Living with a literary lion
This year marks the 50th anniversary of ''Catch-22,'' Joseph Heller's iconic novel about a World War II bombardier. His daughter, Erica Heller, has now written ''Yossarian Slept Here,'' about life with the man who created a masterwork
What made you want to write this book now?
I always had the germ of an idea about writing about my parents’ relationship, because it always felt unresolved after [her mother, Shirley Held] died. I didn’t know if it would be a book or a short story, but I wanted to follow the thread. So when it was going to be the 50th anniversary [of the book], it seemed like a good time.
You spoke with quite a few people for it.
It was interesting talking to people about Dad, people that I respect so much. Like Martin Amis — I didn’t know if he would want to talk to me about anything. And Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. I never, ever expected to hear back from them, but they really loved him. They revered him, and they all wanted to talk about him.
Your father once famously said, ”I don’t do children,” which must have been an interesting statement for you to hear as his child.
I remember that. I mean, to me, I don’t think it meant that he couldn’t stand any children. His time and attention were usually elsewhere, I think, and it was an investment for him to be around children. He made statements like that about a lot of things.
Catch-22 was based on his WWII experiences before you were born, but his follow-up, Something Happened, had thinly veiled parts about you, many of which weren’t very kind.
It was a very painful time. And, in my own way, I did confront him about it. But it was never very satisfying because he was the best debater and had an answer for everything, always, and they were good answers. You couldn’t really get anywhere.
Did you read Catch-22 to celebrate its anniversary?
I’ve never read Catch-22. People don’t believe me when I tell them, but I’ve never read it.
Are you waiting for the time to be right?
Yes. The 100th anniversary. [Laughs] I’ve tried many, many times. It’s pretty overwhelming, really. I don’t really want to finish it, because then it’s finished, you know? I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time already to see what the fuss is about.
So if you don’t read it, you’ll never know what you missed. But if you do read it, you might be disappointed. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Yes. I think there’s a word for that.