The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Heidi Julavits

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Heidi Julavits has a complicated mind. One only need turn the pages of her latest novel, The Vanishers, to find an eclectic mix of characters that occupy a very intricate, emotional labyrinth. The intersection of the surreal and unknown offers readers unique meditations on varied traumas as experienced by a psychic who launches an attack on her student, a pornographer who finds herself entwined with suicidal women, a narrator who possesses the ability to move forward and backward in time, women who crave maternal bonds and a desire to reinvent themselves through plastic surgery. What makes Julavits’s latest work so intriguing is the way she archives memory and questions identity, while addressing the intricacies of female rivalry and the inherent dysfunctionality between mothers and daughters. To entertain the idea of identity is to live inside the pages of every Julavits novel written.

The Vanishers explores what happens to Julia Severn, a student at a psychic institute who suffers from an attack brought on by her mentor that leaves her undeniably ill and seeking refuge from her life. She sets out to answer questions that revolve around her mother’s suicide after she’s recruited by those in need of her psychic abilities to find a missing person. She travels to Paris and other parts of Europe seeking answers to her troubled history, while finding fragments of shared realities with perfect strangers. Julavits’s narrative approaches mystery from a metaphysical and experimental place, where one’s emotional scars become another’s crown, and psychic damage is seen and felt through encounters with family and females alike.

I met up with Heidi while she was on her book tour in Los Angeles, where we promised each other we’d talk about The Vanishers. A mere five months later, we actually managed to make that happen. Being the co-editor and co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer might have taken up some of that “free time” she had. That, and being married to writer Ben Marcus, teaching at Columbia, and having kids.

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The Rumpus: In your latest novel, The Vanishers, there is a strong narrative thread that addresses issues as they revolve around identity. Your last three novels—The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Uses of Enchantment—also explored variations on this theme. You like to explore memory and the manner in which it functions in our lives. In some cases, your characters are recreating their past in order to understand it or deal with it, often making up mythological tales or imagined realities; others summon amnesia or encounter memory lapses. This book addresses identity on different levels, moving between grief and memory, which both seem to deal with a “self” that no longer exists. Why do you think your narrators are preoccupied with memory?

Heidi Julavits: Maybe I’m obsessed with memory because I have such a terrible one. This is a new experience for me. I used to have a really sharp memory. And its loss has proven destabilizing from an identity perspective. I’ve subsequently become conscious of MAKING MEMORIES. Which makes me sound like a scrapbooker. But I go through life now reminding myself to remember something, and I do this while that something is happening. I’ll be experiencing a moment and I’ll say to myself, “Remember this!” Otherwise my whole life just blurs by. So I guess what I find so interesting about memory, and its role in a person’s identity, is how the attempt to achieve accuracy requires you to remove yourself from your life in an authorial manner. You’re the character and the creator. How can a partial fiction not result?

Rumpus: Dion Fortune was an author, an occultist, and woman who believed in magical and mystical occurrences. When I read that Fortune suffered a nervous breakdown and then began studying psychology and took interest in the occult, I could only think about our human need to make sense of experience. I wondered if her book, Psychic Self Defense, was the result of her thoughts about her nervous breakdown. Her work served as inspiration for some of your narrative in The Vanishers. In what ways do you think Dion’s work influenced your narrative or process with this novel?

Julavits: I owe so much to Fortune that I paid a psychic to contact her and get approval for using her life story. (I did this just before the book was published, so I don’t really know what I would have done if she hadn’t approved.) But the belief that one’s suffering has a greater cosmic purpose, and is thus more exciting and more noble, well, it made a lot of sense to me when I read about Fortune’s breakdown, and it made even more sense to me when I recently believed I’d contracted an untreatable, incurable chronic pain condition. A friend of mine urged me to see my pain as an opportunity. And since the same psychic that contacted Dion Fortune had told me that I was a “teacher”—she didn’t mean at Columbia, she meant in the spiritual sense—I decided my affliction was the universe telling me that it was time to stop writing fiction and become the spiritual guru I was clearly meant to be.

Then it turned out I’d been misdiagnosed. But I really did for a few weeks think, I’m in pain because the world needs me to save it. Which is so ridiculous and egotistical I can’t believe I’m admitting this in print. But I needed to understand this random bad bit of luck as part of a bigger design. Otherwise I was suffering meaninglessly. This made the suffering a lot worse.

Rumpus: On a psychological level, I think it would be cathartic to label a breakdown a “psychic attack” or give my unexplained medical symptoms a specific diagnosis. To put the mirror on ourselves, to examine how or what has happened to our bodies or minds requires introspection and responsibility. There are explainable and contagious illnesses and there are the unexplained, the infectious, psychosomatic symptoms/illnesses that afflict people in equal numbers. To my mind, suffering from a psychic attack would be similar to the way an auto-immune disease attacks a person’s body on a regular basis. It can feel like an internal suicide taking place when your body betrays you, when it attacks itself. The unexplainable symptoms, even with a diagnosis create a certain kind of emotional madness that yearns to be alleviated on any plane possible. Perhaps Fortune’s book was an attempt to share a certain kind of permission to feel certain things as a result of our own psychological undoing?

Julavits: The twisty nature of psychic attack—are you being attacked, or did you bring this attack on yourself?—speaks to me of an American cultural paradox we all grapple with. There’s the rampant litigiousness of our society, and the desire to blame others for our misfortunes, on one side of the paradox, and then there’s the old Emersonian self-reliance ideology run through a self-reflexivity (or narcissism) machine. Is your misfortune someone else’s fault? Or is your misfortune, because you’re so self-reliant, self-inflicted? Fortune’s book makes it pretty clear that either or both of these forces are at work when you’re psychically attacked.

While conceiving The Vanishers, I had a couple of friends suffering from undiagnosable, and thus untreatable, afflictions. I thought of them when I first encountered Fortune’s book. Hers is a paradigm shift, a psychologically useful one. To believe you’re being psychically attacked gives you an understanding of your illness that no Western doctor can provide; this can be reassuring when you’ve exhausted the Western doctor tool kit, and the doctors are sending you to acupuncturists for pain relief. You know you’re screwed when a Western doctor recommends acupuncture.

But whether you’re being attacked by a malicious outside force, or whether you’ve somehow brought this attack on yourself, there is a cause. And if you’re the cause, doesn’t that come as a bit of a relief? Because now you have some control over a situation where you formerly had none. If I can just stop being so stressed out, maybe my cancer will get better! This is far less scary than treating a disease of unknown etiology.

Rumpus: Psychics often have the ability to see where we’re going or where we’ve been. They can see things we are either too afraid to see or in some cases have subconsciously blocked from our own sight. Do you think it’s easier to accept someone else’s interpretation of who we are (i.e. a psychic, a spiritual medium) rather than our own?

Julavits: I always think it’s useful to get an outside opinion. Why bother leaving the house if you don’t want feedback? If you agree with an outside person’s interpretation of you, that’s a happy bit of affirmation. It means you’re communicating externally what you believe to be true internally. If you disagree, it helps clarify how you understand yourself. And maybe makes you productively question how to improve your communication skills.

Rumpus: On some wavelength, psychics can feel or experience things that most of us do not. Your narrator, Julia Severn, begins showing unexplainable symptoms that serve as a sort of “default” diagnosis for her psychic attack. What I think is so curious and interesting about this is the way it parallels somatization. The medical industry calls “somatization patients” people who suffer from undiagnosable but very real medical symptoms. I think about somatization as a form of psychological trauma that emerges in physical form when we aren’t able to deal with our issues. The symptoms seen and felt are real, indeed; however, the cause of them seems to be of almost equal importance in terms of healing. Would you agree? Do you think having the ability to identify an illness or unexplained symptoms frees us from our past? Or that identifying what plagues us helps us acknowledge our real selves, both on the outside and inside?

Julavits: This question makes me want to talk about my Rolfing experience. Rolfing is widely understood to be a massage so painful it makes you scream. When I told people I was getting Rolfed, they all said, “But doesn’t that hurt?” Rolfing was invented by Ida Rolf, who believed bodies were thrown out of balance by past traumas, by which she primarily meant physical traumas. Her job was to locate the trauma area and undo the body’s protective mechanisms to restore balance. Her work was embraced at the Esalen Institute in California during the late ’60s and early ’70s, and yes, my understanding is that people often cried or grew hysterical when they got Rolfed there. At some point the focus became more psychological—Rolfers were releasing past emotional traumas from the body—and seemed too hippie-dippie, and that’s why Rolfers these days prefer to be called structural integration practitioners. The Rolfer/practitioner I saw was primarily concerned with my posture, but he still believed that “injury” could be interpreted physically or emotionally. He told me a story about a client of his, a former anorexic, who became totally hysterical when he Rolfed her stomach and intestines. Which makes perfect sense to me. You feel and express emotions with your body—you get butterflies in your stomach, you cry—why shouldn’t the body register, in a more entrenched way, an emotional injury?

Rumpus: I was also thinking about the way trauma manifests in the body. It could be said that inexplicable illness is the way the body archives trauma. Our physical symptoms are, in a way, their own narrative, with their own history. I kept thinking of your narrator in this way. At the onset of her symptoms, Julia was on a path towards discovering her own inexpressible pain felt in regard to her mother’s suicide and the impending connection to Dominique Varga. I think there’s a necessary crossover from the psychological to the physical when we experience our minds in direct conflict with our bodies. There’s a lot of truth in our physical exteriors, even when altered.

Julavits: I love this idea of the body as a trauma archive! This takes us back to memory, and memory-making. Maybe the body is taking responsibility where the mind is not. It’s scrapbooking for us. I think what can be most shameful or embarrassing is when our bodies broadcast a secret we’d prefer no one to know. This is why I hate rashes, in particular face rashes. A face rash says, “Hey people, I’m fucked up inside! And I probably don’t even know why, which is even more embarrassing!” I developed a crazy face rash after I got engaged to a guy I must have known somewhere I should not marry. I hadn’t articulated this to myself, so my face told the world instead.

Rumpus: Female relationships in your novels are always complex, if not the underlying focal point of your narratives. Mother/daughter relationships are functioning on a fractured but somewhat warped level where love and acceptance are at war with one another. A character says to your narrator, “a mother’s greatest heartbreak is when she begins to see her child as the embodiment of her own worst self.”  The underlying question in these pages seems to be, “how/why can women be so toxic to one another?” Why are we willing to endure such heartache as a result the complicated dynamic we share with the very women we simultaneously admire and envy?

Julavits: I have a daughter who, when younger, possessed no barrier between her emotional self and the outside world. Her emotional insides spilled out all over, and, especially when I was sleep-deprived and probably a little paranoid, this really threatened me. It was as if she were embodying and expressing the insecurities and freaked-outedness I never express, and which I’ve learned over the years to keep hidden. She was betraying this secret self of mine. She was my face rash. Then I caught up on my sleep and stopped believing crazy things.

But I don’t think women are, by definition, toxic to one another. I think women are simultaneously competitive toward and idolatrous of each other. I thrive on that challenge and that desire. I surround myself with women who inspire me to be more ambitious, and who constantly astonish me with their magnetism, style, and smarts.

Rumpus: Identity and perception are two key themes in The Vanishers. How we are seen and perceived by others is an ongoing struggle for females in this book and, for some this struggle is present in our own lives. The women in this novel are either enamored by or attempting to be like one another (via plastic surgery or other emotional means). What are your thoughts about self-renovation? Why do you think we crave altered, exterior identities?

Julavits: I wouldn’t be myself if I weren’t always trying to be someone else. I only have so much time on this earth and I want to be as many people as possible.

Rumpus: Under what circumstances (if any) would you consider plastic surgery?

Julavits: THIS IS THE BEST QUESTION EVER. I’m at that age now where I notice friends checking out my face and wondering, Has she been Botoxed? There’s a new map there people that are trying to read. I think if I did get any kind of enhancement I would be very public about it. I don’t want people wondering—I want them to know. But right now I’m really happy with my face. My face is leaner and a little more angular and better communicates the person I believe myself to be. But if, at some future point, my face collapses around my eyes, I’d probably do something about it. My eyes are where I live, and if people couldn’t see them, no one would know me.

Rumpus: Your character, Dominique Varga, the much sought-after artist and pornographer, encourages women in to have plastic surgery to take on the faces of the dead. From Varga’s perspective, we’re made to believe it’s a selfless act, an homage to someone; a void that can be filled. This very idea requires the reader to reconsider identity and how we digest that in the name of art. The writer Dawn Lundy Martin said recently in a lecture I attended that she saw the body as “a suitcase for language.” If we’re reinventing the body, physically-speaking, what kinds of stories do we have to tell when we alter that canvas? If the body is an archive that houses our stories and memories, then what does that make Varga?

Julavits: I see Varga as a collector of other people’s faces, stories, and memories. This could be read as selfless—she’s sacrificed her own identity and, in effect, donated her body to a dead person, so that person can return to their loved ones, and alleviate their grief. But of course it’s a completely messed-up thing to do. Julia sees it as a mockery of her grief. Which is the rational response. But maybe this response is partially fear-based. We want to believe we couldn’t be replaced, and that the people we love are irreplaceable. If I died, I’d selfishly want to believe my kids would never recover. But mostly they would. And my husband would probably remarry. And the grief they felt over my loss would dim. They would never have me again, but empty spaces fill over time. Substitutes arise. This happens. If it didn’t, whole families would be buried with their dead.

Rumpus: The Vanishers explores the psychology of female repression as seen between your characters Julia and Madame Ackermann, Varga and Irenke, and even those who appear in her films. The artist Do-Ho Suh has said that clothing is “the most intimate architecture.” When we think about identity and the significance of expression found in appearances and varied sexual acts, we can begin to view the many altered manifestations of the body as art. Clothing, or lack thereof, could be the ultimate signification of identity. And in some cases, even feminine identity. In a strange way, these varied acts (sexual, surgical, and suicidal) carry messages of love and desperation. Those who encounter them are, in a sense, seeing who those people are for the first time. It’s like witnessing a rebirth of selfhood.

Julavits: When I was writing my first draft, and feeling grandiose, I e-mailed an artist/clothing designer I know and suggested we collaborate on a fashion line inspired by the outfits my characters wore. I still regret that we never did that. Maybe I still will some day.

When my husband first read a draft, he said, “You spend too much time describing the characters’ outfits.” He was right. I removed much of the clothes talk, but quite a bit remained. After the novel was published, a female book critic mentioned how she noticed and appreciated the clothing cues for each character; I related to her my husband’s criticism, and she replied, “But clothing tells you so much about a person!” Maybe it only tells women about characters, who knows. My husband wasn’t getting a meaningful character read off of Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and that probably recommends him as a human. The risk when using clothing as an identity badge is that your characters are communicating in a language not everyone speaks. But isn’t that how life works? No matter what you wear, not everyone is going to understand what you’re saying.

Rumpus: How did you decide to structure The Vanishers in six parts? How much time do you spend contemplating the structure of your work? Or does it unfold as the work comes together? I think sometimes the work informs its author as to its needs. How different is The Vanishers in terms of form/style as a finished book as opposed to where you began?

Julavits: Does it have six parts? That’s so funny—if you’d asked me how many parts my book had, I’d have said, “Ummm…it has…hopefully exactly the right number?” Structure is, for me, the most fun challenge about writing novels. The Vanishers is the least “structured” novel I’ve written in a while—it’s straight-up chronological, told from a single perspective. I think that’s why the psychic conceit interested me so much; it allowed me to tell a simply structured story but kept me from getting bored. The fact that Julia can regress into the pasts of others allows me to have a multi-perspective novel told from one perspective. She functions as the omniscient narrator to the other characters. Even though she doesn’t really want to—she’s a reluctant psychic—she can tell their stories.

Rumpus: When we read fiction, we all have to opt in on the author’s journey. Writing about psychics or psychic powers could be a topic, on a level, that some might easily dismiss. I think about this narrative as giving you, the author (and via extension me, the reader), a huge amount of freedom to deviate from the believable or the possible. What do you think?

Julavits: I don’t think fake people living in a fake house in a fake suburb are any less dismissible or believable than a fake psychic attending a fake school in a fake town. Nothing’s inherently believable about any kind of fiction, because all of it’s untrue. As such, anything is always possible, even if your protagonist is a plumber. But it’s the possibility, the limitless possibilities, of any fake life, that make writing about it so challenging. Whether I’m writing about plumbers or psychics or psychic plumbers, I want to find a creative space that imprisons me usefully, so I can deviate with purpose.

Rumpus: Did you go to any other psychics (either while writing/researching The Vanishers) or prior to your writing this book?

Julavits: Only that one psychic! I didn’t want to know too much about psychics. I like playing with a popular cliché and making it my own by half-embracing it, half-disemboweling it. If I’d found a non-clichéd psychic, which I did, it would have messed up my cliché-tweaking apparatus.

Rumpus: Near the end of The Vanishers, the narrator says “what you want a person to know is often the last thing you want a person to know.” Is there anything for you, as a writer, you wish people didn’t know about you? Or is there something you want us to know that we don’t?

Julavits: I wish somebody knew whether or not I’m Jewish.


Angela Stubbs lives in Los Angeles and is a freelance writer and MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, esque Magazine, Lambda Literary, Puerto del Sol, elimae, Bookslut and others. She is the author of a fiction column at The Nervous Breakdown and currently working on a collection of short fiction, Try To Remain Hidden. More from this author →