Culture

Erica Heller On Her Father Joseph Heller’s Classic Book, ‘Catch-22’

Culture

Erica Heller On Her Father Joseph Heller’s Classic Book, ‘Catch-22’

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BULLETT: I’ve got a few questions for you.

ERICA HELLER: People ask me some really disgusting questions.

Like, inappropriate?

Like, “Where do your think your father will fit into the pantheon of writers in 50 years?” Please, not the pantheon.

Not the pantheon, no. But when I was reading your stuff on Huffington Post and you said you hadn’t actually read Catch-22—I found that interesting because my dad is a writer, too. I haven’t read any of his books, but I’m older now and there’s no real excuse.

There is an excuse, there’s lots of excuses. “I’m uncomfortable” is an excuse. If I had read Catch-22, and finished it and talked to him about it—he was so sure about it, he wouldn’t take criticism of it—he was just very sure of himself.

Is there criticism if you have of it?

No, no criticism, just the humor in it is the kind of humor that I know very well from him, and it’s sort of, like, I sat with these people at the dinner table my whole life—the bantering, and the cleverness, at the dinner table, all these men, so to extend that, I just start reading and there’s a lot of themes…and I’m reading it, and I know it’s brilliant, I know it is, but at some point it just runs out of steam, and it’s enough. I try at least once a year to read, and certainly when I was writing my book I thought, It has the name Yossarian in it—I might as well know who that is. But I got to page 87, which is the farthest I ever got. I mean, it’s funny, it’s crazy, I’ve never seen anything like it. Still, for many different reasons I don’t want to finish it. It may have nothing to do with the book.

Even with a book you don’t have a direct emotional attachment to—sometimes you don’t want to finish it because then it will be over, it will be out of your life.

I think that complicates this a little bit too, but I don’t know. It is—I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out and the clearest answer is. It’s much deeper psychologically.

Thinking about the things written about the war during that time, there didn’t seem to be that much criticism of war, fictional or otherwise. We don’t really respect the military the same way today and there’s almost too much criticism, but none of it’s that fine-tuned.

I think we respect the military, but we don’t respect the people who are sending them there for mercenary reasons. I have nothing against the military, I just think they should be paid more and treated better, but I don’t think they should be fighting right now. Have you read Catch-22?

I’ve gotten about as far as you have.

Okay. Well I think [author] Christopher Buckley said that if Milo Minderbinder were around today, he would be working for Halliburton. And I think that’s true.

So your book, Yossarian Slept Here—I’m interested in that kind of writing that’s clearly so emotional. I marvel when anyone can write clearheadedly about their childhood.

It was first of all really complicated to sort out timewise, because of the way it’s structured. The first section is in the building where I grew up—it’s separated into four apartments, four chapters. I had bulletin boards, index cards, and things, and the amazing thing is that it all came to life—you start to remember things. Details. You move the cards around in a different order. The emotional part of it was difficult because my parents had a very hard divorce. My father was very sickly and I took care of my mother when she was dying of lung cancer. I didn’t want it to be depressing, I didn’t want it to be “poor me,” because I really don’t feel that way. There’s a lot of irony, a lot of funny stuff—it’s not a tragic, tragic story.

Did you feel like it had a natural structure because it was nonfiction?

It didn’t come chronologically, but you’ll be writing about 1975 and you’ll remember something from 1980. It all came back but not at once. One reviewer said that a timeline at the beginning or the end of the book would have helped. But it doesn’t come to you that way, and you’re lucky when it comes to you.

When did you start writing it?

About three years ago. I was always very intrigued by my parents’ story, but you have to make decisions about whether or not to write about people who are still living who might be your friends, or who might not want the legend to become flawed.

Did anyone come after you for that?

Not as many people as I anticipated. If anything, they’ve said I’d been very fair. You have to make a lot of choices—you realize that once you write something, you can’t take it back, you can’t say, But I meant this, I meant that. You have to be clear. Everything is always open to interpretation. People would ask my father: “What you wrote, is it really like that, did this really happen? But he would not discuss it. What he wrote about it was enough. His answer would just be, “Read the book.” Only he would say it more rudely. I haven’t quite perfected the art yet.