Blurring the Boundary, an interview with Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock

The breadth of Heidi Julavits’s career is sometimes hard to believe. Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer, an associate professor at Columbia University, a recipient of the PEN/New England Fiction Award and a former Guggenheim Fellow. From experimental fiction to influential essays to meditations on personal style, she seems comfortable in almost any terrain. In fact, part of the great pleasure in reading Julavits’s work is in seeing her land in new territory and make it her own.

We know Heidi Julavits as many things: novelist, essayist, sartorialist, experimentalist. With the publication of her latest book, we can now add that she is a diarist. The Folded Clock consists of diary-style entries, each beginning with the same constraint: ‘Today, I…’ True to diary form, the entries are records of daily events, but they are also meditations on loss, on memory and forgetting, on the passage of time. The Folded Clock is evidence of Julavits at her finest — an incisive and penetrating thinker, as exacting as she is forgiving in her observations about the self and the world.

I met with Julavits last month at Two Hands Café, an Australian-owned sandwich shop on Mott Street. We sat near the door, by a group of young women wearing unseasonable crop tops. Over coffee, we talked about plot traps, unideal readers, good and bad reviews, and that nebulous boundary between the social self and the written one.

Elysha Chang: Let’s start by talking about the impetus behind the new book. What made you start writing The Folded Clock?

Heidi Julavits: I’d recently been misdiagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease, and even though what I actually had was treatable, I was still in a great deal of pain. I became very aware of when I was ‘being myself’ and when I was not being myself, physically and emotionally. I don’t want to get too deep or morbid, but I suddenly became aware of my body as an unreliable container. There’s always a great distance between the internal and the external selves, but this distance, when I was in pain, seemed scarily unbridgeable.

EC: This is a common thread in your fiction too, isn’t it? A lot of The Vanishers is spent parsing out what it means for a person to be ill and what it means to lose control of the body you live in.

HJ: This happened maybe about two months after The Vanishers was published. I felt like I had brought a fictional story to life in my own body. I’m not kidding! After I recovered, I wanted to make a record of myself before my body malfunctioned again. But I also wanted to step away from the plot traps I had been falling into with my novels.

EC: That’s interesting. Your novels are certainly known to have intricate plots. That was something you felt trapped by?

HJ: I just wanted to figure out a new way to move through a story space or a different way to understand how a story hangs together. I had repeatedly tried to outwit myself, but I kept returning to the same patterns. I’d be thinking of a story and suddenly find myself in the midst of an intricate plot about plastic surgery and performance artists impersonating dead people. I felt almost incapable of not doing it. It was like I had this one big muscly bicep and then this other really weak one, and I just needed to even things out somehow.

EC: I love the idea of changing up your style and making up new challenges for yourself as a writer.

HJ: Just before I started writing this book, I went to see my friend, Kristen Beinner James, who is an artist in LA. She took me to her studio and talked me through her recent discoveries, which went something like, ‘Oh, here I was really interested in pushing paint through the canvas and out the other side. And what emerged, when it dried, looked sculptural to me, so then I made a ceramic replica of the shapes.’ I was so struck by the fact that she would start working without any preconceived notion of what it was she was ultimately trying to create. Never in my life have I started a book without deciding ahead of time what it would be.

EC: As in planning and outlining?

HJ: I more mean, as a writer you usually decide the final form before you’ve written a single word. This is going to be a short story, this is going to be a novel, this is going to be an essay. After visiting my friend’s studio, that mindset suddenly seemed so limiting. I was cutting myself off from all sorts of accidental discoveries along the way. I was limiting my opportunities for play. To that end, I wanted to return to a formulation I’d used as a child. I’d kept a diary every day and each entry started with ‘Today I.’

EC: Did you find it difficult to get back to that childlike, diary style?

HJ: Actually it was totally freeing. Which sounds counterintuitive, because you would think using your imagination would be way more liberating. But there was something about ‘Today I’ that provided an instant mainline into something bigger. I felt like I could have fun but also exercise a lot of control. I didn’t even realize I was writing a book.

EC: When did you realize you had a book on your hands?

HJ: There was never one instant of realization. Normally, I have a first draft, then a second, then a third, and then I want Ben [Marcus], my husband, to read it. But in this case, it just kind of accrued until it was done.

EC: And you usually show him much earlier.

HJ: Oftentimes I really need his help. He is such an incredible reader. I’m very conscious of saving him for exactly the right point in a project — be it a book review or a novel — when I know I’ve done everything that I can possibly do.

In the case of The Folded Clock though, I didn’t need help in the same structural sense since there’s no plot. Really, I just needed lots of outside eyes because I wanted to make sure no one’s feelings were hurt. I wrote about my family and about my friends, so I asked a lot of people to read it before it was published. I wanted them to feel comfortable telling me if certain parts were off-limits, so that I could change or remove them.

EC: I did wonder about that — how detailed the book is in its description of other people. Was anyone offended by what you had written about them? Did anyone ask you to take anything out?

HJ: I obscured any clues I thought would point to a specific person, so sometimes the blast radius of fictionalization would have to extend pretty far.

EC: Oh? But you still consider this book a work of non-fiction.

HJ: Yes. To me, this book does not count as a novel because the impulse to write it was non-fictional. By which I mean I do not think this was an exercise of my imagination in any way. I certainly had to be creative about thinking through situations. But that is different to me than using my imagination. Because when I use my imagination that’s when I start tripping those plot wires I was trying to avoid. You know, people getting plastic surgery to look like dead people, et cetera.

EC: The idea of many or competing selves is something that comes up a lot in your fiction, and The Folded Clock seems to give you a way to talk about this more directly — how many selves a person can have, how to present certain ones and hide others. Can we talk about that?

HJ: I taught a class last semester called Exercises in Style, and we ended up discussing styles of personal presentation; you appear in the world a certain way, and you invite certain interpretations based on that appearance.

EC: Your collaboration with Leanne Shapton and Sheila Heti, Women in Clothes, certainly touches on this.

HJ: Right! And then add to that social presentation. As in, how do you present yourself in person, and when do you present yourself in this way vs. in that way? In what realm of your life are you serious? And in what realm are you jokey, self-deprecating?

It’s interesting because, for writers, all of these typically more clearly separate ‘realms’ often mix together. Social, professional, personal. We don’t have work clothes and weekend clothes.

EC: Do you try to separate the two? If anything, it seems like The Folded Clock does quite the opposite. I can’t imagine more of a melding of professional and personal life than publishing a diary!

HJ: I’ve realized that in some ways I do. But if I were to name my social style, it’s probably that I tend to be extremely accommodating and conflict-averse. That said, there is something about being in my forties that makes me just not care so much anymore.

EC: Care about avoiding conflict?

HJ: There was a time when I would have done anything to avoid conflict. I just have a deep psychological distaste for confrontation. It has always made me uncomfortable; it has always stressed me out. But maybe I’m realizing I’m not as conflict-averse as I thought; I just approach conflict in a different way.

EC: How so?

HJ: Maybe this is a way to talk about it: Someone wanted me to sign an online petition last summer, and when I didn’t, she wrote to me and said, ‘You are the least political person I know.’

It offended me (which I told her), because I feel like I speak out when I think a certain system needs to be addressed or fixed. I wrote about book reviews when I thought that system was failing writers and publishers. And readers! I recently wrote a piece in Harper’s about the way the medical establishment diagnoses and treats patients; I have written about women’s issues in every book that I’ve published.

EC: Seems like that person was thinking of politics in a very particular way.

HJ: For me, all of these things feel political, even when there’s no petition-signing involved. It just so happens that the zone where I feel most comfortable behaving in a political or confrontational manner is on the page. I want to be able to do research and think about something for a long time and then present what I have found and what I have come to believe or wonder as a result.

So in that sense maybe it’s wrong to classify myself as non-confrontational or conflict-avoiding. Socially, yes. But, in general, no.

EC: Maybe that is the divide between the writer’s ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ self. As in, what’s going on socially versus what’s happening on the page.

HJ: I guess maybe the inverse is worse, right? The person who thinks he’s avoiding conflict and being nice, but people are still afraid of him? I feel like that’s the topic of every other children’s book. The big scary monster comes to town and wants to make friends, but everyone runs away from him. And all he wants to do is give people hugs!

EC: There’s no winning!

HJ: Exactly. And this maybe gets even further into what interests me about having any kind of social style or control over how you present yourself socially. How much control do you really need or actually want? It could, in the worst estimation, end up feeling so calculated. There’s a point at which it is no longer organic and just becomes a premeditated attempt to be perceived as something. But maybe, too, that’s the place where the self becomes most intriguing, and inside-outside. That’s where it starts to blur that boundary between a social self and a written self.

EC: How does this play into how you feel about reviews, or how critics perceive you and your work? What’s your approach when it comes to reading (or not reading) them?

HJ: I don’t have a firm policy. I published my first book in 2000, and it need not be said that review culture has changed wildly since then. I actually think it’s pretty great right now. There are lots of online publications that give in-depth attention and serious critical space to people’s work.

Back to your question: I do want to respond to and learn from valid criticisms of my work. Of course, validity is subjective. But when I wrote that we needed better reviews and a better review culture in 2003, I think I was dreaming of a review like the one Sarah Kerr wrote of my novel Uses of Enchantment in the NYRB. She essentially surveyed my career and read Uses of Enchantment and concluded at the end that she felt I had it in me to do better. It wasn’t ‘you failed;’ it was more like, ‘I have faith that you can do more than what you’re currently doing.’ That, to me, was a really honest, frank and respectful review. I took it as a very real challenge.

So I will say that reading certain reviews has helped me conceive of what I want my next project to be, and gives me a sense of what I’ve already done and maybe what I don’t want to retread. A review doesn’t have to be positive or even constructive to be useful or enlightening.

EC: Why? What’s the worst review you’ve gotten and still learned from?

HJ: Janet Maslin wrote such a negative review of my third novel in the New York Times that people came to my reading the next night saying, ‘I read that review and I thought I should come out and support you.’ They were coming because they felt so bad for me!

EC: It was really that scathing?

HJ: I mean, she just really didn’t like it. My novel had a very ambiguous ending, and I think she made it clear she didn’t like those types of endings. In a lot of ways, I didn’t disagree with what she had to say. I love ambiguous endings, but at that point I had already done so many that I was starting to get tired of them myself.

Certain reviews bring up issues you’ve already been grappling with but that you haven’t been able to pinpoint or that you just haven’t wanted to admit. It can be the last little nudge that you need in order to change.

EC: Do you ever consider the possibility that she just didn’t ‘get’ you?

HJ: Sure, Maslin was not my ideal reader, but I also believe there is a lot to be learned from your least ideal reader. It’s sort of like when someone is so politically right that they’re politically left again. Someone can be so un-ideal as a reader of your work that they actually are your ideal reader, you know?

Part of being a writer and getting critical feedback is learning how to translate it. It’s not about deciding who ‘gets’ you and who ‘doesn’t get’ you. It’s not about deciding who you should or shouldn’t listen to. Often your least ideal reader can see things in your project that someone who ‘understands’ your project can’t see.

EC: This is very scholarly of you in a way. The idea that you can repurpose anything to make it into something you can learn from.

HJ: Well, it is definitely something I stress a lot when I teach: the practice of listening to everything and figuring out how it can be useful to you. You won’t always get your ideal reader or a list of actionable instructions, but any feedback can inform the next project if you’re translating it to meet what you need.

EC: That’s a generous way of looking at the world.

HJ: Ultimately, it’s just more productive. It prevents calcification, and it’s a reminder that your ideas about your work should be constantly reinvestigated, or turned over, or rejected even. Also, I think it can give you a kind of focus. When you keep yourself open, you can get to this place where suddenly everything that’s happening feels useful to your work. Like it’s centrifugally connected and spinning toward the same goal. And that’s an amazing place to be. Where you can think: oh yeah, my daily life is actually very useful and applicable. It makes you feel very whole.

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