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Zoe-Heller
Posts: 33
Registered: ‎10-27-2008
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


Everyman wrote:

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.  


Point taken, Everyman. I guess I assumed - incorrectly - that a bialy was a sufficiently well-known foodstuff to require no explanation. Sorry!

 


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Author
Zoe-Heller
Posts: 33
Registered: ‎10-27-2008
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


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.

 


Good!  That's reassuring news!

 


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Author
Zoe-Heller
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


BookWoman718 wrote:

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!


Absolutely, BookWoman. This is not - I repeat, not - an "anti-liberal" book, so much as an anti-prejudice book. I'm interested in the way that all sorts of belief often petrify into inflexible assumptions. We are all guilty, at some time in our lives, of dismissing the other side of an argument, not because we really believe it to be altogether wrong, but because we have vested so much of ourselves and our identities in our version of events. 

 


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Author
Zoe-Heller
Posts: 33
Registered: ‎10-27-2008
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller : Audrey as Victim?


Choisya wrote:

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.) 

 


 


 

I applaud your gumption, Choisya. My sense is that a lot of women, particularly those of Audrey's generation, are not as brave as you. For Audrey, her marriage to Joel represents her identity. As she makes clear in her conversation with Jean in Bucks County, she finds it all but impossible to imagine a fulfilling life without him and her mantel as Wife of a Great Man.


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Jennd1
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Hi Zoe,

 

I really enjoyed the believers and I wondered where you got the inpiration or the idea for the title?  As I read the book it seemed to me that all of the characters were looking for something to believe in.  Karla wants to s have the life she believes in a happy marriage etc. and to belive in herself.  Rosa wants to belive in a God or a religion and I think she knows on some level that Juidasm might not be it.  Lenny is trying to find a place for himself in the world and leave his bagage behind and to do that he needs to believe in himself and his future. Audrey needs to belive she can survive in the world without Joel and deal with the world not her version of it.

 

Jenn

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saratoga99
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


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.

 


 

No wonder you had no idea what a bialy is; you gave yourself away...:smileywink:
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wendyroba
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

[ Edited ]

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!

 

My question is about Audrey. I believe an author takes a bit of a risk when they choose to center their novel around a largely unlikeable character. Audrey's mothering style and her angry/cynical way of viewing the world impacts the lives of her children and how they look at themselves (Rosa is seeking a deeper/spiritual understanding of the world; Lenny appears more damaged by Audrey than by the abandonment of his biological mother...and can only be healed by separating himself from Audrey; and Karla lacks the self-esteem to believe she is worth having a satisfactory marriage/sex life...and buries her anger beneath her passivity). For most of the book, I disliked Audrey. But on page 189 you wrote:

 

'Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture - a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness. People had actually enjoyed her vituperation back then, encouraged it and celebrated it. She had carved out a minor distinction for herself as a "character": the cute ilttle English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman's mouth. "Get Audrey in here," they used to cry whever someone was being an ass." "Audrey'll take him down a peg or two." 

 

But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.'

 

It was at this point in the book I started to really understand Audry and began to like her - or at least feel empathy for her.

 

I am interested as to how you, as a writer, developed Audrey's character - was she a 'work in progress' or did you essentially know her before you began writing? What made you decide that this was the character who would drive your novel? As a writer, what do you think is the most important thing in developing empathy for a character, while at the same time showing the negative aspects of that character?

 

Thank you!

Wendy

Message Edited by wendyroba on 11-01-2008 11:25 AM
Author
Zoe-Heller
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


wendyroba wrote:

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!

 

My question is about Audrey. I believe an author takes a bit of a risk when they choose to center their novel around a largely unlikeable character. Audrey's mothering style and her angry/cynical way of viewing the world impacts the lives of her children and how they look at themselves (Rosa is seeking a deeper/spiritual understanding of the world; Lenny appears more damaged by Audrey than by the abandonment of his biological mother...and can only be healed by separating himself from Audrey; and Karla lacks the self-esteem to believe she is worth having a satisfactory marriage/sex life...and buries her anger beneath her passivity). For most of the book, I disliked Audrey. But on page 189 you wrote:

 

'Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture - a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness. People had actually enjoyed her vituperation back then, encouraged it and celebrated it. She had carved out a minor distinction for herself as a "character": the cute ilttle English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman's mouth. "Get Audrey in here," they used to cry whever someone was being an ass." "Audrey'll take him down a peg or two." 

 

But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.'

 

It was at this point in the book I started to really understand Audry and began to like her - or at least feel empathy for her.

 

I am interested as to how you, as a writer, developed Audrey's character - was she a 'work in progress' or did you essentially know her before you began writing? What made you decide that this was the character who would drive your novel? As a writer, what do you think is the most important thing in developing empathy for a character, while at the same time showing the negative aspects of that character?

 

Thank you!

Wendy

Message Edited by wendyroba on 11-01-2008 11:25 AM
Thanks for the question, Wendy. I had a very clear idea of who Audrey was from the start, but the way I presented her on the page changed quite a bit in the course of writing the novel. For instance, the section you quote (in which she wonders about how she became a harridan) was a fairly late addition. Initially, I was happy to put her on the page in all her glorious awfulness and let the reader make of her what they would. But at a certain point, I realized that if she wasn't to be an entirely inexplicable monster, I had to help the reader out a bit and do some more 'splaining. Her role in the novel ended up being much more central than I had planned. (Originally, I saw her as an equal player in a large ensemble.) Somewhere along the way, however, she simply shouldered herself into the foreground. (It was partly, I think, because she was so enjoyable to write.) The same sort of thing has happened with characters in my other novels - it's one of the most enjoyable parts about writing fiction: the almost organic way the novel changes and grows beneath your hands.   

 


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PinkPanther
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Why does Audrey smoke pot? Does she do it for pleasure, or is it a medical condition that she has?
"I ought, therefore I can"
-Immanuel Kant
Author
Zoe-Heller
Posts: 33
Registered: ‎10-27-2008
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

For pleasure. 


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HannibalCat
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


Everyman wrote:

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. 


Everyman, quite agree with you. I  think you nailed Audrey.  I have no sympathy for her either. Although I agree she was no satan, I think she was a mean spirited person with little to admire about her. Even her decision to stay with Joel seemed to be just a way of vindicating her own behaviors. But I certainly think she was a very interesting character. Ms. Heller is great with building people that give depth to her stories. I want to read her other books.

 

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detailmuse
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Registered: ‎01-24-2008
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Language

I knew enough of what a bialy is to understand the passage: Joel threw a tantrum because his breakfast-roll demands hadn't been met by Audrey. I suppose a better familiarity with bialys vs bagels (and why Joel preferred bialys) could have led to a deeper understanding of his character, but that's true in every passage in a book.

 

And on the subject of language -- I've never come across so many words new to me in a contemporary novel as in The Believers, and I loved it! I noticed imbroglios early on, and while its meaning was generally obvious from the context, I did look it up and learned something new. In the latter part of the novel, I finally started a list of the words: munificence, contramundum, termagant, poncey, minatory, froideur, apercu, twee, reliquary, synecdoche. While I noticed them, they generally didn't feel intrusive -- I grasped the intent, and if I did look up the word (some weren't in Merriam Webster's Collegiate and ha! the spell-checker here didn't recognize five of them), I benefited.

Author
Zoe-Heller
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Re: Language

Oh dear, I did not set out to write a book full of recondite words.  It sounds, though, as if you've been having fun with your dictionary! 


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Zoe-Heller
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


HannibalCat wrote:

Everyman wrote:

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. 


Everyman, quite agree with you. I  think you nailed Audrey.  I have no sympathy for her either. Although I agree she was no satan, I think she was a mean spirited person with little to admire about her. Even her decision to stay with Joel seemed to be just a way of vindicating her own behaviors. But I certainly think she was a very interesting character. Ms. Heller is great with building people that give depth to her stories. I want to read her other books.

 


HC and Everyman,  I'm sorry I was unable to inspire ANY of your sympathy for Audrey, but if she interested you, I'll settle for that!  

 


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detailmuse
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Re: Language


Zoe-Heller wrote: 
... recondite words ...

There you go again!

:smileyvery-happy:

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detailmuse
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller


sylvia387 wrote:

I'm always curious how one warrants a dedication.


Sylvia, I just heard about a new book that might interest you: Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications.

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sylvia387
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Re: Questions for Zoë Heller

Thanks detailmuse.....I'll look into it!
Sylvia

No expectations..No disappointments