Journalist, novelist and critic Zoe Heller, shares her world of words with Adilah Ismail at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival It is a truth universally unacknowledged that when one first meets a person they have been keen on meeting for a while, all semblance of coherent thought will promptly fly out the window. This [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The hardest part was starting out as a novelist


Journalist, novelist and critic Zoe Heller, shares her world of words with Adilah Ismail at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival

It is a truth universally unacknowledged that when one first meets a person they have been keen on meeting for a while, all semblance of coherent thought will promptly fly out the window. This is the only explanation I have, for floundering in a moment of tongue tied timidity and asking Zoe Heller an awfully obsolete question, usually reserved for small talk with sullen teenagers. “So what are your hobbies?” I hear myself blurt towards the end of our conversation. Thankfully she had enough poise for both of us, laughed at my instant mortification and proceeded to swap notes from her days of journalism.

Zoe Heller at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Pic courtesy the Jaipur Literary Festival

As we sit, perched on the edge of a fountain in a courtyard in Jaipur during the Jaipur Literary Festival, the author of Everything You Know, Notes on a Scandal and, The Believers (shortlisted for the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), Zoe Heller explains that she spent a lot of time in the trenches writing features, book reviews and criticism, with the intention of writing a novel one day. “It took me a while to establish the discipline of writing without a deadline,” explains Heller matter-of-factly. “The wonderful thing about journalism is kind of being given your homework and having a deadline and knowing you have to do it.

No one is waiting for your next novel – especially when you’re starting out. Nowadays sometimes, someone is waiting because they may have paid you some money and you have an advance but certainly at the beginning there seems something grandiose and ludicrous about this idea of ‘setting my thoughts down and the world wanting to know about them.’ So partly it’s a fight against one’s own feelings of ridiculousness. So that I suppose, was one of the difficulties in getting started as a novelist. And it still is, to some extent. I think you’re always fighting a sense of there being something grandiose about the project.”

Of course it’s still not easy; once you’ve conquered pen and paper, you have to contend with people. Heller had the double burden of both wooing critics and peeling off labels and pre-conceived notions about her writing. After being a ‘journalist for hire’ and writing highly personal columns about her knickers, love life, pills and the life and times of a London girl living in New York, she had difficulty in persuading, particularly the English critics, that she was a serious writer. “The first time you publish a novel and everyone says it’s wonderful, it’s quite easy to go on and do the next. You’ve got a great thing pushing you forward but in this sense, I had to really think about it,” says Zoe, explaining that the dampening reception for her first novel Everything You Know spurred doubts if she was actually cut out to be a novelist. “I discovered there was some kernel of self-belief and possibly crazy ego that made me think ‘but I still want to try and do another one’. So it was a kind of testing of one’s mettle or one’s self-belief and in that sense it wasn’t altogether a bad thing.”

The double standards in the literary landscape and the love for pigeonholing things a little too neatly are equally problematic. “There’s probably a tendency to dismiss a certain tranche of fiction written by women as chick lit and if one looked carefully at the male equivalent of that fiction – the male authors who write very similar kind of fiction about relationships, about family – the real difference is that they don’t come out with pink covers. But the women’s stuff gets called chick lit and the men’s doesn’t,” says Heller explaining that sexism was alive and well in the literary world as it is in the rest of the world, “My ideal moment, the moment when I feel all will be well in the world, is when we no longer talk about ‘women writers’ but just about ‘writers’.”

Heller’s second novel fared considerably better and secured its place on the 2003 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and was subsequently released as a film starring Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Notes on a Scandal is a delightfully dark story of a high school teacher’s illicit affair with a teenage boy. The story, told through the narrative of Barbara, friend and colleague of said teacher, is noteworthy for its poignant insights on loneliness and acidic narrative and retains its darkness through its treatment of obsession.

Heller made a stir in late 2012 for her review of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. Writers reviewing writers is hardly an innovation but phrases like ‘the lordly nonchalance with which Rushdie places himself alongside Lawrence, Joyce and Nabokov in the ranks of literary merit’ and ‘The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small’ prompted gleeful reviews of her review. Heller’s review of the autobiography of the ‘embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting’ was soon hailed as the “best hatchet job of the year”.

Heller however is dubious of this title:“I think it’s kind of crazy, the idea of reviews being reviewed. It reminds me of a Woody Allen joke along the lines of ‘Christ, what are they going to hand out awards for, next? The best fascist dictator?’ And the idea of there being a special award for the nastiest review of the year is a bit like that. It’s crazy and so incestuous. And I also have a little bit of a problem with the reviews I wrote being described as a hatchet job, because it implies a set of motivations which I really don’t think were there.

It implies a kind of aggression or malice that I don’t think were present in the piece.” To describe the review as a hatchet job would be to imply the absence of argument and conjures a picture of annihilation for the sake of annihilation and gauche clumsiness. Instead picture an archer- the string of the bow taut and drawn, carefully taking aim and releasing an arrow- if you will. Heller was both simultaneously lauded and criticized for her systematic dismissal and the promise of a good old fashioned literary spat proved to be irresistible to literary critics. “It’s difficult. One of the things I sometimes feel is that if you’re a writer and you’re going to write criticism, there comes a point when you have to make a choice between continuing to write reviews and whether you want to go out in the evenings and continue to have a social life,” she smiles wryly.

P.S: In case you were curious,Zoe Heller doesn’t have any hobbies (“At this point in my life, to pay the bills, look after my kids and get some writing done seems like a very lofty ambition”) but loves music, walking, lying in a hammock and reading.

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