Miranda Cowley Heller, THE PAPER PALACE

Miranda Cowley Heller, THE PAPER PALACE

Coming from a family of writers and editors, Miranda Cowley Heller’s time as the Head of Drama at HBO was less expected than the release of her debut novel, The Paper Palace. Miranda joins to talk about the book, which Zibby could not put down, as well as how her literary upbringing has influenced all phases of her professional life and where she plans to go next. (Hint: it’s back to HBO for a bit.) Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here: https://bit.ly/3jdKctA


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Miranda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about The Paper Palace.

Miranda Cowley Heller: Thank you for having me. Thrilled to be here.

Zibby: I know I was just telling you this, but I am completely obsessed with your book. It’s the best fiction, best novel I’ve read in a while. It’s so good. I could not put it down. I recommended it as soon as I could to everybody I knew on Instagram and in my personal life and everywhere else. I’m like, this is the book. I’m just so excited about it and so thrilled to get to talk to you about it.

Miranda: I am too. I love that. Thank you. I was just saying a second ago that you write this thing in a complete bubble, first novel. You write in a complete bubble. Then suddenly, it’s out there in the world. Of course, it’s incredibly exciting that somebody likes it and loves it or whatever.

Zibby: First, can you start out by telling everybody what the book is about?

Miranda: The book is about a woman named Elle Bishop who’s fifty. She has three children. She’s very happily married. At the beginning of the book, Elle wakes up to realize she’s done something rather extreme the night before. She has had sex outside at a dinner party with her oldest and best friend, Jonas, the man she always thought she was going to marry, while her husband and his wife and her mother were all inside at the dinner. In the next twenty-four hours, she’s going to have to decide between the life that she has made with her wonderful husband, Peter, or the life she always dreamed about and probably would’ve lived if something terrible hadn’t happened in her youth. The story takes place on Cape Cod in the backwoods near Wellfleet. I think when most people think of the Cape, they imagine almost more like Newport or the Kennedy compound with these grassy lawns going down to sailboats and calm harbors or whatever. The outer Cape, I don’t know if you’ve been there, is really wild. The further out you go, the more it’s national seashore. It’s forests that go straight to the top of cliff dunes. You can really get lost in the woods. It’s that kind of a place, and sandy roads. I grew up spending every summer there. In any event, Elle has twenty-four hours to make this incredibly impossible decision. The story is also told in fifty years of her life in glimpses that take us to the moment that’s brought her to this precipice and to understand why, after whatever it is, something like forty years of friendship and never going there, why now? There’s an emotional mystery that runs through it. It’s sort of a whydunit instead of whodunit. It’s not so much about these two men. It’s really about this woman and this woman’s life and finding herself.

Zibby: Nice job. I hate that I put everybody on the spot, but I do think it’s important for people to know what the general gist is. There’s so much more. It’s divorce and marriage and New York City and Cape Cod and family and parents and stepparents and family and trauma. There’s so much. You have everything you could hit, being a mother, dealing with your mother, mother-in-laws. There’s nothing you didn’t hit in this book that a woman could not relate to, essentially. Not just women, but you know what I mean.

Miranda: You don’t write a book, hopefully, with a theme in mind. You have an interest. Then it sort of emerges. If there is something in there, a sort of continuum, Elle comes from a family of divorce. Her mother comes from a family of divorce. There’s a line in the book that says, “In my family, divorce is just a seven-letter word that could easily be exchanged with ‘too bad’ or ‘I’m bored.'” Her mother, who is called Wallace, who’s a formidable figure at one point, she says divorce is good for children. In fact, there’s a little bit of a Grimm’s fairy tale aspect to this life. As you say, her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship to her mother before, Elle’s relation to her daughter and to her sister, all of these things are affected in kind of a domino effect by the past generations, but also by divorce and by what happens when your family splits up. In a way, that’s why I think I set it on the Cape, because that place is so important to me. That’s where I find myself at home as child of divorce. The place that grounds her and shapes her life is this summer place because it’s the one constant every year of her life.

Zibby: I feel like I have the same attachment. I am a child of divorce. My grandparents were divorced. I got divorced. Now I feel really bad for whichever kids of mine end up getting divorced. That said, the second husbands of all three are really awesome guys, so there’s a perk. I do feel like when things shift, you rely more on a physical place, so much so that I’ve been coming to the same place out here on Long Island. When one store closes that’s been there forever, I’m deeply wounded by it. How can this change? I rely on this.

Miranda: Where’s the newspaper shop? Where’s the penny candy store or whatever it is?

Zibby: Exactly. Now it’s all decrepit. I’m like, this is so sad. Anyway, so tell me about this whole thing. You used to work as head of drama at HBO.

Miranda: I did for a while. That’s sort of ancient — not an ancient history, but that was a while ago.

Zibby: I only read from your bio trying to figure out how we got here to you writing this amazing novel. Take me back. When did this whole writing thing start? How did we get here? Why this plot?

Miranda: A couple of things. I was always a novelist in my mind starting at the age of whatever, seven or ten. I wrote poetry. That was my path. I come from a family of writers and book editors and grew up in that soup. There was a lot of pressure — you have to get your name in print; you have to do this; you have to do that — coming from my grandfather mostly. That was my major in college. When I came out, my first proper job after being an assistant, I was the associate fiction and books editor at Cosmopolitan magazine. Then I left that job because I fell in love and moved to Italy. There, I was writing articles and travel pieces. This was what I thought was my path. I did some ghostwriting. I was a book doctor for various New York agents. When I tried to write something, it was just, frankly, bad. I was so in my own way, let’s put it that way, because of the family. My husband’s sister is a successful novelist as well. There’s just all this stuff. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionistic at all. I’m a very imperfectionist. However, I just was frozen because I thought, I can never write something unless it’s really good. I refuse to be humiliated in public. All that pressure finally led me to just put it aside for a very long time.

Zibby: Who is your husband’s sister, by the way?

Miranda: Zoë Heller, a British novelist. My cousin’s father, divorced from my aunt, but is Martin Amis. There’s pressure.

Zibby: Got it.

Miranda: And pride.

Zibby: Good.

Miranda: Cut to — my husband’s British. I get a job in LA, by some miracle, working at the new drama department at HBO with absolutely no experience, but a long series of miracles, basically. I worked there for ten years. We built a drama series department. My boss, Carolyn Strauss, who’s amazing, she was already running . That had been established, all these specials and all that stuff. Somebody else ran miniseries. This was this fun thing. The first show we did was The Sopranos. I did that, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, etc., which was amazing. It’s funny because people always say, did you bring your experience as a TV person to writing a book? I would say it was the exact opposite. I brought my experience as a writing person or reading of literature person to my job at HBO. I think that was part of the fun, creating, and writers who could create big stories. Then I quit after that period of time and sort of bummed around. I started this book and I started about two or three other books and then put them away. Again, I couldn’t find it. Then I went back to UCLA to get an art history degree. In any event, very briefly, this was the one thing I couldn’t accomplish. I was going to go to grad school. Then my husband’s show was going to be set in New York. Therefore, I said to say no to LA. Then I applied to New York. Then they changed the show back to LA. I year where I was going, what am I going to do with this one year?

One of my best friends, Zibby, we were on a hike and she just said, “Why don’t you just take this as the one year to commit to writing? If you don’t do it, never talk about it again.” I was like, okay. I pulled this project out of the drawer. At the same time, I took this amazing class with this guy called Jack Grapes. He’s a writing teacher genius, not fiction or anything like that. It’s called method writing, sort of like method acting. He undoes everything you’ve ever learned about anything, structure, anything. He makes you write very badly for a long time and then apply different voices to boring writing, to journaling, or whatever. I got pulled apart. That was great for me as a writer. Then I started writing. In his class, it progresses and progresses. I started writing a lot of poetry. I got some poetry published. Something about the poetry is what broke me open, finally, to be able to write this book. I went back and I did a novel five class at UCLA with this amazing guy, Mark Sarvas, who’s a novelist. I don’t know if you know his work, but he was my mentor, I would say. I just wrote this book slowly but surely. There were huge gaps in time. I started it. Then there were years in between. Somehow, writing poetry got me out of this frontal lobe space and allowed me to just — also, I just decided when I started writing it, no one will ever read this. I’m not going to tell anybody I’m doing it. I can say anything because no one’s ever going to read it. That gave me the freedom of, I’m just doing this.

Zibby: I tried to start writing this memoir I’m working on. I was so just frozen that finally in all caps I was like, “No one will see this. Not the real draft. Only for you.”

Miranda: That’s exactly what I had to do too. I think those of us who really can get caught up in that — it just took me so many years to get out of my own way. I knew it was in there for this very strange reason, because of the way I always had these huge, massive dreams where I would dream paintings and dream entire architectural cites and Game of Thrones-esque things and statues and art. I knew it was in there. I just couldn’t get to it somehow. In my mind, I always had this vision that my head was divided by this plate. I had to somehow scale it and leap over to the back and finally manage to go down and get that writing stuff back that I knew was there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. When you were thinking about this project, which part of the plot did you know all along? Or maybe none of it. None?

Miranda: None. All I knew was that I wanted to write. I mean none. As they say, I wrote the whole thing into the dark. I didn’t know anything that was going to happen from one day to the next. That’s what poetry taught me, by the way, to love the blank page. Whenever I have, now, a task for writing, I’ll go away from the book. When my editor said, “I want more of this,” I have to open a blank page and not know what it’s going to say. That’s it. I have to take it completely away. You find lyricism in some strange way. I used to be terrified of the blank page. Now it’s my most comforting thing.

Zibby: Wow. All of it just unfolded as you went? You must have then gone back because there’s all this…

Miranda: Yeah, I went back, but I knew what it was about in my mind, what interested me. When I was very young and naïve, but maybe not, I became mildly obsessed with this John Lennon quote. “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” I think it was. I cut it out. I put it on the wall of my bedroom, taped it like you do in my journals. There was this one point in my life when I went back and looked at these journals and I realized as an adult I was still doing the exact same thing. I was living this life in my head that I was imagining but kind of ignoring my entire life that I was living or just letting it all pass by. I was very interested in creating a structure around a character that mirrored that and investigated that. The fifty years represents, in that sense, the life that Elle has actually led. Then the twenty-four hours is the chance to live the life that’s been in her head, the fantasy that she’s held. That was all I knew, just those two pieces, to show a life in twenty-four hours and a life in fifty years, not flashbacks. They’re not flashbacks. It’s two separate stories of the same woman. They meet timewise just at the precipice, the night before she does the thing she does. Let’s put it that way.

You learn who she is and why she’s here. I’m also very interested in, it’s sort of an obvious word, but choices, how the smallest thing can completely derail you or make your life. It’s just the tiny randomness of that. The choices that we inherit, as well, from our parents or grandparents, their love lives, how their love lives end up shaping who we are too. With Elle, I just loved the idea of a character, a woman who has to make a choice between one incredible love and another equally incredible love. Both men are amazing. There’s no way to choose, but what do you do if you have to make a choice? Your life depends on it, but there’s no good answer you can find. She’s on this emotional tightrope between two skyscrapers, let’s say. She’s going to fall if she doesn’t go one way or the other. How do you make that choice? It just raised questions. I think that’s more how I followed the story, if that makes sense. It raised the question for me of, can you actually live a life filled with regrets? Who do I want to be true to in the end? This is a woman in her fifties, so she’s at a very different stage of life. I thought that was also interesting. I don’t think there are a lot of novels where there’s a sexy woman in her fifties.

Zibby: Seriously. This woman, she’s so getting busy with all — it’s amazing. The scene with the tent in the sand, I was like, whew. There was hot and heavy stuff going on. By the way, not just with her, but even, I was really struck by how great a need for sex, honestly, all the women in the book really have and explain and enjoy it. There’s nothing shameful in this book. I think about — now I’m forgetting their — Dixon?

Miranda: Yeah.

Zibby: Dixon and his girlfriend just sort of parading naked around them and the grandmother begging her husband for sex and it always going on around them, also, obviously, in all different shapes and forms, some healthy, some blatantly horrific. At the core is this embracing of women’s sexuality forever. It’s pretty awesome.

Miranda: These are powerhouses of women. Even the women who are weak or who do terrible things are really strong women, women who have all gone through some sort of trauma. Almost everybody, unfortunately, goes through some form of trauma in their life. They’ve had to put away childish things, as it were. In the case of Wallace, what her mother did — even going back to the grandmother, Nanette, she was this wealthy woman whose family lost everything in the crash. Suddenly, she’s their currency. They want to sort of sell her. At the same time, she’s completely beholden to the man in that way, the husband, because she can’t survive on her own. That’s a whole generation of the past that weirdly reminded me of Jane Austen novels, which I love. It’s hard for us to imagine entirely that, but it’s a truth. What I wanted was then to see if Nanette hadn’t been that person and Wallace hadn’t had the life she had, would she have been a different person? Would Elle have gone to her mother more? Would they have been closer? What I wanted was to see how you can survive flaws and you can still be strong. You can make mistakes. I didn’t want to judge anybody. I just wanted to make the women real. That’s it.

Zibby: Wow. There were so many different people who came and went in the book. Everybody who entered stage left was like, you could see them. You could smell and feel. All those things they tell you to do to create a scene and get people in the scene, you did all those things. I noticed you didn’t even say that much sometimes, even where you ended your chapters and where you stopped describing things. Somebody on the podcast was talking about, don’t underestimate the reader. The reader can figure it out. You don’t need to give four extra sentences when they walk out of the room. You don’t have to then see them close the door. You get it. I feel like that’s exactly what you’re doing so often. It’s just a line or two, but it conjures up entire experiences.

Miranda: In life, what interests me are the silences in between. The unsaid is just as resonate as the said. Also, my father, when I was very small, I brought him my first essay or whatever about the osprey or something. I was so excited. I was at Nightingale at the time, I think. I was probably ten. My parents were already divorced. He read the first paragraph or whatever of this thing. He starts literally scratching stuff out. He goes, “You just need to know that the way to write, it’s always the shortest distance between two points, Miranda.” Of course, I’m traumatized, but ultimately, best lesson ever. It’s the same thing with high/low, bumping up something funny with something horrible. A dirty sock can have as much meaning, in a weird way, as a wedding. It depends what it represents to the character. Everybody’s triggered by different things. I just love a lot of the writers who leave those spaces for us.

Zibby: Amazing. I know we’re almost out of time. I could talk to you forever. I have a thousand other questions because I feel like these characters are actually real. I was like, “Oh, the character in my book I’m reading, blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, oh, my gosh, these are not real people. You have to stop. You can’t share anecdotes. Anyway, is this going to be a movie? Has it already been optioned, A? B, what advice would you have for aspiring authors? Although, you’ve given a lot already. Then what are you going to do next? Those are my questions.

Miranda: It was bought by HBO, actually, as a miniseries. Although, just in my own defense, there was an option for it. It wasn’t a gimmie. I just turned in a new draft of the pilot. I’m going to executive produce and write it with my partner, Lynette Howell Taylor, hopefully, if they like it. That’s A and C. That’s what I’m doing right now, but I’m very anxious to get back to writing another novel. That’s where my heart is. At the same time, dialogue is so much fun and so much fun to write. In terms of writers or writers who are having difficulty or aspiring or starting, don’t do what I did, for one thing. I would say what I learned is that there’s no such thing as a real writer. In my mind, I kept thinking, so-and-so’s a real writer. No, I’m not a real writer because I don’t know what I’m going to write tomorrow. I haven’t made an outline. I’ve never studied form or structure. It doesn’t matter whether you have your ass in chair or whether you go from six AM to twelve every day. I wrote this when I had time. Then suddenly, it was something. Then it gathers momentum.

The other tiny piece of advice, or huge, is that a friend of mine who’s a novelist said when I was going, “Oh, god, it’s so awful. It’s taking so many years,” she said, “When I was writing my first book, everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, yeah, your novel?'” I had that feeling too. Oh, yeah, you’re writing a novel? People do that. When is it going to be finished? She said the pressure was on her so much because she’d taken so long. She wanted to prove something. When she went and got her first copy of the book, basically, she realized it was completely not cooked. She said to me, “Do not rush because guess what? No one is waiting for this. Nobody cares. Just make it yours.” I think that’s really important too. There are no rules. E.L. Doctorow quote, I’m sure you know — what does he say? He says writing, for him, was like driving in the fog at night. You can only see as far as your headlights can show, but you still can make the entire journey. That’s how I made the journey. Somebody else might have a completely other way. Just get out of your way and get out of your head.

Zibby: I should just post that somewhere. That applies to everything. It’s not just writing.

Miranda: Everything. PS, if I could do it, I know I shouldn’t eat that brownie. Then I did.

Zibby: Now you can come on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.” We could start talking about that.

Miranda: Moms don’t have time to, exactly. Moms don’t have time to write papers for their kids. Why are you asking me to do this again?

Zibby: I know. I just relearned all of American history this year. I was like, thank you very much. Awesome. Miranda, thank you. I’m so excited about your book. I am so excited to see what happens with it as it’s launched into the world. I can’t wait for other people to read it and get as excited as I did. It’s really awesome. Congratulations.

Miranda: Thank you so much. It actually does mean the world. It really does. Fingers crossed. It comes out on Tuesday here and Thursday in England. Ah!

Zibby: Hold on. Buckle your seatbelt.

Miranda: and cross all your fingers. Thank you so much. It’s been really nice to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Take care. Buh-bye.

Miranda: Have fun. Buh-bye.

Miranda Cowley Heller, THE PAPER PALACE

THE PAPER PALACE by Miranda Cowley Heller

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