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CAG
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CAG
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


KxBurns wrote:

Zoë, thanks so much for your time!

 

The character Audrey has elicited really strong reactions in most of us. I'm curious to know how you feel about Audrey.

 

Like you, Audrey is a transplanted Brit living in New York; do you feel any kind of connection with her on that, or any other, level? How sympathetic of a character did you intend her to be?

 

Karen

 

 


 

Zoe, I too, thank you for your time. I would like to know if you based Audrey on anyone you personally know. I think she is a very strong and fascinating character. I am so glad this book was chosen for this First Look Club. I have enjoyed reading it.
CAG
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dhaupt
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Zoe, 

First of all let me say thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us about your amazing book.

I enjoyed reading The Believers very much, the characters were so out there that they kept me enthralled the whole way through the book. I don't really have a question, but I noticed in your post on another thread that you asked a question as to why doesn't any one like Karla. Well I can't speak for anyone else but I liked Karla quite a bit and the only reason I can imagine that no one mentioned her too often was that she was so good at being invisible to the rest of her family that maybe she did a little disappearing act for us too.

Unfortunately I am one of those folks who likes happy endings, but not with every read. I have very varied tastes in books so in between a sappy romance and a paranormal book I need a serial killer and after that something satirical like your book really hits the spot.

Any way thanks again for letting us be the very first ones to experience your book.

 

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Everyman
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

So that's how you see Audrey?   I didn't find myself feeling sorry for her at all, nor did I have any imaginative empathy for her plight.

 

She has the life she decided, whether consciously or unconsciously, to build for herself.   Should I feel sorry for her because she is married to a serial adulterer?  She knew perfectly well that he was the kind of guy who would sleep with a girl he had just met.  What did she expect, that his loose morals would suddenly become straight because he married her?   And after all, she chose to stay with him.  She was not a stupid woman, nor a weak one.  If the adultery was that painful to her, why didn't she just up and leave?   Obviously what she was getting from the marriage was sufficient to make up for what she had to put up with.  

 

As to being the not-as-sought-after spouse, this is typical of wives of driven men.  They find their fulfillment in being next to the center of attention.  If she had left him, she would have faded into insignificance, and I expect she knew it.  She was no Satan; better for her to serve next to the seat of power than to rule in a bed-sit in Queens.  

 

No, I don't feel any empathy because the life she made for herself over forty years of marriage turned her into something that we shudder at. 

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Zoe Heller wrote:  My decision regarding the more abstruse parts of Jewish observance was to do as little as explaining as possible. I didn't want the novel to end up reading like a work of anthropology or sociology. In most instances, I tried to make the gist clear - so that even if the reader didn't fully understand the ritual or law mentioned, she/he would understand enough for the purposes of the story. Am I wrong? Have a lot of you had trouble following what's going on in the Jewish scenes?

 

Most of the terms were broadly clear from the context, near enough as you say for the story, but my problem was that there were so many unfamiliar terms, and each one stopped the flow of the story to make me think about whether it was important enough to go to the dictionary (or beyond for some of the more abstruse terms) or just read along getting the gist but not the details. For a simiplistic example, in Chapter 1 Joel is upset because his wife didn't get bialys.   So I stop and wonder, how important is it to know that a bialy is?  It's still early in the book before I know whether you as author are saying something important with the bialys (are they going to be your madelines?? are they somehow representative of some image, as a pretzel carries the old symbolism of praying children?) . You say that they are carbohydrates, but of what kind?   Not bagles, presumably, or donuts, or you would have said those.  Are they nothing he could have gotten at the bogeda when he got the papers?  So I felt compelled to go look up what a bialy is, which interrupted the flow of the reading.  Once or twice or three times this isn't a great distraction, but after awhile I just accepted that I wouldn't understand precisely what you were talking about, which was a pragmatic decision but I don't like not knowing whether the precision of meaning might sometimes be important.  

_______________
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

BTW, it may sound from the tone of my questions and comments that I didn't appreciate the book.  Quite the contrary.  I found it one the best of the books we have read in this First Look program.  I suppose in a way I related more to it because not only am I an old warhorse lawyer myself, but in my 20s and early 30s I spent time in New York on the fringes of the radical movement, and I knew more than one person who could have been a model for Audrey, including one with whom I was quite tight, though not in that way (we would go to marches and demonstrations and meetings together, discuss the latest edition of the Catholic Worker over coffee in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, but always go home to our own beds at night.)   So for much of the book I felt I was treading in the vineyards of nostalgia.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable journey, and I thank you for it.

 

_______________
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Ms Heller,

Thank you so much for participating in this B&N book club;  I had read one of your earlier novels and felt very lucky indeed to be offered the opportunity to read a new one ahead of the general public!

I loved this book, and smiled at so many of your descriptions and dialogues that I wouldn't know where to begin to list them all.  Although I am a Gentile, I have luckily been exposed to Jewish culture all of my life,and in fact now have two beautiful Jewish grandchildren, so most of the expressions and ideas were easily understood by me.  I think that will be true of much of your intended East Coast audience;  Jewish themes are so common in literature and theatre there.   Nevertheless, Rosa's confusion and surprise at some of the strictures she encountered in the observant home were great opportunities for the reader to explore a bit of multiculturalism with gentle humor. 

As the mother/ now matriarch? of a large extended family myself, I've given a lot of thought to Audrey, while shuddering at the way she treats her daughters and thoroughly disapproving of the way she indulges and enables Lenny, much to his detriment.  As I said in another post, I couldn't 'like' her, but I loved reading about her, and came to feel I could understand her.   What has occurred to me after finishing the book and reading the discussions here, is that Audrey is almost a metaphor for the way our political discourse has deteriorated in this country in recent decades.   So many of our politicians and pundits are so certain that their way is THE way, that anyone who disagrees with them is a cretin whose motives can be dismissed out of hand, that personal insult and demeaning remarks are appropriate to political conversations, that anyone who searches for a different path must be berated - well, isn't that pretty much what we see and hear all the time, from both - or perhaps I should say, all -sides?   
If we've ever sneered instead of listening respectfully; if we laugh at coarse jokes about people we don't agree with, or sound like;   if our political opinions are colored by smear campaigns and cynicism about all opponents,  well then, we may detest Audrey, but look in the mirror, we ARE her.

And you, Zoe Heller, made me see that.   I don't know if that was your intention, but I think that's why I loved reading about her.  She is that worst part of all of us. 

Thanks again!

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller : Audrey as Victim?

Thanks Zoe for this explanation of how you see Audrey.  I was married to a thrice-adulterer and I got out of the marriage even though I had 4 children.  Is there a reason why you see Audrey as not trying to get out of her situation?  Because she is a stranger in a strange land perhaps?  Her alimony from Joel should have been OK and as she was a secretary in London, she could have found a similar job in New York.  Obviously it made for a better story that she stayed in the marriage but my empathy was reduced because she cast herself into the role of victim or 'little woman'.   

 

 


Zoe-Heller wrote:

KxBurns wrote:

Zoë, thanks so much for your time!

 

The character Audrey has elicited really strong reactions in most of us. I'm curious to know how you feel about Audrey.

 

Like you, Audrey is a transplanted Brit living in New York; do you feel any kind of connection with her on that, or any other, level? How sympathetic of a character did you intend her to be?

 

Karen

 

 


Hi Karen, 
Well this follows on neatly from the introductory remark I just made about "nice" characters in fiction. Let me be clear: Audrey is a terror and I certainly don't expect my readers to adore her. However - and it's a big however - I do hope to inspire some imaginative empathy for her plight. For 40 years, Audrey's been the unsung helpmeet to a beloved, charismatic Great Man. (Several of you have commented on how much more agreeable you find Joel. Precisely! All of her adult life,  Audrey has been the less popular, less sought-after spouse: the one people climb over in order to get to beguiling Joel.) Add to this, the fact that her husband has been a serial adulterer. She's had a tough row to hoe! Part of the reason for showing her as a young woman in the Prologue is to reveal the vulnerable, drastically insecure creature that lies beneath all the layers of her monstrousness. Have you ever found yourself behaving abominably and wanted to stop, but been unable to figure out how? That's the permanent situation that Audrey is in: she knows she's being awful, but she doesn't really know how to rescue herself. (When I was writing about her, I often visualised one of my young daughters having a tantrum.) 

 


 

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

I thought about you and your legal and political experiences in New York when I read the book Everyman and I wondered if you came across the extremely bad language that the characters use?  That certainly hasn't been my experience in the political circles I moved amongst in London from 1963 - 2004 (or now for that matter).

 

  

 


Everyman wrote:

BTW, it may sound from the tone of my questions and comments that I didn't appreciate the book.  Quite the contrary.  I found it one the best of the books we have read in this First Look program.  I suppose in a way I related more to it because not only am I an old warhorse lawyer myself, but in my 20s and early 30s I spent time in New York on the fringes of the radical movement, and I knew more than one person who could have been a model for Audrey, including one with whom I was quite tight, though not in that way (we would go to marches and demonstrations and meetings together, discuss the latest edition of the Catholic Worker over coffee in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, but always go home to our own beds at night.)   So for much of the book I felt I was treading in the vineyards of nostalgia.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable journey, and I thank you for it.

 


 

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller : Bialys

This message has been moved to a more appropriate location. This helps to keep our boards organized.

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


Zoe-Heller wrote:

As far as Jewish religious practice goes, I certainly haven't invented anything. (Any inaccuracies are unwitting, I'm afraid, and not for the sake of story.)
I take your point about the glossary. Whenever you're writing about a subject that will be unfamiliar to many readers, there's a question as to how far you should go in providing explanations and translations. My decision regarding the more abstruse parts of Jewish observance was to do as little as explaining as possible. I didn't want the novel to end up reading like a work of anthropology or sociology. In most instances, I tried to make the gist clear - so that even if the reader didn't fully understand the ritual or law mentioned, she/he would understand enough for the purposes of the story. Am I wrong? Have a lot of you had trouble following what's going on in the Jewish scenes?

 


Zoe...

 No glossary is necessary...whenever something isn't crystal clear I manage to understand from the context of the story. If anybody feels that they actually need a glossary then they should find a book about Judaism and keep it handy as they read your novel.

 Besides that...I'm really enjoying the book and have been biting at the bit to move on to the next part...but I don't want to get ahead of the discussions. Oh yeah...I haven't exactly taken a liking to Audrey...but I think that we'd get along...I like her straight forward approach.

                                                                                                      frankieD :smileyhappy:

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Ms. Heller....thank you for this story!  I really enjoyed it.  I really liked how you were able to create characters that I both loved and hated - except for Audry....I just didn't like her.  :smileyhappy:  Seeing the character of Audry through your eyes and the way the children turned out, it made me curious about the type of father Joel was. Audry didn't become the bitter and self-righteous person she was on her own...not to say it was Joel's fault, but I'd be interested to see what his family interactions were like.  How did you envision him as the children were growing up?

 

Anyway, thank you!  I really enjoyed this story.  

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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


thewanderingjew wrote:

Hi,

Let me add my thank you to you for taking the time out to join us and answer our questions. 
First, I was wondering how you researched the book. Did you draw upon the background of your parents or your experiences in the US? You have depicted the American Jewish culture so well and yet you were not even born the year your book begins? Did you immerse yourself in any particular neighborhood as your wrote the book?
Second, I have only just begun Part 2 which had many humorous moments to which I related. I am really interested in how you discovered some of the incidents you included in the book, notably Rosa and the bathroom light, the scene in which Audrey is concerned that people might mistake Jean and herself for lesbians, Mrs. Reinmans's concern for her light colored carpet, etc.
Many of my friends could have stepped between the pages of your book when it began and remained there right up to the present time. You have really captured the heartbeat and the tone of the "sixties" and the people and the extended families it produced, right up to the present, showing how the passage of time and the changes in values effected them all.
I have had many nostalgic moments and bursts of laughter as I read the book. So many of the personality traits of the characters plus the incidents they experienced, were part of my background and experience. I am loving the book.

twj


First, apologies for my prolonged absence from the message boards. More technical problems this end, I'm afraid. In any case, thank you wandering jew, for your question and for your generous remarks. 
I've had quite a certain amount of exposure to Jewish religious rituals, but I did have to do quite a bit of research for the Orthodox sections of the book. I read a lot and I spent some time with a modern Orthodox family on Long Island. A lot of the specific bits you mention came from nowhere but my head. That's the wonderful thing about being a novelist: maing things up! 

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


Choisya wrote:

Thank you for your time Ms Heller and Hello from over the Pond! 

 

Karen asked you:

How sympathetic of a character did you intend her to be?

 

As a Brit who finds Audrey a very objectionable character, I am interested in this question too. Was there a reason for making the only Brit in the novel change from being acceptable whilst in her own country to pretty nasty when she got to New York?  Is this a comment on what emigration can do to people?   

 

Also, I found her language to be very working class, considering the middle class milieu into which she moved and it is not my experience that political intellectuals in the UK use such bad language, not in the left wing circles in London in which I moved/move anyway.  Was there a reason for using it once she got to New York?  Is it your experience that it is used amongst such people there?  

 

 

 

 

 


KxBurns wrote:

Zoë, thanks so much for your time!

 

The character Audrey has elicited really strong reactions in most of us. I'm curious to know how you feel about Audrey.

 

Like you, Audrey is a transplanted Brit living in New York; do you feel any kind of connection with her on that, or any other, level? How sympathetic of a character did you intend her to be?

 

Karen

 

 


 


Thanks for the question, Choisya. No, I didn't see the changes in Audrey as having anything to do with her moving to the US. Audrey has evolved into a harridan for various reasons - not least the fact of being married to an unfaithful man for 40 years. There's a brief section after she has met Berenice at Jean's house in which she discusses how she has become the furious woman she is. I think that is the most straightforward and lucid account of her personality that I can offer you.
In re her language: first, Audrey comes from a working class family and she has never lost her East End accent. Second, I think her terrible cursing started out as a shock tactic and subsequently hardened into habit. I'm afraid to say, I know more than a few people who swear almost as much as Audrey does!

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


mwinasu wrote:

I have so many questions.  Which character are you most like?  What are your religious and political affiliations?  Is this book about the evolution of the liberal movement through the American Jewish community and the societal changes that it caused?  Are you mad at liberals?  Oh, I really liked the book.  Thanks for being with us.


I'm not sure I'm like any of these characters although there are probably bits of my and my experience in all of them, including the men. Regarding my own political, religious affiliations. I guess I am, for want of a more precise term, a liberal, albeit of a skeptical sort. I have no religion. I am not "mad" at liberals. I chose to write about this group of people because it's one with which  I'm familiar, but the points that the book makes about the deleterious effects of inflexible, blind faith apply, I think to faith of all sorts - religious, political, right wing, left wing, etc. 

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


MSaff wrote:

Hi Zoe, 

 

  First of all I would like to say that The Believers is a wonderful book.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found myself pulled in with each chapter and section.

 

  My question to you is "What was your inspiration in writing this story and how did you come up with the characters  ? 

 

 


Thank you so much for this, MSaff. I always find it difficult to describe precisely the inspirations for any novel. For one thing, I write very slowly and by the time I finish a book, the initial triggers have often faded into the mists of time! I can tell you that about 5 years ago, I came across an magazine article about scientists who were trying to locate the "belief gene" - that is, a gene that might predispose a person to being a believer. Whether or not such a gene really exists, it struck me as a useful metaphorical explanation for something I'd often observed: that true believers seem to be "hard-wired" in a different way to non-believers. They have a capacity for retaining their convictions and fending off any information injurious to their faith.   

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


sylvia387 wrote:

Hello Ms. Heller and thank you so much for the opportunity to get a "read ahead" on The Believers.  It is a very "visual" read for me.

 

My questions are more personal, rather than book specific, as I'm only into Part 2 of the novel.

 

First, who is Mary Parvin?  I'm always curious how one warrants a dedication.

 

Second, concerns editing.  Sometimes I can read a book that's 800 pages and when it's over think, "Lord that could have been about half the length and still told the story!"  Other times, I wish a book could have more volume for pure pleasure.  How do you yourself, edit?  When is too much apparent?

 

And finally, what is your writing practice?  A set location?  A set number of hours a day?  Self dictated deadlines?

 

Take care,  Sylvia in COLD Minnesota


Thanks for this, Sylvia. 
Mary Parvin was a dear, dear friend of mine - the godmother to my youngest daughter - who died of cancer, a couple years ago. 
About editing: perhaps because I started out as a journalist, I tend to write short rather than long, so I've never had the problem of cutting down an 800 page book! I do, however, do an enormous amount of revising and rewriting. I do most of this as I go - so rather than several drafts, I have one first draft that takes a very long time to complete.
My writing routine is as follows: I get my children up and off to school. Then I come back and work straight through until they return. If I'm on deadline, I'll sometimes carry on working in the evening, after supper. In New York, I have a little office out in the hallway of my apartment. (The building is a converted shirt factory and my office used to be the men's room.) My goal is to write 500 words a day - which doesn't sound very ambitious - but I often fail to meet it, even so.

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


fordmg wrote:

Ms Heller,

After reading your note in the intro section, I wanted to comment on "liking characters" in a novel.  I don't necessarily need to like a character to understand the message the author is telling.  Actually if I needed to like all the characters, there wouldn't be much conflict to make the story interesting.  I truly enjoyed your book.  I read it through in the first week.  I didn't like Audrey in the story, but I could see her character evolving.  I felt deep empathy for Karla.  She didn't have a chance, really.  She only wants to please and is non confrontational.  I liked the ending when she just took off, but I wonder if she only did it because Audrey "gave her permission". 

MG


 

Thanks, MG. Karla's starts the book convinced of her own limited capacities and of her own unattractiveness. Her escape in the final chapter is an escape from these limiting convictions. Audrey's encouragement certainly has something to do with this - but Khaled's love is more of a crucial factor, I think.  


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


nbaber wrote:
I am delighted that the characters of the children are so diverse in nature.  Each has something I can identify with.  Karen - her weight issues, Rosa - her fierce independence and thirst for new knowledge.  I am a little over halfway through the book and I find I am really hoping that Karen gains the self esteem necessary to leave her husband and stand up to her mother.  Nice work on character development.
Thanks!

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


CAG wrote:

KxBurns wrote:

Zoë, thanks so much for your time!

 

The character Audrey has elicited really strong reactions in most of us. I'm curious to know how you feel about Audrey.

 

Like you, Audrey is a transplanted Brit living in New York; do you feel any kind of connection with her on that, or any other, level? How sympathetic of a character did you intend her to be?

 

Karen

 

 


 

Zoe, I too, thank you for your time. I would like to know if you based Audrey on anyone you personally know. I think she is a very strong and fascinating character. I am so glad this book was chosen for this First Look Club. I have enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for your comments, CAG. Audrey is not based on any one person - although I have certainly encountered people with elements of her personality! 

 


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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


dhaupt wrote:

Zoe, 

First of all let me say thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us about your amazing book.

I enjoyed reading The Believers very much, the characters were so out there that they kept me enthralled the whole way through the book. I don't really have a question, but I noticed in your post on another thread that you asked a question as to why doesn't any one like Karla. Well I can't speak for anyone else but I liked Karla quite a bit and the only reason I can imagine that no one mentioned her too often was that she was so good at being invisible to the rest of her family that maybe she did a little disappearing act for us too.

Unfortunately I am one of those folks who likes happy endings, but not with every read. I have very varied tastes in books so in between a sappy romance and a paranormal book I need a serial killer and after that something satirical like your book really hits the spot.

Any way thanks again for letting us be the very first ones to experience your book.

 


Well, thank YOU for taking the time to read it. It's enormously gratifying for writers to have people read and respond to  work - even when the reactions are negative!

 


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