Heidi Julavits Biography
Born in 1968, in Portland, ME; daughter of an attorney and a teacher; married Manny Howard (a food writer), 1997 (divorced, 1999); married Ben Marcus (a writer and editor), 2002. Education: Earned degree from Dartmouth College, 1990; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1996.
Addresses: Agent —Henry Dunow Literary Agency, 22 W. 23rd St., 5th Flr., New York, NY 10010. Home —Brooklyn, NY, and Brooklin, ME.
Worked as copywriter for Esprit, San Francisco, CA, early 1990s, and as a waitress at Alison on Domenick, New York City, late 1990s; first short story published in Esquire magazine, 1998; secured two-book deal with Putnam, 1998; published first novel, The Mineral Palace , 2000; editor, The Believer (literary journal), 2003–; freelance journalist for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar , and the New York Times Magazine .
Author Heidi Julavits made her fiction debut in 2000 with The Mineral Palace , but had already gained some fame in literary circles for the half-million-dollar advance she received for it and a second novel. The same year that her follow-up, The Effect of Living Backwards , appeared, Julavits found herself in the midst of another minor tempest related to an essay she penned for a new literary journal she was editing, in which she confronted what she called a "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt" found in reviews of contemporary fiction. "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," Julavits explained to Phoenix writer Nina MacLaughlin. "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."
Born in 1968, Julavits grew up in the Portland, Maine, area. Her mother was an English teacher, and her father an attorney. After graduating from Deering High School, she went on to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1990. She headed to Japan afterward, spending four months there before traveling around Asia. Back in the States, she settled in San Francisco and found a job as a copywriter for Esprit, the clothing company. She returned to the East Coast to enroll in the graduate writing program at Columbia University, which she finished in 1996.
Julavits spent the next few years participating in writers' workshops to perfect her prose, and waited tables at a Manhattan restaurant called Alison on Dominick. Friends from the Columbia writing program introduced her to Dave Eggers, who was then an editor-at-large at Esquire magazine but would soon win literary acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius . Eggers acquired Julavits' short story, "Marry the One Who Gets There First," a comic account of a rivalry between two sisters that reaches a crescendo as one is about to be married at an Idaho resort. The story appeared in the April 1998 issue of Esquire and generated a great deal of buzz, which led to an offer from G. P. Putnam's Sons, the publishing house. With the help of a literary agent, Julavits sold a novel and the rights to a second one to Putnam for $500,000, which earned the newcomer her fair share of notoriety in literary circles for the largesse of the contract. Julavits later recalled the publicity surrounding her half-million-dollar advance as "definitely uncomfortable," she told Joe Hagan in the New York Observer . "But now, people get that all the time. I was at the beginning of a trend."
Julavits's debut novel, The Mineral Palace , was published in 2000. Its story centers around a young bride in the 1930s, Bena Jonssen, who moves to Pueblo, Colorado, with her physician-husband, and Julavits based some of the tale on her own grandmother's real-life experience. "My grandmother found the good in everything except Pueblo," Julavits revealed to Interview magazine's Diane Baroni. "She told me she cried every day she lived there." Worried about her listless new baby and haunted by a chance roadside encounter with a woman that Bena believes to be the female half of notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, the unhappy young wife channels her energies into restoring a long-shuttered tourist attraction in Pueblo, the Mineral Palace, that dated back to the town's mining heyday 50 years earlier.
The Mineral Palace earned mixed reviews from critics. Newsweek 's Jeff Giles deemed it a "marvelous debut" as "harrowing, poetic, and tragic enough to satisfy both Faulkner and Oprah." Giles went on to term Julavits "such a gifted, visceral writer … that even her most painful visions can be beautiful to behold." In the New York Times , however, reviewer Anita Gates found fault with Julavits's prose and some of the characterizations, but concluded that "the best parts of the novel maintain a seductive mood. When Bena observes strangers eating and drinking while pretending 'there weren't holes in their world big enough to drive a car through,' it's clear what Julavits can do when she puts her mind to it."
Julavits quickly learned to refrain from reading any critical assessments of her work at all. "I would read a review with the tiniest little criticisms in it, and I would be completely under the table for three days," she told Hagan in the New York Observer interview. "In the end, since I'm not able to sort out the good and the bad, and I just focus on the bad, it's better just not to read them at all." For most novelists whose debut achieves modest but solid sales and some terrific reviews in the mainstream press, getting back to work and crafting a follow-up often proves a challenge, but in Julavits' case the publication of her second novel was delayed by a real-life catastrophe of epic proportion: She had completed the story of two sisters trapped on a hijacked plane just weeks before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. She had to rewrite some sections of it, and decided to set it in the near-distant future in which characters make oblique reference to an earlier hijacking.
The Effect of Living Backwards appeared finally in 2003, and marked a sharp turn in tone from The Mineral Palace . It was a return to the black humor evident in her stellar Esquire debut, and also featured a pair of sisters on the eve of one's wedding. Alice and Edith are on a flight that will take them to the latter's wedding in Morocco to a wealthy Spanish man. As their hostage situation drags on, they cajole their fellow passengers into passing the time playing Alice and Edith's favorite childhood "game," which involves telling what they call "shame stories." The plot takes occasional detours into an entirely different story, set at the International Institute for Terrorist Studies in Switzerland, whose rival factions may or may not be staging the event that is delaying Alice and Edith. Critiquing it for the New York Times , Taylor Antrim called Julavits' second novel "far livelier" than her debut, and lauded its prose, calling its creator "a writer of unrelenting creative detail. Alice recognizes one character by his scent: 'Olde Bay Lyme aftershave with a hint of metabolized whiskey and a dash of llama.'"
Though her career as a novelist was firmly underway, Julavits still turned in the occasional article for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar , and the New York Times . Confidential details about her admirably cautious spending habits, however, were revealed in an article her ex-husband wrote for the New York Times in the fall of 2000, about a year after their divorce. In it, former magazine editor and food writer Manny Howard, whom she had married in 1997, confessed that he had siphoned $6,000 out of their joint savings account during the time when she was still waiting tables and working on her first novel. He finally told her about it—but Julavits had been keeping an eye on the account and watched it dwindle without asking him about it. "During a session with the second of our two marriage counselors, my wife stated, quite matter-of-factly, that she would have preferred that I had slept with another woman than taken that money from our savings account," Howard wrote. "Infidelity, she said, she could get over. She described my actions as 'stealing' that day and would many times after."
Julavits married another author, Ben Marcus, in the summer of 2002, who was part of a burgeoning new American literary scene centered around Eggers, his wife Vendela Vida, and several other up-and-comers in their early 30s. Eggers financed the literary journal that Julavits and Marcus founded in 2003, The Believer . Its inaugural issue featured Julavits' 10,000-essay "Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!" which caused a stir in book-publishing and media circles for its attack on reviewers of modern fiction and what she saw as literary preening; she also used the word "snark" to characterize the negativity of some. "I don't know what many critics believe when it comes to literature," she wrote. "At worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit's sake—or, hostility for hostility's sake."
A slew of authors, critics, and assorted other individuals in the publishing world all weighed in on Julavits' essay, and there were a few counterattacks. In the New York Observer article, Hagan brought up the fact that one of the critics whose opinions she had singled out in the essay as egregiously snarky had been the best man at her first wedding. "Sam [Sifton] is someone whom I really, really, really like," Julavits responded. "I guess it's that I read that review, and I was just so upset the whole time I was reading it—and then when I saw who wrote it, it was devastating, because I respect him immensely."
Julavits and her husband, while still editing The Believer , began spending more time in her home state, Maine. Her third novel, The Uses of Enchantment , was published in 2006, and again won mixed assessments from critics. The story centers on Mary Veal, a young woman who disappears for several days from her Massachusetts boarding school one day in 1985. Mary's fascination, however, with the disappearance of another Semmering Academy student a dozen years earlier, who had been abducted and assaulted, seems to trouble the two therapists who are helping unravel what really happened. A Publishers Weekly contributor asserted that "Julavits sometimes lets an overheated style distract from her central story," but "the mystery … will enthrall the reader to the very last page." Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review, also found some flaws, but concluded that "the taunting doctor-patient interactions are the best parts of the book, filled as they are with role reversals, power plays, and the young patient's extraordinary, narcissistic imagination."
Julavits claims she is still somewhat surprised by her first novel, The Mineral Palace , and its serious tone—so different from her later works tinged with a characteristic black humor. "Even now, I sit down and read that book and I wonder, Who wrote this? And Whose idea was it to write this? " she told Dave Weich in an interview that appeared on the Powell's Books website. "I love a book that's flat-out brutal and depressing, but I don't know that I want to be known as a person who writes those books." Evidence of her sly humor are a hallmark of the food articles she occasionally turns in for the New York Times Magazine . In one, published in the summer of 2006, she wrote disdainfully of the Maine lobsters summer visitors to her household expect to be served, and recounted a less messy method of preparing them for dinner. Maine natives, she also noted, are conflicted about the crustaceans as well, and likened this ambivalence to the state's longtime license-plate slogan, "Vacationland." The manufactured catchphrase tag "seemed a preposterous joke to the native dweller (me) enduring the ten-month winters. I can only imagine how it was bitterly bandied about by the actual summertime vacationers who spent two foggy weeks boning up on their cribbage skills by a fire."
Selected writingsThe Mineral Palace , G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York City), 2000.
The Effect of Living Backwards , Putnam, 2003.
The Uses of Enchantment , Doubleday (New York City), 2006.
Interview , September 2000, p. 132.
Newsweek , September 18, 2000, p. 82.
New York Observer , May 12, 2003, p. 1.
New York Times , September 24, 2000; June 22, 2003; November 6, 2006.
New York Times Magazine , October 15, 2000; July 2, 2006.
Phoenix , November 15, 2006.
Publishers Weekly , July 10, 2006, p. 49.
"Believe! Heidi Julavits Has Emerged from Her Tennis-Ball Canister!" Powells, http://www.powells.com/authors/julavits.html (April 16, 2007).
"Rejoice! Believe! Be strong and read hard!" The Believer, http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=article_julavits (April 16, 2007).
Photographs by Nathan Eldridge
Writer, editor, mother, Mainer
Discussed: Brooklin, New York, boatbuilding, fog, neighbors, The Uses of Enchantment, and getting lost.
Heidi Julavits grew up in Portland and has written three novels, The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Uses of Enchantment. She also edits The Believer, teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan, and writes for Esquire, The New York Times, and Men’s Journal.
During the summer, she lives and writes in Brooklin with her husband, Ben Marcus, and their two children, Delia and Solomon. This year, she finished writing her yet unnamed fourth novel. When she works in Maine, she works in a cabin on her property, just down the road from where the preeminent literary Mainers E.B. White and Katherine Sergeant White once lived and farmed. The Blue Hill Peninsula still serves as a creative haven for big-city writers, and Julavits regularly shares Sunday dinners with authors Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem.
While the characters in her novels are sometimes unlikable, Julavits is smart, funny, and agreeable. And her slightly nervous laughter is infectious.
Maine: What are you working on now? The last I had read you had traveled to Budapest and were working on something about psychic self-defense.
Heidi Julavits: That’s what I’m still working on. When I was in Budapest, I was actually researching a short story for McSweeney’s, where all the writers were told to pick a place and write about it in 2024.
M: Does coming back to Brooklin help you focus?
HJ: I have written, I think, 130 pages in five weeks—essentially a third of my book. In New York, I build up all this creative pressure so that when I get here—because I haven’t had a chance to tap into it there or to utilize it there—it’s sort of a creative cascade. I just work like crazy. There are no interruptions. All those things that I cared about so deeply when I was in New York, or the things that would keep me up at night, I don’t care at all.
M: It seems like editing The Believer and writing nonfiction pieces might be like a fiction-detox period for you. Also, a lot of that work seems to be about Maine.
HJ: I don’t like to travel when I get up here. I was given a story to go to Iceland. I said, “You know, I don’t want to go to Iceland.” When I’m up here, I’m up here. I’m very protective of this time. Subsequently, I have been trying to fulfill my magazine quota by trolling around here, looking for local subjects. I have a piece coming out in Men’s Journal this month about the Wooden Boat School, which is right in my town. I sat in on a beginner’s class last summer. I was sort of dumbfounded watching all these guys trying to wrap their heads around this stuff, but I only have to know enough about it to explain it in a magazine article. [Laughs.]
M: So you’re not building a boat in your backyard?
HJ: No, no. [Laughs.] But up here, it’s hard not to. A lot of people…We will say, “I wish we just had a dingy.” And they’ll say, “Well, build it.”
M: You grew up here and you’re writing about Maine. Do you think people will say, “Oh, Heidi Julavits, she’s a Maine writer”?
HJ: I’ve never written about Maine in my fiction. My novels don’t take place here. No short story has ever taken place here and that’s on purpose. I love Maine, and I love writing about Maine, but only in the nonfiction context. I feel like my imagination works best for things that I don’t know that well. Obviously, there are writers who are very geographically identified. Their fiction comes from a very specific geographic place that they’re familiar with and that’s what gets them going. But for me, if I can feel like a tourist in a place, that makes me write fiction about it. Who knows? Maybe some day I’ll write a book about Maine.
M: The essay [“Maine”] that you wrote for State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America describes the state of Maine as a place where people eat lobster like bologna, drink coffee brandy, and stand around in the rain with their cats. Do you get a lot of fan mail or response
HJ: I haven’t. When my husband and I are up here, we tend to not really be writers. That’s what we do all day long, but we don’t really go around broadcasting our writer status. We don’t really talk about what we’re working on. Not because we’re secretive, but because it’s really boring. My neighbor, for example, features prominently in my Maine essay, and I’ve never told him I wrote about him. Maybe he saw it, maybe he didn’t. I have no idea.
M: Your last book used the title of Bruno Bettelheim’s book [The Uses of Enchantment], which is about interpreting fairy tales. What stories do you tell your kids?
HJ: We obviously have the whole Robert McCloskey series in our house. We also live quite near to Buck’s Harbor, which is where One Morning in Maine takes place. Otherwise, I get to tell a lot of stories from my own Maine childhood to my kids. Lots of near-death sailing experiences, stuff like that. Or, when they get kind of crabby on some long stretch of fog, we’ll imagine: “Imagine if it was just the four of us, stuck in the fog for ten days on a 30-foot boat. Now, doesn’t it seem better that we’re just stuck in the fog in a house for ten days?” [Laughs.] I’ve also been making a children’s/young adult literature collection based on all the books you can find at yard sales around here—Madeleine L’Engle books and Lost on a Mountain in Maine. There’s nothing better than that story, you know, where a little kid gets
lost in the woods.
M: So, do you feel like you’re getting lost in Maine?
HJ: I do. And it’s a good kind of lost. The best kind of lost.
– Edited and transcribed by Peter A. Smith