A talk with Zoe Heller about Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal hits theaters late next month, which means you still have plenty of time to read Zoë Heller’s novel of the same name (originally released in the U.S. under a title with all the nuance of a leaden sledgehammer) beforehand.

In the book, Sheba Hart, a married and “wispy novice with a tinkly accent and see-through skirts,” takes a job teaching pottery at a British secondary school and leaps into an affair with a boy from one of her classes. Eventually the liaison is discovered. The tabloids go wild. Sheba is awaiting trial when the novel opens.
 

At first Notes on a Scandal appears to be about the scandal, but, as the story moves back in time, the reader realizes that it’s more about the notes — or, more accurately, the note-taker.

Sheba has confided in a far older fellow teacher, Barbara, who pumps her for details and writes the account we’re reading. Although Barbara tells us, and herself, that her factual version of events “will go some substantial way to helping the public understand who Sheba Hart really is,” what her chronicle illuminates most clearly is Barbara’s own lonely and seethingly obsessive existence.

In an August 2003 review, Chris Lehmann highlights this from Barbara, on couples:

They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend out of a visit to the launderette. … They don’t know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and school room chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing to the ground.

 

I was ecstatic when I heard Notes on a Scandal would be adapted for the screen, and cheered when Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett — both great actors — signed on. But I also worried what Hollywood would do to make the film palatable to satire-impaired American audiences. Would the filmmakers dilute or sensationalize the story? Would it be reborn as a cautionary tale?

From the look of the trailer: yes, and yes. But I still want to see the movie, especially after my conversation with Zoë Heller. Below we discuss the film, her book, nasty people’s underwear, and the due date for her next novel.
 
 

Do you know who decided that the film should open on Christmas Day in the States, and what the reasoning was? Like, maybe Americans will be more accepting of a movie depicting a married schoolmarm having an affair with her student if they’ve just spent a couple days cooped up with their relatives, repressing their own antisocial fantasies?

That’s a charming notion, but my sense is that this release date, like all release dates, had to do with much more banal considerations (i.e. Oscar eligibility, what other movies were being released during the same period, bla bla).
 
 

The Foley-page affair has focused national attention on sexual relationships between men in authority and their teenage charges. And a few years ago American audiences flocked to see American Beauty, in which a man acts on his attraction toward one of his adolescent daughter’s friends. But Notes centers on something we’re less accustomed to hearing about: a relationship between a woman and a boy. Can you talk a little bit about Sheba Hart, the teacher in your novel? I’ve read that she, and her predicament, were partly inspired by a real-life scandal involving a teacher in Washington.

I always feel slightly phoney talking about where ideas came from in the first place. I write very slowly and by the time I’ve written a book, the initial inspirations tend to have grown obscure. The Mary Kay LeTourneau scandal was definitely something I’d been paying attention to before I began Notes. I kept hearing arguments about the case — in particular, about whether women who have sex with under-age partners should be subject to the same moral opprobium as men who do the same thing. I was also intrigued by the fact that LeTourneau had children who were around the same age as her lover. Both those ideas found their way into Sheba’s story.
 
 

In her review for the Guardian, Joanna Briscoe writes:

The novel is narrated by Barbara Covett, the self-appointed chronicler of Sheba’s affair, whose alarming zeal when undertaking her task includes the use of gold stars to highlight seminal events and a timeline on graph paper. Nudging retirement age, Barbara, a colleague and friend of Sheba’s, is a childless spinster who has taught history for several decades and lives in Archway with her cat…. [H]er voice as a “caretaker… defending the character of an alleged child-molester” insidiously takes over: the disturbing undercurrent that is Barbara’s psyche wells up and drives the book…. ‘This is not a story about me,’ she says. But of course it is….

Barbara is both slavering and snapping in the background as her fixation with Sheba takes on stalkerish hues. Painfully class-conscious, embittered and obsessive, she trails a history of social rejection that only stokes her determination to lap up every fragment of Sheba ‘s full life.

How well do you think the film captures all of this?

The film captures an awful lot of what’s in the book but it makes many changes. Generally speaking, I’d say that Patrick’s Barbara is more dramatically, scarily nuts than mine. Also, the lesbian element of her attraction to Sheba, which is very submerged in my novel, is more overt in the movie. The movie isn’t a straightforward copy of the book and shouldn’t be judged as such. Movie adaptations are most interesting and worthwhile, it seems to me, when they use the original material not as a blueprint but as a jumping off point. There are some — for want of a better phrase — literary effects in my book (like, say the unreliability of Barbara’s narration) that it would have been foolhardy to try to translate into movie language. And at the same time, there are things in the movie which are particular to the medium of film and which couldn’t have been achieved in a novel. So the film takes away some things and adds in others and in doing so, becomes its own entity.

One of the additions that Patrick made, which I really like, is a set of fantastic scenes between Sheba and her husband, Richard. He’s given Sheba’s family life a lot more texture and weight than I did — and it works very well. Bill Nighy as Richard is quite brilliant.
 
 

I got a kick out of this gossipy anecdote:

During a key scene… Cate Blanchett angrily dumps the contents of Judi Dench’s underwear drawer onto the floor. Dench objected that the drawer contained ugly gray underwear and energetically argued that just because a woman lived alone didn’t mean that she couldn’t have colorful panties. In the end, some nice pastels were substituted.

Do you think the Barbara of your novel would have insisted on pastels?

I have to say, I’m with the Dame on this one. Barbara — with the exception of some depressive interludes — is an immaculately kempt woman. She would not let her underwear go grey. I doubt that her panties would be “colourful” either, but I don’t think that’s what Judi Dench was actually asking for. Her precise point, I believe, was that “unpleasant people don’t necessarily have unpleasant underwear.” And on this, I think we can all agree.
 
 

Absolutely. Just look at Naomi Campbell. And I remember feeling terribly sorry for Barbara in that one scene where she goes to Sheba’s house for dinner, and the outfit she’s agonized over is all wrong. Passages like that evoke the English class structure so expertly — I’ll be interested to see how that aspect of the novel translates to the screen.

You must have given lots of thought to the differences between books and film. Your dad was a screenwriter. Your husband, Lawrence Konner, has written extensively for film and TV — including a couple truly great Sopranos episodes (and has produced some political documentaries, including Persons of Interest). Did you always know you’d be a novelist rather than a screenwriter or filmmaker?

Yes. I’m much more interested in sentences than in moving images.

My Dad was a screenwriter (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix, etc). My husband is a screenwriter. My brother is a screenwriter, for God’s sake. (He created the HBO Rome series.) I don’t have any of the requisite screen-writing skills and given the family competition, I’d be a dope to try to acquire them at this point.
 
 

So you don’t think you’ll ever try your hand at a script?

I did once, years and years ago. It got made, but it was horrible. Really cringe-making. I can’t imagine trying again.
 
 

A couple years ago you were working on a new novel called The Believers. How’s that coming along?

Aaaah. It’s due in January. Fingers crossed, it will be finished by then.
 
 

Can’t wait to read it.

(For a far more extensive interview with Heller, see her 2004 talk with Robert Birnbaum. There she reveals that Notes on a Scandal was rejected by “at least nine or 10 publishers.” Many of the rejections, she said, “were based on kind of, ‘Who cares? What’s this about? Is this a weird English setting?'” This is the kind of thinking that spawns the American bastardization of The Office.)
 


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