Julavits's Collection 'The Folded Clock' Takes Time For A Spin

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03-Jun-15
Like many people who grow up to be writers, Professor Heidi Julavits kept diaries as a child.

"Before I found and reread them, I was proud of what my memory of these diaries said about me," she wrote in her latest book, The Folded Clock, an excerpt of which she shared with NPR's The Diane Rehm Show. "I'd been fated to be a writer! I had proof of my doggedness — many volumes of it. I imagined them published at some future date, when my literary fame might bestow upon them an artistic and biographical value."

As it turned out, the reality did not stand up to the ideal.

"The actual diaries, however, reveal me to possess the mind of a phobic tax auditor," she continued. "I exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality."

Fortunately, Julavits stuck with her craft. She now is the author of four novels, a co-editor of the recently hailed anthology Women in Clothes, a founding editor of The Believer and a professor in the School of the Arts Writing Program. The Folded Clock (Doubleday 2015), her first nonfiction collection, has made her the author of what Eula Biss, writing for The New York Times, called "an exquisite diary."

"This diary is a diary in the way that Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a confession, or that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a journal, or that Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book is a pillow book," Biss continued. "Meaning it is, and it isn’t. The Folded Clock refuses one of the primary conventions of the diary: chronology. The entry for July 16 is followed by Oct. 18, which is followed by June 18. Time moves loosely forward, so that the final entries occur a year or two after the initial entries, but time loops and circles forward."

In an interview with Elysha Chang for Electric Literature, Julavits said that the book grew partially out of her desire to avoid the "plot traps" she thought that she had begun to fall into with her fiction. She said that she visited a friend who was a visual artist, and the friend said that she had been pushing paint through a canvas and found the resulting forms to be so sculptural that she started making sculptures of them.

"I was so struck by the fact that she would start working without any preconceived notion of what it was she was ultimately trying to create," she said. "Never in my life have I started a book without deciding ahead of time what it would be. . . . (A)s a writer you usually decide the final form before you’ve written a single word. This is going to be a short story, this is going to be a novel, this is going to be an essay. After visiting my friend’s studio, that mindset suddenly seemed so limiting. I was cutting myself off from all sorts of accidental discoveries along the way. I was limiting my opportunities for play. To that end, I wanted to return to a formulation I’d used as a child. I’d kept a diary every day and each entry started with ‘Today I.’ "

It's a formulation that works, according to a review by Heller McAlpin for The Los Angeles Times.

"Diaries, like personal essays and blogs, are only as interesting as their creators," McAlpin wrote. "Julavits, as we know from her inventive novels — including, most recently, The Vanishers — is a pro at spinning stories."

Reviewers have noted that in her entries, Julavits displays a knack for imbuing broader musings into the seemingly banal. Her Keeping Society, an online companion to the book, gives similar weight to the odds and ends of paper and small items that she displays there. In a piece for the Times, she explained that her virtual keeping society was inspired by an actual keeping society, a collection of objects curated by community members in the town in Maine where she and her family spend their summers.

"I am driven not only by the certainty of my own eventual extinction, but also by the likely future extinction of the type of paper evidence that filled my desk drawers," she wrote. "I no longer generate material proof of a day at the same rate I once did. Receipts are electronic. Boarding passes are electronic. I read bat mitzvah poems from my phone. Soon my pockets, no matter how far I’ve traveled and no matter how much I’ve eaten or seen or done, will be empty."
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