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Set in Stone

An interview with Heidi Julalvits



At 29, writing fiction by day and waitressing at a series of hectic downtown New York City establishments by night, Heidi Julavits promised herself that before she turned 30 she would find a more "mature" way to earn a living that "included benefits and a retirement plan."

On April 20, 1998, her 30th birthday, she landed a six-figure advance for two books working with legendary agent Faith Sale at G. P. Putnam's Sons. A rare gem of a deal for an emerging writer who hadn't even finished her first book yet.

The Independent was able to catch up with Julavits recently to talk about her first novel, The Mineral Palace, set in Depression-era Pueblo, Colorado.

Indy: You are a wonderful storyteller. Did you come from a background of storytelling?

Julavits: I didn't come from a background of storytelling necessarily. But I definitely came from a background of reading. And I feel like when I had to write this book, I had to go back to that. I had to go back to what made me a voracious reader as a child. Usually it was an adventure story that had this timeless power, a little bit other-worldly, and yet also grounded in reality at the same time. So, for instance, The Chronicles of Narnia were a big hit with me. The idea of writing a novel was just so daunting that I had to forget I was a writer and try to go back and remember as a reader.

Indy: So you use the act of recollection when you write?

Julavits: Yeah, in a way. I was trying to put myself in the reader's shoes. I would try to think: "What taught me to love reading so much?"

Indy: How old were you when you wrote your first story?

Julavits: Well, my dad bought me a journal when I was 8 and I wrote in it every day until I was 13. When I was 10, I wrote (technically) a novel, so I've been writing a long time.

Indy: You take infinite pains in your description of Pueblo, Colorado. It's as if the landscape is another character in the story.

Julavits: The landscape was the way I got to the other characters. I had been messing around after graduate school trying to figure out what I was writing and what I was working on, and it wasn't until I went to Pueblo and spent some time there in January, 1997, that I was able to come up with characters and a story. So the landscape did become as much a character as anybody else.

Indy: Why did you choose to set the novel in Pueblo?

Julavits: My grandmother lived in Pueblo for two years during the Depression. Grandma Jean wanted to be a journalist. She had been accepted to Columbia University to study journalism, but decided to marry a doctor instead. My grandfather had been transferred to the local clinic. I set the novel in Pueblo because her descriptions of her life in the town -- with its closed social ranks, its terrible dust storms -- were the only complaints I ever heard her make. I traveled to Pueblo and found her old house on Grand Street. I found Cuerna Verde (Green Horn) where she'd been an occasional guest. A month before I received my book contract, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She told her oncologist that her goal was to live until my book was published.

Indy: Was it your grandmother who told you about the Mineral Palace?

Julavits: Some details. But it wasn't until I visited the Western History Room in the Pueblo library and looked all through 1934 and 1935 Pueblo Chieftains that I discovered the whole story. When I saw an article on the Mineral Palace, I knew: That's it. It was perfect. It lent itself perfectly to the whole tale. It was really quite fortuitous. That's something that frightens me about writing fiction. In every instance, whether it's writing a short story or a novel, you're just totally at sea. Then all of a sudden you stumble across something that allows you to organize the whole thing. And it completely comes together and you think: What if I hadn't Xeroxed that one page?

Indy: There's definitely an "other-worldly" feel about the palace. Is that what caught your attention?

Julavits: There's something that's just so haunting about abandoned places. Places that were formerly something and now are becoming more and more nothing. I grew up around Portland, Maine. The islands in Casco Bay were all fortified during the First World War, and so all these forts and military operations were left there. Once, we discovered this old control room and half expected to find a dead body down there. When I was envisioning the Mineral Palace in its state of decay and disrepair, I had that same sense of childlike discovery in mind.

Indy: We heard you had a fairly eventful 30th birthday? Would you care to explain?

Julavits: I don't think I really knew what happened to me until my 31st birthday. I didn't quit my waitressing job for a number of months after that. What was most amazing about it is that I had given myself this deadline. I'd been waiting tables for five years at that point. I had said, "Okay, when you turn 30 you have to really start actively seeking another way to sustain yourself.

Indy: You must have been on top of the world at that moment.

Julavits: Actually I was at the top of the World Trade Tower. I was taking a wine class there, and on the break, phoned my agent. That's when I learned it was a "done deal."

Indy: There is a sense of foreboding throughout the book. Something bad is going to happen. Yet, when it does happen, it takes the reader completely by surprise.

Julavits: I wanted to leave it enough open to myself so that it didn't feel predictable. It was good to keep myself feeling like I didn't exactly know what was going to happen until I got there myself. It's the same thing with the book I'm writing now. I feel like I have to let things take shape and then respect what's there on the page.

Indy: Can you tell us about your second book?

Julavits: I decided I got really bogged down in the details about the landscape in The Mineral Palace. So the second book is about a hijacking and takes place entirely on an airplane. This time I don't really have a lot of places to go wandering off to, and I can only describe the disgusting seat upholstery so many times.

Indy: You dedicated the book to your grandmother, Jean Dabelstein Troup, and your editor, Faith Sale. Both women obviously played important roles in the writing of this book. Sadly, neither of them lived to see it in print. How do you feel about that?

Julavits: It's why I feel weirdly unattached to the book as a book. I feel so much that it was this incredible experience that I got to have with these two women at the end of their lives. It was so much more than a book. It just so happened that through these relationships, the book was a by-product. Faith Sale spent the last four decades in publishing, editing works of writers like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. I was her last book sale.

Faith was a woman much like my grandmother, far more curious about others than she was [interested in] herself. We completed the book together while she battled her own particular cancer. Like my grandmother, her illness was a quiet fact.

So there's a finished book now, an object that exists in large part because of my closeness with these two women, though neither of them survived to see it published.

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