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Back to the Depression

She’s pretty, Heidi Julavits, in a collegiate sort of way, fresh and blond and bright. But her fiction is decidedly bleak. In her debut novel, The Mineral Palace, Julavits leads us back to Depression-era Pueblo, Colorado, a gritty little mining town teeming with big secrets. Bena Jonssen, newly relocated to the area with her husband and infant son, joins the local newspaper, where she uncovers the seamy side of Pueblo and, consequently, the betrayals in her own marriage. Amid violent dust storms, death, and drought live a host of twisted characters: a starving, pregnant prostitute; a one-legged dog; a bitter, maimed cowboy; a blind psychic; a brain-dead baby. It‘s a dark yet strangely optimistic story that parallels, in part, the life of Julavits’ own grandmother. I met up with the author on her recent trip through Los Angeles.

L.A. WEEKLY: Everyone in The Mineral Palace is, in some way, damaged -- especially the women.

HEIDI JULAVITS: I liked having this literal, visual way you could see how people were internally wounded, that there were these physical scars. I actually wanted it to be so much more absurd than that, and there were way more amputated body parts. But my editor said, ”You know, we either have to amp it up more or cut it back a bit.“ And I was, like, all right, maybe we should cut it back. Pardon the pun.

I should say everyone is damaged except for Bena‘s husband, Ted -- the blond, charismatic figure who floats, unscathed, through all this destruction.

Yeah. There are the people who really wear their tragedy, and then there are the people who are more frightened to deal with other people, who don’t seem to have any tragedy at all. And then you discover that they‘re actually really composed of some terrible thing that happened to them.

To what extent is the book a family history?

There are definitely some surface details that are the same. My grandmother and grandfather had to go to Pueblo because it was the Depression and he couldn’t get a job in the Midwest, where they were from. She wanted to be a journalist. She had been accepted into Columbia Journalism School, but got married instead. So in many ways I‘m playing out what I had hoped for her -- a different way that she might have lived her life.

And yet, the story is so grim -- hardly a rosy, revisionist history. What’s behind the paradox?

I admit to having a bit of an infanticide infatuation, for whatever reason. And also, there were just a lot of strange infanticide incidents cropping up at that time. Not to advocate that, or fail to take responsibility for what I‘ve written, but I actually see the infanticide in my book in a more metaphorical way. To be really literal about it would be trying to ascribe some political intent on my part that I don’t think I had when I was writing it.

The landscape of 1930s Pueblo is beautifully detailed. You must have done a tremendous amount of research.

I did. And I also found this really fantastic book of interviews with people who had lived in the Dust Bowl in the ‘30s. It was so great for details. Stuff like how, after a dust storm, a farmer cuts his cow open and it’s filled with a mud. Or all the chickens were eating locusts, and so the meat tasted like insects.

There‘s tension in the book between superstition and science: Ted’s a doctor and Bena is fanatically superstitious. Numbers are critical to both of them, but in vastly different ways. He‘s dependent upon them for precision, and she rearranges them to make sense of the world -- a world she calls ”the world of coincidence.“ Were you deliberately pitting science against intuition?

Yes, I suppose. I grew up in a vehemently anti-religious . . . real superstitious household. My dad, he’d have this pen, and he‘d have all these qualities ascribed to it, and he would get things that were bad luck. He was always giving away watches that didn’t work out, and pens and things.

Did that rub off on you?

I feel like I was beginning to work my way out of being superstitious. Or trying to. If you have a mind for that kind of thing, you can make anything make sense -- either doomed, or blessed, or fated. I guess I was trying to point out the ways in which you can make things suit your purposes. That it ultimately is really about your attitude toward something. No matter how scientific and precise everything gets, you always want to have these little magic moments.

You seemed to have one when you signed a two-book contract on the eve of your 30th birthday. What‘s the second novel about?

A pair of sisters who are on their way to the eldest sister’s wedding. And basically, the plane is hijacked. Everyone has to tell a story in order not to be killed. It‘s much funnier, but with a dark side -- instead of just plain old fucking dark.