Interview: Checking In With Author Joseph Heller

The reluctant hero of three generations

Joseph Heller with Edith Vonnegut in 1981 Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

He's as reluctant a hero as you're likely to find these days, a graying World War II bombardier from Coney Island whose shyness is continually at odds with his fierce pride. He has probably written more savage criticism of the U.S. government than has Pravda, although he does not spurn the rewards of capitalism, even while gleefully predicting apocalypse in these United States. He is unrivaled in his burning, single-minded hatred of Henry Kissinger.

This is Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, a book that may endure as the final indictment of bureaucracy and the total chaos brought about by the System. That the System will soon collapse under its own weight is a given, according to Heller. Capitalism is a gone goose, he told me as he let me pick up the dinner check at an elegant Manhattan restaurant. He can't wait to see what happens when it goes. Unless, that is, chaos knocks on his own door. Then he might change his mind. That's what I like about Heller. He is a man of many principles, the first of which is flexibility.

He is one of the world's most revered writers. Yet his entire published work consists of three novels (Catch-22, Something Happened and Good as Gold), one play (We Bombed in New Haven), one screenplay (Sex and the Single Girl) and writing contributions to two other movies (Dirty Dingus Magee and Casino Royale). If it seems at all unusual that the author of Catch-22 would also pen a sex movie, consider this: he did it for the money. Writers of serious fiction in this country do not, traditionally, get rich. Joseph Heller's advance for Catch-22 was $1500: $750 on signing and another $750 on acceptance of the manuscript. After two decades and more than 8 million copies, its royalties still can't keep him in Chivas Regal.

Heller was born on May 1st, 1923, to Russian immigrants Lena and Isaac Heller. He started writing as a child and was publishing short stories while studying at New York University and Columbia. Then, one day, he abruptly quit writing. He had decided his fiction was no good. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, he did three years in the army air corps, he taught college, he worked in the advertising departments of Time, Look, and McCall's.

The notion for Catch-22 came to him in the middle of the night: "It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn't wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter." Now, he says, if he had known it was going to take him seven years of work, he would never have written the book. He does not write fast. Something. Happened came out thirteen years after Catch-22 and was so unlike his first book that it perplexed critics and fans alike: despair had replaced black humor. A mere four years later, along came Good as Gold, a parody of presidential politics laced with vicious attacks on Kissinger. Even though Heller decided not to go to Washington to do research and depended instead on newspaper clippings for his political expertise, the New York Times Book Review said Gold's portrayal of Washington was "perhaps more valuable to our understanding of our government than a library of presidential papers." Obviously, people see in Heller just what they want to see.

What I see is a well-read, enigmatic, intensely private, acerbic, witty and opinionated man who contradicts himself with élan. The locale of our talks ranged from his favorite table at Elaine's, where we were flanked by Yankees boss George Steinbrenner and Woody Allen, to the Lone Star Cafe, where Heller danced on a chair while the Sir Douglas Quintet blasted through "96 Tears." He's got, it seemed to me, a pretty good handle on his wheel.

He denied that he was "back on the lecture circuit," even though he'd just spoken at several colleges in the South, had planned some more dates, and was about to leave on a swing through Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand. He said his new novel was going "rapidly," although he declined to say what it was about.

He was also full of fatherly advice. "Never quit a job as a matter of principle," he told me at one point. "You'll always regret it."

Why?

"Do it and you'll find out."

******

You always seem to incorporate real-life heroes and villains into your books, such as a Nelson Rockefeller or John Connally character. What if you didn't have these people to draw from?
It's not a problem for me. The villains will come along. There were plenty in the Carter administration, and there will be plenty with Reagan. I have a feeling this David Stockman [director of the Office of Management and Budget] is going to become a comic character. It will be like watching Edgar Bergen with two blocks of wood on his knees. Both Alexander Haig and Stockman look like blocks of wood. Haig is definitely made out of wood.

The idea that someone like Stockman, who is thirty-four years old, is a genius! He can't be an economics genius at thirty-four! He can't be a genius in economics at any age, because it's not a field that accommodates the concept of genius.

I read a news story the other day that made me think of you. It said, matter-of-factly, that NATO is absolutely useless, incapable of anything.
Well, I think everyone knows that. That probably came from Haig. You know, I wish the newspapers would tell me why this country is so upset about the possibility of China and Russia going to war. I can't figure it out. It would be ideal for the U.S. The very fact that these two can destroy each other in an atomic war is made to order. Goldwater would be clapping his hands and Patrick Moynihan would be saying, "Hey, look at 'em go!"

'Good as Gold' almost centers on newspaper articles about Henry Kissinger. Did you begin the book because you were clipping articles on him?
Nope. I didn't. I'm not sure I even thought of using Kissinger at all when I began. But he was in the news, in our lives, so why not in the book — with a good deal of that objective dislike for him that more and more people were coming to feel. I didn't have the idea of using newspaper clippings right away. When I read about David Eisenhower in McCall's, about how he wasn't a goody-goody, I thought, "This is just too fuckin' funny and unbelievable to go into oblivion." Then, the idea of using actual clippings came about as a way of characterizing Gold. Gold uses clippings because he hates doing research and is not even really interested in the books and articles he writes.

In 'Good as Gold,' the president writes a book, after his first year in office, titled 'My Year in the White House,' and he spends all his time writing. How did you come by that?
I dunno. Good comic imagination. But Lyndon Johnson wrote a book, right? Every president since Johnson has written his book. I mean, doesn't it make more sense for them to write one every year, instead of waiting till they're out of office [laughs]?

Do you like Gold?
Yeah, in a condescending, disapproving way. I also found myself liking Hugh Biddle Con-over, the John Connally character. And I really like Conover as a literary figure, and so, it seems, does everyone else. With all his cold snobbishness, he nevertheless sees through Gold thoroughly. Conover is the consummate bigot. I mean, he not only dislikes Jews, but also blacks, Italians, baldies. . . . When Conover says he wouldn't go anywhere to eat with Nelson Rockefeller, I realized, "There's a man with taste" [laughs]. Rockefeller was an atrocious person. I mean, that man went to Coney Island to eat a hot dog with Henry Cabot Lodge. That was invading my turf. There was vulgarity, and from two such gentlemen.

Have you consciously compared Haig to Kissinger?
Well, Kissinger brought, or helped bring, ruin to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, and he escaped with riches and a reputation for competence and knowledge that he does not deserve. He talks gibberish and impresses with jargon. He does not know the meaning of words. He says almost nothing with meaning. He doesn't understand anything at all about what is going on in the world, even about what was happening in the world while he was helping make it happen. Before the shah of Iran fell, he said, "We must take immediately whatever remedies are needed. The time to discuss them is in the future."

Oh. Okay. But did he know the remedies? Frankly, he is over his head in the field of foreign affairs and ought to be kept out. Let him stick to directing the North American Soccer Association.

I think Haig will be foolish, but perhaps not quite as foolish as Kissinger was, because Haig doesn't have the education Kissinger had. Haig is a little more dangerous, because I fear he believes what he says, whereas I never got that impression from Kissinger. Haig is the guy who tried to keep this man William Watts [of the National Security Council] from resigning after Cambodia. And Haig said, "You can't quit; you've just been given an order by your commander-in-chief." And Watts made the famous remark, "Fuck you, Al. I just did." Haig seems to be simple-minded — along with everybody else who lives by dogmas — when he says there are worse things than war.

Our foreign policy is based on an infantile ignorance of the world. Kissinger was not too understanding of history; he would make historical references because he had a degree in history. Nobody but another historian would ever call him on it. But Reagan and Haig and Howard Baker, on this thing in El Salvador, just seem to be will-fully oblivious to facts that everybody else in the world knows. It's not a Communist plot; it's not a terrorist plot; it's dissatisfaction with a dictatorial government.

Those political slogans in 'Good as Gold' — "Nothing succeeds like failure" and "Every change is for the worse" — are just absurd enough to be real. Where did you get them?
Right out of my mind. Every change is for the worse. Nothing does succeed as planned and every good intention does go awry. That double talk is true. Like, this administration will stand behind you — until it has to.

An unsavory part of life in Washington is that the person who blows the whistle on ineptitude or corruption is finished. Like the one who blew the whistle on waste in the Defense Department. Fired and disappeared. John Dean's another one. But Dean was reprehensible. And I think it will be an ever-lasting stigma on Hubert Humphrey's reputation that he did not speak out against the war. I would love to see a vice-president who breaks openly with the president on an important issue.

Obviously, you care a lot more about politics and its effects than some people might think.
Maybe. Maybe that's why I was able to speak with the clearest conscience in Good as Gold against a lot of people in Washington, whom I castigate by name. Now, they were selected carefully. At one time or another, they were all pretty shitty, if on no other issue than Vietnam. Jacob Javits, he was terrible. Christ, Lyndon Johnson would trot him out like a stage prop whenever he wanted support from a New Yorker with a liberal reputation. Some liberal. He was just ducky on Iran, wasn't he?

If there is a common thread running through your three novels, what do you think it would be?
The outlooks are the same. The attitudes and moods of an author remain pretty constant. All three books are very pessimistic, very bleak, very morbid. Death is always present as a climactic event that never happens to the protagonist but affects him profoundly. I think I'm drawing unconsciously from experience for inspiration. The child, the dependent child or sacrificed child, is always there. I would think that the death of my father when I was about five years old had much to do with that. There was almost no conversation about it that I can remember, and it may have been by my own choice that I would not let anyone talk about it. Indeed, the traumatized child denies death very successfully, and then sublimates it, which I think is the process that went on in me. But it leaves me very sensitive to the helplessness of children and the ease, with which they can be destroyed or betrayed, deliberately or otherwise. In each of my books, when the key death takes place, there's a great deal of pain and tenderness involved.

You were from a poor family. The role of money as a main character in each book could come from that.
Well, you're closer to my books because you've reread them. But that corresponds to my own feelings, which probably derive from having a poor family. We always had food, but it must have permeated my consciousness that there was a struggle for money. There was a period a few years back, before Something Happened, when I started worrying about money. I had my savings in bonds — about $50,000, which was all I had in the world. The bonds started plummeting, and I had a few very bad nights, till they leveled out. Part of my most horrible nights was when I felt I might have to give up my apartment, have to take the children out of private school, have to tell my children that were moving out to Queens or Brooklyn. It was not the poverty, but the shame, that worried me.

I would say that most or all serious writers do draw on experience. There are many events I'd never touch and never will. I think in all my books, too, there's a passage on the degeneration of cities, the deterioration of law and order.

Given that deterioration and economic shift in this country, is success — fame, wealth — becoming less the American goal? Is self-fulfillment taking its place?
Yes. I'm not sure young people can be satisfied with success. I think people who want to write would agree with that. For me, the satisfaction was in wanting to be a writer, in trying to be a writer, in writing and in submitting what I did. Even though I wasn't published until I was twenty-two, I began submitting stories when I was about ten or eleven. But the satisfaction came in that there were connections between me and certain wants and needs — needs of the imagination, of the emotions, to express fantasies, and it was private and yet could become public. I know I wanted to be a famous writer when I was ten, but the want was its own satisfaction. I felt I would be a famous writer, but the feeling was its own daydream. Just having that daydream was a very important reward.

Is there any worth in taking writing courses?
There was for me. None at all, I'd say, for the student who lacks talent. You can't teach talent. And you can't give intelligence. You can't teach a person to be funny. A novel takes two or three years to write. By the time a student is halfway through his book, he'll know so much more about writing and about literature, and will have experienced so much more as a person, that there's a good chance he'll lose interest in the book before it's finished.

Have college students changed at all?
Oh, yeah. They've changed tremendously. Also, I've changed. I think the age difference now between me and college students...it's so large that I'm not reflexively charmed by the fact that they're in college and they're there to hear me and they're young.

The faculty is another thing that's changed: there's not as much for them to be incensed about as, say, in 1964, when I accepted my first invitation to speak. There was a growing war then, the Vietnam War.

Has anyone in the audiences brought up a connection between El Salvador and Vietnam?
No. I've only been to a few colleges since. El Salvador. I don't think El Salvador has anybody angry outside of New York. This may be another change in me: I think I'm getting resigned to catastrophe — to catastrophe built into civilization and particularly our civilization. I'm reminded of a line from Good as Gold: Gold believes that the penultimate stage of a civilization is chaos masquerading as order, and he knows we are already there. I think this country is in a state of absolute chaos. And it amuses me, because the people who speak for it are still as pompous and pretentious as ever.

They say, "Let's get America moving again," and all that kind of stuff.
They don't know what to do. The economists don't know what to do, the secretary of the treasury doesn't, Reagan doesn't know what the hell to do, and one reason is because the situation is hopeless. I don't think anybody wants to face the fact that capitalism has outlived its usefulness as a system — as a system for this country.

Nobody is advocating anything to remedy the situation. If inflation is part of it, and I've asked this of friends of mine on Wall Street, give me one proposal that's been made that would encourage an increase in production. Name one product that could be sold at a lower cost. And no proposal has been made.

What happens if it ever gets to you? Will your opinion change then?
About what? About it being tragic? Of course if will! I think the situation is tragic; I think that in a grim and unfortunate way, people have learned to live with tragedies. It's part of the environment, and no one person, no administration, is going to change it. There is going to have to be some kind of universal or national cataclysm. Or there's going to be a great economic collapse, and then it's going to take somebody with sense and nerve. But people with sense don't have nerve and people with nerve don't have sense.

So you find it depressing?
If I were your age, I would find it depressing. At my age, it's amusing. It has more of a chance of affecting you than me. I don't expect anybody of merit to be elected to a high office. I also think anybody of merit wouldn't want to get into politics. One of the things that did revive my faith in America, my love for America, was the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was never able, never ever able, to get anywhere in politics, other than buying the governorship of New York, which is not an important position. I was very proud of the American people.

For rejecting Rockefeller?
For rejecting that particular Rockefeller.

Have you gotten used to the idea that people still think of 'Catch-22' as a pivotal event in their lives? For instance, Kris Kristofferson told me that he thought the book had been written for him; it was that personal. It affected a lot of people that way, and the last time we talked, you didn't seem comfortable with that assumption.
I'm used to the idea that a great many people of all kinds of intellect and in almost all types of occupations look at that book as being something very special.

How much of 'Catch-22' is based on your own war experiences and how much is outright fiction?
The book was the result of a literary imagination at work, not a journalist's, historian's or social reformer's. I would not have had a book if I'd taken a realistic approach. For two reasons: one, I don't think I have the vocabulary, the patience, the eye or the memory to record things as they take place. The second thing is that I had no particularly interesting story of my own to tell. Remove the spirit, the literary personality of Catch-22, and put the events in chronological order, and you'll find an uneventful story about a bombardier and a colonel who wants his men to fly more missions than anyone else. My interest was more on the Cold War and the Korean War. The effect they had on the domestic political climate was frightening. And that's the spirit of revolt that went into Catch-22. I've been criticized for the ending, for my not being a pacifist and for Yossarian's failures to condemn that war.

But these readers wanted something far beyond anything I was willing to say or feel about World War II — that any alternative is preferable to war. That's not my attitude, and it's not expressed anywhere in the book.

Do you ever think about your influence on your readers?
I doubt novels influence behavior on a large scale. Catch-22 possibly did, in that it coincided with the Vietnam War. It did not start off as a big success, fated to attract a large audience. People found it a difficult book to read, and it was by an unknown author. That's why I'm grateful to the hippie generation; they had no trouble with it at all.

I met officers who told me that people in Vietnam were carrying copies of Catch-22 and telling people, 'If you want to know what this war's all about, read this." Now, these were people disgusted by a military code that they cherished and saw being defiled. Not by me, not by the antiwar movement, but by pricks like that general who wrote up a citation for himself for an action in which he did not participate.

I have an ingrained modesty that prevents me from making too many claims for Catch-22, but others have written about its influence on literature and publishing. I was told, for example, that Pynchon's V was given a much more vigorous launching because of the success of Catch-22.

Just how bad is the future? What do you foresee?
I've always had faith in the future of this country, for the rest of my life, anyway. I put my faith in the fact of native incompetence. I don't think we'll have a Hitler, because we're not efficient enough to have a Hitler. We won't have a military dictatorship, or a military takeover, because the military isn't that efficient.

That's where I see hopelessness, by the way, when I talk about capitalism being on its deathbed. An experienced businessman can't run his business, but the government can't either. So socialism won't work. I mean, we have a history of corrupt government. Corrupt and incompetent and mediocre people are government; that's our tradition. So if we socialize, God knows what's going to happen. It warmed my heart, in the way that watching a Laurel and Hardy comedy might warm my heart, to read about the losses that General Motors and Ford posted. We just assume these companies are infallible and in expert hands, and everything's going to go beautifully. But not only was there incompetence, there was passive acceptance. They, of all people, should be the ones in Washington saying, "Nationalize the oil companies or control their profits."

It's going to be very funny for a while. But the economy is most frightening. It doesn't seem as if there is any possibility for economic growth at present. The Japanese have us on one side and France and Germany have us on the other.

If you were in the same position now as when you were in college, and you started publishing short stories, would you change things? Change your writing?
Given the choice, if Mephistophiles had appeared and said, "What do you want to do?" I probably would have picked being a screenwriter. I wouldn't now, but back then I would have.

I'm not sure that my motivations then for becoming a writer were worthy ones. I wanted to be a writer because I felt I had a gift, and I really wanted to make money and have some kind of status. I never thought it would be in fiction, because I write very slowly. I write dialogue rapidly, so I thought I would be in playwriting or radio. At that time, there were many radio dramas and comedy shows. But now I wouldn't change: now fiction is what I want to do. I still have trouble writing words that are not dialogue, finding words that I like. But if it were too easy, it wouldn't hold my interest. It's the fact that it's very hard for me to write....

If I had known that Catch-22 was going to take seven years, I wouldn't have done it. If I had known Something Happened was going to take twelve, I wouldn't have done it. I always thought it would just take another two years or less than two years, and if you were to ask me when my next book will be finished, I'd say within two years.

When will this one be finished?
Within two years [laughs].