Zoë Heller: Everything she knows

Patronised as a 'girl columnist', scorned for her first novel, Heller made the Booker shortlist and is now an Orange prize contender. Katy Guest meets her
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The Independent Culture

As one of the original girl-about-town newspaper columnists who spawned a generation of Bridget Jones-style clones, Zoë Heller should have found writing her first novel a painting-by-numbers experience. Most aspiring authors in her position would have shaped their columns about life as a single girl into a rollicking little novel, slapped it between pink covers and sat back to watch the money, and the adoration, roll in.

Not Heller. Her first novel, Everything You Know in 1999, described the gradual breakdown of a bitter middle-aged man whose story couldn't have been less autobiographical. The second, Notes on a Scandal, was a bold exploration of a love affair between a woman teacher and her 15-year-old male student, told by the teacher's confidante, a lonely spinster whose relationship with her subject is revealed as increasingly sinister.

"I'm always a bit surprised when people talk about how villainous and grotesque she is," Heller says. "But if one really doesn't find her occasionally sympathetic... I think I've failed. I wanted you to have moments when you laughed with her at somebody else's expense so that you were at points complicit in her unpleasantness." Neither novel accepts a chick-lit line on sex and love; both take an almost unhealthy interest in the more sinister side of human relationships. If critics expected poolside fluff, Heller has spectacularly failed to provide it.

Nevertheless, she might reasonably have expected her first book to receive a fairly favourable reception. Instead, it was torn apart by British critics. As a reviewer herself, Heller expected a little bit of flack. What shocked her was "how uniform and jaw-droppingly mean some of it was". "I don't believe there's a conspiracy of book reviewing," she says. "But views become infectious, and some of the energetic vehemence of those reviews began to feed on itself."

Five years later, the wounds are clearly still fresh. Emma Tennant - "a mad old bag, and you can quote me on that" - wrote a particularly damning piece that Heller believes was payback for Heller's review of her own book. "It went on about, 'Oh, has some modest talent for observing soft furnishings'," she continues, with the words obviously still stinging. "That's an unethical thing to do."

Heller's expression lifts visibly when you mention the book's reception in the United States, which was rapturous. Her boyfriend said, "Forget England, honey. Think of it as a foreign market, like Romania." He changed his tune when Notes on a Scandal was published - and so did the critics. It was called in by the Man Booker judges and reached the shortlist. Sales soared when it was nominated for Richard and Judy's Best Read Award, given at last week's British Book Awards. Now it is long-listed for the Orange prize and looks like a strong contender.

Heller is in town for the paperback launch (Penguin, £6.99) and just about keeping a lid on a very stressful week. She has flown in from New York, where she still writes a slightly more domesticated version of her crazy girl-columnist despatches, with two jet-lagged, cold-ridden children. Last night she had to don her frock - not something she relishes - for the awards. And, to make things interesting, she has run out of cigarettes.

Given the provocation, she's far more composed than she should be. She glides into the dining room in sleek, head-to-toe black (with the notable exception of pink, glittery flip-flops), and orders boiled eggs, extra-strong tea and 20 Marlboro Lights. "You'd better put some extra bags in the teapot," she advises the waiter. "I do like it strong." She's unnervingly brisk and in control, like an annoyingly sexy head girl.

Unfortunately, overseeing the runaway success of her book isn't turning out to be quite as much fun as she hoped. She's suffering from a nasty cold and lingering esprit d'escalier after a contributor said something snobby about Americans to her on Radio 4's Start the Week. And she has just given an interview that left her silently huffing at the journalist. "He kept saying, 'But don't you think your newspaper columns are frivolous? Aren't you going to stop, soon?' Fine, so you think they're silly. I get the message."

As a journalist used to being on the other side of the tape recorder, Heller is remarkably twitchy about interviews. She takes ages over every answer, formulating sentences in her head before putting them into words. "Am I giving you everything you need?" she keeps asking. She admits feeling a bit like a show pony.

To add to her nerves, she has just had a small epiphany. "This is the first time I've come back and stayed in a hotel," she says. "I really feel foreign here. And last night [at the awards] I was listening to things and didn't understand until much later that they were jokes. I sat with Clare Tomalin and Michael Frayn, saying, 'Who is Jordan? What is I'm a Celebrity?'"

She misses having the kind of old friends who, "if something goes terribly wrong in your life, will just come round and watch telly". But she does find Americans "readier to be earnest and straightforward. English people have a tendency to wear masks." Certainly, her children are American. She wheels over her baby daughter. "Would you look at that?" she asks, shaking her head in astonishment. "Sorry. I just wanted you to see what beautiful child-ren I produce." Either she's warming to me, or she's a lot happier with several cigarettes and gallons of lurid orange tea inside her.

At the risk of echoing the other interviewer, I too am surprised that she is still churning out columns when she could be concentrating on writing Booker-nominated novels instead. In 1999, she wrote an excoriating essay about the ditzy Girl Columnist for Stephen Glover's Secrets of the Press. When I ask if she feels her despatches from New York are less important than, say, the late Alistair Cooke's, she barely pauses. "Yeah," she shrugs. "I do bridle at the fact I have fulfilled that. Of course it would flatter my amour-propre if I were writing the more serious stuff. But I'm better at writing conversationally about personal kinds of things."

What people don't understand, though, is that her column is "just another narrative voice I'm putting on. People expect me to turn up in a ra-ra skirt saying, 'Look at my knickers!' It's not the whole story. I don't get creepy old men writing in anymore saying, 'You don't seem to be able to keep your legs closed, do you? PS, Can I have a signed photo?' Maybe I'm just too much of an old bag now. But I did get lots of mail when I wrote about Brazilian bikini waxing for the Telegraph. They all cancelled their subscriptions."

Perhaps it's hard for Heller to be entirely satisfied with her success. She was the sort of child prodigy who received a B+ and was asked why it wasn't an A. Her father was a Hollywood screenwriter and her mother one of the first women to speak at the Oxford Union. Her sister has been managing editor of The Observer and her brother makes documentaries. And yet she believes "we only reflect the standard achievement for children of our class and privilege".

If they are unusually successful, she concedes, her mother must be responsible. "I know I worried from a young age about how I was going to earn my living. We grew up with a very strong sense of having to be professional women. I remember her giving me a handbook for women at work that seemed to contain variations on, 'Whatever you do, don't cry in the office'. I broke that as soon as I started work. I was always crying. When we moved into an open-plan office my editor said, 'Oh dear, there's nowhere for Zoë to go and cry.' I'm afraid the ghost of my mother would have been very ashamed."

Was the Man Booker shortlist enough for someone who can't accept B+? Heller pauses for so long I wonder whether I've offended her. "I truly didn't expect to win," she eventually sighs. "But I also thought, 'If I win, that's too much. Not only will God have to punish me, but nothing will be as good again. There will only be the descent." It surprises me, then, when she says her next novel, set in New York, will be a Big Book. Is she finally admitting that she secretly longs to write the Great American Novel, to be taken seriously? She laughs when I realise she only means it literally. "I was standing in a bookstore, looking at Monica Ali's book and mine," she says. "I thought, 'As a punter, if I've got £16.99 on me, I'm going to pay for Monica's.' I quite like the idea of writing something long, in that Dickensian, involved, saga-ey sense."

Perhaps writing beautifully about the domestic and the personal is not such a bad ambition. And perhaps Heller will succeed precisely by shunning the lure of the Big Book. "What I think," she concludes, "is that I'm just gonna try keeping on writing books, and presumably some of them will get nicely reviewed and some of them will get nastily reviewed. And the bottom-line aspiration is that, whatever happens, you write a book that doesn't do so horribly that your publisher is unwilling to publish you again.

"It doesn't have to be some continual ascent up some cliff face of achievement, just to be able to keep on writing. That's a very nice life and a very fortunate one. If I could do that, I'd be very happy."

Biography

Zoë Heller was born in north London in 1965, the youngest of four children. Her father was a German-Jewish immigrant and successful screenwriter. Her mother ran the Labour Party's Save London Transport Campaign. She attended Haverstock Comprehensive and St Anne's College, Oxford, where she took a first in English. After studying for two MAs at Columbia University, New York (one on Marxist theory of literary values and the other on Jonathan Swift), she returned to London to work in publishing. She became a columnist for The Independent on Sunday in 1994 and has since written for The Sunday Times , The New Yorker , Vanity Fair and the London Review of Books . She now lives in New York with her partner, the screenwriter Larry Konner, and their two daughters, and writes newspaper columns. She has published two novels : Everything You Know , in 1999, and the Man Booker-shortlisted Notes on a Scandal, in 2003.

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