Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner. 18th October 2008.
Zoë Heller has reviews on her mind. They’re coming in at the rate of one or two a day, and they have been, mostly, excellent. But it niggles her that many reviewers haven’t understood the message of her third novel, The Believers. Many have said that the novel is a satire on 1960’s idealism.
“I never intended it as that,” she says, feigning horror.
It bugs her too, that the theme of her new reviews, is that Zoë now specialises in unlikeable characters.
“Critics have complained that there is no one to love in this book. I’m torn between wanting to defend my characters, by saying, ‘well, they have crosses to bear;’ and asking them when they started going into fiction with the expectation of finding likeable people.”
When Zoë has quoted a few more reviews, using them to illustrate her answers to every single question; I ask her, does she mind terribly what they say?
“Certainly not as much as I used to. I am less likely to be felled by a bad one; but I am very aware now of people reading the book in ways that I didn’t intend.”
A former journalist Zoë wrote a high profile girl about town column for years. It was racy, and highly personal. So when she tells me that fiction is more exposing than journalism, I am somewhat sceptical.
“The columns were, obviously, saying things about my real life,” she concedes, “but the truth is that was a persona. That ‘naughty knickers Heller’ moniker was not really me, and it was a while before I caught on that it was regarded that way. And of course it is bad form and boring to say, ‘no I am much more serious than that.’
Zoë punctuates her talk with laughter. It’s a rich, husky sound. She’s appalled when I tell her it’s a smoker’s laugh, and admits she has a pretty heavy habit.
Her first novel, Everything You Know, was well reviewed in America; but was slated by some English critics. So being Booker shortlisted for her second, Notes on a Scandal, came as a relief. The movie version of the book detailing an affair between a married teacher and her teenage pupil, won Zoë further acclaim and fame. Was such success difficult to follow?
“Not in the writing of it,” she says. “Because in order to write you have to shut out the world and other people’s expectations. And if I was trying to write a super successful follow up, I would not have taken on the particular set of subjects that I did. Those are not guaranteed best seller.”
The Believers is a wonderful novel with huge scope. Set in New York, it’s about a dysfunctional family on the cusp of change. Joel Litvinoff, a high profile radical lawyer suffers a stroke and falls into a coma. His English wife of 40 years, Audrey, struggling to cope, learns a secret that sends her beliefs in Joel into freefall.
Her children have problems of their own. Rosa is exploring Orthodox Judaism, and though she’s appalled by its subjugation of women, she’s considering practising a Torah- observant life. Karla’s marriage becomes increasingly strained, and as for Lenny; Audrey’s adopted son; he’s back on drugs.
What was the spark?
“I wanted to write a larger book about a family, and I wanted to write about lefties,” she says. “I read once about scientists who were trying to locate the belief gene. A gene that would predispose you to being a believer into something, be it Catholicism or Communism. I have often observed in life people who seem hardwired. They take on a belief and they stick to their conviction at all costs; in spite of any contradictorily evidence.
“The classic example is communists who went ‘la la la’ with their fingers in their ears when Uncle Joe turned out to be not too savoury a character, but it can apply to beliefs you might have about yourself too. Take Karla. She has always been the dutiful daughter, and had been told from a young age what defined her limits.”
Such ‘type casting’ gave Karla an abysmal sense of self. This is in stark contrast to Lenny’s girlfriend Tanya, who has the hyper-inflated self esteem too often seen in today’s children. Zoë now 43, has two young daughters. Does she worry, ever, about striking the right balance with them?
“That’s a great question,” she says, playing for time. “And yes, I do struggle with that. My mother had tough standards and expected us to do well academically. In the last 25 years parents are much more inclined to tell their children they are special in their own way, and can make all their dreams come true. And it is all a bit soppy and less exacting. My husband,” (the screenwriter Larry Konner,) “is more likely to tell them they’re fabulous; and I am more likely to say, ‘that is all right, but I know you can do better.”
Audrey, in the book, is strident, opinionated, and a terrible mother.
“She’s funny too,” says Zoë. “If not, exactly, representative of her generation, she has some of their problems. She grew up as feminism was dawning. Those women had a tough time because their expectations were much higher, but the means to achieve them was stuck in the 1950’s.
“One of the reviews said ‘it is a shame that the lovely charismatic Joel leaves the picture so soon and we are left with the old bag Audrey.’ That is ironic, because that is precisely the response Audrey has dealt with all her life. She was seen as the unsung handmaiden to the great man.”
I compliment Zoë on the opening to the book; where, back in the 1960’s in London, we see Audrey as an outsider at a party. As she stands at the window, observing Joel, we get an insightful look at how she ticks.
“I can’t tell you how many times I wrote and rewrote that paragraph,” she says. “People have said it was a strange place to start a novel, when I then leap to 2002, but I felt it was important to present how their relationship started; and how they got each other wrong from the start.”
Born and brought up in London, Zoë lived in new York for years. But last year she and Larry decided to rent out their house there, to escape the harsh winters.
“It suddenly occurred to us, that as writers, we can live wherever we like. We’ve been living on a very small island in the Caribbean, and will do so for another year. And it’s a cheap choice,” she says.
As for the domestic life, that, she says, has freed her.
“When I was leading a single rather rackety life I got to bed at all sort of odd hours and never had a routine. When you have only the hours that your children are at school, it concentrates the mind. And I don’t spend all that physical energy thinking about my love life and who I will end up with anymore.”
Larry is 16 years older, but that, she says, is all positive.
“It works for any number of reasons. For one thing it gives you a false sense of youth,” she says, with a burst of that smoker’s laugh. “Even as you descend into grim and wrinkly old age you are still the young cutie.”
The Believers by Zoë Heller is published by Fig Tree at 14.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008.