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An Interview with Julie Hecht

[WRITER]
“NOT THAT ANYONE’S GOING TO READ THE BOOK, OR THE BIO, BUT JUST IN CASE. YOU DON’T WANT TOO MUCH IN PRINT ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE.”
Discussed in this interview:
Shadow of a Doubt
The way things are now
Andy Kaufman
David Letterman
Swedish people
by Andrew Nellins
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Julie Hecht

[WRITER]
“NOT THAT ANYONE’S GOING TO READ THE BOOK, OR THE BIO, BUT JUST IN CASE. YOU DON’T WANT TOO MUCH IN PRINT ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE.”
Discussed in this interview:
Shadow of a Doubt
The way things are now
Andy Kaufman
David Letterman
Swedish people
by Andrew Nellins
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Julie Hecht

Andrew Nellins
29 Snaps

Julie Hecht’s work has been described as “subversive,” “devastating,” and “neurotic.” While those words are certainly accurate, they don’t begin to suggest the singularity of the writer or her career. After publishing two stories in Harper’s in the late 1970s (winning the O. Henry Prize for the second), she didn’t publish any work for a full decade. Then, in 1989, her unusual story “Perfect Vision” was accepted by the New Yorker. Over the course of the next nine years, the New Yorker published ten of her stories.

After her editor at the New Yorker, Daniel Menaker, moved to Random House, he collected her stories in the acclaimed 1997 book Do the Windows Open? The next year, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

In 2001, Random House released Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman, taken from a book-length profile Ms. Hecht had written in 1979. Originally intended for Harper’s, the manuscript sat in a drawer for years before being excerpted in the New Yorker and later printed as a book.

Julie Hecht’s first published novel, The Unprofessionals, was sort of released in 2003. Midway through the publishing process, she followed her longtime editor as he left a stint at HarperCollins and returned to Random House, where he took over as editor in chief. Though it was slated to be its lead -literary fiction title for the fall, The Unprofessionals was lost in a corporate shuffle and fell victim to major distribution problems. It could only be found in a few bookstores across the country. As a result of the error and the immediate fallout, Ms. Hecht split with both her agent and her editor, and The Unprofessionals received almost no exposure. It disappeared in spite of overwhelmingly positive reviews and being named a notable book by Publishers Weekly and the New York Times.

Her fourth book, Happy Trails to You, is a collection of short stories set to be released by Simon & Schuster in May of 2008. Simon & Schuster will also release a paperback edition of The Unprofessionals in late summer of this year.

Ms. Hecht and I began communicating at the beginning of 2007. Because she rarely uses email, we initially communicated via fax, and eventually, over long telephone conversations. This interview took place the week before Christmas 2007. She was completing edits on her final proof pages of Happy Trails to You at the time. The phone conversation from which this interview was taken started at midnight and ende at about 3 a.m. Julie has given fewer than four interviews in her life.

—Andrew Nellins

I. “I’M TALKING ABOUT A TIME WHEN WOMEN DIDN’T WALK AROUND INTENTIONALLY SHOWING THEIR ROLLS OF FAT AND TRYING TO LOOK LIKE PROSTITUTES.”

THE BELIEVER: In past conversations, you’ve described publishing as “a pigsty.” Why the bleak view of the industry?

JULIE HECHT: Oh, but that was a compliment!

BLVR: Is it really so bad?

JH: When I said that, in conversation with you, I was thinking about the movie Shadow of a Doubt, where  Joseph Cotten says, “The world’s a pigsty.” People who’ve read my work know I’m always thinking about that movie. It’s not the people in publishing. It’s the whole world situation. Publishing is now a corporate industry run by conglomerates. Everyone in publishing is affected by this.

BLVR: Well, you published a great deal at the New Yorker, especially in the 1990s. You seem to have had a fairly favorable view of publishing there.

JH: That’s because there were copy editors, proofreaders, lawyers, literary editors, and more I can’t even remember now. There’s no time for that kind of editorial consultation in book publication now. An illustrious publisher once called me in the hopes of convincing me to take his offer instead of another much larger, one. He said how much he liked the book, and I said that I knew it needed editing. And he said, “Oh no, I think it’s fine the way it is.” And then I realized, Oh, this is what publishing is like now! From the top to the bottom. There’s no more editing.

BLVR: The earliest publication I could find of yours was the October 1977 issue of Harper’s. Is that the first story you ever published?

JH: Yes, and the first I ever submitted there. I had an agent at the time who said, “You’ll never get a story in Harper’s because it’s a monthly, and they publish only one story a month. The New Yorker publishes three or four a week.” But then Harper’s published the first one she sent.

BLVR: How did you have an agent before you ever published a story?

JH: I always had agents because they liked the stories and thought they were going to grow into a book.

BLVR: So before you ever had a story published, you had an agent? That’s very unusual.

JH: Not at that time.

BLVR: You must have thought you were so cool.

JH: Not at all.

BLVR: I would have.

JH: Well, you’re an idiot.

BLVR: Thank you. You won an O. Henry award in that period for the second story you published in Harper’s.

JH: The O. Henry was a great thing for a writer starting out. I never thought about awards. I don’t even know about awards. People always have to tell me. So when my editor called to tell me that I had won the O. Henry Prize, it was a complete shock. She said, “I thought it might be considered for the prize.” And I said, “No one mentioned it to me.”  Then someone had to tell me to apply for a Guggenheim. I never think that way about my own work.

BLVR: What was it like getting the Guggenheim?

JH: That was great. That was unbelievably great.

BLVR: Because it gave you freedom to write?

JH: No. It’s not the MacArthur. It was a great form of recognition. I associated it with Raymond Carver because I remembered reading that he was so happy, that it was so important to him to get the Guggenheim.

BLVR: I notice you always thank the Guggenheim Foundation in your books.

JH: I’ll never stop thanking them. It was so important. I remember when I told my mother about the O. Henry Prize. I called her on the phone. She had been an English teacher. She showed a combination of disbelief and excitement. At the time, my work wasn’t taken seriously by my family. I was always just treated like a girl. And when I said I was a writer, people just didn’t believe it. They’d snicker. Well, men would. They would say things like “You remind me of Goldie Hawn.” Or “You remind me of Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein.” When I was an apprentice at Summer Stock, I was given a very small part in the play Death of a Salesman. The part was a trampy girl in a bar. After the play was over, the set director—who had always been mean to the apprentices—smiled at me and said, “Very funny, very good. But you’ll always play a dumb blond.” So I needed to get some prize for anyone to take it seriously that I was a writer.

BLVR: Before you found real success, did you always think of yourself as a writer anyway?

JH: Did I find real success? I thought of myself as a writer, but I knew that nobody else did. They thought I did nothing—especially my mother and my husband’s mother.

BLVR: And the O. Henry changed that?

JH: Maybe for a day. People didn’t think of my work as a real career. My family thought the stories I wrote in childhood or a story I told—they thought they were entertaining. They didn’t think I would have a career as a writer.

BLVR: Do you think of writing as a career now?

JH: I think of it as a bad habit. In my childhood, stories were respected and revered. I understood from my teachers that there was nothing better you could do than write a story, paint a painting, play a musical instrument. And then I grew up into a world where none of that matters. A world of a million TV channels and terrible movies and music.

BLVR: You grew up in one world and ended up in another.

JH: The world changed. But I was still writing, unaware of what lay ahead.

BLVR: There’s a real strain of nostalgia and regret in all of your work.

JH: I keep telling you, the world has changed for the worse. Everyone in my generation is nostalgic, and even unhappy about this.

BLVR: But don’t you think every generation is doomed in this way? Thinking that everything is getting worse?

JH: No. My parents were interested in what was going on with the next generation. They liked the Beatles. They liked the things that were happening until the ’70s. Then things started getting worse. I mean, I’m not wishing for the age before plumbing. I’m talking about a time when women didn’t walk around intentionally showing their rolls of fat and trying to look like prostitutes.

BLVR: Your narrator talks a lot about being appalled by the public. There’s a line in your new book, Happy Trails to You, in which she says, “I’m never prepared for people in our society.” Do you have this in common with your narrator?

JH: Well, there’s a lot of alcohol use now. And screaming in restaurants. I’m not prepared for that. Terrible loud music blasted in stores.

BLVR: Is it that you don’t like coarseness?

JH: Like all these Republicans with whom I have nothing else in common—like Patrick Buchanan. I’ve heard him say things about the “coarsening of our society.” There are more people everywhere now. Coarseness and lack of civility might have to do with the larger population, but I’m sure there are other reasons as well. Maybe they’re encouraged by corporations who want people to smoke and buy fast food. I’m not an expert. I’d have to think about it more. Then there’s the glorification of Hollywood. And the trashiness in movies and on TV. People want to copy that. I don’t know why.

BLVR: I’ve certainly heard you complain that it’s hard finding clothes now that aren’t tight or trampy.

JH: The last time I saw normal clothing was on a night when I was flipping channels and I saw a woman showing some clothes to another woman—examples of proper clothes for teenagers. They were things like pleated skirts and little sweaters. They were like clothes I wore in the ’60s and ’70s. And then I saw that this was on CBN—the Christian Broadcasting Network. I couldn’t believe I had anything in common with Christian conservatives. That’s how far things have gone.

II. “I THINK BAD WRITERS WRITE WITH A PLAN AND THEIR WORK SEEMS CONTRIVED AND CONVENTIONAL.”

BLVR: How do you explain your work to people?

JH: I don’t explain my work to anyone. Writers write. They edit their work many times. They don’t have to explain it.

BLVR: If you meet someone and they say, “What kind of books do you write?” what do you say?

JH: I say as little as possible. I say that I write stories. And if they say, “What are they about?” and if I’m forced to be polite, I say: “They’re about the way things are now.” Some people say, “I know what you mean.” Others don’t know what I’m talking about. Of course, they would never read a book or a story, or even part of one. Most people don’t think of reading anymore. When you say you’re a writer they try to show interest, but you can see they have no interest. Not just in my writing. Any writing.

BLVR: You know, there’s kind of a cult associated with your work.

JH: I know of no cult.

BLVR: I’m sure you know that there’s very little information out there about you. One of the things that made me want to track you down even before I knew you had a book coming out was the bio that appears on all of your book jackets, completely unchanged. It says almost nothing about you.

JH: That’s good. One likes to maintain one’s privacy. Not that anyone’s going to read the book, or the bio, but just in case. You don’t want too much in print about your own life.

BLVR: One thing that’s generally known about your work is that the narrator in your stories is always the same, like Proust. Or—one could argue—even Carver, whom you mentioned earlier. Is this a conscious plan?

JH: As for being in a group with Raymond Carver and Proust, that couldn’t be better company, but, no, it’s not a conscious choice. People write the way they write. Good writers write the way they write. I think bad writers write with a plan and their work seems contrived and conventional. Best sellers—usually those people have a plan. I couldn’t even think of writing that way. I have no idea how to do it.

BLVR: Truman Capote was famous for plotting his career.

JH: When I read that about Truman Capote, I wished I were more like him in that way. I wish I were like a hustler. I wish I’d had a plan.

BLVR: I read an old review of one of your books in which the reviewer suggested that you were satirizing your narrator. That’s not how I read your work. Is that what you mean to do?

JH: No. They don’t get it. It’s not a satire of anything. It’s not a satire.

BLVR: How conscious are you of trying to “write funny”?

JH: I’m not trying to do anything. I just get an idea and then write it. My editor at the New Yorker once said to me, “It’s hard to be funny,” and I said, “What do you mean?” He read me a sentence from one of my stories and said, “Are you telling me you didn’t try to make that funny?” And I said, “No. That’s just how it occurred to me. I just write things the way I think of them.”

BLVR: In terms of your personal reading tastes, I’m always asking you, “Do you like this author?” or, “Do you like this book?” and you always say, “No, because it’s not funny.” Is it really true that you only like funny writing?

JH: It’s almost true. Even the greatest books—I can’t read them unless they seem funny. In Kafka, in The Trial, for instance, there’s that phrase “the bandy-legged student.” That might be an incorrect translation, but I remember in college I had a friend who loved the phrase “the bandy-legged student.” She used to refer to another student that way. So, even in The Trial, the parts that aren’t meant to be funny seem funny.

BLVR: Do you focus on absurdity in real life as well?

JH: I don’t focus on anything. This is the way people are. What they notice or don’t notice.

BLVR: So when other people are looking at your work—and surely you’ve read some reviews of your
own work—is there anything you wish they’d notice that they don’t pick up on?

JH: I don’t expect anything from reviewers. I don’t read most of them—about other writers’ books either. I might skim one if someone tells me to. They usually give a plot summary the way children did in fourth grade. Who wants to read that? I don’t expect them to get it. There’s one review that I really liked. It was in the San Francisco Chronicle, I think. They said my stories “seem to touch on everything and contain the whole world.” That was my favorite quote in any review. I thought it was the best compliment, because some people find that annoying—that the stories contain too much. They don’t have the attention span for stories that go everywhere. Had my New Yorker editor been a book editor, each of the stories might have been a book. But I had to keep cutting. Cut, cut, cut for the New Yorker. If I had kept going instead of kept cutting, I might have a lot of books instead of a lot of stories. When my editor became the book editor for the Andy Kaufman book, it was “Expand, expand, expand.” It had nothing to do with the work itself. It only had to do with what was to be published where.

BLVR: Between 1989 and 1998, the New Yorker printed ten of your stories, all with the same narrator. Sometimes a couple of stories a year. Did they take everything you wrote?

JH: They took every story I wrote during that time.

BLVR: In 1997, most of those stories were collected in your first book, Do the Windows Open? It got a lot of attention, particularly for a book of literary short stories. What was that success like?

JH: I didn’t really take it in. I guess I was glad the way it turned out. It was better than a failure, but I wasn’t jumping for joy the way writers do when they’re in their twenties. If the book I wrote in my twenties had been published I would have been crazed with narcissism.

BLVR: Your next book, Was This Man A Genius?, was published in 2001. It was a profile of Andy Kaufman originally written for Harper’s magazine in 1979, and then not run because of its length. How did you begin that project?

JH: I called his agent. I called Andy. I talked to him for a long time. His agent suggested I go meet Andy after his performance at Great Neck North High School, where he had been a student. After that, my way to continue the project was to meet him when he came to New York to be a guest on Saturday Night Live. He was the one who suggested using a tape recorder. Before that, I was just watching and listening. This conversation is in the book. I was very young. I knew nothing. I forgot to ask for expense money or an advance. Andy was just starting out. I remember I met his manager’s girlfriend after his Town Hall performance. She thought I was writing for Harper’s Bazaar. They had never heard of Harper’s magazine, and they didn’t care. I would have to meet Andy at his dressing room at Saturday Night Live and hang out there in the hours before the show. That’s when I taped all this really interesting—well, I thought it was really interesting—conversation.

BLVR: Why did you do that book? It’s so different from your other work.

JH: I wanted to know. Andy was unique. His act was fascinating and funny and bizarre. I had never seen anything like it. I wondered, How did he ever come up with this? It was unbelievable to me.

BLVR: Were you distressed when Was This Man a Genius? didn’t get published immediately?

JH: It didn’t get published for twenty years—and then just because some movie had been made, supposedly about his life.

BLVR: Were you upset at the time that you wrote it and it didn’t go anywhere?

JH: You see, being a writer, I was used to all things being discouraging. I was upset by people publishing ordinary, junky stuff and not wanting to publish much unusual writing. So, yes, I was unhappy, but I was used to rejection. The early life of a writer is to be rejected. Like the life of the actor. It was a way of life, and I got used to it. That’s why having that first story published in the New Yorker was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

BLVR: Speaking of discouragement, what can you say about your novel The Unprofessionals? I know it was well reviewed, but it ran into some kind of distribution snag. I did some research—it sounds like a giant clusterfuck.

JH: What’s that?

BLVR: It’s when a bunch of morons get together and fuck something up.

JH: That’s so funny. I never heard that expression. But my agent and editor weren’t morons. They were smart. If there were any morons, they must have been behind the scenes.

BLVR: Dealing with that book must have been a nightmare.

JH: Yes, and it still is. I don’t think I should get into it. My husband went to Barnes & Noble in New York and the book wasn’t there. They looked in the computer, and saw that it wasn’t anywhere. That day began a series of emails between my agent, editor, lawyer, and publisher—many, many emails that never resolved anything. Very few bookstores received copies of the book, and the publisher was disinclined to do anything about it.

BLVR: I understand you stopped working with both your agent and your longtime editor, Dan Menaker, after that.

JH: Yes. I regret that we don’t speak anymore. He helped me with my stories since my first story was published at the New Yorker. He worked really hard with me on those stories and on the story collection. I’m indebted to him—for whatever career I have.

BLVR: Like a lot of readers and reviewers, I really love that book. Aside from the obvious negative associations with The Unprofessionals, what did you feel about it? How did it feel writing a longer piece?

JH: I didn’t think of it that way. The problem was: no editorial guidance. I don’t know if the editor even had time to read the second half of the book because of his new position. I was on my own. When in doubt, I kept cutting.

III. “I USE MUSIC THE WAY OTHER WRITERS USE DRUGS OR ALCOHOL.”

BLVR: Do you look back on your earlier work very often?

JH: No. When I look at a work from before, I don’t like it and wish I could change it. For example, my new book—two of the stories were published a few years ago. I had to improve them.

BLVR: A friend of mine worked at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which purchases a lot of author archives: Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer. Knowing him sort of trained my mind to think about their legacy—the big pile of paper they leave behind. It seems normal to me to look back at all that stuff, for better or worse.

JH: I think male writers are more egomaniacal and they often have devoted wives who manage everything for them. Men get to take themselves very seriously, but women don’t have the time. They’re mothers and they’re running houses. Millions of distracting details. Of course, some women writers don’t have children. Louise Nevelson said a woman should think a million times before giving birth

BLVR: I’ve always wanted to ask about your fascination with David Letterman. You’ve mentioned him in several stories.

JH: I’m not fascinated. I love to watch the first half of his show, when he talks to Paul and you can see what he’s like. When I see a Hollywood actress begin to walk out onstage in a black slip, I know it’s time to change the channel. I like him because he decries the lack of civility in society. He’s also very quick-witted and funny.

BLVR: I received a special request to discuss the story “That’s No Fun” in Do the Windows Open? from someone who was fascinated by your fixation on Swedish people.

JH: That story is the favorite for many people. I received a lot of mail about that story.

BLVR: So do you have a particular interest in Swedish people?

JH: I knew a Swedish woman. She was always talking about how great Sweden was, and I believed her. The thing I liked the best was that they took their shoes off before they came into their houses. She was nostalgic for Sweden. She loves the outdoors, the cold air. I do, too. In the winter, she used to put her baby outside on the screen porch to have a nap. And when she brought him in, she said he looked so healthy. She’d bundled him all up in his carriage. She said that’s what they do in Sweden. She was always doing these kinds of things and saying, “That’s what we do in Sweden.” And they were good ideas. It sounded so interesting to me. But mainly I love the shoe part. I couldn’t understand why all these Swedish people live here if everything’s so much better in Sweden. That was before things were so crazy here. Back then, they were just crazy enough. The whole country is like the Wild West now. No, worse. I’m looking at the TV now with the sound turned
off, and it’s all these children in a band. And they’re all overweight. Some are obese, but all are overweight.

BLVR: What writers would you want others to read?

JH: Which other people?

BLVR: The reading public, I guess.

JH: What’s that? Anyway, it’s not my job to tell people what to read. I’m just a writer. I haven’t read enough.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned a few other writers whom I’ve never read. Thomas Bernhard and Robert Walser. Would you recommend them?

JH: I recommend those books only to people who I know have a great sense of the absurd and are interested in literature.

BLVR: Speaking of the absurd, I thought of you today when I read about a professor who hates typing on computer keyboards, so he types letters on a typewriter and then scans and emails them. You’ve talked a great deal about your hatred of technology.

JH: Well, I really can’t type. I don’t know how to type, because in my high school that was for the secretarial department.

BLVR: Not learning was a feminist thing?

JH: Yes. A goal was to become some man’s assistant. People have said to me, “You’ve made your point, now you can learn how to type. All the men are typing now, too.”

BLVR: You write in longhand?

JH: Yes, and I then have it typed. I had to get a Mac PowerBook so I could have my work emailed to me. Then I make corrections and fax them back to the typist. It’s not very efficient. Fax machines rarely work. They’re a kind of hell.

BLVR: What is your work area like?

JH: I live in a small house, and I don’t have a desk. I don’t even have a room I could fit a desk into, unless I gave up this little tiny dining room, which is filled with books because it’s impossible to get anyone to build bookshelves. All the carpenters and builders just want to build big houses around here. So my books are on the floor, piled up everywhere. I write in the living room on the sofa.

BLVR: Do you write on legal pads?

JH: No, fax paper.

BLVR: Unruled paper?

JH: Yes.

BLVR: I can’t imagine writing on unruled paper.

JH: Maybe I should get ruled paper. I never thought of it. My typist is too polite to tell me. And my writing is all at an angle, I just realized!

BLVR: You talk a lot about music in your books. Do you listen to music when you write?

JH: Yes. I use music the way other writers use drugs or alcohol. Mozart works best. But I listened to Leadbelly singing “Goodnight, Irene” over and over while I was working on something. I did the same thing listening to Elvis Presley singing “Blue Christmas”—and to the Paul McCartney song “I’m Looking Through You,” after I used up everything by Mozart.

BLVR: We should talk about your new book, Happy Trails to You. What can we say about it? How are you feeling after spending so much time with the manuscript?

JH: Indescribably bad. It’s not the book. It’s the book production stage. It wears you down. You have no other life during this stage.

BLVR: I’m sorry to hear that, because it’s such a great book. It’s so funny and sad.

JH: Oh, I forgot about what’s in the book. The fun part was writing the stories.

BLVR: What was hardest part of writing for you?

JH: Sitting.

BLVR: Are you happy with your body of work?

JH: No. What body?

BLVR: Do you wish you had written more?

JH: I have written more. I gave up publishing my early work after just a few turndowns from the New Yorker. For me, submitting the stories is more difficult than writing them. I wish I had more time and energy for it. I wasted so much time looking for curtain material when I lived in New York. I didn’t have much money, so I was always looking for beautiful things that weren’t expensive.

BLVR: Do you have any idea what you’ll write next?

JH: Yes, but I wouldn’t want to talk about it. I have an idea, but I think it will probably take several volumes, like Remembrance of Things Past or Carl Sandburg’s four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

BLVR: You started having second thoughts about going through with this interview when I used the word departure to describe the content of your new book.

JH: Departure is a word from a transportation schedule.

BLVR: And the word process made you even angrier. How did you feel that the rest of it went?

JH: Well, I tried to train you in advance. So, I think it went better than when it started out.

BLVR: You never do interviews. Why did you agree to this one?

JH: I don’t know. I wish I hadn’t. It’s really wearing me out, thinking about all these things from the past.

BLVR: Well, we can stop here.

JH: It’s too late. The damage is done.

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