Joseph Heller: Not today and not during this interview.

I see that there’s a remake TV series of Catch-22. Time, I think, to revisit my interview with its author, American novelist and memoirist Joseph Heller, conducted in New York in 1998, just a year before he died aged 76.

Joseph Heller was a master of the absurd, so much so that the title of his first novel and most famous book, Catch–22, has entered the English language as an expression for an absurd and illogical concept.

When Heller’s hero, Yossarian, is asked to fly additional dangerous bombing missions in World War II, the only way to avoid the extra missions is to plead insanity. But if he is insane, he wouldn’t want to stop flying — he must be sane to want to stop, therefore he has to keep flying. That’s Catch–22.

The book is now considered a classic. Heller went on to write six more darkly comic novels, including Closing Time, which charts the progress of Yossarian, the evil Milo Minderbinder and the rest of the cast of the first novel, as they make their way in the inferno that is postwar America, New York to be precise.

In his memoir, Now and Then, you can read about many of the locations that have found their way into Heller’s fiction, especially Coney Island, the place where Heller grew up and had so many of his formative experiences.

I spoke to Joseph Heller in his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. Although he died of a heart attack the following year, in December 1999 he was, at 75, glossy and handsome and charming, and ready to talk about his writing life. His wife Valerie was resting in another room and his little white dog joined her. He served me coffee and I asked him first if it was possible to understand America through the work of Joseph Heller.

JOSEPH HELLER: In all my novels the central characters are extremely perplexed and at odds with their surroundings, and their surroundings do constitute America. I do not think you can understand America from me unless you come to a conclusion that America cannot be understood. I don’t understand the country. I know New York City, the rest of the country is foreign to me, especially politically in this day and age.

RAMONA KOVAL: Well can we talk about the absurd, because Catch–22 has become part of the lexicon. It’s the word we use for absurd, for a kind of illogicality chasing its own tail in a sense, and that must give you immense pride, to know that you have invented a term like that.

HELLER: It gives me immense pride, of course, at this late date, and I can feel a sense of personal pleasure every time I hear the phrase or see the phrase. And it did emerge in the course of writing the first novel, Catch–22, in which things are very hard to make sense of, particularly in a war situation and a postwar situation. Catch–22 is really a postwar novel and most of the attitudes and confusions that appear in it occurred to me as a result of conditions after the war, rather than my own experience in the war. I’m proud of having written Catch–22, I’m proud of the phrase, and the phrase becomes used more and more frequently as time goes on, which indicates there is a timelessness to the term and to the situation that made Catch–22 so relevant.

KOVAL: Did you always find throughout your life, even when you were growing up in Coney Island before you joined the army, did you find life absurd then? Did you find you had a vision of life that was different from other people’s? Did you find it ridiculous?

HELLER: It would be very instructive and impressive to say yes, but the answer is no. I don’t know what I was thinking of before I began writing Catch–22. I do think my personality, like yours and like everybody’s, doesn’t change much with the years — we are who we are very early. But without consciously dwelling on the meaning of life, I was pretty much the way I am. I always had what would be called a sense of humour, wisecracking, practical jokes, always a kind of perverse way with the wisecracks and jokes. I didn’t think much about society, I didn’t think much about anything then as a child. There was not that much to think about.

Even in the army I didn’t think much about politics. I didn’t even recall hating the Germans even when they were shooting at me. It wasn’t until after the army when I was 22 years old and began attending college that I began thinking critically. But the humour was there and when I recall some of my early short stories — a few were published, a few weren’t — many of the elements that found their way into my later work were already present: a fusion of the realistic, politically, with the fantastic. The real and the fantastic are frequently blended together in short stories.

KOVAL: Although you said in your book Now and Then that the short stories you were writing when you were studying literature after the war in this period were plotted extravagantly — I’m quoting you now — and often were resolved miraculously by some kind of ironic divine intervention on the side of the virtuous and oppressed. So what happened to your outlook and your sensibility that evolved, if we can use a Darwinian term, into a book where the exploiters triumph, the Milo Minderbinders get everything, while the good and deserving get nothing?

HELLER: What happened is that my attitudes evolved in a Darwinian sense, and realism is realism, and what happens does happen. And what does happen in life is that the virtuous usually do not triumph, and those who are triumphant usually lack virtue, too often they lack conscience. It’s the difference between being very young and having a belief in the miraculous, and being a little mature and educated and knowing there is no such thing as the miraculous.

KOVAL: But there must have been a point when it happened, because we’re talking about the fact that you’ve been to war, you’ve come back, you’ve started college, you’ve had all those experiences that shaped your growing up, your maturing into a man from a boy, and something has happened from the moment that you’re writing those short stories — suddenly this vision, this darkness comes upon you.

HELLER: I don’t think so. The darkness present in the short stories has to deal with somebody in trouble, and it ends happily, although in my novels it did not end happily. What happened with Catch–22, my subsequent novel, is a move away from the fictitious cloud — what we think of as an extravagant fictitious clouding — closer to realism, reality of life, and a reliance more on the stylistic approach to fiction than on the unusual content — the miraculous ending, the happy ending.

I do think in all my books you’ll find my sympathies are still with the oppressed, the exploited, and my antipathies are towards those who are selfish and egotistical and who disregard the problems of my heroes or sympathetic characters. I don’t think those attitudes have changed. I think what did occur was a maturing of my attitude toward fiction, or what fiction should be, or could be.

KOVAL: And what should it be?

HELLER: It could be what Joseph Heller’s novels have been, John Updike’s novels have been to him, and Gore Vidal’s novels have been to him. We’re all different from each other. Whatever we think of the serious authors, Australian and American, our books are very, very much different from each other. I could not write a Phillip Roth novel, he could not write a novel of mine. Neither one of us could write a Saul Bellow novel or a Patrick White novel. What novel writing should be — it should deal realistically with the conditions of your life.

My political novel Good as Gold was written long before there was a Clinton scandal. I’m kind of sorry I did it then, because if I had still to do it now, it would be more pertinent than it was.

KOVAL: But you have this way of writing things years before they happen, and then they happen, and then it is extraordinary when you turn back and think — what year was this published? And you realise it was published long, long, long ago. Good as Gold, if one followed what you were saying there, I think everybody would have to be an anarchist, nobody could believe in presidential power or political power or the people who seek power, could they? I mean, were you trying to create a revolution?

HELLER: I can’t create a revolution in this country. We don’t organise well. And unfortunately I think it may be the best of all possible worlds, our political system. It’s terrible, and it gets worse with each election, but if you asked me to conceive or construct an alternative I could not do it. I did not believe that the people in Washington were as vindictive or as absurd or stupid, for the most part, as represented in Good as Gold, and yet today we know they are and they have been and this includes even the President. It’s very, very hard to think of them seriously. We have to take what they do seriously, our congressional leaders, our two political parties which both deteriorated ideologically to a terrible extent. But they are the government, it’s unfortunate, but we do need some form of government.

I did find with my novel Closing Time — which is a more serious approach to very much the same subjects as all my novels — that in European countries they recognise the conditions discussed as being identical to their own, particularly in Britain, Germany and Sweden, to a small extent. The realisation comes about that a government is only a government of human beings and not superior human beings. These are human beings who succeeded in politics the way other people succeed in athletics, but they’re only human beings.

KOVAL: In Closing Time you have a President who, if I remember correctly, has a nickname ‘Little Prick’?

HELLER: Yes, the ‘Little Prick’. And it’s a nickname of which he seems to be very fond himself, and an appellation that could be applied to a number of our presidents, then and since. The model for that was the potential president [Dan] Quayle, vice-president Quayle, and many of the dialogues come from interviews he gave. I would not hesitate to think of presidents since then by that name, including the President — Clinton is not small, he’s not little, I think he’s a big prick, and I don’t mean that sexually. I think he’s very clumsy and in many ways stupid to underestimate drastically the intelligence of the American people, and he is criticised by almost everybody.

But that’s the American political system. We do have freedom. I mean, I have the freedom to write, I have the freedom to talk to you and say what I want about big pricks and little pricks, and the feeling that I’m not going to be punished for it, penalised — it’s one of the very good things about the US. I imagine in Australia too, you can say almost anything about a public figure without fear of being sued or imprisoned.

[In his novel Closing Time Heller created a world that exists in the Port Authority bus terminal under the streets of New York City, where the poor and miserable and homeless live their lives over the Coney Island-style amusement park, which exists at an even lower level. Here the super-rich of the city decides to hold a lavish society wedding, simply because no one has ever thought of it before. Heller describes a hell in which he sets the wedding of gargantuan proportions, with a wedding cake which ‘stood 44 feet high, weighed 1500 pounds, and it cost one million, one hundred and 17 thousand dollars. Everyone thought it a pity it could not be preserved in the Metropolitan Museum.’ I asked him to read me that section.]

KOVAL: Don’t you think that’s funny when you read it?

HELLER: I think it’s marvellous. I didn’t realise it was that good. That’s typical of New York society. We have more millionaires than ever before — we now use the term billionaire freely, because there are so many people who have billions, particularly in the new money; they live very extravagantly and publicly. So even right here in New York City you can find the most abominable poverty living almost cheek-by-jowl with these extraordinary, lavish, wasteful expenditures. In Closing Time I decide to put them all into one building. The description of the bus terminal is, I have been told, extremely accurate. There are homeless people living there, there’s prostitution, there are runaway girls, there’s drug addiction, there are transvestites — and amid that there are 200,000 people who come and go to work every day, for the large part untroubled by it and unmolested. The only thing missing from the bus terminal would be the very rich, because they won’t travel by bus.

So I moved a wedding, a prototype of which had taken place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, into the bus terminal, so you could have in a surrealistic way almost all levels of what I would think was New York society. The wedding itself was taken from a Metropolitan Museum wedding reception — I took the menus and I just multiplied the amount of flowers, if there were a hundred dozen roses I made it a million roses and all the rest. But this is again a Helleresque view of reality, exaggerated to emphasise a number of things.

KOVAL: There also seems to be every book you’ve ever loved, authors that you’ve admired, figures in history, everybody seems to be down there — Aschenbach from Death in Venice, there’s a character called Joey Heller . . .

HELLER: In Closing Time I did try to fuse a number of worlds, including the literary world, so there are characters from literature, such as the Good Soldier Svejk and Aschenbach, and a number of authors, like Kurt Vonnegut, who appears in the book as Vonnegut. And then in the underworld that exists under the bus terminal you have a large number of dead authors divided into sections — those who were drunk and those who were sober, those who were depressive. And it was astonishing to me how many well-known authors, European and American, have had breakdowns of one sort or another. Something in the literary life is potentially very dangerous; I would try to discourage children from seeking it or marrying into it. (You’ll allow me to say that my son just had a novel accepted for publication!) But there is something in literary life that leads inevitably, almost inevitably, to an unhappy ending. I don’t know what it is. Anyway I did try to get that into Closing Time. So the cataclysm that takes place at the end, or might be taking place at the end, affects the whole world, not just the downtrodden, the exploited; it affects the very wealthy world and everybody else.

There are two endings to the book, just as there are two novels in that one book. One is the typically romantic, happy, unrealistic fictional ending, in which the character is coming up from safety into a world that may be under attack to keep a date with a woman he loves. I think I describe the unrealistic belief that they would live happily for ever after. And then the other ending is with the realistic figure Sammy Singer, who is largely based on my own life. He is same age as me, 70 or so, flying to Australia on a vacation, his wife has died, he’s desperately lonely, and he knows his life is going to be coming to an end, if not that day, then in the next five or ten years — just the way Joey Heller today knows that his life is going to be coming to an end, if not today then in the next ten or 50 years.

KOVAL: I hope not today.

HELLER: Not today and not during this interview.

KOVAL: Time is very important in this novel too, because you play with time, you go backwards and forwards. You said that lately you’ve given up reading Wittgenstein and Sartre and philosophy. But in recent years you’ve been burrowing into neo-Darwinism, and you’ve got an interest in quantum mechanics and physics. And I wonder whether you’re interested in space–time?

HELLER: No not at all. In fact I still don’t understand what’s meant by the space–time continuum, or what’s meant by time as a dimension. I’ve tried to grasp the meaning of existentialism, and I see that word as an adjective very often in newspapers now: the existential experience. I’ve no idea what it means.

I’ve always been interested in science. I think what I say is I’ve given up trying to understand Sartre and Wittgenstein or quantum mechanics. I can’t get anywhere with physics that deep. But science does interest me in a superficial way. I’m interested in news about astronomy. I think I do say in Closing Time that the world has gotten very much bigger than we ever imagined it to be, in terms of time, in terms of space. At the same time very much smaller than we ever imagined it to be in terms of viruses and quarks and the fragments of an atom.

KOVAL: What about neo-Darwinism? What interests you about that?

HELLER: I can’t explain it. I’m just interested in the explanation. Possibly it’s my cynicism, the feeling that we are much more proud of ourselves than we have a right to be and that almost everything that happens to us physically is predetermined. And there is now another field that interests me, though not to the extent that I’ll ever understand it, and that’s called evolutionary psychology — the fact that how we feel, how we think, even what we do is out of our hands, including our character, our personality. And there’s an interesting chapter in the book Consilience by Edward O. Wilson*, way beyond my understanding, but chapter three fascinated me because he deals with the conclusions of people who specialise in the brain. He points out what seems to be obvious: that we have no control of our own brain and the brain exists before we do, and everything in the brain comes as a result of our genetic inheritance and experience. The brain processes in ways we can’t control and everything you and I do is a brain expressing itself, and we’ve got no control over it.

KOVAL: No choice in what we do? No moral choices?

HELLER: No. The conclusion is that there is no such thing ever as a moral choice or free will. Not the slightest possibility. There is a young philosopher at Oxford who’s writing papers arguing that it’s impossible to demonstrate that any decision anybody can make can be made freely. And it’s hard to refute him.

And I know you don’t like hearing it, and certainly Jews don’t like hearing it, and Christians don’t like hearing it, and psychologists won’t hear it — but the inference of what I’m saying is that the very words I’m using now to say this are not words I’m choosing to use. My brain is choosing to use them and I can’t control my brain.

The way scientific ethical thinking is going, apart from the physical quantum theory which can be measured, there is evolutionary psychology — and it seems almost obvious that if the body developed, the brain developed, and at a certain point morality had to develop without our being able to control it. There’s something of a large debate among neo-Darwinists, as you’ve probably noticed, about what’s called altruism in animals — where an individual gives up its life so the group can survive — and whether it’s really altruism or whether it’s the genes finding a way to protect more of the genes by having one individual animal or organism sacrifice itself.

KOVAL: But critics of Wilson say that you know people aren’t ants and that the problem with Wilson is that he extrapolates from social insects to people.

HELLER: Well I can’t argue the point. I’m not a social theorist, I’m not a biologist, I can only tell you what Wilson and others do argue in that field of socio-biology. I could not bring myself to think — as you can’t and as your listeners can’t — that we have no control over what we say or what we do, over what our personalities are like. We can’t bring ourselves to believe that. But just because we can’t believe it does not mean that it isn’t so. I prefer to use it in arguments, but I can’t let myself believe it.

KOVAL: You spent a lot of time in analysis too, which you write about in Now and Then, and you say something pretty funny, which is that you think the only people who can really benefit from analysis are those who seem to have absolutely no need for it.

HELLER: I do think most psychoanalysts would agree with that now, and would have agreed with it ten or twenty years ago when they stopped taking on patients with severe cases of psychosis for example. And psychoanalysis seems to be going through a downturn in esteem anyway, as a procedure for therapy. I didn’t spend a lot of time in it, I think it was a period of two-and-a-half years of interrupted therapy, and I suppose I did benefit, but not to the extent that [my therapist] thought I would when I went into it. I went into it largely to keep myself composed during a matrimonial break-up that eventually led to a divorce, but I do think psychoanalysts will tell you that people need a pretty strong personality to undergo psychoanalysis. It cannot be somebody who’s unconcentrated or is too easily given to emotional distress.

KOVAL: So what did it do for you?

HELLER: It kept me busy, it gave me some place to go for the two-and-a-half years I was there, and it gave me somebody to whom to quote my arguments with my then wife. She had a series of psychotherapists and she was telling me what they were advising her and how they were condemning me, so I thought I’d get one of my own.

KOVAL: You kept him amused though. You write about how you sometimes went in there and told jokes through all the sessions.

HELLER: Well I would dream jokes, and we tried very hard to get into what was a Freudian situation, four times a week, of complete free association. We can seldom achieve that. I can seldom achieve it, I just like to talk and make jokes and dream dreams that he would approve of.

KOVAL: And what did it do for your writing? Did you find that it helped or did it hinder? Did you use the part of your brain you would use to invent?

HELLER: No, I don’t think it had any effect on my writing, I don’t think the War itself had any effect on it. Then I had this disease in 1981, Guillain-Barre syndrome,* I don’t think it had any effect on my writing. I don’t think I’ve used it to any extent, we’re talking about the psychoanalysis, almost nothing I’ve learnt from it I’ve used since. There were many surprises, I mean the way dreams would correspond to our meetings, the way they would change, and instances of forgetfulness on my part. But the surprises became amusements about what was happening, and what was going on in my head and other people’s heads. I don’t think I used it. I don’t like realistic books, so even though I deal with real situations my novels are not realistic in what they construct, they’re mainly mentally real rather than emotionally.

KOVAL: But you get inside characters’ heads and you create very, very real characters, and that requires some understanding of the human condition.

HELLER: Oh I do have an understanding of the human condition, a political situation and all the rest. On the other hand, my books don’t lend themselves to movies and they tend to violate basic laws of fiction writing. In Catch–22 you don’t know anything about Yossarian and there are almost no what we call three-dimensional characters. In Something Happened, the second novel, I invest in the character, the first perfect character with more knowledge about himself than a person would normally have. I don’t try to represent fictional characters, they’re real people.

In the classical novel — I’d say a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Dickens — the details of a person’s speech, his dress, his occupation, are essentially the composition of the novel; I moved away from that, and others have moved away from that, the attention to realistic details of realistic situations in society. I don’t think there’s much need for it anymore, now that we have television and photography. It’s not just me. I mean the novel itself has moved into what was called modernism, and postmodernism. I don’t know what postmodernism is, I suppose maybe I’m a postmodernist.

KOVAL: Well, I think Something Happened is a very postmodernist novel, which was written when, in 19– . . . ?

HELLER: It was published in 1974, yeah.

KOVAL: … where we start a novel, and then we go and start another novel, and another one and another one, and we’ve got a whole series of different subjects that the main character is taking up with.

HELLER: Yeah, but there is a difference between the classical novel which would begin in the nineteenth century and continue to the twentieth century, and the type of novel that’s written now. Now the old-fashioned novel still exists and is still the most frequently published type of novel, the novel of once-upon-a-time, and the story is presented as though it actually did happen whereas in my novels, I think even in Catch–22, I attempt to make the reader understand that this didn’t happen the way it’s being presented. And in Good as Gold I refer to the novel as a novel itself, I think in Something Happened I may do that as well, and in Closing Time I introduce myself as a kid by my name. The idea is to almost subliminally enter into an agreement with the reader — this is the book I’m writing and you’re not to take it all that seriously as an accurate representation of the way people are, or even as the way the Jewish family is, in Good as Gold, or the people of Washington.

KOVAL: In God Knows, which is your book about King David and the Old Testament, for somebody who’s not interested in religion much, you know you read the Old Testament very, very closely and you retell so many things.

HELLER: There was so little religion in the Old Testament. I don’t think the Jewish religion began until the Bible and the Old Testament were finished. I think it was first put down during the Babylonian captivity. There was almost no religion in the Old Testament, no Jewish religion as we know it, and certainly not through the period of David. They don’t talk about holidays, and if there’s a celebration they have a parade, a do at their temples, whatever’s done with temples, blow the trumpets and kill a few animals.

So King David is Jewish and in the Old Testament is a Jew, but I was not that interested in the Jewish religion, and there’s not much religion in God Knows, it’s a very modern, contemporary morality. And as I say, there’s not much religion in the Old Testament. If God says to Abe, We’re going to make a covenant, if you think that’s religion then it’s there. And does God ever talk to David? I’m not even sure if he did, yeah he does . . .

KOVAL: No, no, no, David’s not talking to God, remember, David’s annoyed with God and he’s stopped talking to him.

HELLER: Yeah, but there is one time in the Bible when God gives him a strategy for battle — fetch a compass surround the enemy and ambush him, or what. And I said that’s the last time God talked to David. But God talks to David — that’s not religion, you’ve got much more of that in oriental religions.

I’m not interested in religious practices. I do mention something about crucifixion. I mention the Michaelangelo statue of David, that he’s uncircumcised there, but that’s a comment I make: And he has me standing naked in public? If he knew how we Jews felt about nudity he never would have done it. That’s not so much religion, that’s me fooling around with the somewhat odd and unconvincing details of the biblical story.

KOVAL: You write in Now and Then that the main lesson you learnt in philosophy was to react with scepticism and treat with Socratic malice all emphatic ideological beliefs, especially those of your favourite philosophy teachers. Now do you think your experience in philosophy made you question life a bit more closely?

HELLER: No, I think the decision to question or be sceptical was there. But I picked up on it very easily in philosophy classes when a sceptical approach to doctrines was part of the courses, and every once in a while I had a philosophy teacher who was rather active politically, or wanted political discussions, and would be very unconvincing in trying to argue his own views.

The sceptic in me believes that it goes back to one of the Greeks I quote in Picture This. The quote says that we never know anything — not even whether we can know anything or not. So I think any position — moral position as well as political position — can be ridiculed by somebody who wants to. When people feel passionately about ideals it’s the passion that makes them feel passionately, rather than the wisdom or the soundness of their logic.

KOVAL: I’m glad you brought up wisdom, because I wanted to talk to you about wisdom. Do you feel as if you’ve attained wisdom now?

HELLER: No. The only wisdom I think I’ve attained is the wisdom to be sceptical of other people’s ideology and other people’s arguments. I tend to be a sceptic, I don’t like dogmatic approaches by anybody. I don’t like intolerance and a dogmatic person is intolerant of other people. It’s one of the reasons I keep a distance from all religious beliefs. I think in this country, and in Australia too, there’s a latent intolerance in most religions, an intolerance that could easily become persecution. We have some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects here in New York and I fear them as much as I would fear a Nazi organisation.

KOVAL: What about goodness? Do you believe there’s a place for that?

HELLER: Oh of course. I am very soft-hearted and sentimental in all my books, my characters, if they’re being exploited or threatened, are fairly good-natured people, and the people who are bothering them are as ruthless as the natural elements would be. Certainly I like kind people, I like good people, I like humorous people. I’m distressed by suffering, not to the point where I’m going to go into a sulk about it. I mean, what happens in the Balkans is terrifying but there’s a realisation — I’m talking now about Kosovo and Bosnia and the things that go on in the Middle East with Israel and the others, and in Afghanistan with the Taliban and the others — it’s too awful to contemplate as a reality, but there’s also a feeling that nobody can do anything about it, and that to me is getting back to the Darwinian approach. There’s not much anybody can do about anything, about many of the major problems today.

KOVAL: This question really is about memory, and long memories and reviews, and I was amused to read in Now and Then that you still remember the bad reviews. There were good reviews of Catch–22 but there were some bad reviews of Catch–22, and you haven’t been able to forget them.

HELLER: I wouldn’t want to try and forget them. I can remember the good reviews and they were many, and they came out over an extended period, often in unexpected places — a political columnist for a newspaper the World Telegram, which was republican reactionary, suddenly wrote a whole column for Catch–22 beginning with how it will live forever. So we had those. I could have quoted those in Now and Then but that would be kind of boastful, it was merrier to introduce the vitriolic ones. And when I talk to an audience often I will quote from those very bad reviews about Catch–22. I can be good humoured about it now because Catch–22 has endured, but I don’t think I would have been that good a sport if the book had just dropped away. They were very upsetting when they came out — the two I used, the New Yorker and the Sunday Times — they were extremely upsetting, first because they afflict the ego, but secondly they had a very negative effect on the sale of the book and the acceptance of it.

KOVAL: Another literary question that you talk about is the fact that you think it’s a habit of yours to take a long time getting round to beginning a book.

HELLER: Yeah, that’s been true of Catch–22 and of all my novels. I begin very slowly and tentatively. And I believe with each of my books, not until they were about a third done did I get a clear vision of what the book really was about, and then I’d go back and would begin rewriting that first third or fourth, and then continue to the end. And my books tend to begin very slowly and accelerate towards the middle and the end, which may be a good thing. I know with motion pictures and plays that’s a desirable effect, you have to begin slowly. But I’m very tentative in my books when I begin. They’re almost always too big for me to comprehend when I’m starting out, and when I start putting it on paper then I can see where it’s excessive or out of proportion, and then when I go over it again I try to make it conform to its proper boundaries.

KOVAL: Do you laugh a lot when you’re writing?

HELLER: I don’t laugh a lot when I’m writing. Sometimes when I reread what I’ve written after a space of weeks I will laugh. But if I’m writing something funny I can appreciate it. When the idea occurs to me I’m probably smiling to myself. I’m not laughing because writing is hard work. Talking is a cinch, thinking is fairly easy, putting words down on paper so that they will reflect what I had in mind is a very painstaking process. You can’t be funny just by saying a joke, you have to lead up to it.

I knew when I had one conversation with Mike Nichols, the screenwriter making Catch–22, I sensed they were going to be in trouble, that it was going to be very much more difficult for them to reproduce the whole book than they thought it was. One of the things that occurred was they liked a certain chapter, I forget which one it was, and I was thinking that chapter’s funny only because of what builds up to the final lines and in a motion picture there’s no room for extended dialogues. And one of the last things they had to take out was that chapter. There were two occasions when that happened — it’s very hard to build up a good joke. Wisecrack is one thing, but you get three wisecracks in a row and they’re not going to be funny to a reader, there has to be a sense of the narrative progressing, I think.

KOVAL: Just on the point of goodness, in Closing Time you write of Yossarian, because of course Closing Time is a revisiting of Catch–22, or looking at what happens to the characters so many years later. You say: ‘He had learned from a lifetime of scepticism that a conviction, even a naive conviction, was in the last analysis more nourishing than the wasteland of none.’

HELLER: Yes, it’s again one of the things I have to acknowledge — even though I myself can’t have beliefs, unquestioning beliefs, anything, I do recognise that I would be better off if I did. And it’s easy to see, I know friends of mine who are deeply religious — they’re usually the parents of friends of mine and Catholic — how content they are with their existence and their religious belief as they get old, and as they get infirm they seem to be untroubled by the extinction of their existence. I think somebody who’s a fervent Republican, a Democrat, communist, anarchist, even these people who are opposed to abortion passionately, they have something to believe in. I don’t think it’s virtuous, but I think it’s much better to be able to believe in something, and have a conviction about life and an afterlife, than to have none.

KOVAL: And this is Catch–22, isn’t it?

HELLER: Yes it is. I mean in Something Happened I think someone once said, I wish I could believe in God again. In one of T.S. Eliot’s poems he talks about the people outside the church who wish they could come in to pray, but can’t. We’d love to be able to believe in God and to know. But to believe is not to say I wish there were, but to have a conviction there is a God and an afterlife, and he looks after us and this is just temporary. It’d be lovely to have that firm belief. But I don’t have it and you don’t have it and very few people do have it.

KOVAL: Do you believe in love?

HELLER: I believe in love, but I have a view about love, which I believe in very, very strongly — I don’t think it lasts. It lasts and then the rules change. I believe there’s no experience of life, not even getting a good review for a novel, like the continuing exhilaration you see in the first stages of a love experience. And at least twice in my books, I think King David says if the chance to fall in love ever comes again, grab it. And it’s the advice I give to you and to your audience and to myself. Although the chances grow less as the years go by.

New York, October 1998







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