Zoe Heller, A True 'Believer' In Bad Characters Novelist Zoe Heller has a soft spot for selfish characters. But, the author says, just because her characters are unlikable, doesn't mean they are without virtue. Her new novel, The Believers, uncovers a tangled web of secrets inside a lefty New York family.
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Zoe Heller, A True 'Believer' In Bad Characters

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Zoe Heller, A True 'Believer' In Bad Characters

Zoe Heller, A True 'Believer' In Bad Characters

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Zoe Heller is getting quite a reputation as a novelist. She makes brilliant observations about awful people doing bad things. In "Notes On A Scandal," a middle-aged teacher sleeps with her young student, then her close friend rats her out. Now, another collection of delightfully difficult people in Heller's new novel, "The Believers." Take Audrey for example, a dragon of a woman, a mother who never took to motherhood.

Ms. ZOE HELLER (Author): My favorite thing that Audrey ever does is she comes to the table with a tin of I think it's spaghetti and meatballs which she pushed out from the can in a solid, congealed cylinder and then proceeds to slice up into kind of clean shapes.

WERTHEIMER: Right, slices it into portions. It makes one think of cranberry sauce.

Ms. HELLER: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Master Chef Audrey is the wife of a famous liberal lawyer. In the beginning of "The Believers," he has a stroke then lies unconscious in the hospital for most of the novel with his family orbiting around him unhappy with themselves and vicious to one another.

Ms. HELLER: I'm afraid I rather alarm people when I say that I see quite a lot of myself in the characters I write, and I think they have the kinds of charms and virtues.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things I think that is very striking about the character of Audrey, and to some extent, the character of her daughters is she is a different kind of feminist hero it seems to me.

Ms. HELLER: I don't know whether she's a feminist hero. She certainly doesn't tow the feminist line. She's enormously unpleasant about other women. She's not overflowing with sisterly feeling, or indeed motherly feeling for her daughters.

There are some very clear reasons why she has become a monstrous person and I hope that I generate some empathy for her plight. Among other things, she has the misfortune of being married to a great man. I think she feels she never really achieved her potential and as a result she is a disappointed woman.

WERTHEIMER: The book is called "The Believers," I assume, because the main characters are losing their faith.

Ms. HELLER: Yes, in varying degrees and in varying ways. I think it's called "The Believers" because it's about a group of people who have the gift for conviction, and what happens to them, as you say, when fissures start to appear in the edifice of their beliefs. And I think what the book suggests is, it is heroic when you can unblock your ears and take in new intelligence that threatens to contradict your most passionately held beliefs.

WERTHEIMER: Now the character who sort of personifies the idea of having a very strong faith in something and losing it and looking around for another is the character Rosa, the youngest daughter.

Ms. HELLER: Rosa is somebody who has spent most of her life as a revolutionary socialist, and then having spent four years in Cuba, she has become painfully disillusioned with socialism. And in the course of the book she becomes increasingly interested in Orthodox Judaism.

WERTHEIMER: You write about her loss of faith very early in the book. I wonder if you could just read part of that for us?

Ms. HELLER: Okay. She is talking about what it has been like to have lost her faith in socialism.

All her adult life, she had imagined herself striding along in history's vanguard, like one of those muscular heroines in a soviet constructivist poster. Now she'd been thrown back into the ignominious ranks of bourgeoisie liberalism. She'd become just another do-gooder hoping to make a difference by taking underprivileged girls on museum trips.

WERTHEIMER: Now one of the things that Rosa has to put up with is her mother making unmerciful fun of her interest in Orthodox Judaism.

Ms. HELLER: Yeah, Audrey is not open-minded about this development in Rosa's spiritual life. She's very tough on it. You know, I remember my own mother saying to me when I was young, there are only two ways you could disappoint me, darling, by becoming a Tory or by becoming a nun. Luckily neither of those things happened to me. But I remember thinking, that's a bit hard, mum. You know, you can't announce in advance that there's something I can do that will disappoint you. Audrey is much harsher than that.

WERTHEIMER: At one point she refers to the God that Rosa is interested in as some kind of cranky old man who gets upset when Jews eat a prawn - a shrimp.

MS. HELLER: Yeah, I think the line is - she thinks there's an old man in the sky who has a heart attack every time a Jew eats a prawn, although I'm afraid I'm cleaning that up for your listeners. Listen, lots of people in the world behave just as unpleasantly as my characters do, and I'm slightly irritated by what I think is a kind of modern demand for characters you can root for, characters you would like to be friends with. Speaking as a reader, I have to say some of my favorite characters in literature are the nasty ones.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I was just going to say that you have lots of very funny little four line portraits summing up your characters. There's a younger sister, Rosa's sketch of Carla, her sister who is the fat one, who has always been desperate for her parent's approval. And Rosa says, she reminded Rosa of one of those people who spend four utterly-miserable, unfriended years at college and then turn up years later as president of the alumni club. I mean now there's something to make you squirm.

Ms. HELLER: But now, Linda, you've raised the subject of Carla. Here's a lovely character. There's nothing nasty about Carla, right?

WERTHEIMER: That's right, nothing nasty. She's a little pathetic, but there's no nothing nasty about it. That's true.

Ms. HELLER: Well, now wait a minute, now you're being harsh. I love my Carla.

WERTHIEMER: One of the things that I think is certainly striking about this book is, you know, you made me read it all the way to the end. I mean I was never tempted to throw the book out the window, because I didn't like these people. I wonder how you approach that task of keeping the reader with you.

WERTHEIMER: With great difficulty and anxiety. In some ways, I wish I could relax a little bit about that. I have this slightly childish sense that, you know, I'll only be a proper writer if I manage to finish a great, big kind of Icelandic doorstop. But I keep on producing quite slender novels. So one of these days I'm going to produce this vast book. And no one will read it, but I will be satisfied.

WERTHIEMER: Zoe Heller, thanks you so much.

Ms. HELLER: Thank you very much for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Zoe Heller's new book is called "The Believers." And you can read an expert of "The Believers" on our Web site, npr.org.

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