Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Moveable Feast

On Saturday night I once again attended “A Moveable Feast,” a banquet put on by the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Association. It’s one of the highlights of the group’s annual convention and every year a few non-booksellers get to partake.

The evening features 12 authors whose books are just launching. The idea is for the authors to make personal contact with local bookstores, so the owners can hand sell books. And the idea seems to work – the authors are generally interesting and witty and people working in bookstores enjoy hearing them talk. Of course, there are lots of freebies. Every attendee gets an autographed copy of each of the author’s books.

I was sitting at a table with people from A Great Good Place For Books, my favorite bookstore in Oakland. Last year I had been invited to this event by Debi Echlin, the store owner. I had a great time, particularly because Debi was so jazzed by the entire evening. Unfortunately, Debi died in her sleep last November. But the store’s new owner, Kathleen Caldwell, invited me to join her and the women who work in her store.

Our table got to visit with three writers and all were charming. Heidi Julavits is one of those New York literary stars who captured public attention early in her writing career. She must be in her mid-30s, and with her long blonde hair and delicate face, she is photo-ready. Julavits is a co-founder of The Believer, the literary magazine started by Dave Eggers. She is married to Ben Marcus, whom she described as an “experimental” writer. They have a young daughter, Delia.

The Uses of Enchantment is Julavits’ third book and it centers on a girl named Mary, who may have been abducted or may have made up her abduction to garner attention. Julavits said she modeled her book on Tim O’Brien’s Lake of the Woods, another book that features a mysterious disappearance. Julavits is considered a literary writer, but she said all her novels are plot driven. “I loved Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien,” she said. “It has this inexorable plot pull. I love, love, love plot.”

Julavits was a “math kid,” growing up. “I loved logic proofs. That’s what plot is for me – a logic proof.”

She doesn’t write out her plots before she begins her novels. In fact, Julavits said she generally spends a year on a book, and then throws the entire thing away and starts over. She seems to need writing that trash draft in order to reach a zone that drives her writing to a higher level. “Because when you’re in that zone, writing a novel can be as pleasurable as reading a novel.”

Julavits is still an editor at The Believer and even finds time to teach fiction writing. She said she hammered her distaste for flashback scenes into her students this spring while she was copyediting The Uses of Enchantment. Then she would return home and see, to her dismay, how often she used flashbacks as a technique to explain characters. She ended up changing her book as a result.

Julavits said she loves doing it all – writing, teaching and editing. On editing: “It’s a phenomenal job to have. I feel its dovetails so well with fiction for me.”

On teaching: “If you teach a lot it can be draining. I taught last spring. It was so important for me to talk about what I think fiction is and can do and what is happening in fiction now and articulate all these issues.”

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