Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Notes on Zoe Heller: Not Wacky, Not Writing About Her Knickers

Zoe Heller
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
Last year, to the surprise of the guests at her wedding, Zoe Heller got married. It was her 40th birthday, and her friends – and those of her future husband, screenwriter Larry Konner - were invited to a party with the promise of a celebrity guest.
“For some bizarre reason there was a Winnebago outside our apartment block, so people really did think Eartha Kitt was waiting to come up,” Heller recalls. Instead, the guests were treated to a “minimally Jewish ceremony” with an atheist minister and no mention of God, underneath a chuppah. Heller came down the aisle with her two daughters, Frankie and Louella (now 7 and 3), to the sound of Barry White’s My First, My Last, My Everything. “It was,” she says, “very lovely.”
Such an outcome may also be a surprise to the readers of Heller’s old newspaper column, which chronicled her romantic travails as the single girl’s single girl. She was Bridget Jones before Bridget Jones.
But perhaps her old readers shouldn’t be shocked. There was always an element of artistry in Heller’s rendering of her romantic life. The columns were true, but she exaggerated the angst. “I have a bit of a depressive nature. I may have gone on about it a bit to offset the notion that I’m this wacky girl who writes about her knickers.”
Anyway, she isn’t that girl anymore. Her reputation was secured by her second novel, Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003. It has now spawned a film which is tipped for success at the Oscars.
We meet in the Little Magazine Café in Tribeca, near her New York apartment. It is a bitterly cold day, and she arrives wrapped in her husband’s Spiewak parka. It is the morning after the Golden Globes, but Heller watched the ceremony on television. She wasn’t invited, but didn’t mind. “To be the sad nonentity in a room full of fabulosity - that would be demoralising.”
There are many things to like about the film of Heller’s novel. There is Dame Judi Dench, playing the frustrated spinster Barbara as a cross between the Queen Mother and Kathy Bates in Misery. There is Cate Blanchett, all willowy and bohemian, as Sheba, the teacher who accidentally has an affair with one of her pupils. And there is Bill Nighy, being Bill Nighy - always a treat.
Heller has a checklist of other things to be grateful for, whilst also regretting that Barbara – as written for the screen by Patrick Marber – is more of a monster, and more of a lesbian, than she was in the book. “I also like the fact that it was very truthful to the North London of my memory. They didn’t glam it up.”
Of course, Heller’s version of North London is largely a memory. She has lived in New York for almost 15 years. But the book holds echoes of her past life. The school is based on Haverstock Comprehensive, where Heller, by her own account, was an unsuccessful pupil. “I was in quite a bad class. There were a lot of naughty boys – a lot of Bunsen burners being thrown out of the window.” She achieved “miserable A-levels” but progressed to Oxford thanks to her English teacher, who tutored her through the 7th term entrance exams.
She has a habit of diminishing her achievements. The best thing about Oxford, she says, was getting in. At the time, her grandmother was dying and her mother was in hospital with cancer. “I remember going up to see my mother at the Royal Free. She was downstairs having tests somewhere in the basement. I told her I’d got in and she came leaping out of the bed like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After that, it was downhill.”
Her father wrote Hollywood screenplays (including The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?), and though her mother was active in political campaigns, Heller has said she was always frustrated by the confines of motherhood.
Her parents were separated, and died within 18 months of each other. Heller was in her early twenties. “Obviously it makes you feel a bit alone in the world when your parents go. But, thinking about it since, I realise there is something on your side when bad things happen to you when you’re young, because the whole push of your life is forwards. Things are opening up. When my mother died I’d just started work on a newspaper. Not long after that I went to America for the first time to live.”
This sense of impermanence weighs heavily in Notes On A Scandal. It is, by any measure, a thoroughly unromantic book. The complacency of a stale marriage is framed by the bitterness of a frustrated spinster.
“I seem to write rather gloomily about relationships and also have a rather jaundiced view of romantic love,” Heller concedes. “I don’t think I really do as a person. I’m not exactly Pollyanna but,” – she slips into a cod-American accent – “I believe in love, Alastair. By the same token, people are always saying there’s no one to like in the book. They said it also about the movie. People object to the lack of an uplifting spirit.
“My response is, well go and read Anne of Green Gables. Or whatever Oprah has chosen for her book club recently.
“The other thing is that I never felt that Barbara was malevolent through and through like a stick of rock. It’s a post-menopausal woman pointing out something about the invisibility of her age. Particularly single women without children, without property. It’s a protest against the hostility that those women encounter.”
At the risk of overplaying the autobiographical aspects, Heller’s life does seem to have shifted in recent years from the carefree playfulness of Sheba, towards the stoical steadiness of Barbara. Though a supporter of state education, she recently moved her oldest child (“with reluctance and regrets”) to an Episcopalian private school, St Luke’s, where Kate Winslet and Helena Christensen are among the other mums. “Funnily enough, what it ends up being is the closest thing to my primary school back in London – they have prayers, sing carols, and do proper maths.
“At the last school there was an unbelievable amount of parent activity. Every other day you were meant to go in and make paper-mache or go to the farm. I always took the line that you go to school to get away from your parents, and I send them to school for me to get away from them. Plus I work and it was slightly discriminatory against working parents because it was all these do-gooding mums, who didn’t have much else to do.
“But I’d always felt bad about it, and my daughter would do this whole guilt trip, saying tearfully, ‘Every other mother has come to make Rice Krispie treats, why haven’t you?’ I’m not very good with children, apart from my own. I’m not even particularly keen on them, apart from my own. And I was dragged in to make waffles with this room full of horrible kids. That was my one and only experiment with that.”
She is now emerging from a long period of over-attentive parenting. “Possibly for evolutionary reasons you have to have this fixation on your kids and how they’re doing. Particularly when they’re very small and vulnerable. But it’s a beautiful thing when it’s over! I slightly cringe in retrospect at quite how obsessed I have been for a number of years in the minutiae of their wellbeing.
“My husband and I often look at each other and say ‘Do you think for one second our parents had these earnest conversations about particular ways in which we were being taught to read – fretting over our Play-Doh?’ They just told us to go across to the park, and one of the great things about that was that you had this independent, private life. You’d do things your parents didn’t know about. You went off on your bike – you did your own thing, you were naughty and you got into scrapes. It’s really sad that that’s gone.”
Of course, parental fear is the reason such innocent play is no longer possible – the same fear on which the drama of Notes On A Scandal revolves. How would she feel if her own daughter, aged 15, embarked on a relationship with an adult? “I would be very concerned. But I wouldn’t be surprised. What I particularly object to … at the very same time as the culture accepts Britney Spears dressed up in a school uniform, singing Hit Me One More Time, there’s this great rush to outdo each other in our horror and outrage at people having sexual relationships with young people.”
While she is being photographed outside (shouting “forget truth, think glamour, think Jackie Collins!”) Konner delivers Frankie to the café, so Heller can take her to the doctor. When we return, Frankie is sitting quietly, doing her homework.
“I hope you’re not hanging around to observe me interacting meaningfully with my daughter,” Heller chides, almost as if she is embarrassed at being observed in something as stable and wholesome as family life.
I ask why she got married, when previously she had stated that she couldn’t see the point. She gives a complicated answer about sickness benefits and tax breaks.
“It sounds very unromantic. It is very unromantic. To the extent that you have to get married to have those kinds of rights, I slightly resent it, and I do have a kind of old hippie view of life, that it’s nothing to do with the state. But it’s like private schools and public schools, I’ve submitted.”
I ask to see her wedding ring, and she hides her left hand.
“You know what? A terrible thing’s happened. I woke up this morning, and went ‘Where is my wedding ring?’ I must have taken it off when I was bathing the kids or something. I’ve told them if they find it they get a big prize.”
As a former interviewer, Heller is well aware of the symbolism of what she has just said. “It would be good if you didn’t make too much of that,” she suggests. “I’m a bit afraid of the karma.”