Field Report: Zoe Heller

I’m not sure if Zoe Heller‘s The Believers is an American novel or not—I figured it fits well enough into this blog’s chosen niche to write about it, but frankly I set the bar for qualifying as “American” fairly low around here. Matters of citizenship and homelands have a way of complicating what “American writer” means, exactly, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me to set guidelines about who fits. (For the record, Heller is a British citizen who’s been living in America since 1994, and The Believers is set in New York. American enough for me.)

Heller, for her part, doesn’t seem especially interested in discussing what nation her books represent. Speaking last night at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Literary Festival, she laughed off a question about why critics overseas made a point of calling The Believers an American novel. “They mean it’s really, really good,” she said. Slightly more seriously, she guessed that the statement reflected “a strange ambiguousness about people who’ve gone away and never came back.”

Much of the conversation about the book focused on two of its characters: Audrey, the novel’s vicious matriarch, and her daughter Rosa, who grows increasingly involved in Orthodox Judaism. Heller is an atheist, but she went to pains to make sure that Rosa’s conversion didn’t come off as satirical. (Creating Rosa was “the biggest vault of the imagination I had to make.”) As for research, she said, “I spent a lot of time at the 92nd Street Y,” but she also said that some of her thinking about religion was influenced by the recent batch of books about atheism by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. It’s just that the books didn’t influence her in the way the authors intended. “I expected to be approving of these books,” she said. “But there was a kind of aggressiveness to their tone, and a readiness to criticize only the crudest fundamentalist beliefs…. That’s not very truthful or brave.”

As for Audrey, Heller has grown impatient with people who ask her how she could write a character so cruel. “It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, ” she said, “this demand for characters who inspire you.” If that’s what you’re looking for, “you’d knock out just about all of Philip Roth’s work and most of Shakespeare.”

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