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Fresh from the blockbuster success of her last novel Zoe Heller has taken a radically different approach as she explores the American intelligentsia’s short-lived crush on Communism.
Anne Sexton, 25 Jun 2009
It’s the kind of success most author’s only dream of. Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal ticked all the boxes – a critically acclaimed novel, a spot on the 2003 Man Booker short list, and a commercial success that became a hit movie. You wouldn’t blame Heller for trying to recreate that kind of glory, but her latest novel The Believers is a very different kind of book.
“Stupidly, no,” she laughs when asked if she was worried about how this book would be received. “For some reason, when I’m writing, I am curiously cut off from what people’s expectations might be. Once it’s published and I’m about to go out on the publicity trail, then I’m filled with terror, paranoia and anxiety!”
“When I wrote Notes On A Scandal, it seemed to me to have a very small appeal; it didn’t have the makings of something that was going to cross demographics or get turned into a movie. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said, ‘Nobody knows anything’ in the context of studios trying to make a hit film, but they keep trying. I think my job as a writer is to write the best book I can.”
The Believers tells the story of the Litvinoff family, a New York family with impeccable left-wing credentials and famous friends. When Joel, a radical socialist lawyer of the old school suffers a stroke and an unexpected secret from his past is revealed, the family begins to unravel.
The Believers questions idea of belief, both religious and political – beliefs that seem rational and those based on faith.
“Early on I’d come across an article that scientists were trying to locate the ‘belief’ gene, the gene that would predispose you to faith in something,” Heller says. “The thing that appealed to me was that this could be a metaphor for what one knows from life. Some people want to believe and have a natural aptitude for fending off sceptical thoughts while others don’t. What I wanted to write about was the mechanics of belief and what you do when you receive new intelligence which threatens the great edifice of your belief system.”