An interview with Believer editor Heidi Julavits about her new novel
In The Vanishers—a new novel by Believer editor Heidi Julavits—trouble starts for Julia Severn when she takes a job working as a research assistant for a powerful professor at the college where she is enrolled as a student. This isn't just any college: Julia's studying at an academy for psychics. And her professor is going into trances to try to find the lost films of a notorious artist and pornographer named Dominique Varga. When her professor's trances turn out to be mere naps, Julia submits her own notes in hopes of saving the professor's contract and her own job. But when she's discovered, her professor attacks her with psychic powers, leaving Julia unemployable and the victim of a range of undiagnosable illness. That is, until she's hired by rival academics who are also seeking Varga, and have become convinced that Julia's the way for them to do it. The journey that follows plunges Julia into a surreal world where organizations help suicidal people disappear, an art movement encourages participants to turn themselves into look-alikes of the dead, and Julia's mother, who committed suicide in Julia's infancy, just might be the key to understanding where Dominique Varga disappeared to.
We spoke to Julavits about the role of the mind in illness and the history of female hysteria, the ways book marketing has become a more artistic endeavor, and why we're so eager to give up our own identities.
The Vanishers starts out with rivalrous psychics and ends with high-art pornographers. I have to ask: Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I think it all started with just the psychic attacks. That was the foundational inspiration onto which I was able to stack spas and pornography and everything else. That came about because I found a book by Dion Fortune, who was an occultist back in the 1930s. She wrote occult novels and also what could be seen as psychic self-help. She wrote this book called Psychic Self Defense, so I ordered it...I knew a bunch of people who are close to me had over the past few years been diagnosed with illnesses that, even after they'd been to every conceivable doctor, nothing could be located, no culprit could be fingered for the cause of their malaise. Then there was this interesting shift in public perception. People felt really bad for them, and when nothing could be found, there was this shift to "It must be in their head, they must be depressed." When I encountered the idea of psychic attack, I thought, "This is such an interesting paradigm shift. What if we were in a world where this was a valid diagnosis?"
I would get a migraine and think, "Who out there hates me?" I think there's a lot of self-blame when we get sick...There's something nice when you're feeling terrible to outsource that blame to someone else...It's not such a leap, either. People make other people sick. They give other people colds. This was taking that logic and applying it to a telepathically communicated illness....though I explore that as a very literal phenomenon in the book, I was very much thinking of its real world, more metaphoric applications in the book and the way we talk about other people: "Oh, she's toxic." "She makes me sick."
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Did you read the big New York Times Magazine story about the girls in Le Roy, New York who are experiencing inexplicable illnesses?
I'm so fascinated by it that I'm trying not to be fascinated by it. Especially since my last book, too, was about female hysteria and the contagious element in that. I'm obviously deeply, deeply fascinated by that. And I'm scared that I'll get so fascinated that I'll want to write another book.
Well, there's obviously a long history of these outbreaks.
[If it were an earlier era] they might be treated very differently, i.e. tied to a stake and set on fire... This form of contagious hysteria, I guess you could see it in a negative way, as women contaminating each other. It's some sort of negative share. But I frequently see it as this kind of communing. It's almost like an army of levels. They are together expressing what is inexpressible about their lives. I almost see it as a form of supportive sisterhood, to put the most positive spin on it.
Speaking of sympathy and identification with each other, a lot of the women in your novel seem to be trying to become each other, whether they're usurping each other's professional roles or literally having surgery to look like each other.
The kind of identity absorption in my novel, it's there are these very unusual women, and you want to become them because they're so not like these other women...It's the difference between idolizing somebody's power, wanting to have somebody's power versus wanting to fit in.
Faces fascinate me no end these days. I think one of the reasons is I'm of the age where my face is really starting to change. You get a face when you're 18 and it's your face until you're 38 or 40. And suddenly I feel like I have a different face. I had never felt very attached to my face for the last couple of decades. It felt like it was the wrong face for the person I was. And now it's as if my insides have had an effect on my physical appearance...I almost feel like I underwent some sort of plastic surgery via my own personality, that somehow my inner self is now more imprinted on my outer self. Which I guess is the best way to describe being 43.
And then you have this movement in the book, of people who are having plastic surgery so they resemble the dead. Which is definitely different from trying to fit a feminine ideal, or having your face finally match your personality.
I think what interested me is it's so upsetting, such a violation, such a blasphemous move, it's so disrespectful on some level, and so perverse. And at the same time, isn't it this a kind of generosity, this selfless generosity? You're willing to be the child these other people lost. You're willing to fill that vacancy for people who are in grief who miss this person. The fact that it is these very polar, contradictory attributions that it can embody those all at once.
The character Dominique Varga, the artist and pornographer who inspires that movement, has a willingness to do extreme and vulnerable things for her work. Do you think people are craving artists who are more open to them?
I will say the artist who I was using as my inspiration, and the artist who made me think about these questions was Sophie Calle. She's a French artist, and she's not only subsuming her own identity into other identities, but she is actively in pursuit of the identities of strangers. She'll find a guy's wallet, and she'll try to track this guy down...She made her mother hire a detective to follow her so her mother would come to know her better...Even writers who are supposedly the most invisible creators—much more invisible, you think of them toiling away and probably they're not very presentable either—even writers have these very public personas now.
My last book came out in 2006, and I watched how the literary landscape was changing, and how the act of publishing a book was changing. It went from you have to have a website, to you have to have an active Facebook page, to you have to have a trailer...I had a short film that I worked on with an artist and it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever worked on. It was an artistic offshoot. It didn't feel like this obligatory shilling of oneself. It felt like this exciting exploration of the creative themes I'd been working with but in another medium that isn't a sandbox I usually get to play in....And this trailer, as I said, it made me more proud of my book, to be honest. I got to see how somebody else responded to it creatively. I really liked how he responded, and that made me feel happy. It was like getting the best review.
And speaking of Varga's work as a pornographer, do you think pornography can be feminist? Under what circumstances?
I am interested in exploring both possibilities more than taking a side, necessarily, especially when I'm writing fiction, which is why I have two academics arguing about it. One sees the pornography Dominique Varga makes in the book as feminist, and one sees it as anti-feminist, and another sees it as anti-feminist-feminist. I'm curious to poke at those opinions and have them unload on fictional characters.
Why do you think we're still having this debate, and we're no closer to settling it, decades after feminists like Andrea Dworkin raised it?
There are these people like Dian Hanson who is an editor out at Taschen Books, and she edits their erotic books. She is really this strong, female presence who doesn't see pornography as being anti-female. When you view it through her eyes, you see her perspective. You see what she's doing and she's doing it with a knowledge of the dangers...I wonder if it's a little bit generational. We just ran a piece in The Believer, and there was some mention in it of porn just being for men, and one of our editors flagged it, and she's in her 20s, and she really took issue with this, and she's a really, really feminist-minded person, and she saw this as an anti-feminist statement, that only men enjoy porn, that women can't enjoy porn, that there is no such thing as porn for women.
We conventionally think of pornography as sexually explicit. Is there work that can be emotionally pornographic as well?
I feel most of the films that are described in [The Vanishers] are emotionally pornographic...It's indecent. The vanishing films [left behind by suicidal people who are abandoning their families] and the porn are both trying to manipulate a response from the viewer. The vanishing films, to some people, seem like these love letters to the families who the vanisher is leaving behind. And to others, they seem like the grossest form of manipulation and unbearably cruel. The double edge that these gestures can embody: is this a selfless act, or is the most perverse act? When things are both at the same time, that really fascinates me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.