Heidi Julavits’s last novel, The Effect of Living Backwards, about a possibly faked hijacking, left readers flummoxed, as did what Julavits calls “that stupid essay” in her magazine, The Believer, railing against “snark.” Now Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, a psychotherapeutic thriller about a teenager who possibly fakes her own abduction, promises critical redemption.
Where did this idea of a therapist-patient tug-of-war come from?
As a kid, I really wanted to go to a therapist. Not necessarily to find out about myself, but I thought it would be really cool to go and not say one true thing about myself and see what happened. Then in grad school, I had a series of them, and I would say it was 80 percent quacks to 20 percent seemingly normal, healthful people.
Is this book’s cleaner style a reaction to your critics?
The term that I feel sticks to me, meant pejoratively, is “pyrotechnic.” I know you’re not supposed to take your reviews too much to heart, but I guess I did with the last one. Clearly, everyone was just confused. I calmed down a lot. I had tried to finish this before I had my daughter, and I got a critique on it from a very honest friend, and I thought, I can either beat this dead horse a little deader, or I can just back off and realize I’m a severely limited person right now. So it’s a combination of not wanting to be seen as a confusing writer and also having limited time and brain space.
Speaking of your sensitivity to critics, even the most recent stories about you still focus on—
That stupid essay. It’s incredible! No, I feel very fondly about that essay.
What are you working on right now?
Living in Maine, I’ve become stealthily involved with these off-the-gridder types. I’m interested in the idea of a fake reincarnation.
It sounds like a familiar subject—the unreliable story.
I guess at some point, I maybe have to get beyond that. Did it happen, did it not? I don’t know; who knows? You’ll be pleasantly confounded yet again!
The Uses of Enchantment, By Heidi Julavits, Doubleday; October 17 ($24.95).