Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller lives in New York and is at work on her fourth novel, Mother Country.

The reputation of parenthood has not fared well in the modern era. Social science has concluded that parents are either no happier than people without children, or decidedly unhappier. Parents themselves have grown competitively garrulous on the subject of their dissatisfactions. Confessions of child-rearing misery are by now so unremarkable that the parent who doesn’t merrily cop to the odd infanticidal urge is considered a rather suspect figure. And yet, the American journalist Jennifer Senior argues, it would be wrong to conclude that children only spoil their parents’ fun.

J.D. Salinger, who is now in his early eighties, has spent the greater part of his life hiding out from the world on a hilltop in New Hampshire. Over the last half century, he has continued to write steadily, it seems, but to protect his reclusion he has refused to publish any of his work since 1968. Then – at the last minute, as it were – a former girlfriend, Joyce Maynard, a...

Kerfuffle: Ronald Reagan

Zoë Heller, 2 March 2000

Fourteen years ago, Edmund Morris won the job of writing the official Reagan biography. With the job came all kinds of unprecedented access. Morris was allowed to attend senior staff meetings at the White House and to travel as part of the Presidential entourage on foreign trips. He had permission to examine the President’s conscientiously kept handwritten diary and, most promisingly, he was granted a monthly private interview with his subject.

Mother Punk: Vivienne Westwood

Zoë Heller, 10 December 1998

In 1972, Vivienne Westwood, a 31-year-old mother of two, sat down at the kitchen table of her council flat in Clapham and began decorating white T-shirts to sell at Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, the shop at 430 King’s Road owned and run by her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. Westwood’s previous T-shirts, which bore screenprint images of rock’n’roll idols and slogans like ‘Vive la Rock’, had not sold well. The last lot had ended up being converted into knickers. Her new ones were intended to make a stronger statement. Some were decorated with marabou feathers and little plastic windows on the breasts into which pictures of pin-up girls were inserted. Others sported two zippers allowing exposure of the nipples. The most memorable proved to be the bone T-shirts:‘

Feathered Wombs: Toni Morrison

Zoë Heller, 7 May 1998

Something amazing has happened to Toni Morrison’s reputation in the United States. Over the last ten years, since the publication of Beloved, her fifth novel, she has been catapulted from the teeming ranks of well-known, well-respected fiction writers, to the thin-aired plane reserved for America’s deities and seers. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 had something to do with this of course, but Morrison’s status in American culture goes beyond, and is certainly not reducible to, the approbation of the Swedes. She appears on the cover of the New York Review of Books and Time magazine. She is required reading in American schools and colleges, and very probably the subject of more doctoral dissertations than any other contemporary American writer. She is Oprah Winfrey’s Favourite Author. (In gratitude for which honour, she has, by the way, made several Papal appearances on Oprah’s Book Club, delivering gnomic verities about Literature and Life to a slightly confounded, but droolingly reverent studio audience.) In the great halls of the New York Public Library, an extract from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech has been graven on the stone wall.

Dumped: Girl Talk

Zoë Heller, 19 February 1998

Not long ago, James Wolcott wrote an article for the New Yorker lamenting the ‘softened, juvenilised’, timbre of modern female journalism. In the old days, he said, women like Germaine Greer and Valerie Solanas made men nervous. They produced feisty, aggressive prose. They were rude and polemical. They wrote, in Norman Mailer’s words, like ‘very tough faggots’. But somewhere in the aftermath of Seventies feminism, women’s writing lost its swagger: the cut and thrust of the Valkyrie was replaced by the flounce and preen of the ‘chick’. The pre-eminent female style, Wolcott claimed, has degenerated into a sort of grimly coquettish prattle – ‘flirty and confrontational at the same time’.’‘

Claire Bloom has now written two books about her life. Lest this give rise to any suspicion of autobiographical surfeit, she notes in the Preface to the latest volume, that her earlier book, Lime-light and After, constituted merely ‘a modest account’ of her acting career, whereas the new work presents a more thoughtful self-portrait of Bloom, the female.


Zoë Heller, 7 March 1996

If anyone knows about the allure of hair it’s little girls. Between the ages of seven and twelve, girls groom their Barbies and each other with an intensity bordering on the freakish. At least they did in my day. Among the females in my class at primary school, hair-styling, or, more accurately, hair-fondling, was far and away the playground pursuit of choice. (The only thing that came near it, in fact, was that other proto-erotic pastime – tickling the insides of each other’s forearms.) As with the more fully realised sexual acts of later years, hair-fondling sessions were fraught with tensions about technique and performance. Some girls were known to be ham-fisted with hair, while others were known to have the touch. Some girls earned reputations for being ‘selfish’ – always wanting to be the fondlee and never the fondler – while a few much sought-after eccentrics were famous for preferring to do rather than be done.’

The Lady Vanishes

Zoë Heller, 20 July 1995

‘As a siren Wallis Windsor had been a figure who had changed historical events more drastically than any other woman in human history.’ If one could only believe that the Duchess of Windsor had changed historical events more drastically than Mary Queen of Scots, or Joan of Arc, or even Margaret Thatcher, then perhaps Caroline Blackwood’s recycled revelations about the Duchess – her expertise at fellatio, her 22 carat gold bath-tub at Cap d’Antibes, the amusing tricks that her homosexual lover, the Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue, liked to perform with his penis at dinner parties – might seem quite, you know, important. The disappointing alternative is that The Last of the Duchess is just what it appears: a book of snobby royal tittle-tattle on which Blackwood is attempting, rather late in the day, to confer some gravitas. British newspapers do much the same thing, when they affect concern about the ‘constitutional implications’ of the Prince of Wales’s desire to be a tampon.’

Fashion Flashes

Zoë Heller, 26 January 1995

This must be a brave letter. No exotic quotations; no miserable, ignominious echoes of Swinburne, no trace of silvery, erotic decadence; no Musset; no motif of Delius – nothing but lucidity … There’s a programme of insouciant, lilting French cabaret songs on the radio as I write and I have just lit a cigarette. Try and see me.’

Harridan: Zoë Heller

Rachel Cohen, 6 November 2008

The question of which characters in a novel get most space is generally decided early on, often for reasons that are at first unclear. In Zoë Heller’s new novel, The Believers, a large...

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Bodily Speaking: Zoë Heller

Sarah Rigby, 29 July 1999

Willy Muller, the 50-year-old narrator of Everything You Know, confides at the beginning of the novel that he doesn’t understand his girlfriend’s attachment to him. He treats her...

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