The uses of Heidi Julavits

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  November 15, 2006

The Believer is almost too good to be true — it’s everyone’s dream to start a magazine and have these top-tier writers contributing from the get-go. I mean, Salman Rushdie was in your debut issue. How’d you make it work?
Obviously Dave Eggers enabled this thing to happen. Without him, we would have been so desperately at sea. We were able, quite luckily, to jump into this system that was already up and running, like a distribution system and printers and blah, blah, blah. So, I think a lot of the difficult, nitty gritty, how to actually turn these ideas into — the object transition was something we didn’t have to worry about so much. They were already set up to make objects. We were able, really, to just focus on the content, which was really great.

An adjective that got used a handful of times in response to your now-famous essay was “shrill,” and that struck me as so off. Not to get all gendered about it, but it seems like a woman can’t write something that’s impassioned without it being called shrill or whatever.
Only women are shrill. Not only that, but recently I read something in the New York Review of Books and I was called high-strung. I was just like, “Oh my god, why not just say I’m hysterical?” It’s just unbelievable, you know?

I try to be very open-minded about it and I think that well, maybe it was shrill. And I don’t knee-jerk-ily reject these things, but I do think shrill is a very interesting adjective to use. It certainly connoted a kind of hysteria, basically, that seems to be very much the opposite of intellect, and seems to indicate that what’s driving you is an out-of-control emotional state and not your brain.

I was recently involved in this sort of roundtable discussion about ambition. A lot of these topics came up: that if you are a woman and you are as ambitious and cutthroat as a man, then you’re seen as the dragon lady. Whereas if you’re a man, you’re just a really good man. You’re just a man as you should be.

Believe me, when I read things like “shrill,” I just try to think of it being applied to a man and it doesn’t really translate. And a woman actually wrote a piece that called me high-strung. It seems really interesting to me; I feel like I am very conscious about the adjectives I use when I write. You don’t want to be like, you know, “she’s really hormonal,” you know? Hormonal’s one of those words I tend not to use if someone’s book seems to be failing on some level.

Do you find you’re similarly conscious of those sorts of characteristics or descriptions when you’re creating a fictional character?
No, not so much, I don’t think. I guess they just — they just are. Obviously, I find myself attracted to those shrill, hormonal, bitchy, high-strung women writers like Joy Williams. It’s almost just your sensibility in a way. I do sort of feel now, after writing a couple of books, that you’re very aware that when you’re trying to recreate humanity, this is how your imagination sees it.

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