February 2007

Angela Stubbs


An Interview with Heidi Julavits

Heidi Julavits is someone who likes a challenge. She’s the managing editor of The Believer magazine, and her third novel, The Uses of Enchantment works with some difficult material. It has all the psychological drama and carefully crafted prose one could ever ask for in a story. Her work spills over with characters that find themselves in the most peculiar of circumstances. Whether on hijacked airplanes, with strangers in cars or drunk at their former therapist’s house, you will always find you’re in for a mental rollercoaster ride full of emotion, mystery, fantasy and what we believe to be reality.

The Effect of Living Backwards dealt the surreal elements that surrounded her characters in what may or may not have been a real airline hijacking. It’s clear that reality versus fantasy, the never-ending road to truth and the intricate workings of the human mind remain intriguing for this author. The Uses of Enchantment also deals with “what might have been” as the story unfolds to expose the main character of the novel, Mary Veal, who may or may not have faked her own abduction. With her smart narrative and intoxicating storytelling, it’s hard to believe this is only Julavits’s third book.

One of Freud’s most popular and infamous case studies; “Dora” served as a small roadmap for this novel. While many have considered his work to be that of a genius, others find his theories and conclusions to be twisted and manipulative. In The Uses of Enchantment everyone has front row seats to the conversational ping-pong between patient and therapist, sibling and parent and maybe even stranger to stranger. I had the chance to discuss with Heidi Julavits via e-mail what she really thinks of Freud and what it’s like to do research in therapy for a novel like The Uses of Enchantment.

The Uses of Enchantment is a very complex book that examines family, sexuality and the duality of memory and fantasy. In telling or re-telling Mary’s story did you find any particular aspect of the way you chose to tell her story (in parts) difficult?

I found the Mary sections most challenging -- originally these were written in the first person, but then I realized that a first person narrator would have to reveal too much to the reader (if I were going to maintain the sort of suspense I wanted to maintain), and her failure to do so would make her seem irritatingly cagey and dishonest. I changed those sections to the third person so that Mary's limited access to her own interior could be more objectively portrayed, and so that I could maintain the level of psychological suspense I'd originally envisioned.

Gina Frangello recently wrote a novel entitled My Sister’s Continent that deals with a very distinct parallel to Freud's Dora case study. I think it's interesting how this particular case study is becoming so intriguing to writers. What made you decide to focus on this particular case study?

This case study sums up all that is wonderful and not-so-wonderful about Freud. The case study indeed reads like a "roman a clef," thereby displaying Freud's literary talents, but it also displays his flaws as a scientist. Reading it now, Freud's attempted manipulation of Dora's situation so that it conforms to the theory he wants to prove is baldly (at times hilariously) apparent.

In the book, your main character, Mary Veal had a therapist who came up with a theory based on her "made-up" abduction called Hyper Radiance. Having done a lot of research with therapy and psychologists for this book, does this theory of Hyper Radiance really exist or does it exist only fictionally in this book?

So far as I know, this syndrome exists only in this book, though of course it's just a tweaking of Freud's theories (as one skeptical character in the book points out). My tweak seemed completely plausible to me as a syndrome, based on my own experience as a New England teenager and also based on pop psychological books I'd read -- I'd be thrilled if some therapist decided to adopt it as a legitimate syndrome. I wouldn't even demand royalties.

Hyper Radiance, by the book’s definition is the need for repressed girls from repressive cultures "to 'magnify' themselves as the victims of spells and devilry at the very moment they come of sexual age." Witches definitely have a presence in this novel. Did you decide based on the psychological definition of Hyper Radiance that they needed to be included for Mary’s story to be more cohesive?

They provide the deep historical tie to leading questions, to a misreading of female sexuality, and to the seductive quality of doomed girl stories. Plus if you grew up in New England, witches (because of the shadowy presence of the Salem Witch trials) convey both a mythic and a very real message regarding misbehavior and societal recourse.

The stories in the novel, both current and past are set in the Boston area. However, the towns of West Salem and Chadwick are fictitious. Were there real towns in or around Boston you didn't want to use or couldn't use when you thought about where this story would take place?

My first novel took place in a real town; this caused a lot of rips in the Fictional Dream, so to speak, for some people (those who were beholden to the actual place were constantly trying to weigh my portrayal against their personal experiences) -- in this era of asking How-Much-Truth Should-There-Be in Fiction, it's far less of a truth-quibbling minefield to set a novel in a fictional place. IE, you get fewer angry letters about your inability to read a map.

Your husband, Ben Marcus is also a writer. Do you let him critique your work as you go along or does he just get to read the finished product?

I save him until the end -- once you read a book, even if you don't read it again for a year, you're ruined as a completely objective critic. You have a past with this book that will inform, and in many cases blunt (if you're meant to find persistent flaws), your current reading experience. He's such a valuable reader; I tend to give him a book when I'm as done as I can be, and now I need that extra brain to push me past the residual problems that maybe only he can see.

Dr. Hammer (“Beaton”) and Freud seem to have some similar tactics when it comes to things "serving a purpose." Both manage to twist the facts to fit their purpose/need/theories with their perspective patients (Dora/Mary Veal). Is this coincidental or did Freud serve as somewhat of a model for the Hammer character?

Freud was a model, absolutely (see above my Dora answer); so was Jeffrey Masson, the psychoanalyst Janet Malcolm portrayed in her book The Freud Archives. That kind of blinding egotism, which comes in fact from a very human and in my mind pitiable place, is really appealing to me when I'm creating a character. It's the trap of the first person, which is best exhibited by the films of Errol Morris and his interrotron interviewing technique. I like to think that I've set up an interrotron for these characters, and let them talk themselves into trouble, but also into being worthy of reader/viewer sympathy.

The compact Mary uses to swirl her finger around in and the nervous cough parallel traits exhibited by Freud's Dora. How many hours of psychoanalysis did you have to sit through in the name of research for this book?

I've been to one-on-one and couples counseling, but have only done a few sessions of psychoanalysis, which I didn't much care for. I grew up in a family where therapy was fairly mocked, and thus I was from an early age excited by the prospect of going to therapy. Finally when I was in grad school in New York and I had health insurance that would cover the costs, I went. Obviously the experience was enlightening for me, though possibly not in the intended way.

The book is divided into three sections: West Salem (present), What Might Have Happened and Notes which are flashbacks to Mary's supposed abduction and her therapy sessions with Dr. Hammer. With so many narratives in the book, did you find it easier to break it down into three sections? What made you decide to tell the story this way?

I love narrative juxtaposition; really the only "straight" book or story I've ever written was my first novel, The Mineral Palace. The dialogue you can generate between different narrative sections to me feels so much more exciting than the potential solipsism of a single narrative thread.

What made you decide to focus on the world of psychology and Freud for this novel?

My second book, The Effect of Living Backwards, deals with confession and the act of self-mythologizing by telling stories about one's past -- I was swimming around the Freud/psychology issue, and was still enamored by it after I finished my second novel, and decided in order to fully void this obsession from my system I needed to tackle it in a head-on manner.

Memory lapses, amnesia and imagined realities are prominent throughout various sections of the novel (albeit past, present, or the maybe) What is it about these particular psychological devices and/or afflictions that were alluring to you as a subject matter?

I suppose it's a way to, in my opinion, represent a human being in the most accurately inaccurate manner. Only characters in books seem to have perfect recall and meticulously "true" flashbacks that are unabashedly employed as keys to their inner lives (unless of course they're deemed "unreliable" by the author); it seems to me that if characters in books are to resemble people in the world, they'd be more like James Frey. Every character in every novel is unreliable, or should be suspected of unreliability.

The title, The Uses of Enchantment comes from a Bruno Bettelheim book of the same name that dealt with fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology. In the '70s, he believed that Freudian psychology had been repressed for 50 years or more. Did Bettelheim serve as inspiration for your inclusion of Hysteria and the "Dora" parallels in your novel?

Well, Bettelheim is probably to blame for my fascination with the intersection of storytelling and psychoanalysis. Plus his book provides the crucial link between hysteria, Freud, and witches.

Prior to writing this novel, had you ever studied psychology?

I'm a layperson, though I read the requisite texts (Bettelheim, Freud, Horney, etc) as a Women's Studies/Comp Lit Major in college.

Freudian theories are often looked down upon by psychologists today. In your hours of research with psychologists, did you find this to be true?

I recently spoke with a med student who said that Freud isn't referenced anymore in medical school, not even as a cautionary tale or as part of the historical record. I found that both interesting and a little unfortunate. While most of his theories (even about dream symbolism) have been scientifically debunked, they still provide a key to understanding, if not humans in a scientific way, then humans in an emotional/cultural way. As a psychiatrist, I would think this would still hold some value.

From start to finish, how long did it take for you to complete The Uses of Enchantment?

This draft took me a little less than a year. But it was predicated on a previous novel, which I junked, and that took over a year. So all told, about two years.

It can be an arduous task to find a home for your work once its done. What was it like to find a home for The Uses of Enchantment?

I was very lucky to have an editor who wanted to work with me before the book was written -- in fact, he bought the "idea" of the first book, the one that I threw away. When I told him about the book I intended to eventually deliver to him, the book he had definitely not bought, he was extremely open while also healthily skeptical. Having this kind of an editorial relationship is the best thing about being a writer for me at this moment -- I'm given creative space but I'm also struggling to meet the very high standards of this person I want desperately to impress. I feel like I owe him a great product for believing in me.

Did you ever have any alternate endings in mind for the novel in regard to closure for Mary, or did you have a pretty clear-cut idea in place for the way you wanted the novel to end?

I modeled my ending very consciously on the sort of thought-provoking ambiguity that Tim O'Brien achieves in his novel In the Lake of the Woods and that Todd Haynes achieves in his film Safe.

Memory and fantasy are the key elements in this multi-faceted novel. What will your next novel focus on?