the background of your name?
JULAVITS: No! I feel like my fascination with my perceived Jewishness falls in the same continuum as my friend who doesn't want to know if her husband's having an affair. It's the invisible but present object that Breton talks about, that's supposed to explain the mad love that you have for certain material things. And also, you know, at this stage in my life so much is determined for me. I know whom I'm going to marry, and I know who my kids are going to be. The older you get, the less about your life is yet to be determined, except how and when you're going to die, right? [Laughs]
GIGANTIC: I like the gleeful delivery that's happening here.
JULAVITS: "When am I going to lose my virginity?" That question's been answered. A lot of questions have been answered. For that reason, I'd like the question of whether or not I'm Jewish to hang around for a little bit longer.
GIGANTIC: I have a feeling that, when you do die, this conversation's going to haunt me.
JULAVITS: Only if I die on the way home. Otherwise you're totally off the hook.
GIGANTIC: So—what about eBay? What is it about eBay that brings you comfort and joy? Do you think it's some kind of psychological rash that it soothes, or is it like, "I fucking won, I did it"?
JULAVITS: Well, this speaks to a vertical time structure that I was kind of obsessed with before I started writing this book. I began to think about vertical time a lot when I read Jenny Egan's book [A Visit to the Goon Squad]. Reading that book is like taking ice core samples from time. I was interested in trying to do something with a vertical time structure—again, as a way to escape plot, which has a more linear demand on time. And eBay for me is a vertical experience. I search for something, I read the descriptions very carefully and find something in the description and search that, and so on, and so on, it's all about linking downward through space step by step, and you have no idea when you start where you're eventually headed. That was how I wanted to write each entry in the book, too. That's why eBay is so pleasing to me, because it's mimicking that same way of moving through space. It also ends up being a linear time quantity, of course because suddenly you look up and you've been doing this for hours.
It's really not about winning at all. I wish it were about winning.
GIGANTIC: Why do you wish it were about winning?
JULAVITS: Well, okay, I do get sad when I lose. I still am sad about this set of curtains that I lost because I was stupid. I lose when I'm stupid. It's like with yard sales. I know what the rules are. If I really want something at a yard sale I know how to get it. So, if I don't get it, it's my own fault.
GIGANTIC: That's an amazing attitude about winning. I know how to win.
JULAVITS: I mean, when we're talking about beds and sweaters, I feel confident.
GIGANTIC: Okay, I have one more question. Have you heard of this YouTube campaign, #dearme? It's a series of videos recorded by women speaking to their younger selves. It has a kind of self-help-y vibe to it, but I thought it fit into your project nicely in some ways. I was wondering, what would you say to your younger-you?
JULAVITS: Oh, well, I am so not interested in my younger-you, exactly. I am interested in my future daughter. For the next book I'm thinking about writing, I've been inspired by Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—it's just amazing, an amazing way to write critically about yourself without ostensibly writing about yourself. So I am interested in writing something from the perspective of my daughter when I'm dead, and her having to deal with all this shit I've bought on eBay. I'm interested in projecting into the future what she will have to do. Thankfully my own mother is alive, I haven't had to deal with the objects that are left behind when somebody you love dies. How do you keep them, if you keep them? How do you not keep them, if you don't?
GIGANTIC: My grandmother moved to a nursing home, so we had to really clear out a lot of her belongings. Maybe a sixteenth of her stuff came with her, everything else we had to get rid of and sell her apartment. It was like—I could just see that, for my own life.
JULAVITS: Me, too. I cleaned out my desk the other day, and quite literally, almost every single thing I mention in the book, I have it. The hospital bracelet: I have it. The birth tub receipt: I have it. I have everything. They have these things in Maine called "keeping societies." You find them in towns that are way too small to have any kind of official museum or historical society. People donate what was formerly trash and now, because it's old trash, it has some historical interest, and the keeping society puts it in a vitrine. There's no attempt to make a story out of the objects. They haven't been rolled into a bigger historical narrative. They are just the shards left over from a common day. So I basically collated all my "trash," and I'm going to set up an online keeping society for the book.
Maybe, some day, this type of paper detritus will be in a proper museum, because evidence like this isn't going to be around very much longer. A lot of the paper ephemera from a person's daily travel, well, these are end of times for that kind of stuff because you just get an email now. I do like the idea that you could just see a piece of paper and it would tell you what entry it's from in the book and you could just read that entry. Like a word-a-day calendar.
GIGANTIC: But of your life!
JULAVITS: But of my life! Exactly.
Amy Feltman is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in the Believer, the Toast, the Sonder Review, the Millions, and Two Serious Ladies, among others.
Andrew Bulger is the in-house illustrator of Gigantic.