Interview The girl-about-town turned fiction author Zoë Heller talks about her highly anticipated new novel, The Believers.
"What do you think of the cover?" she asks. "What does it make you think?" We are sitting outside a restaurant in Tribeca, Zoë Heller's neighbourhood in downtown New York. I look at the cover of Heller's new book. "The believers", it says, in tall red capitals. "Zoë Heller", it says below, in black letters just as tall. The background is tinted a pale custard, and looping around the letters is a dropped-spaghetti squirl of gold filaments with assorted symbols tethered to them: hearts, dollar signs, hammers and sickles, lucky horseshoes.
"It made me think?" I begin. My eye lights on a gold representation of the sacred symbol om. "It made me think there was going to be a whole lot more Buddhism in it." "Yeah," she says, somewhat resignedly. There is no Buddhism in the book. "The Americans tried various things. All awful. The last one had all these symbols but in the shape of a heart. I said, 'It seems a bit soppy to me.' My editor said, 'Really? I thought it was clever.' And I said, 'I don't mean to be rude, but a heart is never clever. A heart is anti-clever. That's why it's a heart.'"
If you had made your name writing the sort of autobiographical prose that cast you as a real-life chick-lit heroine, and then started a second career in literary fiction, you too might be a bit sensitive about having gold foil and hearts on the covers of your books. But to be fair to her publishers, it is hard to see exactly how one would go about designing a jacket for The Believers. Heller's third novel is an Anglo-American family saga masquerading as a novel of ideas: a novel not about the ideas themselves, but about their effect on character and the effect of character on them. Heller's starting point was a magazine article about scientists trying to locate the "belief gene", evidence of a genetic predisposition "to credulity, to faith in religion, politics, love, whatever". And "faith in religion, politics and love" is exactly what The Believers is about.
Belief is hard to illustrate; and The Believers is hard to precis. It is peculiarly shaped. Its central character, a grizzled silverback of a New York human rights lawyer called Joel Litvinoff, spends almost all of the story in a coma after suffering a stroke. His younger English-born wife, Audrey, a fearsome grande dame among Greenwich Village radicals, finds herself suddenly crowded with uncertainty. Her dignity as the wife of the great man - her faith, in a sense, in Joel - is under threat from a woman who comes forward to claim that Joel fathered her child. And her dogmatic leftist secularism is affronted as her elder daughter, Rosa, finds herself drawn, albeit falteringly, towards Orthodox Judaism. For Heller, who has never been a believer - except, she laughingly recounts, for a weeklong burst of pre-teen devotion inspired by a religious painting - "the challenge with Rosa was to write sympathetically and not sneeringly about somebody's road-to-Damascus experience". Heller struggled mightily with the architecture of the book, not least because this is her first attempt at third-person narrative. "You always hear writers saying, 'After the second chapter Jenny just came alive and dictated where it all went.' And I'm always thinking, 'Really?' I was reading an old Paris Review interview where someone quoted Nabokov, who was asked: 'Are you a writer like EM Forster, whose characters leap from the page and sort of tell him where to go?' And he said [she adopts a hammy Russian accent]: 'Who is zis EM Forster? Augh! He can't be a very good writer. No. All my characters are galley slaves.' And I thought, 'Right on!'" The standout character in her last novel, Notes on a Scandal, was its angry, obsessive, loneliness-crazed narrator, Barbara. In The Believers it is Audrey, with her vile temper, self-righteousness and patrician hauteur. Heller has a strong line in unsympathetic female characters, I suggest. "Well," she says, sounding a little crestfallen. "They're not meant to be extremely unsympathetic. I think, probably, I am fast becoming one in a long line of fierce middle-aged trouts. I've known a lot of difficult, powerful, obstreperous women in my life and I have certain tendencies that way myself. And, you know, I find her kind of funny and," she chuckles, "quite loveable." Perhaps I am misreading her, I say. "No, no, no, listen," she says. "This is? it is a problem. It's now emerged as a bit of a theme that people always say, 'Ugh, what hideous characters you write,' and I always say [she adopts another spoofy voice], 'Oh, but didn't you find them rather charming when they did X?' and they say, 'No.' It does seem to be a problem. What can I say?" Heller, dressed in a sleeveless top, looks, at 43, more semi-retired glamourpuss than fierce middle-aged trout. She is drinking Diet Coke and at the end of one toned and tanned arm is a cigarette. On her right shoulder is a relic of her English childhood: a small, faded tattoo of a tortoise. "I was 17," she says. "On the Finchley Road. And I was with some boys who were getting naked women, the ace of spades and so on. I wasn't going to get a naked lady and it happened at the time that my favourite animal was a tortoise." She adds, "Still is, actually. Or one of them, anyway. A manatee would have been rather difficult to do." In person you get the faint sense of there being two Hellers: a rather guarded and very adult watchfulness set just behind a whole lot of chuckling and an almost girlish tendency to break into funny voices. The vocal vamping covers a certain caution. More than once she tells an innocuous story - about an early reader, say, who envisioned Bette Mid-ler, absurdly, playing Audrey in a film version of the book - or ventures an opinion and then hedges it with "you absolutely can't use this" or "this is not for attribution". Often she will say something, then worry how it will come out and modify it. She catches herself sounding humble, and will protest, "Last time I said something like this to an interviewer they said, 'You're being very 'little me'; and this honestly isn't an affectation." Or, "I'm reading Proust at the moment. I mean, please don't write that Zoë would like to be modelling her work on Proust." She is confident and not-confident. Confident enough to know when what she has done is good - she parted company with her first agent, Pat Kavanagh, when Kavanagh wanted Notes on a Scandal reworked in a way Heller was not happy with. But not confident that others will also think she has got it right. Her first novel, Everything You Know, was mauled by critics in Britain when it came out in 2000. Though she attributes the special viciousness of its treatment to "extra-literary" factors - spite, essentially - it is an experience that Heller has not entirely put behind her. She is vocally anxious about how The Believers will be received. As her publisher, Juliet Annan, says of Heller's debut, "I've never had a book where the gap between expectations in-house about what it was going to do, and the reception, has been so shocking." "When I brought out Notes on a Scandal," Heller says, "I had an interview with a particularly snotty Canadian who said, 'A very unlikely Booker book, this, isn't it?' And I said, 'Oh, yes,' being terribly modest and so on. And she said, 'I mean it's small, both literally and metaphorically, isn't it?' So I've always felt a faint inferiority complex about the fact I can't seem to write a fat book." "I remember going into bookshops and Monica Ali's Brick Lane had just come out, and looking at my teeny, anorexic little volume next to her great doorstop, and thinking, clearly, if I was a punter in the bookstore and I had £16 to spend or whatever it is, I'd spend it on Monica's. "I am nervous about Britain," she says. "It's all part of this bigger thing, which is that I've not lived there for a long time. It's both my home, and it isn't, so I feel very odd and displaced when I go back." Sarah Sands, who was the Saturday editor of The Daily Telegraph when Heller was a columnist, says, "I remember going to see her in New York. It was the election last time round, and the conversation was just dripping with irony and wit. I did realise then how un-English she seems. She has the English self-deprecation, but she's very much a New York girl.' The self-deprecation, Sands thinks, is something of a cover. She calls Heller "maybe the most intelligent woman I've ever met". Refashioning herself as a New Yorker took Heller a while, though. "You figure out where to buy your potatoes and where to take your drycleaning and so on, but I underestimated how long it takes to actually make a life for yourself. I got here and discovered, to my surprise, that I actually felt quite alone. But having kids is really what makes you feel that this is where you live." The father of her two daughters, Frankie and Louella, is Larry Konner, a screenwriter 16 years her senior ("There was a bit of a daddy thing going on," she has written). For several years, her rackety single life in Manhattan - disastrous dates, a two-year relationship with an "unfaithful, narcissistic and mentally sadistic" boyfriend - fed her journalism. But then she met Konner. They married in 2005, after having been together for 10 years. She has not yet taken American citizenship, but "probably will at some point". Now, though, the Englishwoman in New York is a New Yorker in the Bahamas. With their two daughters still young (the elder is nine), she and Konner decided to spend a year "somewhere where I could live in a sarong year-round", and are extending their stay on a tiny island there for another year. When we meet they are just back for a week and a half's "New York holiday". "When you're living in the Bahamas," she says, "it's hard to think of where you would go on holiday."
Heller may have a tortoise on her arm, but her career has been hare most of the way. She grew up in London the youngest of four children. Her father, who divorced her mother while she was young, was the German-Jewish screenwriter Lukas Heller; her one-time Communist mother was prone, Heller once wrote, to "dazzlingly unreasonable" rages. Both died within 18 months of each other when Heller was in her twenties: her father abruptly, at 56, of a heart attack; her mother of cancer. Both Notes on a Scandal and The Believers contain strong, absent men and fierce women, but Heller cautions against reading Audrey, for example, as a portrait of her mother. "Mum was never anyone's helpmeet," she says. At Haverstock Comprehensive Heller was a contemporary of David Miliband's. He still has an essay on which a teacher wrote: "Very good, but if you want to see how it should be done, take a look at Zoë's." She took a First in English from Oxford, and went afterwards to New York to do an MA at Columbia. In her early twenties, Heller quit her job as "photocopying slave" in the publishing house Chatto & Windus to make a career as "a freelance book reviewer". She dispatches the absurdity of that proposition with a self-mocking laugh. "I'd never written more than 700 words at a time, and the 700 words would take me about three weeks, so I was beginning to starve." She was rescued from penury by a lightning-strike of good luck. After she met the editor of the Independent on Sunday's colour supplement at a lunch, he rang her up and offered her a staff job as a feature writer on the paper. "It's the sort of thing that I don't think would ever happen again. He was aware of my complete lack of experience. He gave me a couple of scenarios, you know, 'How would you feel about being sent somewhere, landing in a remote town in the Midwest, say, and having to interview people?' 'Fine, yeah, you know I'd be great at that.' And that was how I got it. It was one of those ludicrous things. I thought that all journalism was like that.' In the early 1990s, while on a contract for Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, she moved to New York. A slot filling in for Nick Hornby when he went on holiday launched the confessional columns that made her reputation. Heller is sometimes credited with, or blamed for, inventing the so-called "me, me, me" column. Her autobiographical dispatches were among the most candid and best-written of their era, and were influential. Without her success, it is unlikely we would have seen the subsequent hypertrophy of single-girl-about-town writing. In 2002, the year in which her most remarked-upon column described the "Hitler moustache" effect created by an overenthusiastic bikini waxer, she was named Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards, to the pungently expressed outrage of traditional Fleet Street blowhards such as Richard Littlejohn. The columns made her name; but they also threatened to trap her in a persona. You would not have know from them, for example, that she did postgraduate work in Marxist theory. And they attracted a certain titillated misogyny; hate-mail requesting a signed photograph, that sort of thing. She gave up writing the columns after Notes on a Scandal, and does not admit to much pride in that work. "To the extent that I have any feelings about those columns," she says, "had I thought about it at the time I'd probably have written more cautiously, and I'd have stopped sooner. To some extent I still haven't quite succeeded in working off that aura." The peculiar thing is not that Heller has struggled to get away from it, but that she has succeeded to such an extent. It is unusual that a journalist so identified with one type of material moves on to do something so different in fiction and with such success. Julie Burchill wrote a zeitgeisty bonkbuster, and novels by Allison Pearson, Rachel Johnson and AA Gill have tended to be in some way extensions of their journalism: jocular, slight, flashy, columnistic. Heller's breakthrough book was rather different: a fastidious literary novel telling the story of a slightly dippy female school teacher's affair with a boy pupil, told through the eyes of that chillingly unreliable narrator. Notes on a Scandal earned its place on the Man Booker shortlist. "Her books don't seem autobiographical," Sarah Sands says. "With other journalists who make a success as novelists, you can see they've got a gift for plot or something. But she seems like a proper novelist who just happened to do some journalism for a bit. People used to read her [columns] for that Bridget Jones thing, but they missed how observant, how mercilessly clear-eyed she was." Heller is a serious reader of fiction, too. Asked which writers she admires, she names Joseph Roth, Sybille Bedford, Paula Fox, Shirley Hazzard, Angus Wilson, Nancy Mitford. "I used to worship Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Now I feel a bit cooler about them. Part of it is, and I sort of wince to say it because I wouldn't want it to be mistaken for a particular line of feminist criticism which I don't have much sympathy for, but it's hard to love in a personal way fiction that ignores or doesn't really do a good job with 50 per cent of the human race: women. And that really is the case with both Bellow and Roth." Do you, I ask her, struggle in the same way with male characters? "No. Not at all. Ha ha! Arrogantly, no." Shortly before this interview, I was talking to a senior fiction critic who was astonished that The Believers, a comparably accomplished if very different and less sensational book, had not made this year's Booker longlist. Heller, though she does not volunteer this in a spirit of sour grapes, says that the version submitted to the judges was a problematic and rather different early draft, rushed out so as to make the deadline. Still, she can afford to let the Booker slide. Notes on a Scandal sold half a million copies and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. The film rights for The Believers have already been sold to Miramax. "If there was one thing less likely to be bought for a movie than a proto-lesbian schoolteacher in north London writing about an affair with a little boy,' she says, 'it would be an unsympathetic bunch of people arguing about religion and politics."
© Sam Leith / The Daily Telegraph / 2008