Critics haven’t upset her; she writes what she wants to, says Rajni George, after meeting Zoë Heller at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Novelist and journalist Zoë Heller is not afraid to answer any kind of question. So when a straggler at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013 interrupts our interview to ask her if she is going to have as much adultery in her next novel as she did in the previous one, it is with her trademark wit that she tells him, “I’ll make sure they’re all very good in the next one, all my characters will be faithful to one another.”
While there’s no doubt Heller could turn even this pristine territory into amusing reading, her characters are largely more human, deliciously prone to transgression just as we all are. That the kind of middle-class morality which objects to the contents of books can’t always digest this is not lost on Heller, with her acute sense of irony. “They asked me yesterday if I had set out to write a book on adultery; it’s not part of a master plan, it’s just part of the book,” she says.
The second of her three novels, Notes on a Scandal, shot Heller to immediate acclaim when she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, and was subsequently made into a major motion picture in 2006. Narrated by Barbara Covett, an elderly teacher whose own intentions — as she tells of sensuous colleague Sheba Hart and an affair she has with a young pupil — are suspect, the film captivated us through both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as well as the nuance of the writing, when the book released simultaneously.
Heller’s look at New York life in her column for the Daily Telegraph earned her a regular following, and her takedown of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton last December — “The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small”, goes the last sentence — is the kind of priceless indictment which has made her reputation as a formidable critic, as well. The kind who can make choice use of innocent-seeming words like “over-egged” and “ludic”; in that same infamous review, which has earned her a shot at the Omnivore website’s “hatchet job of the year” prize (to be announced February 12, winners receive a year’s supply of potted shrimp). Her frank sense of judgement and hilarious clarity give both her fiction and non-fiction bite, and make you want to read anything she writes. Should one begin with Scandal?
“I don’t have any favourites,” she says, when I ask her which book she is closest to. “But you have very high hopes for what you are working on, at the moment. You just want to get better at what you are doing and write a good book.”
“(A) fascinating, brilliant, irritating novel,” said The Guardian in 2003; “Underlying breathtakingly acute observations, and much fine writing, there’s a lightness of sentiment that sporadically propels the novel into the realms of commercial pap.” There is a sense that Heller will transcend the popular novel she is charged with having written, write her best book yet. But, as she proclaimed earlier, critics haven’t upset her; she writes what she wants to. She and we are already hooked.
Heller is finishing a screenplay for HBO, which she mentioned earlier in a session on adaptations. “The love of film is more immediate,” she explained there, speaking of how books and movie adaptations work off each other. “But one can’t be interior, ever, while working on a screenplay.”
So there are different kinds of writing, and different kinds of audiences? “I think a popular column is just that,” she says, referring to her New York columns, when I wonder why no publisher has pressured her into translating those into a book. “That kind of journalism should be used for fish and chips paper.” She speaks of enjoying the column, of course, for what it was; implying her fulfilment in another kind of truth-telling. Do her daughters, who are 13 and 9 years old respectively, read her books? No, she says, and we laugh; they are perhaps too young for them. “But there are kinds of reading, whether erotica or classics, that you can benefit from reading too early,” she stresses. “I know I did.”
That a writer has to be versatile to pay the bills is another concern Heller has touched upon at the festival, at a session on the future of the novel, with co-panelists like Howard Jacobson and Deborah Moggach, equally versatile. “No one really knows what’s coming, what new economic models will exist, whether there will be a market,” Heller says, recalling the comment she made “only semi-facetiously” at that session, when she joked, “I hope I’ll be done before the novel’s time is up.”
Tall, striking and incredibly fit-looking, Heller is attracting a lot of attention from fan boys in the audience (“She looks like she’s lived life!”). It’s a contagious kind of energy. She asks me if she should wear this kind of dress — it’s short, looks wonderful, but will garner even more attention than she already attracts — in Delhi; I warn her against it. “Right, I’ll wear pants,’ she says. Thirty years ago, she went travelling around Kerala with a friend, she recounts, seeming as keen for adventure and as ready to take on combatants as the Zoë I read a decade ago, writing about her “propensity for rows and public scenes” (“The Screeching Harpy of 24th Street”, The Telegraph, 2002).
At some point, another straggler walks over, overtly looking for Ariel Dorfman and coyly directing his search at Heller. He has been pursuing her at all her sessions, the classic festival stalker, and now asks her to sign a copy of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “That’s sacrilege, you can’t sign someone else’s book,” she exclaims. Then, she adds, smiling fantastically: “Why don’t you ask Ariel?”