Heidi Julavits at The Center for Fiction

1. John Wray interviews Heidi Julavits. Julavits won’t play poker with him anymore, 1) because he lives in Brooklyn, 2) because she’s sick of all the Bob Dylan worship going on. 2. Columbia MFA student Marlon Frisby gets his book signed. His idea for another constraint for Julavits’ next book: sports. (Julavits played rugby in college, so she’s game).

Have you seen the book trailer for Heidi Julavits’ new novel, The Vanishers? It makes me want to take a shower, in a good way.

Which is strange, because as John Wray put it in his interview with Julavits, a founding editor of The Believer, at The Center for Fiction last night, there’s no “actual sex” in her latest novel. (Julavits’ mother-in-law wrote her the “weirdest e-mail,” which said the novel was “the most sexless thing she’s ever read” — which made Julavits feel sort of like a prude.) That’s not to say there isn’t sexual tension in The Vanishers; in fact, every character seems sexualized. Julavits said she’s interested in un-acted upon sexual tension, the way this appears in the confusing way women interact with each other (“Do I want to fuck her or be her?”) — female characters who have a sexual desire for someone else’s being.

1. Chris (with Garland and Matthew) says it’s amazing to have a personal conversation with Heidi, and it’s just as good to listen to a public conversation, because even in public she has absolutely no filter, and says the most amazing things. 2. Rebecca, Cynthia, Claudette with Stephanie, who had Julavits for her thesis workshop when she was at Columbia’s MFA program. “She’s an amazing editor, and I learned a lot from her.”

The Vanishers is about Julia Severn, a student at a school for psychics — dubbed ‘the workshop’ by those on the inside — who is tormented by her legendary psychic mentor, Madame Ackermann. There are PSYCHIC ATTACKS, which Julavits explains is a psychic ability to make some one else sick using your mind, duh. But if you needed another reason to go and read it, Wray says that it’s a page turner.

“I reread the books that kept me up all night,” Julavits said. “You may not want to be writing like the books you read when you were young, but I’m trying to replicate the reading experience. I’m not mimicking the style or the genre, just the reading sauce and the experience sauce and how you spread it all over.”

1. Julavits’ well-dressed former stenographer (TA) — James McGirk. 2. Hope Ewing, also from Columbia’s MFA program, made an origami swan out of the program. “It’s interesting that her book is all about mentors and mentees, since I’m pretty sure everyone in her workshops has a personhood crush on her.” 3. The origami-Vanishers-swan!

The Vanishers, Wray agrees, is the most structured of Julavits’ novels. She says it’s a struggle because she loves plot and narrative, but is suspicious of it in traditional forms. She wants to dismantle them, and one of the ways she does it here is with Julia — a psychic who can regress herself into other people’s pasts. “It’s not a flashback,” says Julavits, for whom flashbacks are persona non grata (if that can be a thing and not a person), but a type of constraint on her while she’s writing, which is just the type of container Julavits likes to get herself into. (Julavits’ second novel, The Effect of Living Backwards, takes place entirely on a hijacked plane).

1. I want to wallpaper my apartment with the cover of The Vanishers. 2. Rivka Galchen (Atmospheric Disturbances), with BFF David Gordon (The Serialist), who are hijacking my idea for a literary blog based only on what people are wearing at literary readings. Check out Rivka’s outfit! So Women’s Wear Daily. Love those shoes.

There are no men in the book, which Wray said he didn’t notice while he was reading, and Julavits said she didn’t notice when she was writing it. But the novel does call up themes of capital-F Feminism. She likens it to the conversation “Philip Roth” has with “Philip Roth” in Operation Shylock regarding Zionism. What is feminism? Is there such a thing as passive resistance in feminism? The physic attacks in The Vanishers could be seen as a product of the female-ness of the characters, (as suggested by Atmospheric Disturbances author Rivka Glachen during audience-query-time); if the protagonist was a man, would he more publicly and aggressively try to take down his mentor? Maybe, but Julavits explains that the attacks are crueler in that they’re secretly, anonymously done — so perhaps it’s a type of middle ground.

By the end of the interview, the only thing that was clear to Julavits is that she needed some new self-imposed writing-constraints for her next novel: a plot-less, all male, erotic novel with lots of “actual” sex. Looking forward to it!

The Vanishers

by Heidi Julavits



–Emily Firetog is working towards an MFA in fiction at Columbia.

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