Zoë Heller: Bridget who? Zoe, the original girl about town, grows up

The IoS interview: Once Ms Heller wrote about her ditzy single life. Now she is a mother and an acclaimed novelist with a film on the way
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The Independent Online

They were surprised because they thought they were travelling to New York for her birthday. They were expecting 40 candles and a "musical guest", when their sister took them aside and asked them to get their frocks on.

Heller's surprise wedding in July might have been the final nail in the coffin of the Zoë persona. As a whimsical girl-columnist in the days before Bridget Jones, she did book reviews and bikini waxing with her London friends. Now she sits back and watches the profits roll in as her best-seller - Notes on a Scandal - is filmed in the trendier districts of north London with a cast including Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. She stopped writing the columns a year ago, when "the sound of the barrel being scraped became too resounding".

She lives in New York with the man she must refer to as her husband and two beautiful children. She writes novels that are shortlisted for the Booker prize and optioned by Richard Eyre.

"I never thought I was a particularly natural columnist," says the 2002 British Press Awards columnist of the year. "And the confusion between me and the persona became tiresome. I wasn't that light-hearted, chipper person all the time. I don't miss writing columns very much."

Instead, Ms Heller writes novels. When her first, Everything You Know, came out in 1999, it was "shat upon from a great height" by the British critics. Not entirely fairly, she believes. "The publisher is about to reissue it in the UK and I sort of thought, 'Oh, do we have to revisit that?'"

But, she says, "It concentrated my mind in quite a salutary way. I thought, 'Should I write another book?' And while I talk in this 'little me' way about anxiety, clearly there are reserves of self-belief there. Because I decided to go on."

It was a fortunate decision. Notes on a Scandal, her next novel, met with a rapturous reception. It was Booker shortlisted in 2003. The Hollywood producer Scott Rudin came across it in a bookshop and showed it to his screenwriting partner, Patrick Marber. It is being filmed with Judi Dench as the sinister spinster Barbara, and Cate Blanchett as Sheba, a teacher who loses everything for the obsessive love of a 15-year-old student.

"I'm not involved," says Heller. "Barbara and Sheba are not at all how I'd pictured them, but they couldn't possibly be. But I can totally see Judi Dench being foul and unpleasant if she so wishes. And doing a very good frumpy, too." There are rumours Marber has changed Heller's carefully wrought story, even giving it a happy ending, but she is detached. "Hemingway said something about the way to deal with Hollywood being to approach the state border, throw your script over and get them to throw the money back," she says.

Although she is cagey about exactly how much money has been thrown at her, Heller insists this is not her Bridget Jones moment. "My small advance for the next book and some of the film money is enough to live on. But I'm not at Bridget Jones level. And I will never retire to the Hollywood hills! I have just come back from California. It is... a very nice place to visit."

Nor does she miss England all that much. "New York has ceased to be foreign to me," she says. "It doesn't smell different. I miss, not England, but the capacity to travel."

Her next book is set in America. "It is also the first time I have written in the third person," she says, "I told Patrick Marber about that and he said, 'Ooh, I sort of thought the first person was your thing.'" She really has left the Zoë persona a long way behind.