Novelist Zoe Heller writes brilliant stories about bad people: Her first novel, Everything You Know, was narrated by an angry hack writer who may or may not have murdered his wife. Notes on a Scandal, her 2003 follow-up effort, featured a teacher who slept with her student and then was betrayed by a close friend. (In the U.S., the book was released as What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal.) And her most recent novel, The Believers, centers on Audrey, an unhappy matriarch who serves her family spaghetti and meatballs that she slides — cold and congealed — from the can to the dinner table.
But as Heller tells Morning Edition guest host Linda Wertheimer, just because her characters are unlikable, doesn't mean they are without virtue.
"My hope, at least, is that I write difficult, complicated, but sympathetic characters," says Heller. "There are some very clear reasons why [Audrey] has become a monstrous person."
Audrey is a woman whose potential goes unfulfilled partly because, as Heller says, she had the misfortune of marrying a "very successful man." That man has a stroke and lies unconscious throughout most of the book, while Audrey and her three adult children orbit around him, unhappy with themselves and vicious to one another.
Heller says The Believers is ultimately about characters who "have the gift of conviction" — who believe, or want to believe, strongly in "isms" — Socialism, Judaism — but who struggle with their faith in various ways.
"What the book suggests is it is heroic when you can unblock your ears and take in new intelligence that threatens to contradict your most passionately held beliefs," explains Heller.
One of the most dramatic reversals occurs to Audrey's youngest daughter, Rosa, a revolutionary socialist who has become painfully disillusioned with socialism after spending four years in Cuba. Instead, she turns to Orthodox Judaism — an interest her mother greets with unmerciful cynicism.
But Heller notes that some of the things Audrey says about religion — however mean or unreasonable — are meant to make you laugh. And, she adds, lots of people in the world behave just as unpleasantly as her characters do.
"I'm slightly irritated by what I think is a kind of modern demand for characters you can root for, characters you would like to be friends with. Speaking as a reader, I have to say that some of my favorite characters in literature are some of the nasty ones," Heller says.
Keeping the reader engaged is a task Heller says she approaches with "great difficulty and anxiety." Maybe it's this anxiety that keeps Heller's books relatively slender — despite the author's admitted desire to finish "a great big Icelandic doorstop" of a novel.
"I keep producing these very slender novels," she says. "One of these days I'm going to produce this vast book, and no one will read it, but I will be satisfied."