Erica Heller’s revealing and engaging memoir Yossarian Slept Here tells of her life and her relationship with her father and Catch 22 (the catch being she admits to never having read it). The memoir is bursting with strong characters such as her Grandmother Dottie. I asked if she was really surrounded by such interesting people.
“In my Grandmothers case she only becomes more and more remarkable to me. She was certainly the easiest to write. She had a gift for warping reality. In terms of my parents, to any child their parents are gods. My parents were colorful people and I lived in an interesting place.”
This is certainly true. Eminent authors like Mario Puzo and other stars mingle with the memoirs colorful cast, I wondered if she felt that this affected her. “In terms of Mario he was to me just very sweet, he had written a book that he didn’t think was very good and much preferred his earlier work. He was just a nice guy, most people around weren’t famous though.”
Her response is typically grounded, I asked if it was easy to shake of her father’s extraordinary success, or if it was intimidating. “It always felt strange for me when people treated him as famous. He was a writer not a rockstar, we were not fabulously wealthy there were just certain things we could do that we couldn’t do before ”
We move to more painful aspects of her book. As well as frankly discussing subjects such as her battle with cancer it tells the story of her parents explosive divorce. “Was it cathartic to write?” I asked. “No. It was not cathartic at all, I have a feeling that if you took apart any divorce it would be more painful than people imagine.”
One of the most astounding episodes is her father’s behavior surrounding the divorce. She writes her father was intent ‘not just divorce but to annihilate’ her mother. I asked how these episodes affect her, as the book, perhaps remarkably given his actions, is free from a lasting sense of resentment. “Well he’s dead and you learn to live with it. The game is over. I’m not 12 anymore and you make peace with everybody. My basic feeling is that we’re all nuts and do the best we can, he did the best be could.”
She does admit, “Their divorce was more difficult than most, more prolonged.” We discuss the trauma surrounding the publication of Something Happened a practical assault by Joesph towards his family that contains a chapter entitled “My Daughter’s Unhappy.” I asked how she felt about it now. “Dreadful.” Though, “It’s an interesting dilemma. There were things I wanted to write about in this book, but I didn’t share his feeling that everybody is fair game.”
However, like her father she clearly writes from bitter experience and her writing contains a sharp eye for humor. I ask if she has inherited his wit. She is cautious but admits, “It would certainly make sense I guess. I think we all turn into our parents in some ways.”
I asked, “Who would you count among your literary influences?” “Good question, Edna O’Brien is someone who has meant a lot to me also J. P. Donleavy’s novel The Ginger Man” however she stopped reading fiction during this project “I didn’t want to be intimidated by others.”
I asked her if she planned to write again. “I’m lucky to survive this! I wouldn’t write fiction, that didn’t work out too well.” However she has “discovered that I do like telling stories. I see things as stories, I’ll go across the street for a cheese sandwich and I’ll come back with 19 more stories.”
We finish with Catch 22 and I asked her if she thought she would ever read it. It’s an emphatic “No.” “I could, the writing is overwhelmingly good to me, especially for the time. I suppose I’ll always have it to read.” I tell her she would enjoy it but I sense perhaps her feelings are more complex than reading for pleasure, however she did add “people have said they’re jealous of me because they wish they could read it for the first time again.”
The memoir cites Kinky Friedman in drawing the distinction between ‘important’ and‘significant’ novels placing Catch very definitely in the latter group. I finish by asking why her father’s most famous work is so enduring.
“The more time that goes by since from World War Two the more appropriate it becomes. At that time you couldn’t show a lack of respect to certain things. My father was not the first to write about the war but was the first to poke holes in the mythology. The worse we get, the better it gets. It makes me proud and makes me feel old.”
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