In The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits uses the framework of a paranormal mystery novel to examine the psychological intersections between illness, grief and the unbridgeable distances between mothers and daughters. Her protagonist, Julia Severn, is a gifted young psychic studying at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology under the tutelage of her mentor, and soon to be adversary, Madame Ackermann. When Severn comes down with a mysterious and debilitating illness, later discovered to be the result of a psychic attack, she is forced to leave the Institute. Soon thereafter, she is swept up in an astral detective saga, chosen by an enigmatic Institute dropout, and a rare film scholar to engage in a psychic exploration of the life and unexplained disappearance of French performance artist and provocateur Dominique Varga. Julavits is the author of three previous novels and a co-founding editor of The Believer Magazine. She recently took the time to discuss her work with Bookforum, in a conversation that touched on the useful limitation of genre conventions, the psychic experiences of reading and writing and a Betty Ford clinic for people with plot problems.
Bookforum: There’s a really interesting balance between the fantastical and the realist elements of The Vanishers. Do you find genre distinctions useful or do you feel that they place limitations on writers?
Heidi Julavits: For me, they place very useful limitations, and working with them has really become my goal as a writer. I’ve realized that when I don’t have the right limitations, I just can’t pull off the focus, the narrative tension, or the emotional tension that I need. For every novel that I’ve published, I’ve written four novels—I call them prequels— and they were essentially attempts to get at this kind of productive limitation. Through writing them, I learned that the territory I’d carved out for myself was just too vast, and I needed to throw up some corrals. With The Vanishers, this particular genre mix seemed to work very nicely. It really was my ambition to write a book that was more emotionally resonant and wasn’t relying as much on wit and humor. Part of my strategy to force myself to concentrate on that literary space was adopting a sort of fantastical conceit — psychics and psychic attacks — that, if not treated with a certain emotional gravitas, and if not grounded in many “familiar, realist” trappings, would just seem purely ridiculous. So there was a crucial balancing between these two polarized forces that forced my imagination to work in a more streamlined fashion.
BF: The realm of psychic phenomena also seems particularly well suited to exploring some of your more realist concerns, such as the toxic effect of certain relationships.
HJ: Yes, that’s why psychic attacks interest me so much. I guess this can be seen as an extension of something I was working on in my last book, but in a less fantastical manner—the way that the relationships you have with your parents can be seen as attacks on your identity, attacks on your individuality. And obviously, even in the most healthy parent-child circumstances, there’s a phase of individuation and a severing of bonds. Then there are examples of less healthy situations where separation is more difficult, or more fraught. In my last book, there was a woman who had a very fraught relationship with her living mother, and was examining this through talk therapy. To me, therapy seemed like a fun literalization of the woman’s relationship to her mother.
BF: As I read The Vanishers, I was struck by the parallel between the psychic regression and the immersive, empathetic experiences of reading and writing.
HJ: Yes, there’s so much there. That’s such a smart read on it, which I had never really thought of until a couple of people brought it up.
BF: I wondered if you were trying to draw those connections for your readers.
HJ: You know, obviously there was something in me that was having a little fun with the connection between writing and this psychic activity. For example, I called the institute where Julia, the main character, is studying, “the Workshop”, and the most famous creative writing program in the country, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is also called “the Workshop.” And at a certain point I also mention that Madame Ackermann, the antagonist of the book, is unable to psychically regress. The main character, the narrator, also says she’s blocked, right? So I think I was playing around with that association on some level.
BF: One of the primary concerns of your work seems to be communication— between mothers and daughters, therapists and patients, and women in general—and I think this really comes out in your scenes where what isn’t being communicated is often as important as what is.
HJ: I think that is why I end up writing so much about women, because their form of communication is much more coded. Not being a man, I can’t speak for male to male communication, and maybe it’s equally coded, but in my experience, the interactions I have with women are so much more layered, unspoken, interestingly complicated, and in a weird way, they require more psychic abilities to suss out the full message. That’s not to say that women can’t say what they mean, or that they’re not articulate, or that in some way they’re afraid of expressing themselves, only that coded communication seems to be something that comes very naturally somehow, and it becomes a puzzle to solve. As a fiction writer, I find that much more unexpected and difficult and interesting to explore.
BF: The plot of The Vanishers is full of twists and turns, and at times reads like a mystery or detective story. Are you the kind of writer who plans things out ahead of time, or does everything occur to you through the act of writing?
HJ: No, I don’t plan anything out, though maybe I want to become that kind of writer. This novel posed so many challenges because I hadn’t planned or mapped anything out, I really just discovered the plot as I went along. And it was a real rewriting nightmare. But it’s possible that this was necessary to get down to the emotional layers I wanted to reach. I think that rewriting is not just about sealing up a plot but also about digging down to deeper psychological territory. But I love plot to a fault. I have a total plot addiction and I was joking to somebody that I was should go a Betty Ford clinic for people with plot problems. I really, really want to try to write a novel that is not as reliant on plot. Interestingly, when I came up with the idea for my next novel, I had been thinking about how to apply certain limitations so that I couldn’t make it plot driven. But I already feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of loopholes I can slip through in order to write another big plot book.
BF: You wrote an essay for The Believer in 2003 titled “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard” about the state of book culture and the need for a new era of ambition and experimentation. How would you assess the years that have passed since you wrote that essay?
HJ: Wow, I just wrote a piece about this for The New Statesmen in London. You know, reading that essay now, it feels outdated not because book reviewing has changed—although obviously it has—but because the mediums have changed. Some of the problems that I was indicating back then were, in large part, issues of available real estate. There were fewer venues in which to publish, not even criticism, but just book reviews. And these spaces did not permit people to write critically in a way that allowed them to link books to other aspects of culture, so books were seeming much more isolated and irrelevant, and disconnected from other parts of culture. There was a period when newspapers were going out of business and arts sections were shrinking and book review sections were being cut or canceled altogether. But then there was this response in the online world, and now there are all of these fantastic places like The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Awl where very lengthy, substantive criticism can exist. And on the web, there are no real estate limitations, there’s only the limitation of human attention.