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Zoë Heller on How The Believers Is Like Moby-Dick

Author Zoë Heller attracted attention when her scathing second novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, was adapted into a dark, disturbing movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. With her new novel, The Believers, a broader work about a family of old West Village lefties that’s already a British bestseller, Heller moves beyond the pure, biting satire of Scandal — which is not to say she can’t still be bitterly funny. She talked to us about her critical reception, life in the Bahamas, and the misguided obsession with “relatability.”

So you were a New Yorker for a long time, but you’re currently living in the Bahamas?
My husband’s a writer too, and for a while we’ve been saying, “Hey, we could go live anywhere!” I had exotic plans to live in Morocco, but my husband put his foot down and said we couldn’t live anywhere in the world where they didn’t like Jews. That actually cut out a surprising number of places.

And you’re in a New York hotel right now?
Yes, and listen, I’m now smoking in a nonsmoking bathroom, so if things suddenly start beeping and I get called out, you’ll understand. It adds a certain element of peril to the hotel space. Sorry, you were asking?

One of your characters, the daughter of a William Kunstler–like lawyer and his hardened socialist wife, flirts with Orthodox Judaism. Is that something you’ve considered?
I am an atheist and always have been, so that was by far the greatest challenge — apart from, I guess, writing in the third person.

Do you get frustrated with people asking if this very dysfunctional family was based on your own upbringing?
A bit, partly because you want to say, “No, actually, I really make things up!” There was a review fairly early on in England, a piece of low-grade psychology, which more or less asserted that this was an act of revenge on my mother, and it simply wasn’t true. It’s a sort of “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. It’s become quite difficult to protest without appearing to protest too much.

What did you think of Michiko’s review of The Believers in the Times, basically giving you an A for effort for working on a broader canvas?
It’s funny that she gets referred to by her first name in that same way that — I’m not making a point that these are the same kind of people — it’s like calling Saddam Hussein “Saddam.” But Ms. Kakutani, I think she may be right: It is a bit of a messy book. I don’t mean to liken myself to Herman Melville, but you know, Moby-Dick is a messy book.

She and others have complained that the characters — particularly your very bitter matriarch, Audrey — are not sympathetic.
I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, this insistence of what they call “relatability” — likable characters, inspiration, books that supply the wind beneath your wings. But I would argue that I am sympathetic to my characters. I’m very fond of all of them.

That’s true, but most of them come off very rude, at least by American standards.
You’re asking about autobiographical elements and that may actually be one of them. I grew up in a loving and close family, but dinner-table conversation was quite sharp. But I really do think my ambition with my next book is to write about good, happy people. I do have something I want to write, but I’m not sure I’ve quite got enough milk of human kindness in there yet.

Zoë Heller on How The Believers Is Like Moby-Dick