'It's very bad for the soul, all this banging on about yourself," says Zoë Heller, "and it induces simultaneously a sort of grotesque narcissism and paranoia and self-loathing." She is talking, of course, about being interviewed. "I've found," she says, lapsing into a voice you could imagine emerging from a Noël Coward chaise longue, "that it gives you a tiny glimpse into the world of proper celebrities and why they are so nuts."
The voice is just one in a medley in the hour or so we spend together, a medley which adds not to any sense of a tendency towards nuttiness, but of what seems like a pretty unassailable sanity. It's a sanity marked by self-deprecation and a tendency towards the hyperbolic – because this tall, lithe creature, glamorous in white jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt that reveals her toned-as-Michelle-Obama's arms, and her I've-been-living-in-the Bahamas (yes, really) tan, a creature whose latest internationally bestselling novel has garnered reviews Martin Amis would kill for, can't really mean self-loathing, can she?
"I do end up feeling very self-loathing by the end of the week, yes. You're thinking about yourself too much, and you're embarrassed by your own self-absorption. And then, of course, you know what you say and the way you are is regularly traduced. It doesn't help to be gamekeeper turned poacher..." Well no, I'm sure it doesn't, and that, presumably, is why we're sitting in a soulless little room in the basement of a hotel in Bloomsbury, and not in a nice hotel suite, where I can scrutinise her cosmetics, and sneer at her clothes and her books. Not, I'm sure, that I'd want to. And as someone who listens to her own interview tapes with a sense of let-the-poor-man-get-a-word-in-edgeways irritation, I can fully understand a certain ennui with the sound of your own voice.
I, on the other hand, am not one of the pioneers of columnar confessionalism. I have not been writing in newspapers for 15 years about being dumped by my latest boyfriend, or my struggles with Prozac, or a bikini wax that left me looking as if I had a "Hitler moustache". Zoë Heller has. She started off writing in the pages of this newspaper, before moving to The Sunday Times and, finally, The Daily Telegraph. She was still writing her column when her second novel, Notes on a Scandal, came out. The year before, in 2002, she was named Columnist of the Year. "Richard Littlejohn shouted out at the award ceremony, 'how come I've lost out to some silly girl who writes about shaving her minge?'" she confides. "I kind of understand what he was getting at.
"It was an embarrassingly long time," she adds, her long, slightly Virginia Woolf-like face twisting into a grimace. "Gawd, it was scraping the barrel. But it was always hard to give up, because it was such a lucrative thing, for relatively few words." When she started writing it, she was a single girl about town, first in London and then in New York, a real-life Bridget Jones turned Carrie Bradshaw. By the time she stopped, she was (in all but name) a Smug Married with two children and the author of a novel that was about to be shortlisted for the Booker and made into a film.
"Although it's true that it wasn't exactly me," she says of her columnar persona, "it was a slightly twee version of myself, nonetheless it didn't really matter in the long run, because the twee version was understood to be me, and it was sufficiently related to me to still be quite exposing, and there are things about that it's been quite a long, hard road to come back from." From a distance, a distance that takes in bestsellerdom, and reviews liberally sprinkled with words like "outstanding", "stunning" and "best", and a film directed by Richard Eyre and starring Judi Dench, and a happy marriage to a successful screenwriter, not to mention the little matter of that year in the Bahamas, it's a bit tricky to believe that the road has been that long and hard. But that would be to forget Everything You Know, Heller's first novel, and a critical reception that makes Richard Littlejohn's aside look like a blessing from Mother Teresa.
The novel, which came out in 1999, is written in the voice of an ageing screenwriter who has fled London for LA, a solipsistic, sex-crazed misanthrope who spends the months following a heart attack looking back on failed fatherhood, failed relationships and failed pretty much everything else. The novel too is a dismal failure – or so you'd have thought from the vials of vitriol vomited onto the pages of the British press. Actually, it isn't. It's a hugely entertaining, compelling, funny and clever depiction of self-delusion and mounting, inescapable, self-doubt. Michiko Kakutani, the chief critic of The New York Times and the nearest thing the American literary scene has to God, thought so too. Were they reading the same book? Could they have been, well, just a tiny bit jealous, just a tiny bit resentful that the girl-about-town had had the hubris to move from me-and-my-dating-disasters to middle-aged male Hollywood narrator and do it bloody well?
Heller, perhaps wisely, won't be drawn on that. But it's clear the humiliation was all too real. "One of the surprises was it was so disproportionate to my status as a novelist," she says. "It was a first novel, and you're meant to go easy on them, right? I was blubbing down the phone and going," and now she adopts the voice of a Southern belle in a period melodrama, " 'Oh God! People hate it, they say I shouldn't be a writer'. Now we'll be talking about somebody getting bad reviews and my husband [screenwriter Larry Konner] will say, 'hon, if you can survive that, then anything's possible'."
Heller did survive, of course, and four years later the critics decided that the flighty little upstart who had had such trouble piecing together a sentence, or narrative, worth more than a few minutes of their precious attention had undergone a miraculous metamorphosis in which infelicities were replaced by seamless elegance, plodding one-liners with timeless aperçus. Or something. Whatever the process, Notes on a Scandal, Heller's account of an almost parodically spinsterish North London teacher who befriends a glamorous younger colleague who has been having an affair with one of her pupils, was hailed as a "brilliant", "gripping", "sinister" study in loneliness and obsession. It is all of these things, and more. Heller's control of the first-person voice (which veers between razor-sharp clear-sightedness and self-delusion) is masterful. It is, unquestionably, a very, very good book, but does she really think that Everything You Know was so bad?
"I honestly don't know," she says disarmingly, "because I haven't read it. I think what I always said was it's got lots of first-novel flaws, and I think I wasn't quite sure what I was doing, but I think there are parts of it I would still be quite proud of. I don't think it was as bad as they said and I don't think that Notes on a Scandal is as good as some people said. I think you have a kind of voice of truth somewhere within, and then it sort of gets corrupted by how the reception goes. In the case of Everything You Know, I thought well, it must be pretty crap. But it wasn't a bad way to start a career as a novelist. It felt terrible at the time, but now I know what that's like."
Nietzsche might have agreed, on the grounds that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, etc, and he, as far as I know, didn't get to write any of his books in the Bahamas, or to see his third novel (had he one) get reviews that might make Tolstoy weep with joy. Heller's third, The Believers, published last year and now out in paperback, is, quite simply, brilliant. Set in New York, it's an epic tale of a family struggling to come to terms with the gap between the ideals they've aspired to, and what they've achieved. It's full of surprises. The man you think will be its protagonist is in a coma by page 30. A leading human-rights lawyer, hero of the left, he has been rather less heroic in his private life. As his widow grapples with the mess he has left, his children begin to question the edifice on which their own beliefs are based. The result is a dazzling exploration of tribal values, and political and religious belief. How it missed the Booker shortlist, I can't imagine, though the Booker, like all prizes, is, as Heller (quoting Julian Barnes) reminds me, "posh bingo".
But if the reviews have been as collectively rapturous as those of Everything You Know were dismissive, there has been another strange domino effect. Three or four reviewers declared Heller's characters "unlikeable", and suddenly, "it just became the de rigueur thing that you said". In one TV interview, Heller was greeted with the words "you don't like women, do you?" In USA Today, her characters were "the most disgusting people you'll read in fiction". She is baffled. "I've had a few dark nights of the soul where I've thought I have a bleaker, meaner view of my fellow human beings than I ever thought – and I think I'm Pollyanna – but I also think, 'come on, this is ludicrous'." And she's right, it is ludicrous. Her central character, Audrey, is not exactly loveable, but nor is she Cruella De Vil – and her daughter, Karla, was a conscious attempt by Heller to "write a good person, that old stuff about happiness writes white". And since when was fiction about having characters you love, anyway? What happened to that good old novelistic enterprise of imaginative empathy, otherwise known as sympathy?
"I couldn't agree more," says Heller. "Nobody talks any more about that Victorian sense of the edifying purpose of literature, but I think it does exist, and it is precisely that, to broaden our moral imagination. A trend in modern popular fiction is big-heartedness on the part of the author, and I think it's fair to say I think there is a heart somewhere about my person, but it's not necessarily on my sleeve."
Quite right, too. Hearts (carefully edited hearts) are all very well on sleeves in confessional columns, but fiction is something else. Good fiction, proper fiction, grown-up fiction, requires brains as well as hearts, the ability to bring a cool, appraising eye to the world and the people in it, the ability to resist the instant gratification of a happy ending for the greater satisfaction of truth. Zoë Heller is so good at all of this that I'll forgive her the pictures she showed me on her laptop of her children frolicking in waves in the Bahamas, I'll forgive her her tan (which might, in any case, fade now that she's moving back to New York), I'll forgive her her phenomenal success. I might even – damn her big, brown eyes – forgive her her talent.
'The Believers' is published by Penguin