I just got off the phone with Zoe Heller, who is definitely doing something right. While she spent her Bahama morning walking her two daughters down to their little schoolhouse before coming home to make herself a cup of tea and edit a short story, I waited for two fully-packed L trains to pass by before finally squeezing my body onto a third to make it my desk in time for our interview. It almost makes me hate her as much as one of her difficult characters.
Heller understands when I’m a few minutes late because she’s a New Yorker. In fact, later in our conversation she admits that she ended up in New York because the pace suits her; she claims to have raised a few Bahamian eyebrows with fast talkin’ requests for coffee and still pines for those days when she’d scream at her local deli guy for a tuna sandwich, because he’d be shouting right back at her. I think she’s just being generous because I’m not a super successful journalist (Vanity Fair! The New Yorker!) turned critically-acclaimed author living in paradise, but I’ll take it.
People say that back in her journo days, Heller was like the pre-Bridget Jones Bridget Jones. I think think this might be their misguided way of pointing out that she’s 1. British, 2. self-deprecating, and 3. a total trip to chat with, but other than that I don’t see the similarities. For starters, she’s stunning. She’s also smart as hell, which, no offense to Bridge, was never her strong point. Regardless of whether or not it was true, this is why many people failed to take her seriously when she branched out into literary fiction with Everything You Know in 2000.
As she has said in interviews before, that book got crapped on (particularly in Britain). Three years later she published What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted into an award-winning (albeit much less complicated) film starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. That kind of thing shuts people up.
Which brings me to why we were on the phone — The Believers, Heller’s latest book (which you can browse here) was released in the US earlier this week; it examines a New York family of left wingers who are struggling to find and/or maintain their faith in something bigger than themselves. That makes it sound much drier than it really is, so let me try again, starting with the character Heller says presented herself first: Karla.
Most of the UK reviewers have made a big song and dance out of the fact that she’s fat, but Heller says she didn’t intend that to be read as a character flaw. She says Karla is meant to be her decent, likable character — something she’s been accused of lacking in past work (cough, cough). Karla’s a social worker who’s married to a union activist who seems to get off on how selfless he is for loving her. He winces at the thought of having sex, but insists that they start a huge brood ASAP. He’s also sort of obsessed with her family.
Then there’s the other sister: Rosa. She was a revolutionary socialist living in Cuba, but became disillusioned and returned to New York where she’s working at an after-school program for girls in Harlem. While her mother insists that some good sex would straighten Rosa out, she finds more of a connection after stumbling into an Upper West Side synagogue. Many reviewers have read the spiritual journey that Rosa takes into the world of Orthodox Judaism as satire, but Heller insists that’s not what she was trying to do. “Belief can inspire people, but it can also land you in a straitjacket,” she explains. “I wanted to look at a group of people dealing with losing their faith in something that had been so important and constitutive of who they were — how people move on from that. Some will cling to ideas that have failed as long as they can. Look at poor Alan Greenspan.”
Which brings us to Audrey, the difficult matriarch. Her husband suffers a massive stroke in the opening pages, and as someone who has defined herself for over forty years as the unimpressed wife of a powerful leftist radical. As a mother, her interactions with her daughters are limited to picking at Karla about her weight, and Rosa about her sudden religious fervor. Audrey saves her lioness love for an adopted son, Lenny, who remains a baby in her eyes even though he’s well into his 30’s. It’s really, really hard to like her. “But she’s not as awful as she seems, if you really think about it,” Heller insists with a laugh. “If you really believe that she’s this unmitigated monster — if you don’t have a few fleeting moments of sympathy for her plight, no empathy at all — then I haven’t done my job well. I think there’s a part of me, of all of us, that’s like her. That likes to passionately argue. But you have to realize that you just don’t get to have the last word all of the time.”
Lucky for the reader, Heller does do her job well. So well, in fact, that after putting down the book on Sunday, I found myself wondering how my friend Rosa was doing on Monday night. Weird, right? Not that something like that would happen to Heller: “After five years of sitting around with these characters inside your head, you are so heartily so sick of them, and your prose. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but I’m glad to be rid of them. Go away, Rosa! I’m not thinking, oh, how I miss Audrey…”
Speaking of time, why does it take her so long to write her novels? “I often feel like I haven’t got the experience to sit there and say, ‘Oh, yes, this is how you write a scene about x.’ It each time I begin a new book, it feels a bit like I’m starting over, with a particular new set of rules. It’s that — the architecture of it — that always takes me the most time to lay down. Me sitting there, sucking on pencil. With this last one, there was the fact that I was writing in third person for the first time, which is much harder — especially with an ensemble. It was a great lesson in figuring out point of view, but it was really tough. I feel like I’m still on a very steep learning curve. The easier part, and the part I love most, is constructing the individual sentences. I’m hoping this next time around I can do more producing. Just look at Jonathan Lethem!”
We believe in you Heller.