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!
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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."
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In the fall of 2008, Zoë Heller took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Perhaps Middlemarch by George Eliot? I read it when I was 17 years old and at that time, it seemed to me to be the wisest, most insightful piece of fiction I'd ever read. Eliot's account of her heroine's life is remarkably unsentimental and grown-up. I also loved Eliot's stately, slow narration and her long, windy digressions. It was one of the first books that really made me want to be a writer.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith -- A children's book -- or, more properly, a young adult's book -- by the author of 101 Dalmatians. It's set in England in the late 1950s-'60s and is narrated by the teenaged daughter of a bohemian, impoverished family living in a ruined castle. It's fantastically atmospheric and it contains among, other things, a love story that never fails to make me cry.
Poor George by Paula Fox -- I might have picked any one of Paula Fox's novels, all of which are first class. But I've plumped for Poor George, because I'm particularly fond of the depiction of the title character's desperate sister and also because Fox's handling of dialogue -- always good -- is at its most brilliant here.
The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis -- A collection of Amis's journalism that includes several outstanding profiles of writers. It never fails to make me laugh out loud.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens -- Again, I might have chosen several other Dickens, but this seems to me the most modern and sophisticated of his great novels. And I love the tragic figure of Eugene Wrayburn.
Son of the Morning Star by E. H. Carr -- A completely absorbing history of the early days of the American West. The ostensible focus is General Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn. But the book is really an anthropological compendium of how cowboys and Indians lived. Brilliant.
Herzog by Saul Bellow -- For the perfect sentences.
The Living and the Dead by Patrick White -- A strange, dour book about a not-very-happy family; impeccable, beguiling prose and especially good at evoking childhood.
Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer -- A very sophisticated sort of fairy-tale about a young woman in apartheid south Africa. Gordimer handles her characters with awesome psychological acuity and manages to write about politics without lapsing into either sentimentality or cynicism. I admire her enormously.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville -- A great, mad, romantic-metaphysical ride that is guaranteed to revive a jaded reader's enthusiasm for literature and for the world.
Persuasion by Jane Austen -- The most autumnal and melancholic of Austen's novels. A fantastic tear-jerker. I love the tension in all Austen's books between propriety and wit.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Broadcast News -- I love Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks in this. The dialogue is outstanding. It just makes me beam.
Now, Voyager -- For the transformation of Bette Davis from frump to super-babe and for the very adult bitter-sweetness of the ending (i.e., having the stars and not asking for the moon).
La Vie Et Rien D'Autre (Life and Nothing But) A wonderful weepie directed by Bertrand Tavernier -- It stars Phillipe Noiret, my ideal movie star. The cinematography is gorgeous.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to anything when I'm writing -- I'm too easily distracted. My favourites when I'm not at work, are Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Wynonie Harris, Etta James, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Toots and the Maytals.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Good fiction by unjustly neglected 20th-century writers.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No special writing rituals. But I always have cigarettes and a litre bottle of Diet Coke close to hand.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My first book got extremely nasty, ad feminam reviews in England -- several of which suggested I was not cut out to write fiction. My second book was turned down by at least six publishers in the USA before being accepted by Holt. The trick, I think, is not to be too credulous of any review, bad or good.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be disciplined. Try to write every day. Recognize that crippling self-doubt is a writer's occupational hazard.
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