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Birnbaum v.

Zoe Heller

Is the American publishing world a playground for pansies? Do all diners in fancy New York restaurants look European? Our man in New Hampshire talks to the novelist about her new book, love for boys, and respect for the prime minister.

British expatriate author Zoe Heller was born in London. She was educated at Oxford and Columbia University and worked as a feature writer, critic, and columnist for a variety of London newspapers. In the U.S.A. her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The New Republic, and Vanity Fair. Since moving to New York City in 1993 she has written a weekly column on “human ways and mores” for London’s Daily Telegraph, for which she garnered a British Press Award for best columnist in 2002. She is also the author of two novels, Everything You Know and her Booker Prize nominated What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal. Zoe Heller continues to live in New York City with her family.

What Was She Thinking? presents us with the spinsterish and friendless Barbara Covett narrating a scandalous story of fellow teacher and colleague Sheba Hart’s affair with one of her 15-year-old students and its aftermath. Of this novel Edmund White has rhapsodized, “Zoe Heller has imagined every corner of her compelling story—the impossible loves of the teacher for the student and of the evil, suffering narrator for her upper middle class friend narrator for her upper middle class friend and victim. With this one book, Heller joins the front ranks of British novelists, right up there with Amis and McEwen.”

Whatever one thinks of such dust-jacket hyperbole and her place in the pantheon of British fiction, the conversation with Zoe Heller that follows shows a smart, funny, self-mocking, engaging irreverent mind that has turned its powers and serious attention to the arduous labors of novel writing. Based on this admittedly slim evidence we are also prepared to gush about Zoe Heller in the above-quoted Whiteian style. But you, having read this far, will no doubt want to judge for yourself. OK then, read on.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: I want to get the nitpicking out of the way very quickly. It’s ambient to this chat. The reason I noticed it is the perspicuity of the narrator. I would not have expected her to speak so loosely. She confuses the notions of tone and volume.

Zoe Heller: Oh, really, that’s just my solecism. It’s not something clever. That’s me being stupid.

RB: That’s the extent of my picking of nits. We can move on now.

ZH: Somebody else wrote to point out that I had the wrong kind of flower bush that smells like cum. [laughs] Duly noted.

RB: There are those nightmare readers who come to readings to tell you that armadillos couldn’t have been in Alabama in 1898 or that Bull Durham tobacco only came in round tins, not square-shaped ones.

ZH: [laughs] I never had that at a reading. I actually quite like receiving that kind of letter. It’s the truth. It’s a good thing to be corrected.

RB: But that hasn’t happened at a reading, so you haven’t had to go through whatever one goes through when you are confronted with such—

ZH: I don’t think so. I have gotten vaguely hostile responses from people but I don’t think anything pedantic.

RB: Are they around the central issue of What Was She Thinking?—perhaps allegations of a double standard and such?

ZH: No. Bizarrely very much to my surprise, I thought I was doing something rather daring—

RB: [laughs]

ZH:—and interesting and that would freak people out. No one has been remotely freaked. In fact, obviously my readership is a great deal more sophisticated and relaxed about these things than I thought.

RB: What is daring about it, do you think?
Heller, by Robert Birnbaum
ZH: I’m being slightly facetious. I thought when I finished the book, “Oh dear, particularly in America it will immediately be seized upon.” Let’s get this in proportion. I didn’t think it would be some huge cultural phenomenon. But to the extent that it was seized upon at all, that people would think it was some kind of apologia for sex with little boys. And clearly I hadn’t intended it to be that. I remember watching an old Oprah, with Bernhard Schlink, who wrote The Reader, which is not a book I liked very much but the really interesting thing about this program was that he was confronted with this great army of women who only wanted to talk about the fact of this older woman having sex with a young boy and whether that was legitimate or not. And he was very confused. He had toured across Europe having conversations about this allegory he had written about Nazi Germany and never before encountered people who were just fixated on the moral or ethical question of whether you could have sex with younger people. So I thought that people would think it [my book] too soft in understanding a boy and a kind of hazy area of being 15 and sexually active. Certainly this country does have a kind of—and not just this country, my own country—the West has a history of both exploiting junior sexuality and at the same time being fantastically puritanical and mimsy about it.

RB: In Europe, though I don’t know there is a clear age demarcation, but there is a sense that you actually train younger boys sexually by introducing them to older women, usually prostitutes.

ZH: In Europe?

RB: No?

ZH: There is that kind of Old World idea. It’s also—you know Baadasssss has just been made—

RB: The Mario Van Peebles documentary bio-pic?

ZH:—about the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In the original, the 13-year-old son of the filmmaker is seen being introduced to a prostitute and this being a kind of—the irony was that it was actually happening to 13-year-old actor, who was presumably a virgin.

RB: Does that make it a double felony?

ZH: I don’t think it’s felonious at all, actually.

RB: Well, statutorily, at any rate.

ZH: I don’t know if he actually had sex. But the point being, it is something of a tradition.

RB: I was thinking of the Louis Malle film, Murmur of the Heart, which came out in the ‘70s, which dealt with adolescent sexuality and incest.

ZH: I don’t know that one.

RB: Does it seem that people are less upset about sex in a young boy/older woman situation than older man/young girl one.

ZH: I’m sure they are. I’m sure there’s that. Also, one has to recognize that the vast majority of your readership is female, and so they may be kinder to this premise.

RB: Because?

ZH: Most readers are women. Most readers of hardback, reasonably literary fiction are going to be women. So there’s that. Possibly people feel much more strongly about it but there is the reluctance to engage because they are not quite sure what my take is. And so they don’t want to tackle me on it. I don’t know.


My first book got shat upon from a great height in England, which, to me because it was my home country, my people, was very devastating. It also came out there first. It was my first experience being published and I was very heavily pregnant at the time and rather tired and emotional.


RB: Other than the mother’s sense of outrage, I just couldn’t see it being the big deal that it is in your narrative. But then I am not well acquainted with the British press. There was that case in the U.S. with—

ZH:Mary Kay Letourneau.

RB: But then she had a child by her underage lover.

ZH: Two. They actually said to her, “You’ve had one child and this is very naughty and you must stop doing this,” and she got some sort of suspended sentence. But she couldn’t leave him alone. Very tragic. She was compelled to go back to him and have another baby and is now in jail. But it was the going back that did it. It’s true that because England is a smaller place and it has a profusion of both broad sheet and tabloid newspapers, it’s like living in Ohio with 20 newspapers devoted to whatever goes on. And so you can make a bigger storm in a teacup there than here.

RB: And appears they are prone to doing that.

ZH: Oh yeah. But it’s also the case that once I had this as my theme, every week there would be in the New York tabloids a story about a Bronx high school teacher who had been found having a way with her 14-year-od charge—and with that all kind of moral horror and so on.

RB: I was looking over the press materials and there were blurbs that described this book as “hilarious.” I do find things about this book to be funny. Is ‘hilarious’ a word you would use to describe What Was She Thinking?

ZH: [deep sigh] Well, you know, you are so grateful for anyone saying anything positive.

RB: How can you say that? You’ve had two books, which as far as I know, have been well received. The latest has been nominated for a major prize [the Booker]. Where does that come from?

ZH: First of all, that’s not true. My first book got shat upon from a great height in England, which, to me because it was my home country, my people, was very devastating. It also came out there first. It was my first experience being published and I was very heavily pregnant at the time and rather tired and emotional.

RB: Nobody had to show you the reviews.

ZH: No, no they couldn’t have stopped me. I don’t buy all that bullshit, people say, “I don’t read my reviews. Somebody tells me vaguely what they are like.” How incurious can you be? Don’t be ridiculous! So no, I read them several times over. And they were big because I was reasonably well known as a columnist and a journalist. So I got a lot of attention for a little, slim, first-time novel. It was all, [raises her voice] “Heller fails to find her fictional voice.”

RB: [Laughs]

ZH: “Heller is crap.”

RB: Oh no.

ZH: It was really, very punishing. And quite ad feminem or whatever you would call it and so personal.

RB: Anyone you knew?

ZH: Oh, yeah, there were people—like I had written a not very nice review of Emma Tennant’s book the week before. And she specially asked to review my book. That was very bad form. Anyway so there was a lot of that. So sure, I am grateful when I get nice things. “Hilarious,” I agree with you that it’s probably not hilarious. Although I have to say I do like the idea of making people laugh or cry with books. The kind of fantasy of sitting on the subway and watching someone pick up your book and having some sort of physical, palpable reaction is very strong in me.

RB: Are these still your people 11 years later, living here in the States?

ZH: That’s funny, because the man I live with always [says], “Honey, just regard it like it’s a foreign market. It’s like Romania.”

RB: [laughs] Your English accent just went away.

ZH: Oh yeah. I can do a reasonable [American] accent. Anyway, he is always saying they are irrelevant now—just one of your many foreign language markets. But no, it does still matter to me. And also it has to be said I got much better notices there this time. Now he has to start eating his words.

RB: Well, you were nominated for the Booker.

ZH: And all of that. It was made more a fuss of there than here. I think possibly because it is a much more English book, this one.

RB: What is a more English book?

ZH: Its setting and to some extent its preoccupations are English. It’s got a lot about class. I don’t know what to say about this because I have spoken now to lots of Americans who I am sure have never encountered what an English public school in the American sense, in the inner city, is like, but who absolutely respond to the characters and everything else. I know that what was being sent out to publishers—it got a lot of rejections. And a lot of them were based on kind of, “Who cares? What’s this about? Is this a weird English setting?” So—


People have said there is no one to like in this book. And to some extent I regard that as a badge of honor.


RB: That speaks to the roulette wheel of book-publishing game, I think

ZH: In a bizarre way, although I obviously say this now because it’s had a happy ending. I got it published. But I found it very cheering, somehow. Because I think my assumption is always, once you’ve written something and you start sending it out, you get back fairly early on a kind of consensus idea about it. Unless you are that very rare thing, which is some sort of genius avant-garde artist whom no one understands yet, chances are that whatever that consensus is saying, you should listen to. And if they are saying—and I sent this out and there were at least nine or 10 publishers who went, “Uh, not for us.” So I was very disheartened indeed. Meanwhile, I had sent it to my English agent and I got a reader’s report of a very disheartening kind. I remember the crucial sentence was, “This could be quite an interesting book but only quite.” [both laugh] Jesus Christ! And it hasn’t changed substantially since then.

RB: When you say it hasn’t changed substantially, meaning you didn’t do much to accommodate the disheartening news?

ZH: I was still rewriting and things but it’s basically the same book. So, that makes me think [pauses] nobody knows.

RB: I came to read you via the zealous advocacy of Maud Newton who thinks you are a genius—

ZH: [laughs] Give her my number.

RB: When I picked up What Was She Thinking? I was immediately drawn in—which on the face of it gave me pause to think, since the narrator outwardly is not a character I would identify with. Do you like the characters in this story?

ZH: No. I am a journalist by training and I used to do a lot of interviews and people used to say, “Who is your favorite person you have interviewed?” I’d say, “Well, I could tell you but it’s not by the same criteria that you would judge how you meet someone in regular, everyday life.” The people I liked best are the people that gave me the best copy, the best quote. And they are frequently difficult, troubled people. [both laugh] And likewise Diana Ross, completely fascinating. You wouldn’t want to have her as a friend. I love the narrator of this book. She is obviously monstrous. Once I hit upon the idea that she was going to tell the story.

RB: She is obviously monstrous—only when you have gone through the story.

ZH: Talking to someone who has finished the book, she is a monstrous character in all sorts of ways. I am upset if someone reads her as solely monstrous, and I have had people say, in what they thought was a congratulatory way, “Oh she is such a fabulous villain. You just hate her from beginning to end.” I think, “No, no, no.” First of all, anyone who is at all acute about other people can’t be utterly loathsome all the time. Plus, I hoped she was sometimes sympathetic, in the way that lonely people are. Or sympathetic explaining what loneliness is like. But people have said there is no one to like in this book. And to some extent I regard that as a badge of honor or something. That’s what Clinton now says about being impeached—it seems to be a disease of modern publishing, which is that insistence that there should be people that we like or people that we should be inspired by, uplifted by, in every book we read.

RB: So the cast of characters, their lack of appeal, was that conscious?

ZH: No. No, but I think I obviously—if I have a tendency, it’s clearly not to write very nice people. [both laugh] And I am trying with the book I am working on at the moment—I suddenly looked at everyone I was writing about and thought, “Maybe you want to stick in a bit more of the milk of human kindness?” [laughs]

RB: After I read What was She Thinking? I read Kent Haruf’s new book, Eventide, which has all sorts of wonderful and decent people. [laughs] They are Americans in the so-called heartland. They are concerned about each other. There is a felon, a sociopath but every one else is so admirable—

ZH: They’re decent.

RB: Yes. OK, I’ll accept the fact that you are deeply British and come out of seriously different tradition.

ZH: Wait, wait, is there an implication that I might be hanging on in a pathetic way, hoping to get the last shred of—

RB: No, no. It probably would take some deep analysis to get at my meaning; it was a very innocent question. As a young woman in England there were not many writing programs. So that it wouldn’t have been an option for you. I guess what I am trying to say is that Britain has that Grub Street tradition where writing is a job and people float between different categories and pursuits.

ZH: Well, yes there is that kind of—you know the Samuel Johnson thing about any man who [writes, who] doesn’t write for money is a blockhead or whatever. But on the other hand, what can I say? I did encounter a big credibility gap about having been a journalist, trying their hand at writing fiction.

RB: Really? I’m surprised. From whom?

ZH: From fellow journalists, people who were reviewing [me] for the most part.

RB: Once you had published a novel, journalists held you to a different standard?

ZH: No, more like—

RB: “Who do you think you are?”

ZH: Yeah, and a kind of assumption that this is going to be a not very stellar effort from a hack.

RB: Terrible! While there seems to be a more visible literary culture it wouldn’t seem that the reviewers were out of that culture. Did other novelists review you?

ZH: No. Again, it came down to the thing about having lot of papers in a small country, a relatively small country. So that it’s sort of a tiny, ferocious world. It’s part of the reason why I left, actually. It’s so small and ferocious

RB: You were born and grew up in London and worked in London

ZH: Yeah.

RB: The last two Londoners I spoke to [Martin Amis and Tibor Fischer] were not keen on the city, and Amis is unabashed in saying he finds it depressing.

ZH: I think it must be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I arrange to go back for short periods of time, that when I do go back, it’s like being on a carousel ride. Some unpleasant mean-spirited faces come whizzing at me [makes attempts at whizzing sounds] and I get fantastically paranoid. I probably have a tendency to paranoia, anyway. Last time I went back I had a really surreal thing of going back with two kids and staying in a hotel. This is the first time of really feeling a stranger in my own hometown. It’s fine, and there are things I like about it. I’m sure it’s how ex-pats feel about America. There are ideas of English life that I am very attached to.

RB: Give me one idea.

ZH: One thing I really love is that in England you can walk anywhere. There are rambler’s rights. It’s a much more democratic—so you have access to nature.

RB: No private beaches?

ZH: You don’t have private beaches, but it’s more about if you go for a walk in the country, you just walk. You don’t go onto a special hikers trail. You walk across fields. So it’s a special law that means you can go—it’s why Madonna is so upset. People can cross her space. So, I love that. I so like the English countryside better than—even though it’s smaller. There is a bigger sense of expansiveness because you can walk anywhere. But I never want to live there again.

RB: And you lived in New York [for] all of your time in the U.S.?

ZH: There was a horrible misbegotten year or two, in L.A.

RB: [laughs] That could be the subject of a whole separate talk.

ZH: [laughs] Yeah.

RB: Are you yet tired of talking about this book?
Heller, by Robert Birnbaum
ZH: It’s not so much that I am tired—I feel fantastically fraudulent. It’s in the nature of the thing now. I just started this book just after my first child was born and that was nearly five years ago. I am a very slow writer and there is a big gap between—a ridiculous gap between actually finishing the thing and getting it published. You get it accepted and they say, “Oh well, we’ll have it on next year’s autumn list.” [raises her voice in pitch and volume] “Let’s have it hot off the presses now!” And then I did this [press tour] in two countries.

RB: You are doing it out of obligation to the publishers?

ZH: Totally, I do. I also think it’s a retail thing, and I really want to get readers. I am completely perplexed about how you do it.

RB: So is everyone else.

ZH: I sort of suspect this is all pointless. I mean, it’s very nice to come and talk and that stuff. But the real idea of schlepping to Boston and doing a reading with somebody else, which three people and a dog will attend, two of which will think I am the niece of Joseph Heller and will be deeply disappointed when they arrive. I can’t believe that really is building up your readership.

RB: It’s in lieu of other, worse ideas. And who’s to say? I was talking with Jim Harrison, and, as he lives away from the “centers of ambition” as he calls them, he jokes about visiting New York and the attitude of publishers there, the presumption that they are solely responsible for the success of a book.

ZH: I don’t mind the actual engagement with the people. It’s more the hotel and—I’ve drunk all the water.

RB: Good for you. Hydration is so important.

ZH: [laughs]

RB: How much time between the first and second novels?

ZH: The first novel was published in ‘99 and this novel came out in 2003.

RB: So probably three or four years for the next one.

ZH: [whispers] Oh God.

RB: I was getting at the point that for many writers who are not journalists they write their novel, pop up in public and then they return to some quiet and out-of-the-way place.

ZH: I am just about to give up this column that I have been doing for 10 years here in America. So I will just do the odd piece when I need an injection of cash. And I do feel like that’s how my life goes now. I was just thinking as I got off the train in Boston, I was coming up the thing and feeling like I really wanted a cigarette and I knew I was not going to have one and this very nice woman comes out [her literary escort], “Hello and buba buba ba.” It’s so bizarre. There is actually this incredibly lonely pursuit, and once every three years you have to go out and actually try your very best to be charming, [laughs] which comes so hard to me. “Oh really, chitty-chatty. And your husband goes fishing?” There is this little sort of marathon of glad-handing and socializing.

RB: How lonely can you be with two children?

ZH: I mean the activity. The great thing about writing is, every day I say, “Bye-bye, girls. I’m going off to work,” and go into my room. But in fact the oldest has figured out that she can come and knock on the door and bug me. It’s very uncollaborative, which I like.

RB: As a child, did you want to write fiction?

ZH: Yeah, very early.

RB: So the journalism was a way station?

ZH: Well, the journalism was like being given homework, you got assignments, and I didn’t have the wherewithal for the self-starting thing until relatively late, to write fiction. I still find it tough.

RB: Would you have gone to a writing program if they were more readily available?

ZH: I probably would have been snobby about it. You know, “These things can not be taught.”

RB: How do you feel about that now?

ZH: I still think some basic aptitude for writing can’t really be given to you. It is or isn’t. But I’m sure, of course, you could probably come up with 20 examples proving the opposite. Again, another assumption I have is that it tended to produce a kind of homogeneity in the graduates of these fiction-writing programs.

RB: I don’t think that is true. It’s an argument that is forwarded. I have read enough contemporary fiction. But, as Jim Harrison says, there are 25,000 MFA manuscripts out there and I haven’t read those.

ZH: I may just be that what I am talking about is what would exist anyway—that is, there are from time to time recognizable literary fads or fashions.

RB: What do you find yourself reading?

ZH: I just read Patrick McGrath’s book, Port Mungo, which I really enjoyed. It’s really great. He’s really great.

RB: Do you know his other work?

ZH: They are all fantastic. Oh, and I just got this book that has been reissued by the New York Review of Books. It came out in the ‘50s, Randall Jarrell’s anthology of short stories [Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories]. It’s really great, and has some fantastic things I have never read [before].

RB: You’re a fan of Jarrell’s?

ZH: Yeah, I just found it in a bookstore. And I read his novel, Pictures From an Institution, which I loved. It’s very funny and clever and great.

RB: Do you read the so-called book-publishing trade publications, in which I would lump the New York Times Book Review?

ZH: Yeah, I do. I don’t—maybe it’s not wise to say, but of late I’m hoping it’s going to change, under this new guy [Sam Tanenhaus]. It has been a bit disappointing, by the coverage. It’s like slightly fancy Consumer Reports. And I also find there is a tendency to commission in the most unimaginative way that always guarantees sort of dirgey, boring reviews.

RB: [laughs]

ZH: I come from a culture which is very combative. We were discussing the problems of that, but I have to say I often feel nostalgic for it. For instance—I talk from personal experience because it’s what I would remember best and can be most accurate about—but this last book, what did they get? They got another woman, exactly my age, 38, who has also written two novels about vaguely domestic things, to write the review. By which you are guaranteed it will be sort of respectful but either not very nasty or very nice. And it was just sort of the outline of the plot. I think they do that a lot. Whereas England errs on the other side of being very mischievous, and [review editors there] always get young, hungry, nasty people to take on giants.

RB: Apparently the interviewer that pissed Bill Clinton off was the one from the BBC.

ZH: I’m sure.

RB: I saw [BBC Newsnight anchor] Jeremy Paxton interview Tony Blair before the elections in 2001, and he was as tenacious as a pit bull. He wouldn’t let Blair not answer a question. This went on through three or four exchanges. That kind of thing never happens here.
Heller, by Robert Birnbaum
ZH: I feel conflicting things about that. I love that about English press—much more confrontational and tough. On the other hand, sometimes there is something about how gratuitously rude we are to our prime minister. You know what, you can say all that—last time I was there they had a sort of Meet the Press with the PM and people were being unbelievably rude to the prime minister. And I thought, “Hey, I wouldn’t be wanting to make those decisions. It’s tough. Just don’t call him a bloody idiot to his face.” Something about respect for the office. But that’s different from the literary culture. And I think the literary culture here tends to be very dull.

RB: Seemingly marginal to the main pop culture.

ZH: It’s so sad because the whole Dale Peck thing—I felt like I remember when I first started reading his stuff—being excited, liking, not necessarily agreeing with [his] things. You can read too many Dale Peck reviews in a row and feel slightly, “How can you get so upset about Sven Birkerts?” But whatever.

RB: I believe that’s what Sven Birkerts thinks. “Why me?”

ZH: But nonetheless, it’s interesting the way—I ‘m sure he has his own problems—he has popped up as this bizarre, little fungus and then disappeared again. And that’s it. It’s a very unvital kind of—

RB: The literary press seems to be mostly about the business or the subsidiary aspects of books and writers.

ZH: And to be clear about this, I don’t think it’s that we are all so passionate about words in England; we are just more passionate about literary spleen and envy and rage. It’s that kind of thing.

RB: That’s the kind of thing that has served [Slate.com columnist Christopher] Hitchens so well in the U.S.A. I just read his piece on Michael Moore’s movie [Fahrenheit 9/11]. It is a textbook evisceration, and additionally he called Moore out to reprise a face-to-face debate they had at Telluride [the film festival].

ZH: I have to say, it’s unclear who I—I was really upset about Christopher Hitchens becoming pro-Iraq war and stuff. I was having this argument with my boyfriend. I was saying, “He’s a phony fucking fat bastard.” But the sad thing is—maybe it’s not sad—you got to give it to him. He may be somebody. Of all of us, lefties doing our little bits and pieces and going to our film festivals and shit, he may be actually the person who does something and changes a few votes. I think we are talking tiny margins these days. And basically he is preaching to the converted.

RB: Perhaps the critical mass of contempt and abhorrence for the Bush administration is such that the normally passive or apathetic citizens will be moved to vote.

ZH: The democratic base will all be out in full force. I don’t know if anybody who doesn’t normally vote will, probably because fucking Kerry isn’t getting it done.

RB: [I was considering whether it could come down to] George Bush can tell a joke and John Kerry can’t.

ZH: [laughs]

RB: Remember how the Kerry campaign claimed that he had met with foreign leaders in New York restaurants? Bush told a great joke about that something to the effect that everybody looks like a foreign leader in those fancy New York restaurants—pretty funny, I thought. Sadly, Kerry is one stiff guy


It’s a bit like that living in a place like New York City. There is too much seething ambition. One of the things you have to do when you sit down and write is, well for me, anyway, I have to expunge from my head the knowledge that all across the city and across the world, are other people.


ZH: It’s the Gore thing all over again.

RB: I was reading Michael Lewis’s Trail Fever (on the ‘96 presidential contest) and he points out the lack of content in the political campaigns.

ZH: Did you read David Brooks in the New York Times today? He was arguing, “Why don’t they get it? You have to be religious. You have to do a bit more public praying.”

RB: Brooks is an interesting story.

ZH: Yeah he is. But listen, not that I would want to encourage Kerry to become more religious, whether publicly or otherwise, but I do think he has to get his act together in some way. It’s very depressing.

RB: What is your citizenship?

ZH: [laughs] I have this very nice immigration lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work. He is a good old lefty and he does all this stuff and he is always saying to me, “Let me tell you about one of my clients.” And he gives me one of these horror stories about the Pakistani guy who has been living in Long Island for 50 years and one day gets upset because someone clamped his car and he tries to pull the clamp off and it turns out that’s felonious. And they deport him. And this administration particularly is so nuts, the whole kind of Arab-detainee thing. Some vast number of them—they are all people who had pictures of the World Trade Center up on their deli counter windows and this is why they were suspect. But they all got sent home. They were here on dodgy visas, or they didn’t have green cards or something

RB: Speaking of the Times op-eds, did you read Paul Krugman this morning about the man in Texas involved in some conspiracy and the Justice Department seems not to be pursuing him very strenuously?

ZH: [laughs] Yeah, I know. Unbelievable.

RB: So about your citizenship?

ZH: I am not. And every now and then—I think I have now reached the point that I have had a green card long enough that I could actually—

RB: And your children?

ZH: I guess they are American by virtue of [being born here]—they have American passports.

RB: You have been living in New York all your tenure here except for the brief L.A. interlude that we will explore in future conversations. Is that where you intend to stay?

ZH: I don’t know. When you said that thing that Jim Harrison said about not living in the “centers of ambition,” I think there is something very healthy about that. There is a lot to be said for that. [It is] one of the reasons why I always defend writing journalism as a way of making a living. And I say this to other writers, who are doing things like teaching creative writing in places, because you know it must colonize your head, dealing with other people’s writing, thinking about other people’s stuff and all those voices in your head. And I think it’s a bit like that living in a place like New York City. There is too much seething ambition. One of the things you have to do when you sit down and write is, well for me, anyway, I have to expunge from my head the knowledge that all across the city and across the world, are other people—

RB: [laughs]

ZH:—sitting in their faux garrets, wanting to produce things. It’s too intimidating and anxiety producing.

RB: I have this bias that people who live and write in New York by and large end up producing a kind of narrative that New York-based editors want and easily understand—designer names and prototypical city situations like taxi stories or muggings and so on, that are not the staple of life in Omaha.

ZH: The truth is I live in a mini Omaha within New York City. With two little kids, it’s not like I lead a very exciting, social, New York life.

RB: Are your friends writers?

ZH: Not really.

RB: So you don’t have this claque of people who get together and discuss work and the business?

ZH: No, although I’d love to get that. [both laugh] It’s all very local with neighbors.

RB: If you ventured out from the city, where might you live?

ZH: Oh, Jamaica. One of the Caribbean islands. I really like one of the four corner states, Colorado and Arizona and New Mexico. I like that landscape. But I’ll never do it because I don’t like to drive, and I am sort of scared when I am not in the city. I do have a bit of the Woody Allen in me.

RB: That’s what came to mind. I can see you wrestling lobsters—

ZH: [laughs] You mentioned my favorite scene in the entire Woody Allen oeuvre, by the way. Which I thought must have been improvised—

RB: How the mighty have fallen. He hasn’t done anything memorable in a while.

ZH: It’s very sad. It’s a lesson to us all.

RB: The evanescence of talent and ideas—

ZH: It runs out all the time.

RB: Both of your children are girls. What are your aspirations for them?

ZH: I think about what aspirations it’s fair to have for them and what [are] my bullshit projections. One of the big arguments I am having with their father is whether I should want them to be, really for lack of a better word, cultured. Should I want to transmit to them the things that are important to me? Like reading, or certain kinds of classy music. All that stuff, right? And he says the thing you want to hope for is that they are not at all intellectual. Because what does intellect give you except unhappiness. Intellectually unhappy. What you want most for them is that they are—

RB:—open?

ZH: Happy. And honest and decent. So, I don’t know.

RB: Yeah, who does? I don’t much care if my son becomes a ballet dancer or a truck driver. That doesn’t stop me from—

ZH:—trying to share the things that interest you.

RB: Right. He knows I love books and reading. And every once in a while he will say in the way young kids like to probe their parents, “I hate books.” To which I say, “That’s too bad.” And don’t dwell on it.

ZH: Oh, yeah, my daughter does the same, “The best thing about this weekend—” “Yes, darling, what was it?” “It was watching TV.”

RB: [laughs]

ZH: “Oh really?” [laughs] After I have taken her on fabulous visits to the museum and all that.

RB: My son and I listen to CDs I make when we drive around. I am thrilled that he likes Public Enemy.

ZH: [laughs]

RB: And Warren Zevon. Unlike my parents and other parents, I am not interested in foisting my tastes on him. So, your next book, it is hard going?

ZH: Very hard going. But you said Public Enemy, and I wrote those words yesterday, because early in this book there is a scene at somebody’s funeral at which Chuck D does a performance of “Fight the Power.”

RB: [laughs]

ZH: The big thing for me with this next book is that I am trying to—it’s like coming away from your crutches. I am trying not to write in the first person. So it’s getting me into all these—I spend hours sucking my pen thinking about point of view, in a very unproductive way, “Do I have to have a point of view? Can I just be me, the omniscient writer, now?” Anyway, so it’s about family and—

RB:—this is conscious? Not that the story requires the shift in viewpoint? Which came first?

ZH: It’s almost inextricable. I felt, in a childlike way, I wanted to write a bigger book this time. I don’t mean bigger in some grand sense, literally just fatter. I was standing in this bookstore and there was Monica Ali’s new book and mine and thinking, “What if I had $16. I would just buy Monica’s.” And it’s true, Monica gave me like 10 days of getting into bed and “Ooh I have this world to escape into,” and how delicious that was. So I am trying to write something that has many strands and is more complicated. I just didn’t want to do the same—I wanted to try something else.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum