Julia May Jonas, VLADIMIR

Julia May Jonas, VLADIMIR

Zibby is joined by writer, director, and professor Julia May Jonas to discuss her debut novel, Vladimir. The two talk about how the pandemic shifted Julia’s trajectory from theater to fiction, as well as the conversation about aging and female desire that lit the spark in her to write this story. Julia also shares how observing her husband write novels helped her craft hers, the gendered power structures and expectations she tries to push back against, and how her next book will differ from this project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Vladimir: A Novel.

Julia May Jonas: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Such a racy cover, by the way. I’m almost embarrassed to have it faceup in some rooms in my house. Although, also very excited about it.

Julia: I know. Certain people feel like it’s fun to be reading it on the subway. I know certain people will slip the jacket cover off.

Zibby: Were you involved in the cover, by the way?

Julia: I approved of the cover. I think it’s a great cover.

Zibby: It is. It’s amazing.

Julia: Especially for the book, it really flips this idea of the gaze. I think it’s just the right amount of funny for the book. I was shown one cover and then approved it, basically. I didn’t make it.

Zibby: Publisher’s dream. Let’s back up for a second. Can you please tell listeners what your novel is about?

Julia: My novel is about a beloved college professor whose husband, when the novel opens, is being investigated for past, what they view as consensual relationships with former students. Then into her life comes Vladimir Vladinski. He’s the new hire at the English department. She falls head over heels in a combination of lust, admiration, and all of those things for him. That leads her to some disastrous consequences.

Zibby: First of all, I love that you have as a protagonist, a fifty-eight-year-old novelist and writer who has all these feelings of passion and longing, and that it is not over at that age. I feel like so many depictions of older women are not like this, let’s just say. It’s just so invigorating to see a woman who’s full of life and desire and all of that. Tell me about that and how you chose to set her age in that bracket and everything.

Julia: There was this spark that happened when I was at this party with a friend. I had been thinking about this idea of desire. I have two children. I’m married. There’s some way in which you feel, at a certain point, like your lanes are getting smaller, that there’s bigger bumpers on either side in terms of what you’re going to experience, but also what you’re allowed to want and to desire. I asked my friend at this party, “Do you have this core belief that you’re supposed to want less as a woman as you age?” She said, almost immediately, “Yes, I do, and it makes me so angry.” I think we all kind of hold this idea that all of our bumps and desires and wants and messiness are going to be somehow paved out. We’ll enter into some graceful, accepting phase where our aging bodies don’t bother us. The reduction of professional opportunities, we take that all in and process it, and that we have no real reaction or anger or anything about that. I realized I had that belief. That was what I really wanted to explore, was exploding that belief and thinking about someone really being in process and in a state of transition at an age where we have an assumption that you’re supposed to have things figured out in some kind of way.

Zibby: I remember interviewing a bunch of women my grandmother’s age and in her nursing home about their bodies. I just assumed at some point I would stop caring about my body and what it looked like. It does not just happen. You don’t go from being you and whoever you are and have your own issues and neurotic or whatever else you are dealing with and then all of a sudden one day, you’re like, just because I’m this age, I give up. You’re never going to stop caring. You don’t change overnight.

Julia: No. My mom, who’s a perfect weight, who looks wonderful, who’s in her seventies, was just telling me that she’s starting Weight Watchers again because she’s not exactly where she wants to be. For her, I think, you’re so healthy. You exercise five days a week. You’re great. If you can’t accept your body at this point —

Zibby: — She should go hang out with my mom. I feel like they would have a great time. They could walk the golf course together. My mom, now she’s doing intermittent fasting. It’s always something.

Julia: That’s so funny. I feel like, yes, it doesn’t just leave you because, in a way, it’s muscle memory, especially for women who grew up at a certain time in their life. I think it’s worse for my mom, but it’s certainly present for myself. You can’t shake it in the way that you think you’re going to be able to.

Zibby: Very true. By the way, I also love that one of the novels — I want you to go write this novel now. First of all, I love how you write. I said first of all twenty times, so I guess second of all, I love how you write. I just love it. It pulls the reader right in. You’re really great. I have to find this fictious novel where you had an artist. Let me see if I remember. It was an artist, a mother, and a career woman. It was told in three perspectives. Then you realize over the course of the novel that it’s the same woman. I love that. Write that book. Is that coming?

Julia: Actually, when I came up with that idea, I was like, that does sound like a great book. Maybe I will write it at some point. That would be great, kind of my own fan fiction universe of Vladimir.

Zibby: Very meta. It’s perfect. I love that. I also love this concept you have of great mom energy or big mom energy. What did you call it?

Julia: Big mom energy.

Zibby: Tell me about big mom energy. How do I get some of that?

Julia: I think of it as when I’m in a college experience and I’m teaching, for example. There’s so much about teaching college students where you feel like you’re exactly the same as them. It feels like you never really left college. You still identify so strongly with where they’re at in many ways, and in many ways, they seem like children. I feel like sometimes you’re forced to put on that kind of maternal role to encourage them. That’s what expected of you as a woman. As a man, you can be stern, dismissive, cold, put them off. That feels like that’s something that’s allowed and expected of a male professor. There reaches a point when you’re a female professor where there’s this anxiety about having to be nurturing or maternal. Someone brings you in their story, and you have to say, oh, my gosh, it’s so amazing that you did this, that kind of expectation for enthusiasm that’s put upon women, especially in those mentorship roles.

Zibby: Very true. Yes, the mama bear energy.

Julia: I was even examining it in myself in how much I was — I have a mostly female team. There’s so much anxiety that comes in publishing a book. I realized I was trying to hold myself back, but I wanted my editor to mother me. Then I had a certain point of reckoning where I said, she doesn’t need to mother you. If you had a male editor, you wouldn’t be asking for this or expecting this in some way. Again, it’s all these assumptions that we can think are very conscious. They exist for us subconsciously in certain ways.

Zibby: It’s so true. Now I’m going to analyze my relationship with my editor, take that to the therapy I’m not getting but should. I also think it’s so interesting, this whole — her husband, he’s been accused of these non-consensual relationships when, really, as the narrator points out, they were completely consensual. The power of the man was exactly what attracted the women. Now for them to come forward and say it wasn’t consensual or “Look what he’s been doing,” even the notion that he’s cheating on the wife in some negative way, whereas that also was condoned in their relationship, people making all sorts of assumptions about this and then after the fact, as is happening all the time, particularly in school environments, punishing the perpetrator of said acts which may or may not be consensual — you even have this group of women coming in and trying to rally her to be like, you shouldn’t let your husband do this, or whatever they said. Tell me about that because what you see is not what you get, necessarily.

Julia: I was very interested in someone who was having to deal with the world shifting underneath her. It felt important that the relationships, at the time that they were happening, felt like they were okay. Everyone had agreed that they were okay. Now with time and maybe greater consciousness or maybe a certain kind of being swept up in certain ideas that are circulating, they become not okay. That was what I was interested in because I was interested in a character who is having the world shift underneath her. That, in a way, is what happens to all of us as we age. The world changes. We can either decide to get on the waterslide or we can find ourselves stuck and feel like we’re no longer a part of this world that exists. It was important to me that the relationships had been condoned and okay at the time that they were happening. Certainly when I was in college, even though I’m younger than my protagonist, there were relationships between students and teachers. I did not have any of them. They certainly seemed, at the time, like, yes, them being a professor was part of their cache to the women who were engaging with them. It felt like they wanted to have this kind of teacher-student romantic relationship.

Whether those ideas are positive and healthy, I think the narrator is in process about that, about whether power, even if it’s “legally condoned,” is still okay, if that’s not something that she should reevaluate. The other and bigger, more important part is that she didn’t have these relationships, and she’s experiencing the fallout for it too. That’s what really also sets her off. She’s spent her life — especially a woman of her age has spent more of her life trying to separate her career from her existence as a wife and a family person because that was what women of that age had to do. I have a mentor who talks about how she would never speak about her kids in any professional circumstance, ever, because then she would be labeled as a parent. She would seem diminished in front of people’s eyes. I feel very glad that I have kids and I talk about them all the time in professional circumstances and think of that as a form of activism because they exist. Especially for that woman who has spent her whole life trying to say, my domestic life is not who I am, then it’s being really brought up in her face. She’s experiencing consequences for something she didn’t do by nature of her personal and domestic choices. I think that’s what really gets at her.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. How old are your kids, by the way?

Julia: I have an eight-year-old, and I have a one-year-old. Big spread.

Zibby: I had a big spread. I had a six-year gap between my twins and my younger kids. I actually feel like — I don’t know if you feel this way. I feel grateful. I was so much calmer with the little guys. Just that big, deep breath of six years of aging mixed with experience, I’m like, okay, this is much easier.

Julia: Yes. I’m at the point where I feel like it makes vacations strange. Other than that, I’m so grateful to have someone who I can really speak to. They both provide, in a way, a relief from each other.

Zibby: Yes, very true. I know. I like that too. I’m like, you’re having a tantrum. Okay, I’m going to this room. See ya. Still doing my job. Just switching gears here.

Julia: You’re in emotional breakdown. I’m going to go to somebody who just is happy to see me.

Zibby: Exactly. You want to paint me a really pretty picture of a rose or something? I’m going to sit next to you, not next to the terror. No, I’m kidding. Although, not really kidding. Tell me about your writing career and your life. Where are you from? How did you get started in this? How did you end up writing this book?

Julia: My main career has been as a playwright and a theater maker. I was born in Texas. I grew up in New Jersey. I went to undergraduate for acting, actually, at NYU. Then three months into it, I said, oh, gosh, wow, I really don’t want to be an actor. That seems like a very hard life. Also, I don’t want to be an employee. I want to be a boss. I quickly switched over to making pieces and making work. Then I spent a long time in New York making a very experimental theater work where I was collaging text and choreographing, all in very off-off-off-Broadway theaters. Then I eventually went and got my MFA in playwriting and then after that was more working inside of the playwriting world. I started teaching playwriting. Then I had a big project that was set to take place during the pandemic at a theater, which was this five-play cycle. It was supposed to be in fall of 2020. When March happened, we were right in the throes of planning. We had raised a huge budget. I just kept getting phone call after phone call about postponement, postponement, postponement. Now some version of it is going to take place in spring of 2023. In any case, I needed to write. Part of the reason why I had a five-play cycle is because I love putting in the hours of writing every day or at least an hour. It feels like my moment of sanity and my moment where I can really touch something that is bigger than my existence.

In the pandemic that felt especially important, but I couldn’t write a play because theater didn’t exist. It just felt too dispiriting. I had this character who had existed in another play. I thought about her. I started writing in her voice. I wrote that first chapter of Vladimir. I thought, yes, I know this can be a book. I think I can keep going with this. I had written prose before, but I had always either not clicked into the voice or gotten dissatisfied after a certain point or moved on to work on a play because plays are very immediate and community-oriented. Someone would say, hey, let’s do a workshop. I’d be like, okay, great. Let me throw my novel away. I’ll come move over and do this thing that happens with people where we can talk. That was essentially my practice. I was lucky because my husband, Adam Sternbergh, he is a crime writer. I’ve watched him write novels. That witnessing was really important to me because I could see what it took. I saw that, basically, for a period of six to eight months, the majority of days of week, he sat down, and he wrote something without hope or fear. That was the process. After that, I felt like I had really fallen into the voice and the way of writing. I figured out a lot of things about myself as a prose writer. That’s where it went.

Zibby: Did you and your husband ever get competitive with how many pages you did in a day or anything like that?

Julia: No. He’s just amazing in that I’ve only felt support about it. In terms of writing, he was editing a book at the time rather than working on a book. We were at different writing phases.

Zibby: It’s great to have an at-home tutor, if you will. Not that you needed it. Now are you hooked on the novel as a form?

Julia: Yes. I really felt like I found something. In a way, I felt like it was taking what, really, I enjoyed the most about my playwriting and then also removing, at least at the time, what I enjoyed the least, which was — it’s a direct transmission to a reader. That felt so empowering. Yes, I really loved writing it and have been working on a second book. That feels so fun. It’s all I want to do, even though I have an eight-year-old and the one-year-old and I can’t do it all the time.

Zibby: What’s your new book about?

Julia: My new book, I’m very superstitious about saying what it’s about, but it’s a very different approach. I wanted to challenge myself. It’s got a very big sprawl as opposed to this being a very tight little story.

Zibby: I’ll take it. In your spare time when you’re not writing plays or novels and dealing with your kids, what do you like to read?

Julia: I am a pretty voracious reader. I love to go back and read old things. Recently, I’ve been loving to go back and read old things that I remember from high school, really loving. I just finished Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage because I remember being slayed by that story when I was in college. I recently reread Portrait of a Lady, the Henry James book, because I had also — I’ve been trying to think about these — what were the books that really shaped me at that certain point in my life? I’ve been reading that kind of old nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century literature. I love Shirley Hazzard, writers like that. Recently, I read my friend Chloé Cooper Jones’ memoir, which I thought was just so spectacular.

Zibby: I’m interviewing her. I can’t wait to read it. It’s here somewhere. I’m reading it soon.

Julia: She’s so wonderful. It’s so brilliant. I loved it so much.

Zibby: How important is the whole writer community to you?

Julia: It’s interesting because I don’t know a lot of writers. Now whenever somebody writes to me, I try and say, do you want to get a coffee? Do you want to meet up? Do you want to do anything? I know mostly theater people. It’s weird. It’s strange to me how the worlds don’t really intersect that much. You would think that they had more of an overlap, but they really don’t. I don’t have a huge amount of writers who I know personally. I’m interested in making that happen more for myself now.

Zibby: Where do you live? Where are you based?

Julia: I live in Brooklyn, which is writer central.

Zibby: Awesome. Next time I have an event here, I invite, usually, all the writers who have been on the podcast. I’ll loop you into — I feel like I was really lucky. When I started this whole podcast, there was this group of writers. They all used to work at the Society Library on 79th Street. I interviewed one of them. Then they introduced me to the whole group. They’re so amazing. They’re still this really tight group, so much that I’m like, oh, and here you all are at lunch. I feel like once you get into somebody’s group, then you get to know the whole — there are these preexisting pockets, but not that many. Look, so many books are coming out all the time. It’s crazy.

Julia: There are so many books. There’s also a big market for books. My metaphor for people when they ask about how slow a theater career is, I say, think about every theater in New York. Imagine if they were a bookstore. They would have five books in them, at maximum. Most of them would have one. It wouldn’t be that many bookstores. That world is so, so small, whereas people read books all the time for all sorts of reasons. I found that encouraging, what a big market it is.

Zibby: It’s true. Although, there are so many books too. I was with some of my college girlfriends. They were all reading, like you, older books, nineteenth century. Not all of them, but three of the five. Then I’m thinking to myself, this is terrible. You’re not buying new books. You’re bringing your old books back out. There is a big audience, but they’re not always all reading everything as soon as it hits the shelves the way people in the industry might think that people are reading. They’re not reading like that, necessarily.

Julia: I found it kind of stunning that people picked up my book when it first came out. I read a lot of contemporary fiction. The first time I see a book on a just-released shelf, that would not be my impulse, to pick that book up. Now I’m much more conscious of that. I do try and support new writers, especially if I feel like what they’re making seems interesting. I can get something early because I understand it now, but I didn’t understand the economics of that before.

Zibby: I don’t think most people understand that it really matters. It really matters to an author, that first week or two weeks or pub day or whatever. I think there’s some sort of misalignment in the public and the people producing it and the people consuming it. I don’t even think the layperson knows the importance of why you encourage indies, why there are so many layers of — anyway, I wonder if education is the answer or if it’s better just to suspend it the way it is, suspend the disbelief of the market efficiency. I don’t even know.

Julia: The nice thing about books is that they really do keep. If someone says to me, I haven’t read your book, it’s not going anywhere. At least for a few years, you’ll be able to find it, hopefully.

Zibby: It’s like the movie model too. You were talking about theater. Movies that used to come out, you knew it was a finite period of time. You have to go to the theater, and then you can get it in some other way. With books, you always know they’re not going anywhere. What’s the rush? It’s a blessing and a curse, in a way.

Julia: Yeah, especially when there’s so many other, also, forms of media that are constantly popping up. I agree. The nice thing is, again, you can have it on your shelf. When it feels to be the right time, you can pick it up. It can really shift you.

Zibby: The right book at the right time is amazing. Your story is really timeless. Again, as I said in the start, just how amazing it is to have an older narrator. I’ve always been somebody who reads a little ahead to see what’s coming in life. What’s coming next? We’re relatively the same age. I don’t know how old you are, but we’re not fifty-eight. Having this preview, even though it’s fictious, I feel like is a helpful guidepost in the craziness of life.

Julia: I like to write out of a feeling of fantasy or fear often. I feel like that’s a useful place to think about whether — if you’re writing tragedy, then it’s maybe out of fear or a mixture of both.

Zibby: Interesting. I remember interviewing Chris Bohjalian. He said he always tries to write to the feeling of dread, which I love.

Julia: Yes, that resonates. I remember, it was maybe Ann Patchett who said something like, she writes so that the thing that she’s writing won’t happen.

Zibby: I used to do that all the time with my worrying. I still do it. I’m like, if I worry about this enough, then I’m taking it off the table.

Julia: Right. I think that’s the nature of anxiety, the idea that worry is going to be the thing that solves it.

Zibby: I’m still clinging to that. My brain clings to that well-entrenched habit even though life has not played out that way. Last question. What’s your advice for aspiring authors?

Julia: I would say not to let your emotions get in the way of your writing, especially when it comes to your initial idea. If you have an initial idea that makes you excited, then don’t pay so much attention as you go along about whether you are starting to think, oh, this idea’s actually really bad. This will never sell. This won’t do anything. Recognize all those thoughts as little lawyers in your head who are going to talk you out of doing something. Just keep going without hope or fear. Really, the thing that is going to make you an artist is to finish something. Work towards finishing something. Don’t pay too much attention to how you’re feeling about it at the time because you’re never going to feel completely good about something as you write it. Your feelings are kind of liars based on your brain chemistry and what you ate last night.

Zibby: I love that. It’s so true. Amazing. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Vladimir, Julia May Jonas. Congratulations. You’re a really fabulous writer. I can’t wait to read what you have next. Really, really talented. It’s awesome to read such great writing.

Julia: Thank you so much. This was such a great conversation.

Zibby: Good. Have a great day.

Julia: You too.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Julia: You too. Bye.

VLADIMIR by Julia May Jonas

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