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Summer/Fall 2001Volume II Issue III


portal to our archives

from the editors

News & Notes

who we are & how to submit


Heidi Julavits has published short stories in Esquire (included in The Best American Short Stories 1999), Story, Zoetrope, McSweeny's, and was selected by the Voice Literary Supplement as a 1999 Writer-on-the-Verge. 

Her debut novel,

The Mineral Palace was published in 2000 to rave reviews. 

"One Mother's Blunder" is an excerpt from her forthcoming second novel, Pitcairn's Mistake




Newsweek called Julavits' first book, "a marvelous debut novel: harrowing, poetic and tragic enough to satisfy both Faulkner and Oprah."

Esquire described it as, "A beautiful, sinister novel."

"Heidi Julavits is a remarkable writer." says author, Amy Tan. "The Mineral Palace is a mesmerizing first novel and a spectacular display of her talents, her sensibilities on love and danger, and her utterly fascinating and singular voice."










































































If you didn't know this already, feature interviews with some of today's best writers, is a . . . main feature of failbetter

 Check out our earlier interviews with: 

Ben Marcus

Interview with Ben Marcus

in our Spring/Summer 2001 Issue.

Donald Antrim

Interview with Donald Antrim

in our Winter/Spring 2001 Issue.

 Michael Chabon

Interview with Michael Chabon

 in our Fall/Winter 2000 Issue

Interview II

with Heidi Julavits

Heidi Julavits began writing her much-acclaimed debut, The Mineral Palace, in 1996. In the years since, she went from finding an agent, to landing a contract, to seeing her book printed both in hardcover and paperback.  Now, finishing her second novel, Julavits is faced with the challenge of "living up" to her debut. We recently spoke with her about these and other matters concerning her writing, as well as her personal slant on the world of publishing.  

failbetter:  Let me see if we’ve got this right: you began writing The Mineral Palace in 1996, got an agent in 1997, got a publishing contract in 1998, saw the hardcover published to great acclaim in 2000, and now, a few months before 2002, the paperback has been released.  So… are you the least bit tired of talking about The Mineral Palace? Or, in spite of the lengthy process, do you get a rush at every new step in the publication process?

Julavits:  I worry about answering this question honestly because I’m fear I’ll appear to be drumming up pity for something utterly unpitiable, or that I’m trying to appear trendily self-lacerating to an arrogant degree however....that said, it would be absolutely, if disgracefully, true to admit that it has only been very recently that I’ve allowed myself to enjoy anything associated with The Mineral Palace. My unarticulated plan, I think, before publication, was to diminish the book’s importance so as to protect myself against the writerly inertia I’d seen effect so many friends in the disrupting midst of publication, reviews, etc. In the process of preventing my book from mattering too much to me, however, I managed to make its very existence feel like a grueling liability. I suspect I may have been fairly rude when people would try to compliment me or congratulate me, and instead of graciously accepting the compliment, I would wave a hand dismissively and make a Bell’s palsy face until they changed the subject. The idea was to render any criticisms, when they came, less painful; I succeeded only in failing or refusing to ingest any positive feedback, while obsessing over the few slights I received. It was all a deeply misguided emotional management strategy which I do not, ultimately recommend. The only good thing to come of it is that I did get a lot of work done last year. But I imagine many writers face publication with a healthy exuberance and still manage to do their work. Maybe next time I’ll be one of those writers.


failbetter:  There appears to be a lot of topics that are treated in an almost metaphorical manner—from the weather, to marriage, to motherhood, to even infanticide. What was your inspiration for these issues? Did the idea of infanticide simply arise within the creation of the book, or was it more a culminating idea that you maintained throughout the writing of the book?

Julavits:  I can’t locate the exact moment (in the conceptual stages) when I decided to introduce the topic of infanticide into The Mineral Palace, even though infanticide has been a prevailing moral and ethical preoccupation of mine for at least a decade. I began writing the novel with an interest in exploring a certain kind of companionable, arranged, early twentieth century American marriage, and it wasn’t until I was reading newspapers from the time period (1930s) in the Pueblo library that I realized the cultural and geographical milieu I had chosen seemed able to support this earlier preoccupation, which I still had not yet fully followed to its conclusion. My intellectual fascination with the topic stemmed from a comp lit thesis I wrote in college, which was, reductively speaking, an examination of "bad," poverty-stricken mothers from a fallen imperialist class living in colonized countries. These misbehaved mothers (in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; in Duras’s The Sea Wall) were not inferior caregivers without reason—they were responding to the pressures of their financial situation, their isolation, and the shameful thwarting of their social expectations (leading to what Rhys deemed "white nigger" status). This sense of human, economic and political failure, as well as the defeat of what is supposed to be a biologically-ensured diad—the mother/child bond—guided me toward an interest in even greater biological defeats by social circumstances. I found it remarkable given the spate of prom-going teenagers stashing newborns in bathroom wastebaskets that our papers didn’t have a constructive way to talk about these acts, save to demonize the girls who committed them. There was no mention of the pressures these girls were buckling beneath, and there was certainly no attempt to castigate the absent fathers for any demonic failure of their biology. It was this cultural need to believe that the maternal biological imperative is actually an imperative, rather than a choice, that made me want to dig a little deeper.


failbetter:  Obviously, given the sense of realism and attention to detail to the Pueblo dustbowl landscape, The Mineral Palace must have taken a significant amount of research on your part. All that hard work aside, we’re much more curious about the origins for Bena’s obsession with numbers. What were they? Do you, as a writer, have such obsessions or superstitions of your own?

Julavits:  I guess there are two ways to answer the numbers question, and over the past year I’ve alternately defaulted to both. One answer makes me appear to be mildly and harmlessly obsessive compulsive; the other answer highlights the tragedy of my prematurely snubbed, potentially great career in mathematics. I’ll try to blend the two. The reasons for the numbers in the book might be due to the fact that I was a heavy math kid—on the math team, in this special six-year-long math program in which we did Venn Diagrams and Logic in seventh grade and never really learned any of that stuff you needed to know for the SATs, which turned out to reflect a little badly on us. Anyhow. It was my conclusion, in ninth grade, that I didn’t want to be a math kid anymore. No doubt this decision was partially due to the cowardly fact that, as a math kid, I was bussed to school in the "special bus," which meant I disembarked with all the learning disabled and over-abled kids, with whom I was friends, but who, middle school being middle school, did little to enhance my overall adolescent desirability. I decided, in ninth grade, that I wasn’t going to be a math kid anymore because it seemed high time to choose a specialty among the things you liked to do and BECOME that species (book worm, math geek, jock, etc). So I refused math in lieu of books (and basketball), and this was possibly a shame because I really enjoyed math, but possibly not a shame because I enjoyed books far more. Which is not to say I am a novelist as a fashion statement, although you might have been cynically able to argue that point when I was thirteen. ANYHOW, this is a long way of saying that I guess I fixate on numbers in a sentimental fashion and have transposed them in a more literary, fatefully conclusive manner onto my own life and onto the stuff I write. I know this impulse is very misguided, and so I think I was trying to write, in The Mineral Palace specifically, about the way superstition can be a fancy thinking way to shirk responsibility. It’s actually AGAINST thinking, even though it appears associative and clever. I’ve pretty much kicked the habit myself, although I still find myself looking at the exact time on my computer screen when it shuts down each day and run some sums to assess if I’ve had a good day of writing or a bad day. This absolves you from the sort of ponderous self examination you tend to indulge in interviews like this, which can be nice.


failbetter:  You have identified your next work, Pitcairn's Mistake, as being much more of a comedy, quite a departure from the darkness of The Mineral Palace. One clear difference has been the setting: specifically, the new work takes place almost entirely within the confines of an airplane. With such a setting change, do you rely on your experience as a reader more than a writer to successfully introduce a large number of characters within a small confined setting? If so, whose works did you read to see how it has been done in the past? Has this been a difficult transition, or perhaps a creative relief with one novel under your belt? What new challenges have accompanied this book?

Julavits:  My idea for the setting of my new novel was inspired in some ways, conceptually speaking, by Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist. Donald accomplished what I have never been able to accomplish, namely to write a short, intense book, rather than a long, intense but blathering one. I decided one of the reasons he was able to do this was because he confined himself, literally and figuratively (I am currently obsessed with various representations of literal and figurative confinement, and am in the process of putting together a "literature of confinement" class—which would include, among other works, The Woman in the Dunes by Abe, The Log of the SS Urguentine by Stanley Crawford, A House for Mister Biswas by Naipaul, Woodcutters by Bernhard). Donald’s choice of confinement—man in perpetual bear hug, much like Bernhard’s man perpetually in wingback armchair—seemed to provide him a restricted enough narrative landscape so that he could, subsequently, go nuts. I decided that I relied too heavily on landscape in my first book to do the lion’s share of the psychological work—not that this was a fault in the book, but rather it was a strength of mine that made me subsequently weak in other ways. So deciding to set my entire book in an airplane was the conceptual equivalent of tying my stronger hand behind my back. That said, of course, I since have moved out of the airplane, and my book is hardly, hardly, short. I also failed to follow my own restrictions, and introduced a formal element, alternating each chapter with confessionals by ancillary characters, which ends up blowing the whole plane idea wide open. Of course, I am up against an entirely new set of challenges now, given that the book is not only set on an airplane, it features a hijacking. My choice to pursue this subject matter has been severely shaken these past few weeks; also my choice to utilize terrorism as a metaphor for family dynamics (my two main characters are sisters). This is not to say that terrorism, due to its new immediacy, is beyond the reach of metaphor; it is simply to say that the book I will write now, versus the book I might have written, will necessarily be the product of a very different mindset.


failbetter:  Much was made of your debut onto the literary scene landing with a legendary publishing house editor and lucrative two book deal by the ripe old age of thirty. But perhaps many readers do not know of the decade spent paying your dues: the years of waitressing, the MFA classes at Columbia University, and the several summers at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Care to comment on the dues of the debut author?

Julavits:  Yes, indeed, let us unpack the cult of the "debut author." But first, let me say that I did spend a decade paying my dues, and thank god—I imagine if I had been around during the current willingness to sign up and publish twenty-something year olds, I might have been unfortunate enough to be one of those people, and I would have published a deeply, deeply mediocre book (I’m somewhat of a late bloomer) that would have rendered me, at the ripe age of 27, a tragic has-been. I guess I bridle a bit at being constantly reminded of my "six figure two book deal," because from what I’ve seen of the publishing industry since I signed my contract, my situation is hardly unique. I guess it IS fair to say that my books were sold at the beginning of this excellent, if possibly perilous trend of paying unknown, young literary writers a tidy sum for their works-in-progress. I do worry, however, about future opportunities for all these young "debut" writers, around whom so much fuss is made.  When I attended, as a finalist, the First Annual Literary Lions Awards Ceremony ($10,000 awarded by the New York Public Library Young Lions to a writer under 35 who has published a book in the last year), I was made a wee bit uneasy by their charitable mission statement due to my own well-publicized financial windfall. Admirable and generous though it is to award money to a young novelist (who, according to the mission statement, unlike more established authors, is confronting the point of greatest strife and struggle in his or her career), I looked around at my terribly accomplished co-finalists and realized that, while we might have desperately needed this money a few years ago, now we were all in fairly nice shape, for fiction writers, at least. I am not criticizing the Young Lions for giving away money to young writers--nothing could be less assailable. However, the experience made me really think about the weird distribution of wealth in this industry, and the fact that young debut writers are among the MOST fortunate and viable members of the publishing world, rather than the least. Practically any young, talented and, yes, photogenic writer can get a decent, if not obscenely decent, debut opportunity because he or she is an unknown quantity, while some very established, critically-acclaimed, New Yorker-celebrated literary writers who do not have wildly impressive sales records, struggle to sell their third or fourth books for more than a paltry sum. I very much hope the publishing world is taking note of people like Chabon and Franzen, just to take two very recent and very obvious examples, writers who performed decently as youngsters but were clearly NOT at the peak of their powers when they debuted all those years ago. I hope we will return to a publishing milieu where accomplished writers are valued and paid commensurably, because, frankly, not a lot of twenty-something or even thirty-somethings will be operating at their maximum potential when their first books appear, which is all simply to say that it would be shame if the publishing industry suffers as the stock market did by overvaluing feisty start-ups (someone could probably make a fairly direct cultural link between these two phenomenons; I'm not sure I'm the critic to do it). I imagine the books I'll be writing in my forties will my debut book look like the badly translated novelization of a kung-fu movie. 

That is my sincere hope, at least.