The Millions Interview: Zoë Heller

February 27, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 4 min read

coverZoë Heller’s new novel, The Believers, is an enormously entertaining and sharply observed story about the Litvinoff family in New York City. When father Joel, a famous radical leftist lawyer, suffers from a stroke and falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and his two grown daughters, Rosa and Karla, find themselves wrestling with revelations about his identity, and their own. Joseph O’Neill calls the novel, “A moving, intelligent look at intellectual loyalties – to ideology, religion, family–and the humans attached to them.” You can browse inside the book here.

Zo&euml Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2003.

The Millions: Early in the book, Audrey’s friend Jean wonders if the whole Litvinoff family possesses a genetic “gift of conviction” (26). It’s an interesting idea, and throughout the novel we see the female members of the family – Audrey, Karla, and Rosa – grasping onto old or new beliefs, perhaps as a way to render their lives comprehensible, or meaningful. Were you playing with this idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote these characters’ lives?

Zoë Heller: I think I always saw this book as a novel about people with a particular aptitude for faith. But the way in which these characters struggle to maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is something most people have experienced at some point in their lives, I think.

TM: Why did you decide to portray a famous family of leftists? How do their political beliefs shape not only who they are, but how they interact with one another? When you began, were you setting out to satirize leftist politics, or simply strong political beliefs in general?

ZH: I don’t think my aim was to satirize the left. Actually, I don’t think my aim was satire, period. I wanted to write about the way in which beliefs of all kinds – political, religious, conservative, progressive – operate on their adherents. The novel focuses on a family of leftists, largely I think because that is the political culture with which I am personally familiar, but it also deals with a number of other beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, the rigid ideas the characters have about themselves and their relationships. And so on.

TM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Rosa’s interest in Orthodox Judaism, and her struggle to understand what she believes. She is resistant to the religion’s tenets, and yet, defends them to her atheist mother. Why did you decide to explore this world, and why did you place Rosa in this conflict?

ZH: I think of Rosa as a woman with a particular susceptibility to grand theories of everything. When one God (revolutionary socialism) fails for her, it is only a matter of time before she finds another grand, ideological system (Judaism) to replace it. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to try to write sympathetically about a person finding religion and to point up some of the similarities between political and religious faith.

TM: You’re British but you live and write in New York. Most of the characters in your book, aside from Audrey (who is English), are American, and you capture their varying voices and habits of speech with great accuracy – and humor, too. The myriad voices in your novel reminded me of On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, another British writer with a similar gift for rendering speech on the page. As a Briton among Americans, do you find yourself particularly sensitive to the ways in which people in the U.S. communicate? What went into capturing these characters’ speech habits on the page?

ZH: I don’t think my immigrant status has much to do with my interest in how people talk. I’m just as interested in the speech mannerisms and dialects of my fellow Britons. Dialogue is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a novel, I think.

TM: The novel begins in 1962, when Audrey and Joel meet in London. On the first page we are introduced to “a young woman” standing alone at the window – this woman happens to be Audrey. After reading further in the book, I was curious about this initial anonymity. Why did you decide to precede the story (the rest of which takes place in 2002) with this early history? What does this courtship tell us about Joel and Audrey?

ZH: I wrote the Prologue partly because I wanted to show the reader the political climate and culture in which Audrey and Joel started out together. More important, I wanted the reader to get a glimpse of Audrey as a vulnerable young woman, so that later on, when she was being monstrous, the reader might be able to muster some empathy for her. The other thing I was interested in showing was Joel and Audrey’s initial misprision of one another. Like a lot of relationships, theirs begins on mutually faulty assumptions. Joel thinks Audrey is an enormously cool and self-possessed woman; Audrey thinks Joel is a man of political virtue, offering her a role as his equal partner in the struggle. And of course, neither of these initial impressions turns out to be quite correct.

TM: I read your book twice, and the second time it was totally accidental – I simply could not stop myself! Do you have anything to tell us about readability, about what makes a narrative wonderfully infectious?

ZH: I don’t think I have anything useful to say about readability. I spent the greater part of my working life as a journalist and it’s possible, I guess, that writing for newspapers teaches you a certain succinctness.

TM: And, since this is a book blog, I must ask you: What is the last great book you read?

ZH: The last great book I read was an advance copy of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn. It is a beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s. It is also an astute and utterly unsentimental portrait of a young woman’s journey into adulthood. Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. Learn more about her writing classes at writingworkshopsla.com.

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