Learning in Public

Zoë Heller, the author of What Was She Thinking?, talks about trying a new point of view, and how journalism prepared her for fiction.

  What Was She Thinking?

What Was She Thinking?
by Zoë Heller
Henry Holt
272 pages, $23.00

Barbara Covett, a sixty-year-old spinster, has settled into the bleakness of a solitary life as she slogs through yet another decade at St. George's, a down-at-the-heels secondary school in London. She's unsentimental about her students—"the children of the council estates who must fidget and scrap here for a minimum of five years until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants"—and disdains her colleagues. Her only solace is her cat.

But everything changes when Sheba Hart comes on board as the new pottery teacher. Sheba is a middle-aged mother of two, attractive (in a disheveled, free-spirit sort of way), kind, and exuding upper-class charm. Barbara observes her colleagues' bumbling fascination with this exotic creature, but keeps a respectable distance. The early pleasantries she exchanges with Sheba don't amount to much, but Barbara bides her time, confident that her moment will come.

The bond that I sensed, even at that stage, went far beyond anything that might have been expressed in quotidian chitchat. It was an intuited kinship. An unspoken understanding. Does it sound too dramatic to call it spiritual recognition? Owing to our mutual reserve, I understood that it would take time for us to form a friendship. But when we did, I had no doubt that it would prove to be one of uncommon intimacy and trust—a relationship de chaleur as the French say.

This is the slightly ominous setup of Zoë Heller's second novel, What Was She Thinking? (to be released this summer), a story about two women each looking to fill a void in their lives.

Barbara and Sheba do hit it off, and Barbara, in her role as the sensible old aunt, basks in Sheba's friendship. But before long, Sheba's attention is diverted by another relationship—an affair with a fifteen-year-old student named Steven Connolly. When Barbara learns the truth, she is appalled at the indecency and recklessness of it all—but, even more, she feels betrayed and angry that a "bloody, bloody little boy," a "coarse-looking fellow, with lank hair the color of pee and a loose, plump-lipped mouth" has a stronger claim on Sheba's affections than she does. And in a perfectly ordinary moment of weakness, she betrays her friend's secret—setting off a tabloid firestorm and destroying Sheba's life.

On the face of it, Barbara would be easy to despise, were she not such a wretchedly unhappy figure. As in Heller's debut novel, Everything We Know—about the misanthropic but lovable Willy Muller, ghost writer of celebrity biographies—Heller's ear for voices and the tragicomic detail is abundantly on display. Here is Barbara on loneliness.

Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out to-do lists—reorganize the cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself—slices of ice-cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.

So it is no surprise that Sheba at her most vulnerable—abandoned by her family, cast aside by Connolly, on the verge of a nervous breakdown—is something of a dream come true for Barbara. Someone to look after! Keeping mum about her role in the scandal, Barbara appoints herself Sheba's caretaker and devotes herself full-time to her troubles—including secretly penning her own account of Sheba's ruinous affair, which she hopes will win her friend some leniency in the court of public opinion. What Was She Thinking? is that account.

Zoë Heller was born and raised in London but has made her home in New York for the past ten years. Her writing has appeared in The Sunday Times of London, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and many other publications. These days, she writes a weekly column for London's Daily Telegraph and is at work on her third novel.

We spoke by telephone on May 28.

—Julia Livshin

Willy Muller, the protagonist-narrator of your first book, has an aggressively male sensibility. What Was She Thinking, on the other hand, is primarily a vehicle for female voices. Did you make a conscious decision to switch to the female point of view for your second novel?

Zoe Heller
Zoë Heller   

It wasn't the primary decision in either case. Those just happened to be the characters that presented themselves to me as the ones I wanted to write about, or in whose voices I wanted to write. I remember being a bit taken aback by how much fuss, both positive and negative, was made about my having written in a male voice. Seems to me people do it all the time, and that literature, both the writing of it and the reading of it, is about making imaginative leaps. Certainly, as a reader, I've never had a problem reading about male characters and being interested in them or even identifying with them. I remember as a young person hearing for the first time the vaguely feminist notion that there ought to be more books with female characters for young girls to identify with—and thinking, Well, I always managed to read Huck Finn or whatever else and put myself in the boy's role. I don't see what the problem is. And somehow I think that sort of narrowness is bad for both reading and writing fiction. It shouldn't be an enormous surprise or even a particularly notable achievement for a writer to imagine another gender's point of view.

Did you feel equally comfortable doing both points of view, or was one in some ways more challenging?

In a funny way the female narrator this time around was slightly more challenging. The first book—like a lot of first novels, I suppose—was a combination of lots of things that had been sitting in my head for a long time. And Willy's voice was sort of sitting in my head ready-made, to the extent that quite a bit of it—not its full horribleness, not its full cynicism, but some of its irony and skepticism—came from my father's tone. Occasionally I would pass what I'd written by a man to see if there was anything that just didn't sound right. But really, it felt quite easy. Whereas Barbara's voice was much more purely invented.

That said, people have different things that they struggle with when they're writing, and for me it's not the voice or dialogue. That doesn't mean that I'm particularly good at it, it's just not the thing that I find myself struggling with. For me, the challenge is more architectural—the dispersal of information, how you go about parceling out the story. The structural thing, I find, is the bit that I sit sucking my pen about.

How did you think of pairing someone like Sheba with a fuddy-duddy like Barbara?

Because I wrote the book—or started thinking about it—about three-and-a-half years ago, all those really crucial thoughts when something is just germinating are slightly lost in the mists of time now. But I think what happened was that I first had the idea of a woman having an affair with somebody the same age or even younger than one of her children, and the strangeness of that. I was sort of thinking of Mary Kay Letourneau, which was happening around then, and the conversations people were having about that. And then fairly quickly I realized I didn't want to write a straightforward novelization of that particular drama, that set-up of an older woman and a younger man. I realized I wanted somebody else telling it. And then it became much more a book about the relationship between two women—in particular, between somebody who is married, with all the status that goes along with being married and having children, and somebody who doesn't have that—and the misunderstandings that go on between them.

What does it say about Sheba that she is receptive to Barbara's cloying, possessive friendship?

That was actually the sort of thing I found quite tricky to get across. What I wanted to suggest was the flattery and convenience of having that sort of person in your life. It's a relationship I think we've all seen—the needy person with less going on, always around to give lifts and do stuff. And there are situations in which it's tempting to take advantage of that. This person is offering those services in the hope, unconscious or otherwise, of it blossoming into something more, but of course the person who is partaking of those services has no intention of giving more. I wanted the reader to feel that Sheba didn't behave very well all the time, that she was somewhat exploitative of Barbara—and of course her comeuppance is that she ends up being trapped by her.

When Sheba discovers Barbara's manuscript, she accuses her of writing "filth and lies … about things [she] never saw, people [she doesn't] know." Is this meant to be a wow moment for the reader, casting serious doubt on Barbara's version of events?

That's a funny thing. There's a moment like what you're talking about at the end of Atonement that I found very frustrating. I didn't want this moment in my book to make you think, It was all a dream. I just wanted it to be a salient reminder, at that stage, that of course this woman has been a profoundly unreliable narrator. But I don't think you're meant to feel that everything that came before has no epistemological worth, that it's all been a figment of Barbara's imagination.

Looking beyond the ending of the book, Barbara and Sheba's friendship seems unlikely to last. If you've worked it out, where are these two headed in the long-term?

Somewhere grim. I don't see them being cheerful old biddies together in a garret somewhere. I don't think it will end happily for either of them. I think what I wanted to leave people with is just the sense of a very grim trap—from which, I suppose, in the long-term Sheba will extricate herself, but not necessarily in a very happy way.

Between Barbara and Sheba, did you find yourself liking one character more than the other?

That's a bit like when people ask, "Who have you liked best whom you've interviewed?" And I always think, It's not really like that, it's not who you like best. When you're interviewing people all you're hoping for is good copy. In fact, if the person you're interviewing is behaving very badly, you're thinking Woohoo! Brilliant! So the people you "like" are not necessarily the nice ones, or the ones who are friendliest, but the ones who give you the good copy. In the same way, even though she's obviously quite monstrous, I think Barbara was the most fully realized character, and I felt most in her voice most of the time. So I think I probably feel fondest of her.

Sheba seems to suffer from the termination of her relationship with Connolly much more keenly than he does. Even in the wake of the scandal and the complete devastation of her personal life, she has thoughts only for him. Is this an important detail—that the power dynamic turns out to be precisely the opposite of what's commonly expected?

The first thing to say about that is I don't think we know what's going on with Connolly. It's a Chinese whispers sort of thing. We're learning about the relationship through Barbara's highly interested, second-hand perspective. But, to the extent that that's the way it seems, yes, I do think that's an important detail. When I first started showing people this book I was very worried that it would be taken for some sort of tract in favor of sex with young people, which it's certainly not meant to be. But, do I think it's the case that human relationships take many, many forms and that one can't read the power relations very reliably from differences in age and differences in gender? Yes, I think that's true.

Were you at any point toying with the idea of writing about a man having a relationship with a much younger woman?

No, I wasn't. The particular thing that was interesting to me was the different ways people respond to a woman doing this sort of thing. What I'd gathered from listening to the way people talked about Mary Kay Letourneau and other cases like it was what passionate and confused feelings it inspires. This is a very broad generalization, but I attended a lot of dinners and other gatherings at which women would say, "Poor woman, she's obviously a bit bonkers." And the men would say, "Why are you being so soft on her? You'd crucify a man who had done the same thing." I was interested in precisely this difference in perception. And I sort of agree with Barbara in this respect—she talks about it in the middle of the book—that there's something about the fact that this behavior is so aberrant-seeming in a woman that makes all the difference. In a sense, when a man has an affair with a younger person it seems only like an excessive acting out of an urge that is quite common—whereas in a woman it seems like a freak of nature.

This sentiment seems to have been captured in the title What Was She Thinking?. How did you come up with the titles for your books?

The title of this book is a funny thing. I can't even remember now which came first, but the end result is that the English and the American versions have different titles. In England it is being called Notes on a Scandal, and here they thought that sounded like a nonfiction book, possibly about President Clinton. And in England they thought What Was She Thinking?, which I thought was very fabulous and Trollopian, sounded like chick-lit. Neither of them would budge on this. So now I'm in the rather silly position of having a book with two different titles.

I sort of don't like the title of the first book, though. At the time, I thought it was great, because I liked the encyclopedic idea of Everything You Know. But now it strikes me as a bit affected, and just not a good title. I don't think titles are my forte. Other people have brilliant ideas for titles; I never do.

You got your start as a journalist. How did you make the switch to fiction?

I always wanted to write fiction, from a really early age. After university, I worked in publishing, and then I started writing reviews, and I got a job feature-writing. And actually—this sounds like a joke about English journalism—that satisfied a lot of my fictional urges. I mean, I was never a straightforward reporter. I wrote fairly long features that allowed me to have fun.

Then when I first came to America, about a decade ago, I came with the secret intention of wanting to write a book. In fact it was a very silly idea—the idea of going somewhere new and having to set up a whole new life and thinking that was a perfect opportunity to write a novel. In fact, I spent most of my time establishing myself in a new place. When I finally did feel established and sat down to write, I didn't have a book contract, I just gave it a go.

Looking back on Everything You Know, are there things you see now that you think don't work so well, or that you feel you did better the second time around? And, in general, do you see the second book as a more ambitious effort—or just different?

I would say that, at this stage, I feel like somebody who's just started carpentry and made two rather wonky boxes, which I've shown to my mother and she says they're lovely.

But I know I can do better. I would hope that the second book is—all sorts of things—better modulated in tone, more carefully structured, a bit less show-offy. When I first started writing What Was She Thinking?, I remember being very alarmed by the idea of writing something that was quieter. The thing that sort of reassured me when I was writing the first book was that, whatever anyone thought, there'd be something amusing on each page. It sounds silly, but I was actually slightly nervous about doing something with less flash. I thought, Well, it's just going to be dull and full of itself. But I'm very glad I did something different, that I dropped some of that slightly manic, making-a-crack-on-every-page quality that the first one had.

It's gruesome in a way, because you're learning something in public. On the other hand, that's what makes it an interesting exercise. I obviously feel that I have enough of a knack for it that I want to keep on trying, but I have a long way to go before I'll feel accomplished at it.

Has journalism been good training for fiction?

I know that the standard thinking is that journalism is lousy training for writing fiction and gets you into all sorts of bad habits. And no doubt it did, not the least of which is finding it very hard to write anything more than 3,000 words. But I worked very hard for four or five years just doing that stuff, and I did, I think, become a better sentence-maker during that time. And there's something about the discipline of having to turn stuff out which is not bad for any writer.

I think people are more curious about someone who comes to fiction from journalism, which seems in some ways like it's the same game—it's writing things. But the truth is that I'm just like anybody else, taxi drivers who become novelists, or people who teach and also write novels.

Now I have a good position, in that apart from the odd bits and pieces I choose to do, I basically only write a column a week. That gives me a lot of time to do my own stuff.

Day to day, is it difficult to transition from the type of writing you do as a columnist to writing fiction, and being confronted with a completely blank slate?

It's not difficult, because they are so completely different. You rang as I was starting a column, and it's just a question of maintaining a tone that's slightly perkier than my natural one, and trying to get together a thousand words that are reasonably entertaining. But also, one doesn't have the same sense of anguish about everything being just so. It's tomorrow's fish and chip paper, so I'm pretty brisk about the way I do them.

I'm much happier when I sit down and know I'm writing fiction than when I sit down and know I have to churn out a column.

Do you write short stories as well?

I've never written a short story. I actually started one before I started work on the book I'm trying to write now, and it's still sitting in my computer, half-done. I don't know what will happen to it. I don't think it's the form that suggests itself to me naturally.

How is writing a story different from writing a novel?

Short stories always seem more exquisite. If you see literary forms on a scale, it's further down toward the poetry end of things. This is a very narrow way of defining what a short story is or can be, but in my head, at least, I always think of it as something more exquisite than I am inclined to make—something that ends with some kind of ineffable, perfect observation about one thing. That's the bit that makes me think it's not really me.

Is there a particular kind of novel that you can't imagine yourself writing?

Many! An epic historical novel, a bodice-ripping romance. Actually no, maybe I could try my hand at that.

There's a much tinier category of things I can imagine myself writing than those that I can't. I've just come back from Yaddo, where I looked at a couple of people's books and thought, Oh, now that I'll never be able to do. And they were big, chunky things that describe epochs, as well as people...


Yes, exactly. Histories of cities, and the rise and fall of this and that. And I thought, I have no idea... That seems very foreign and unattainable to me.

Any hint what the next book will be about?

I'm trying to write about a family. I have a slightly childlike idea that I want to make it a long book, which sounds ridiculous, but it's really the case. I think one of the things journalism has given me is a horror of rambling, and an inability thus far to get much above eighty or ninety thousand words. I would quite like to write something that has the sort of richness you get from not just two strands of plot, but many.

And it's written in the third person. This is one conscious thought I had, along with wanting to write something longer. You get wonderful advantages from writing in one person's voice, and you also narrow yourself very much. Particularly in the case of What Was She Thinking?, I had this problem throughout, which was that everything had to be filtered through the narrator's very narrow and slightly loony perspective. And now I'm starting to think, God, what liberation to switch around and be able to move from one mind to another. I'm enjoying that.

And where is it set?

In New York. I remember talking to another English transplant who lives in this country and her saying that, at a certain point, she'd lost her innocence about the English-American thing when she was writing, so that every sentence presented itself with a quandary about whether to write "pavement," meaning "curb" in American, or whether to go for "curb." And not really knowing who her audience was anymore, or which was her most natural idiom. I've found that to be the case too. I think my sensibility is probably pretty English. But I generally feel that America is my home, and I'm not going back to England.


Well, partly because I have a family here now. It makes a big difference if you've had a child somewhere; that sort of embeds you. But also because I really like living in a place where I don't fully belong. I mean, I feel completely at home here and my life is absolutely here. But it's not actually my culture, and I don't vote here and all those things. Even if I became a citizen it wouldn't be quite the same as in England. Anywhere I go in London—because London is such a tiny place, and England is such a tiny place—I'm going to meet somebody who'll say sooner or later, "Oh, my sister's dog walker used to go out with your ex-boyfriend." That kind of thing. I suppose like millions of people before me, like billions of people before me, there's something about the anonymity of America that's always appealed. Of course, I'm no longer anonymous—I have a network of friends and family here—but still I'm not quite of the culture. And I like that.