The uses of Heidi Julavits

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  November 15, 2006

What do you make of the claim that people don’t read anymore?
It does seem that people read less and less. I think the thing that would be most heartbreaking to me would be if they got wireless service in the subways in New York. Because it’s the one place that — you always see people reading on the subway in New York, and it gives you this false sense of how much people read when you live there. But if their blackberries worked, they would just be e-mailing people. I mean, I guess from a terrorism perspective we should want to have wireless, you know, but what’s more important? Black joke! Sorry. Black joke from somebody who’s terrified of being buried alive on the subway.

Who do you think your audience is — for those people who are still finding time to read fiction?
I actually don’t know. I feel like when I’m writing a novel, I’m somehow trying to recreate a reading experience that I once had. And so maybe my audience when I first start to write is always me. And, in a strange way, that’s something that a lot of writers tend to forget. Not writers who are published, but writers who are starting out. When I work with writers and students, I do feel there’s a tendency that what they’re creating and what they want to read are two different things. For me, it’s important that those two things kind of sync up.

That’s the thing, though: it seems like everyone thinks they’ve got a novel in them, whether they read novels or not.
It is the most bizarre phenomenon and it recurs with such frequency. I literally was in the airport yesterday and I met this fellow — he’s a lawyer — who says to me, “What’re you working on?” And Mr. Chatty tells me all about how he really always wanted to be a novelist, right? And the fantasy is fleshed out in an even more nauseating way than even that. So he says, “Yeah, I just think the most amazing life would be to just have a house on the ocean and just sit there all day and write, like, a book a year.” And I’m like, “Yeah that sounds so feasible. And you seem like that guy, temperamentally, and didn’t I see that movie, and aren’t you supposed to be sleeping with Kim Basinger?” So he says, “Yeah, I just think I’ve really got a good novel in me.” And I was like, “Interesting, what do you read?” And he says, “Well, you know, when I’m on planes and when I’m traveling I just read crap, you know,” and he cites just sort of bestseller kind of things. And I said, “So what’s an idea of a great non-crap novel that you’ve read? And he’s like, “Well, you know, I really like to read histories.” He’s this guy with this one great novel in him, and he doesn’t read novels, you know?

I just find it so fascinating that this thing that people feel they need to bring into the world, is actually nothing that they themselves would have anything to do with. It’s sort of like being an architect and building a house that you would never consider living in.

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