This interview with Joe Heller took place during the week of the publication of Something Happened—a literary event of considerable significance, because the novel is only the second of the author’s career. The first, of course, was Catch-22. The fact that it has taken more than a decade to produce a second work of fiction seems of small concern to Heller, because he has evolved a definite and unique pattern of work that is not at all determined by deadlines and other arbitrary demands. He says he always wanted to be a writer. His earliest story was pecked out on a neighborhood boy’s typewriter and ultimately rejected by the Daily News short-short story editor. His career moved at its own pace. He did no writing during his war years in Italy. His first accepted story appeared in The Atlantic (along with a companion piece of fiction by James Jones) in 1948. Catch-22 wasn’t published until ten years later. Heller has no illusions about the difficulty of making a living as a novelist. He tells his creative-writing class at the start of every academic year that even if every word a writer writes is published, he will almost surely have to supplement his income, usually by teaching (as Heller does) or perhaps by marrying money. The exigencies of such a career do not seem to have marked Heller himself. He sits very much at ease—an impressive figure (his considerable crop of hair seems to surround his face like a lion’s ruff), trim (he keeps himself in firm shape by jogging and sticking to a strict diet)—and with the detachment of someone talking about a third person he begins describing in a voice strong with the inflections of his native Brooklyn the unique process through which his novels have come to him . . .
In 1962 I was sitting on the deck of a house on Fire Island. I was frightened. I was worried because I had lost interest in my job then—which was writing advertising and promotional copy. Catch-22 was not making much money. It was selling steadily (eight hundred to two thousand copies a week)—mostly by word of mouth—but it had never come close to the New York Times best-seller list. I had a wife and two children. I had no idea for another book. I was waiting for something to happen(!), wishing I had a book to start. My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.
I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle, the whole scene of that particular “something” that was going to happen; I knew about the brain-damaged child and, especially, of course, about Bob Slocum, my protagonist, and what frightened him, that he wanted to be liked, that his immediate hope was to be allowed to make a three-minute speech at the company convention. Many of the actual lines throughout the book came to me—the entire “something happened” scene with those solar plexus lines (beginning with the doctor’s statement and ending with “Don’t tell my wife” and the rest of them) all coming to me in that first hour on that Fire Island deck. Eventually I found a different opening chapter with a different first line (“I get the willies when I see closed doors”) but I kept the original, which had spurred everything, to start off the second section.
Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?
Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand. Before the end of the week I had typed it out and sent it to Candida Donadio, my agent. One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.
Is there any accounting for this unique procedure?
I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.
Can you remember some other opening lines?
Well, people have always asked what happened to Dunbar, a character who disappeared in Catch-22. So I was thinking of writing a novel about him. The opening line I came up with was obviously cultivated by an advertising slogan for Bigelow rugs that was widespread at the time: “A name on the door deserves a Bigelow on the floor.” My variation of it was, “Dunbar woke up with his name on the door, and a Bigelow on the floor, and wondered how he had got there. . . .” So it was a novel about amnesia, Dunbar finding himself in a plush office, not knowing the secretary’s name, or how many people were working for him, or what his position was—and gradually finding out. It did not work. I couldn’t take my mind past a certain point.
Do you have last lines that come along with those first lines?
I had a closing line for Something Happened before I began writing the book. It was “I am a cow.” For six years I thought that was good. I had it on one of my three-by-five notecards. Then I wasn’t all that happy with it, and finally I discarded it. But it seemed good at the time, and besides, I can’t start writing until I have a closing line.