Zoë Heller’s marvelously realized new book, The Believers, dissects a hyperliberal New York family whose true identity oozes out as its convictions are put to the test.
by Andrew Creighton Stone
There are a few pages from recent fictionmore pleasurable than those of The Believers (Ecco), the third novel from celebrated British novelist-journalist Zoë Heller, whose bestselling What Was She Thinking? was made into the Oscar-nominated film Notes on a Scandal. Wisely and wickedly, Heller lays bare the hidden motives of a family of staunch New York City liberals whose lives are upended when patriarch Joel Litvinoff—a famed attorney to social pariahs—suffers a massive stroke. His bourgeois-liberal wife, Audrey, is left holding the family together, and experiences a sea change as her three children forge paths divergent from hers and a surprise from Joel’s past threatens to loosen the foundation of her memories with him.
We caught up—and subsequently fell in love—with the charming, razorsharp author, who currently resides on Harbour Island in the Bahamas with her husband, screenwriter Larry Konner, and their two daughters. They’ll be back in New York soon, much to her chagrin.
GOTHAM: It’s a pleasure to speak with you. You sound winded.
ZOË HELLER: I’m a bit breathless from a run. I’m lighting a cigarette now, so I’ll be fine in a moment.
G: Tell me, how did The Believers come to be?
ZH: The book began because I turned 40—and of the people I knew growing up espousing political ideologies, very few of us have continued carrying the torch…. Though some still were. At the same time, I came across the idea of scientists trying to find the “belief gene.” There is this gene that engenders credulousness and belief, and it’s a great metaphor for what one knows intuitively—that there’s a difference in the brain wiring between believers and skeptics.
G: Your characters are forced to reexamine their belief systems— as evidenced by the book’s title. What got you interested in the matter?
ZH: I’m such a temperamental nonbeliever, insofar as I have never cleaved to any particular creed or religion or political system. But there are elements of that capacity to remain loyal to an ideology that I find admirable. It’s very much not a book against belief. Though I suppose the book is about the deleterious effects of zealotry.
G: Much of the book focuses on the ideological differences between a mother and her kids. Do you think children inevitably rebel against the values of their parents?
ZH: I’ve found that regardless of the transient stuff kids do with their hair in their teens, they reproduce their parent’s basic values and lifestyle. All of us have argued a point, not because we really are certain, but just because we can’t bear conceding to the other side. We’re all guilty of this.
G: Well, the book will inevitably be swallowed whole by lovers of words everywhere. Meanwhile, I’m very jealous that you live in the Bahamas. How did you come to settle there?
ZH: My husband and I are both writers, and we could essentially live anywhere we wanted. The one requirement was that I wanted to wear a sarong year-round. Sadly, it’s a life that’s shortly coming to an end. We return to New York in—well, my husband says June, I say August—in time for our daughters to go back to school.
G: Where will you be found when you come back?
ZH: Well, I love Rockefeller Park down at the bottom of the city (north of Battery Park) on the west side. When I was little, I read Babar Comes to America. There are scenes in that park, and they bring back those initial glamorous images I had of American life.
G: Do you have a special writing spot or ritual?
ZH: In New York I live in what used to be a shirt factory. Down the hall used to be their men’s room, and that’s my office. Even though we’ve acid-washed the floors, in the heat of summer there’s still a ruinous tang in the air. In one of the English papers they have this series called, “Where I Write.” I looked through the lot of them and I turned to my husband and said, “It’s official. Everyone has a nicer writing space than me.” Though in a superstitious way, I feel like it would be bad juju to have a sprauncy office.
photograph by Amy Graves/WireImage.com (HELLER)