You have to hand it to Miranda Cowley Heller. Barely a dramatic life event goes unchecked in her debut novel. Assault, incest, pedophilia, drownings and steamy affairs where underpants are left tucked behind the family bread bin: all are there for the reading in The Paper Palace. None of this was planned. “When I started to write, horrifying things just happened,” Heller, 59, explains over coffee in Fitzrovia in central London.
This compulsion makes sense when you put it together with Heller’s decade-long career at HBO overseeing mini drama series in the Noughties. This was the golden age of television. Sex and violence on-screen had never been better — and it was all down to HBO. Think The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
So why turn from television to novels?
Heller always thought of herself as a writer. Family pressure put her off. You can see why: her grandfather was the critic Malcolm Cowley, who put William Faulkner on the literary map. Her sister-in-law is Zoë Heller. Her father was once married to John Cheever’s daughter. To top it off, Martin Amis is a cousin.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to publish a book unless I feel it’s good,’ ” she says. So, like many of today’s finest writers — Elizabeth Strout, Katherine Heiny — she became a novelist later in life.
Screen to Page … to Screen
There’s a lot riding on The Paper Palace. After a nine-way auction in Britain, an eight-way in her native America and selling to 17 countries, HBO snapped up the screen rights. Heller is nervous about its reception. She didn’t even tell her husband, Bruno Heller, who created the series Rome, that she was working on a novel for a long time.
Set in the backwoods of Cape Cod where Heller summered, one strand in The Paper Palace covers the decision a mother and wife must make after she starts an affair with her childhood friend. Another strand goes over snapshots from her life that led to this point. There are some visceral moments.
Throughout, Heller’s television expertise shines through. Dialogue crackles. Much of its power comes from her way with description. “I visualized the whole novel, the paths and the characters walking through them.”
Now she’s adapting the novel herself. “I’ve learnt something I should have already known,” she says with a sigh. “With a book, if you feel strongly about something, you win, because it’s your name on the spine. It doesn’t work like that with film and TV. You can be replaced in a heartbeat.”
Which makes her nostalgic for the HBO years. She said that the network just let writers get on with it. “We didn’t give notes. We said, ‘If it’s a really good writer, they’ll either rise or they’ll fall on their sword.’ ” The Sopranos was the first show she worked on. David Simon and The Wire came after. What many don’t realize, she says, is that Simon wrote every word. “Not a single thing is unscripted. He’s like a writer of a symphony.”
Television is in a very different place now. An overload of streaming and its attendant pressures mean no end of “safe” adaptations. It’s notable, though, that it’s The Wire and her shows that are held up as the pinnacle of TV. The other day Heller’s 17-year-old son recommended Deadwood to her. When she told him she had been one of the execs overseeing it, he didn’t believe her. “‘Google me,’ I told him,” she says with a laugh.
The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller, is out now
Francesca Angelini is a U.K.-based journalist