Although Zoë Heller made her initial splash with a series of addictively entertaining, confessional columns for Britain's mainstream newspapers, her transition to a writer of serious literary fiction is as complete as it is extraordinary.
Although Zoe Heller made her initial splash with a series of addictively entertaining "girl about town" columns for Britain's Telegraph and Sunday Times, she has made the transition to literary fiction with a degree of success that can only be called extraordinary.
London-born and Oxford-educated, Heller acquired her M.A. from Columbia University in 1988. After graduate school, she returned to England, where she worked briefly in publishing, then as a journalist, book reviewer, and feature writer for various mainstream British newspapers. In the 1990s, she moved to New York and began chronicling her experiences as a single woman in the Big Apple. Her wry, witty, and outrageously confessional dispatches turned her into a household name in Britain and inspired a wave of Bridget Jones-style journalism that has never matched Heller's signature brio and artistic flair.
Despite the popularity of her columns, Heller began to feel confined by the kind of writing that had made her reputation. In 2000, she plunged into the choppy seas of literary fiction with a darkly comic novel entitled Everything You Know. Although it was savaged by the British press (a sour grapes-induced snubbing and drubbing Heller admits still stings), the book received enthusiastic reviews in the U.S. Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it ""A sparkling first novel...As affecting as it is amusing," and the Los Angeles Times called it "... a shrewdly funny portrayal of a first-class curmudgeon."
There was nothing mixed about the reception for Heller's sophomore effort. Released in 2003, Notes on a Scandal (incongruously entitled in the U.S. What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal), was an unqualified success. The story of an obsessive affair between a teacher and her underage student, the novel unfolds in the form of a manuscript written by the teacher's "friend," an embittered older colleague with a few obsessions of her own. The book was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, and went on to become an acclaimed, award-winning film starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Following the success of Notes on a Scandal, Heller gave up her award-winning column, admitting that she was somewhat embarrassed by its egregiously autobiographical content. (In 2005, she told the Independent, "[T]he sound of the barrel being scraped became too resounding.") And while devoted fans still miss her wry, sly, self-deprecating articles, there is no question the literary world has gained a formidable talent. In the words of the American writer Edmund White, "Heller joins the front ranks of British novelists, right up there with Amis and McEwan." Lofty praise for a former Bridget Jones!
Good To Know
On her right shoulder, Heller sports a faded tattoo of a small, green tortoise. "I was 17," she explained in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "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."
Heller's father, Lukas Heller, wrote Hollywood screenplays (including The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), and her mother was involved in politics, including the Save London Transport campaign.
Some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Zoë Heller:
"My very first job was as a milkman's assistant on an electric milk float in London. (This was in the days when British homeowners got their milk delivered to their front doorsteps.) I was 14 at the time. It was an okay job, but the smell of stale milk tended to linger horribly on my clothes."
"I wish I could have been a jazz singer."
"I have two daughters. One is named Frankie Ray (Frankie after the 12-year-old protagonist of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers; Ray for Ray Charles) The younger one is named Lula Nelson (Lula because we liked it -- and oddly enough it turns out to be the name that Carson McCuller's was given at birth; Nelson for Willie Nelson)."
"I am pathetically without hobbies. I like lying in a hammock with a gin and tonic and a book."