an interview with Zoe Heller      
photo of Zoe Heller

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  I want to start off by saying that I absolutely loved Everything You Know.

Oh, thank God. I'm going to be pleased we've had this phone call.

I also just read your Harper's Bazaar piece this morning. Very impressive.

Thank you (laughs). I'm rather mortified by that bit. I mean I'm very glad that they paid for me to go to this ritzy place and to lose the weight that I wanted, but the writing of the article is quite a price to pay. So many people have rung me up and said, "Is that your body?!?"

Is that your body?

No, believe me, if that was my body I'd be showing a lot more of it. But it does allow for some confusion. The guy's happy because apparently three people have already rung him [based on the article] and said, "I'd like to join up." Since he's fantastically expensive, I think he's pretty happy. It's ludicrous really. It's basically paying somebody hundreds of dollars an hour to tell you how to sit up.

Are your loyal readers ready for these milestones in your life?

Well, the people who followed my column haven't read that column for a while. They're not aware of any milestones in my life.

Congratulations on the birth of your baby, by the way.

Thank you very much. I'm afraid that the intro in Bazaar to my piece is an incredibly smug-sounding roundup of me: "Today I've got a book, a baby, and I'm very, very happy--so there!" It sort of makes me want to say, "Well not everything's perfect, you know!"

Back to my readers, you know I now write for a completely different readership, in a completely different kind of column. I don't think the readers of the Telegraph who read me banging on about American politics week after week a) know about what's going on in my life, and b) care much. Which is in some ways quite refreshing, because doing a personal life column for four years becomes a bit oppressive after a while, probably for the readership as well as for me.

There's a reason why I gave it up, apart from having done it for far too long. It was never a particularly good column in that it's not writing that I look back on and say, "Hmm, fine prose, Heller." It was its own thing. It was a particular kind of chatty, mercurial column.

But you have no regrets?

Oh I have many regrets about all sorts of things (laughs). Well, I don't in the sense that it paid me lots of money to do not very much work and to pursue other things for a long time, so I can't complain about it, and certainly no one's forcing me to do it. I do have regrets in that I look back and think, "Ooh, God, what were you writing, Heller?!?"

What were some of the moments that you realized you had "become" a writer, that you were making a difference and gaining recognition?

I've never felt that I was making a difference. There was a point where I realized that I actually was making a living doing this, and that's probably as close as I've come to what you're describing. That was relatively early on. I took my first job in London, and then I sort of walked out grandly after a year and said "I'm going to go be a journalist." They all sniggered. It was a slightly ludicrous notion that I was going to actually launch myself into journalism, so I wasn't earning a great deal of money for a while and then I was extremely lucky and I got offered a job writing for the book reviews in London, for papers like The Independent and what was then City Limits, a kind of off-shoot of Time Out. I got a job at The Independent, as a feature writer for their Sunday edition, and that's where I stayed for about four years.

I think this being able to make a living writing was very important, and that started when I was about 23 or 24. I wasn't making a living out of writing poems or anything grand, I was making a living out of writing hack journalism. But yes, that was important.

How did the experiences that you had in New York, those that became fodder for your column, differ from experiences you might have had had you stayed in London?

Probably because it was a very personal column, about being depressed and having love affairs, all those things were pretty translatable. I would have probably been going through some version of the same thing in London. One thing, simply because I was writing from a foreign country, I think I was less inhibited than I otherwise might have been about telling the truth. It gave me the very dangerous illusion that I wasn't really writing for a real audience, but was just sending these things off into the ether. It was only on the very occasional trip back to London that I'd go up to a bank teller and she'd say, "Are you Zoë Heller? So how's your life been then?!" I'd been telling intimate details not quite of my sex life, but close enough. I'd suddenly be overcome with mortification and horror. I wouldn't say it was a good thing, but that's what it did. It made me alarmingly straightforward.

Does the fact that you are a writer from England living and working in the States help or hinder your reception here in any way?

One thing I like is that I've never written that kind of column here. The thing about writing that column was, I'd done all sorts of journalism before it and I've done all sorts since, but it may well be the thing that I get paid the most for and gain the most notoriety for ever in my life. Which is a bit grim in one way, and in another I've sort of reconciled myself to it. The advantages of being in America are that no one knows or cares about that column. There's a danger of exaggerating this: it wasn't so madly popular in England, but it was well-known enough to have an effect on how other journalists and how commissioning editors saw me. I don't think I'm really in a position to know what people make of my writing here. I'm not that well-known. One funny thing is that because I did a couple of pieces about fashion and fashion-related issues, for some bizarre reason, many people that I come across imagine that I am some kind of fashion specialist, which anybody who knows me finds richly amusing, because I know nothing about fashion. I'm more inclined to come across strange misapprehensions like that here--I'm a fashion writer--or I did a couple of pieces on business, so I'm a business writer. But I don't know what people make of my Englishness in particular.

Are you in New York for the long-term?

Yes. I like England and Englishness in the abstract, and can even work myself up into a certain amount of nostalgia, or patriotic feeling, but I don't really like living there. I don't even particularly like going back there for a visit. I still have two sisters and their families there, but both of my parents are dead, and my own fledgling family is here, as well as my brother, who's in California. So I feel pretty settled here.

I like this idea of living in a culture, in a country, that is not my own: one that is familiar enough to me not to be utterly strange and intimidating, but that I feel somewhat outside of. I think that's quite a nice way to live. If you are a born and bred New Yorker, what better place is there?

Has New York's social composition changed a lot since you first arrived?

I don't know whether it has noticeably since I properly moved here, but I was at college here [Columbia] very briefly, and at that time that was New York in '88. I've been thinking about this because of all these homeless issues. That was a period in which you'd get on the subway and there would be this long minstrel parade of homeless men and women tootling their trumpets or singing songs. The homeless were much more evident before Giuliani did his sweep of all the parks and campuses. It was sort of the pre-tweeification of Times Square. When I was about eighteen I traveled through America with a girlfriend and I remember coming to New York and we stayed at this establishment called the Carter Hotel, which is a really grim version of the hotel in Wonderfully Modern Millie. It was just the biggest shithole with cockroaches crawling over your bed at night and suspicious stains on all the sheets, but I remember being completely thrilled because we had this tiny little room that we got for fifty-bucks a night and there was a red neon sign from Times Square that flashed across my bed every ten seconds. This was just the last word in romance. Obviously I don't tend to stay in Carter hotels any more. I don't know...actually that's an interesting question, whether it's simply because I live here now and that I have sort of domesticated the city, or whether it's actually changed. It's probably sort of a combination of the two. It's not the big, scary, daunting place that it was. I realize that it's a sort of maddening thing that privileged middle-class people say, "Oh, I loved it when there were prostitutes roaming Times Square," but given that all you do when you clean up Times Square is move prostitutes over to 10th Avenue, I'm not so sure it's a great thing.

I agree with you. I suppose it's time I ask you a few questions about the book now...Who is Willy Muller? Where does the character come from?

Mainly from my head. The general suspicion is that he must be a thinly-veiled version of my father, because my father wrote screenplays for a living ("Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and "The Dirty Dozen") and quite a bit of Willy's biography is similar to my father's: the German-Jewish refugee who moved to England, then lived with his wife in America, that sort of thing. But those fairly banal similarities aside, they don't have very much in common, and certainly my father wasn't the sort of misanthropic pig that Willy is.

But he has a heart, and he does the whole time. I didn't view any of the characters as entirely negative, or without conscience.

Well that's nice, because when I first started showing this to people, a number of them said, "Ugh, why would we want to spend any time with this incredibly unpleasant man." Which I didn't really have an answer for: I mean, either you find he has some charm or some redeeming qualities or you don't. So yes, I would hope that there are things that certainly make you want to stay with him, stay with his narration. I think I wanted to write in that voice, a sort of amusing meanness.

Do you think cynicism like his makes sense?

I wouldn't say this was an advert for Willy's state of mind; it's not a homily for people to start being nasty. I think that at least part of Willy's views on the world are only surprising to people in that they're brazen. It's not their content so much as the fact that they're being expressed. I think there are some things about the way people look or his attitudes toward women that are common; it's just that he's speaking them.

Have you developed in your own mind the scenes that directly follow the book's conclusion?

I'm not sure whether I succeeded in this, but I think that in part the book is quite a short one. I'm not sure that the trajectory I wanted is actually achieved. I think the idea was that at the end there was not a sort of Road to Damascus revelation. He doesn't suddenly say, "My goodness, I'm going to be a lovely guy from now on." I think what I had in mind for him was hope for some amelioration, some slight change. I certainly don't see for him a Scrooge-like ending. I guess part of it was that he was going to become slightly happier himself in some way, by reconnecting with some parts of himself. I suppose my answer is that most people are mixtures of outrageous unpleasantness and surprising pockets of decency.

Did Sadie ultimately forgive her father? Was her sending of the journals a sort of a reaching out, a deeper understanding of him than she'd acknowledged?

In a way I'm reluctant to answer the question because I feel that whatever's in the book is what's in the book and people should make of it what they will. But for the hell of it I would say that--and particularly in the case of someone who's died as she has, suicide being the most mysterious of deaths--we don't know in what spirit she did things. My guess would be that it's a mixture of things, and that it's slightly aggressive, a somewhat angry thing--"Look how miserable my life has been"--and that also within this is some attempt at a posthumous rapprochement: "If you read this you will understand me."

Do you think we'll ever see Willy again?

Well the thing I'm trying to write next is not something in which Willy will have any remote part. I don't know, maybe I'll miss him and bring him back. The one thing that would make that likely is that I thoroughly enjoyed writing in his voice, but I don't have any great yearnings to do more of that now. I'd like to try some other things first.

How did the finished product differ from what you set out to write?

It wasn't half as good. You kind of have to begin with a very grand hope for what you're going to do, and inevitably what you bring out is a sort of burnt offering by comparison. To maintain this metaphor, the thing I remember feeling towards the end of writing this book was this feeling that I didn't care if it was an excellent cake or excellent batch of cookies; I just wanted people to read it and tell me that it was recognizably in the cake or cookie family. That it tasted even remotely right. At that point, that seemed like an immense achievement. You lose all sense: "Have I just been writing 'The cat sat on the mat' several times over or is this at all coherent?"

What are your future plans?

I'm trying to write another novel, and I'll leave that at that. I'd like to write more fiction, and I will certainly continue writing journalism of some description for the foreseeable future, because that's how I pay the bills. Having a baby puts a bit of a crimp in your life. It's funny, because I spoke to a woman writer who was heavily pregnant last year and she said, "Oh, it's actually a very good thing. It makes you more disciplined, because when you're paying somebody to look after your child you know you can't sack around and do the vacuuming when you should be writing." It's only four months in for me, and I've only recently brought a babysitter in in the mornings. So I have yet to see--I remember thinking at the time that it was a very hopeful way of looking at things--that a baby is good for your writing. So I shall see.

interview by Laura Buchwald

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    Photo credit © Lorian Tamara Elbert