SUBWAYiranda Cowley Heller, 59, grew up in New York in a literary and artistic family. She worked as a ghostwriter, book doctor, and associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine before becoming Senior Vice President and Head of Drama Series at HBO, where she developed shows including The sopranos Y The wire. His newly published debut novel, The Paper Palace, is a tense and evocative tale of guilt and forgiveness whose fans include Meg Wolitzer and William Boyd. It revolves around the heroine Elle Bishop’s dilemma: stay with the husband she loves or pursue the life she always imagined sharing with another man, before tragedy intervened.
Your novel occurs during a just day On Cape Cod, with flashbacks spreading 50 years in the past. How did you decide on that structure?
This is going to sound a bit off putting, but as a kid, I saw John Lennon’s quote about what life is like that happens while you’re busy making other plans. I cut it up and put it on my wall. That schism was an initial impulse, and then I always had the notion that we are all given an old-fashioned carousel of slides, and those slides are the stories we tell friends or therapists when we explain ourselves. They add to who you are, they determine your direction. Scenes from the past are the slides of Elle’s life down the 24-hour cliff.
There are no spoilers here, but is the ending meant to be ambiguous?
It’s a tiny a bit ambiguous. Personally, I have a terrible antipathy for novels that don’t tell you what happens in the end, but the conversation about this really pleases me. I didn’t decide who Elle was going to go with until two pages before the end; I had no idea, I just wrote it down. For me, it was never a choice between two men. That was one way to articulate an idea. The novel is about his journey to the point of being able to make his own decision, to become his complete self, free from the horrible guilt that he has been carrying for decades.
How long did it take me to write?
At one point in my life I started with three or four different books and then put them in a drawer. This was one of them. I put it out almost six years ago, so it took me a long time to write it, but I’m not one of those jerk writers. Sometimes I write all day every day, and sometimes weeks go by.
His grandfather, Malcolm Cowley, was a poet and critic, your husband is a screenwriterand your sister-in-law is Zoe heller. Does belonging to a literary family like this liberate or inhibit?
I’d say it completely inhibits. I remember my father, who is a book editor, yelling at me when I was 10 years old about a final paper that he had written. He would say, “Cut, cut, cut!” That is the environment in which I grew up. And because there are so many successful writers in the family, I thought, if I can’t do it right, I won’t try.
How did you get over that?
I put a lot of pressure on myself, but what finally broke the dam was writing a lot of poetry. It changed everything for me. Suddenly he was writing from a more dreamy place, discovering what was buried underneath instead of digging on purpose. That’s why I never think ahead, I just close my eyes and let the page do it.
What did you learn from your work on television?
What I took from that chapter of my life was how to write real dialogue. People do not guide each other in conversation, they often repeat themselves. It’s the unsaid, the spaces in between, that’s so cool. And of course I visualize everything very cinematically.
There are some intense sex scenes in the novel. Were you wary of writing them?
When I was little, my cousin, who is now a literary editor, and I wrote poetry and pornographic stories together. They were very dirty, like, psychopaths. Gang rapes and iambic pentameters on erect knights. So I think the sex scenes never scared me, except my kids haven’t read the book yet, and neither has my dad.
It is refreshing to find a novel in which a The woman in her fifties is so intensely desired by two pretty decent men.
I think women’s sexuality gets deeper, stronger and more interesting as we get older, I mean, I hope it does! Women over 50 are totally rejected in many different ways, but it is not uncommon for a woman Elle’s age to have two men completely in love with her; it’s just that people don’t seem to write about it.
Like Elle’s, your husband is British. Is there a personal dimension to your spiel about how you always make scrambled eggs in a saucepan instead of a skillet?
That’s one of my things that annoys me. That sticks – I don’t understand why you guys don’t understand!
Tell me about Cape Cod.
The Cape is my place. Coming from a broken family, it was the only place that felt like dry land to me as a child. The 70s were, in a strange way, a pretty dark time for kids, because our parents, at least as I experienced it, were out of control. Naked all over the place, joining ashrams, holding key parties or whatever. So all the adults were completely negligent, narcissistic and with their own behinds, but it was freedom. We ran barefoot, we swam in the ocean. Every time I go back, it feels like the opposite of nostalgia. I just fit into myself, suddenly I am inhabiting my body.
What is the last great book you read?
Ali smith’s Fall is without a doubt one of them. There was one point in particular where I felt like I was writing poetry instead of a story, and then I read Ali Smith and I thought, “Everything is fine.”
Which book did you last unfinished?
The God of Little Things by Arundhati Roy. It is a book that I really love, and I have carried it everywhere with me, but for some strange reason I have never read more than three-quarters of it. Sometimes it is annoying when something is so well written that you have to go very slowly to savor each line.
What are you working on right now?
HBO bought the rights to the book at auction, and I’m waiting to hear from them about a new draft I wrote of the pilot. It’s going to be a miniseries, so I’m going to be working on that a bit if it goes ahead.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism