Someone recently told Heidi Julavits that she’ll be remembered most for a Believer essay that appeared in the magazine’s March 2003 debut issue. In that piece, titled, “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!” she argued against snark, against “wit for wit’s sake,” against “the hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” against a reviewing culture defined by sarcasm and anti-intellectualism. “It was the most depressing thing anyone has ever said to me,” she says over a plate of eggs and a pot of tea at Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square on a rainy morning last week. “If that’s the case, I’ll just shoot myself.” Coming from a serious fiction writer — a three-time novelist — her point is well-taken. Still, she had issued a rallying cry heard ’round the literary world, and it was no idle threat: as founding editor of the McSweeney’s–produced magazine the Believer, Julavits has brought to life a literary outlier filled with smarts, irreverence, and long-form criticism that shines an unforgiving light on the usual puffery and pap of today’s criticism.
Julavits was in town last week for a reading of her third novel, The Uses of Enchantment, at Newtonville Books. It is about a 17-year-old girl in West Salem, Massachusetts, who may or may not have faked her own abduction, and her prim mother’s and two dueling therapists’ reaction upon her return. Like her other novels, The Mineral Palace and The Effect of Living Backwards, Enchantment is imaginative, immediate, and dark. It is immersed in a mood of sinister sexuality, set with characters who are sharp and sometimes cruel in that distinctively withering New England way.
The local culture is not unknown to her. Julavits grew up in Portland, Maine, and now spends nine months a year in Manhattan with her husband, writer Ben Marcus, and three months in Brooklin, Maine, a town three hours north of Portland. That city-country split is apparent. Julavits has a New Yorker’s cool about her, as well as a Mainer’s no-nonsense practicality. She’s earthy — earnest and passionate, with an arid sense of humor. When Julavits talks about literature and books — hers, others, responses to both — she’s serious. She’s slim and tall, with dark-rimmed glasses that stand out against her fair skin and blonde hair. If Julavits had told me she was 26, I would’ve believed her. She’s 38. “Old,” she says. Hardly, I think. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How do you split your brain between writing fiction and editing the Believer?
They both end up being these great antidotes to each other, and they work such different sides of your brain, and it happens that it’s both sides of my brain that I like to work. It’s a great way to detox one from the other. So it’s like when you’ve just been editing too much, write some fiction.
In your Believer essay, you argue for snark-free criticism. In your novels, though, your characters tend to be extremely sharp, almost caustic. What gives with that?
The essay argued that there’s definitely space for very, very severe, harsh criticism, so long as it isn’t sarcastic or in some way disdainful of the book or the author. I guess I also didn’t want to abolish sarcasm from the face of the earth, you know? I think it has many apt applications, and has a definite place in my heart, certainly. And, I think, what better place to be able to exercise your cool side than between two fictional characters? It means I’m nicer to my friends as a result.
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.