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Joseph Heller interview: the Catch-22 author on sex, ageing and why 'men are boring'

Joseph Heller in Coney Island, New York, 1998
Joseph Heller in Coney Island, New York, 1998 Credit: AP

Catch-22 made the late Joseph Heller a literary sensation, and now a TV adaptation is winning over new fans. In this 1998 feature from the Telegraph archives, the author talks to Maria Alvarez about women, food, illness and her bra straps

In his memoir, Now and Then, Joseph Heller recalls visiting his mother in hospital in New York during the Second World War.

He feared he might somehow not recognise her and, sure enough, he found himself hugging and kissing another elderly woman, a perfect stranger, until he espied his mother "practically levitating out of her bed, plaster cast and all, and waving wildly in furious and frustrated exasperation to attract my attention. She looked exactly as I remembered and she told me yet again that I had a twisted brain. She said it one more time when I revealed that I would soon be flying regularly in an airplane. It went without saying that she feared I would be killed in a crash."

As he points out himself, the scene was unconsciously echoed in Catch-22, his cult classic novel which he began writing almost a decade later, in 1953, and which to date has sold well over 10 million copies. Its title not only entered the language, but the book made of Joseph Heller something of an institution, the kind of writer to whom one pays homage.

Quite apart from highlighting Heller's bizarre brand of forgetfulness, anyone wishing to detect early signs of the presiding genius of irrational rationality that shapes Catch-22 need look no further than young Joe Heller's "twisted brain" and his own immigrant Jewish mother's wonder before the crazed absurdity of her son and the world.

In his youth, the "twisted brain" consisted of a penchant for malicious practical jokes, and Heller retains a Puckish spirit of waywardness and contradiction. For example, he very patiently gives me instructions to get to his home in East Hampton from New York in an old-fashioned Brooklyn accent (the kind that hectors down the line as if the telephone had been invented yesterday). Then he concludes mischievously, as if butter wouldn't melt, "It's a hell of a way. I don't know why you'd want to do that. Heh, heh, heh."

It's a little game he plays with interviewers, he admits later, a strange mixture of modesty and immodesty. You don't always know when he's joking, whether it's truly vanity, or insecurity, or both. He's a difficult man to fathom, not least because he is resistant to introspection. He, the Kafka of the Vietnam generation, whose work hardly ever has a plot to speak of, sees himself as a "conventional novelist".

He is both warm and grumpy, kindly and selfish, a novelist of ideas who nevertheless believes in the sensualist ethos that "man is matter". He is a man who confesses he cannot express anger or emotion, yet whose work is full of bitter rage. He also has a brilliant memory, yet a fascinating facility to blank out unpleasant complexities. Heller cannot recall ever being told that his brother and sister were his father's children by his first wife until he found out by accident in his teens, yet his siblings claim otherwise. And he did not ask the cause of his father's death until he had to fill out an insurance form in his late thirties.

Heller arrives to pick me up at the bus stop in red shirt, blue cords and sneakers, and despite the obvious vestiges of an old illness (a slippery-drunk lisp and a slight hobble, the legacy of the neurological disease which paralysed him for nearly a year in 1981), he is a stocky, virile-looking 75-year-old with remarkably smooth skin and a full head of curly silver hair. (He tells me later that young people always find him youthful.)

For the first hour or so, he does his grouch routine, leaving me in no doubt that he expects me to leave on the 2.40pm bus. I have the impression that I am an intrusion to be tolerated with a resigned shrug of the shoulders. He drives me to the beach for a quick glimpse of the sea, rather like those fathers dutifully going through the paces on half-term visits.

Yet somehow, one can't help but warm to the gruff prima donna in him. Heller has a knack of making those around him strive to please him, which is perhaps something to do with being brought up "like an only child" by his mother and much older brother and sister, who indulged him despite their straitened circumstances.

As he says of success, "I don't have to see anyone I don't like. I don't have to hurry for anyone." In his East Hampton house (the family holiday home before the divorce from his first wife in 1982), which is a light, airy, book-lined place with a swimming-pool in the back garden, he gives me a "cookie" before instructing me where to sit. Valerie, his second wife, a tall, slender, attractive woman in her early fifties, comes down to say hello briefly for she is nursing a very bad cold. They banter in a way that suggests she must be great fun.

Valerie was one of the nurses who tended to him during his partial paralysis and then helped him recover his movement, and he immortalised their courtship in Closing Time. In the book, the hero Yossarian fingers the nurse's petticoat; Heller wickedly asks Valerie to give us a twirl and she flounces off comically, saying, "I don't have to do that."

However, her pet poodle doesn't leave and continues to assail me with its concupiscent attentions until Heller, annoyed with the dog, yells at me. "Don't tawk to him, just scratch him. Tawk to me." So we "tawk", initially about his memoir which, like the man, manages to be both revealing and not. Unlike his cynically funny novels, Now and Then is a gentle, at times elegiac read.

It brings to life Coney Island in the Thirties with its cast of Runyonesque characters with funny nicknames – such as "Rup" (as in rupture, for someone who has a hernia) – yet offers only tantalising glimpses of the individual members of Heller's family or their relationships with each other. Of his first wife and his two children we learn very little.

"The subject is me. It's my story and I'm the focus of it," says Heller by way of explanation. I point out that it's a dark ending, with one of the local youths, a junkie, murdering his mother; Heller says he is concerned with telling the truth yet fails to see the full implications of this juxtaposed with the innocent picture that has preceded it.

Much of Heller's interiority remains out of reach. As in his fiction, he asks questions in the memoir to which he feels there are no answers. What we are left with is a stroll through the external reality of the future artist as a young man. Fans of Catch-22 will match the wartime experiences in Italy to those in the book and find some of the prototypes for characters.

Rather curiously, however, Heller claims to have enjoyed the war on the whole and to have processed the unpleasantness and his anti-establishment attitude only much later, when he received an education. I am reminded of the narrator of Heller's 1974 novel, Something Happened, who says of the blind and disabled, "I refuse to accept such reality. I dump it all down into my unconscious."

New and Then is subtitled "From Coney Island to Here". That Heller has travelled so far in his life from his humble beginnings is perhaps the one fact that has never ceased to amaze him. "I think it's a minor miracle that I got to where I am today from those beginnings. It was a combination of circumstance, luck and good timing."

Despite his famed vanity, Heller does not see himself as some Nietzschean superman willing his way to the top. He bows before the inevitable forces of life. But meeting him, one can hardly imagine him settling down to a life as an insurance filing clerk. Yet it's a huge gulf between Now and Then.

The world of Now in the Hamptons is one of white picket fences which seem to come with invisible Ralph Lauren labels. Muffin shops and chi-chi antique galleries nestle alongside beautiful and orderly cemeteries. It's the kind of place where one could live under the illusion that death arrives gently and gracefully in the pages of a Martha Stewart magazine: a far cry from the gory, messy, accidental deaths that appear in Heller's fiction.

And a far cry from the Coney Island of his youth, although he is keen to point out that in those days it was a safe and cheerful place. He quotes his old Coney Island friend, George Mandel: "If a person did have to grow up in a slum – he used that word slum for comic exaggeration – he could imagine no better one."

Joseph Heller on the Coney Island boardwalk, 1998 Credit: AP

Joseph Heller was born in 1923 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents. His father, a bakery delivery man, died when he was five and he was brought up by his mother, who spoke only faltering English, his brother, Lee, and sister, Sylvia (older than him by 14 and seven years respectively).

They were hard times. but he was largely protected from knowing this. Though he was a bright, studious child, expectations were low and it was only the GI Bill of Rights that enabled Heller to transcend his roots by going to college after the war.

A first degree in English at the University of Southern California was followed by a Masters at Columbia, after which he came to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship with his first wife, Shirley, whom he married aged 22. Back in America in the Fifties, he found lucrative work as an advertising copywriter for Time and McCall's magazines. It was during this time that he began to write Catch-22.

Catch-22 is the paradoxical dilemma that the Second World War airmen of the novel face in their constant efforts to avoid combat duty and be "grounded" in hospital. The catch was that "a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind". Only the sane would want to be grounded and would therefore be refused permission by that infernal logic.

The novel, published in 1961, captivated readers with its anarchic black humour and pre-empted the anti-establishment spirit of the Sixties. Its cult status grew by word of mouth, until it became one of the century's publishing sensations. Heller has written five other novels – Something Happened in 1974, Good As Gold in 1979, God Knows in 1984, Picture This in 1988, and the sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time, in 1994 – as well as a play and a non-fiction account of the Guillain-Barre illness which afflicted him in 1981, No Laughing Matter.

Something Happened is held by many critics to be a masterpiece and Heller considers it "deeper" than Catch-22. With the exception of Picture This and God Knows, his other novels also won critical plaudits, especially Closing Time, which was a bold step. Yet Heller claims to be resigned to the fact that people are forever pointing out that he hasn't written anything like Catch-22 since and has a stock response. 'I always say, "Neither has anyone else."' This is accompanied by a wheezy chuckle, like a comic punchline.

The paradoxical inversion that tells a truth runs through all of Heller's work like the pattern on a stick of rock. It is like a nervous tic that he indulges, that has become part of his repertoire, in life and art. Here he is in his memoir on the pleasure of the arrival of the unexpected cheque: "Each of these benign surprises affecting me was a rapture someone born rich is never likely to enjoy. There are some pleasures money can't buy."

Partly because Something Happened and Closing Time have a strong autobiographical content, Heller concentrates on his early life in his memoir. "I learned with some disillusion that I'm really a very happy person," he says.

"At least consciously. I don't know why there's so much cynicism in my attitude to institutions and people. It was a very rich life and I had a very happy childhood. I didn't realise it until I started writing it. I was quite a spoilt child. I am what Freudian scholars call orally fixated. I like to eat, I like to kiss, I like to talk and I like to have people doing things for me." He ends this with the broad smile of an indulged, much-loved child.

His oral fixation is legendary. One could argue that the major theme of the book is Heller's fascination with food, for though we have no description of character, it abounds with long, lingering descriptions of ice-creams, baked beans, sweet potatoes and other remembered delicacies.

His mother recalled having to tear him from her breast as an infant. And though she is never described, it is in the lovingly made sandwiches she packs him for lunch that she comes to life. He remembers her most vividly in the kitchen, self-sacrificing.

"I love eating. Most of my friends and my wife do. I have a line I like to repeat, 'None of us has ever regretted a mouthful.'" 

Like the hero of Catch-22 and Closing Time, Yossarian, he clings to the sensual. "It's fundamental. Sensuality: fear of death." So I suggest lunch and his face lights up like a happy cherub's. In the restaurant, Bobby Van's in Bridgeport, Heller is fussed over by the head waiter. In the warmth and bonhomie of the place, he relaxes and frets over my choice.

"I can't eat a big lunch any more, I'm too heavy, but I have a big dinner," he says, ordering a Caesar salad. I don't know if I am doing it to please him, but I order a steak and clams to start. He seems to eat vicariously through me, interrupting the interview twice to yell at me, "You're eating them too quickly. You're supposed to be savouring them. You're supposed to drink the juice." But I don't mind; in fact I find myself flirting with Joseph Heller, who, as he points out, is of my father's generation. In fact, he is older.

What's attractive about him is probably the very thing that must be most irritating also: a solipsism, a selfish clinging to individual experience, to seize the day and live life according to his rules and comfort. This makes him very good company when he gets going. I recall a quote in Closing Time: "I saw I made no difference any more, except at home with my family and maybe a few friends."

Though death stalks Heller's fiction, and he is known as a hypochondriac, he claims to be less afraid of it now. But he thinks it has something to do with his father. By his own admission, by far the biggest mystery of the memoir is his attitude to his father's death. He recalls nothing of him and very little about the funeral, except that it was a sunny day and he seemed unaffected.

His forgetfulness here has resonances of the comical scene in the hospital when visiting his mother. It obviously bugged him enough. In the penultimate chapter he begins with typical absurdity: "The first time I met my father face to face to talk to him, so to speak, was in the office of a psychoanalyst sometime in 1979, when I was 56 years old. My father had been dead for more than 50 of those years."

His conclusions on psychiatry are typically Hellerian. Quoting from the memoir, he says, "Corrective therapy demands unwavering concentration by a patient of intelligence with a clear and untroubled head who is not in need of it." He concludes that he must have blocked out his father's death and any memory of him.

One thing he learned was that somehow his books always work themselves into having a significant death in the penultimate chapter, and often there are very touching relations between father and child. "Knowing that now would make no difference either. I know him by his absence," he writes. But when he speaks about it to me in the restaurant, his eyes water, despite his claim that he does not show deep emotion. "The only time I let myself cry was when our pet dog died when I was 50."

Heller says he is the product of an emotionally reticent background: he finds it difficult to show emotion or rage and goes silent when angry. Yet silence terrifies him, being such a talker, eater and kisser. I ask him about his relationships with his own children and he says, "We are not a hostile family but neither are we close." Erica, his daughter, is 46. His son, Ted, is 41. Neither of them is married and I ask him why. His face goes blank. "I don't know."

"Aren't you sad not to have grandchildren?" "No." Again a blankness. "Children can be a burden." He admits that the divorce with his wife Shirley hit them hard, but they were "grown up by then". It is a subject that still haunts Heller and at one point, judging by his account of it in No Laughing Matter (the record of his illness which he co-wrote with his friend Speed Vogel), must have obsessed him. One has the impression that the break-up hit him harder than the disease itself.

George Clooney in the new TV adaptation of Catch-22 Credit: Hulu

He explains that he did not want to be divorced, that his wife was suffering from the dissatisfaction that afflicted intelligent, unfulfilled women of her generation, that she was envious of his career. Later, on the phone, he tells me that her temper became "ungovernable".

I bring up the subject of the lack of closeness he mentioned with his children. "I'm saddened by the idea of it. I don't know what the main reason has been." I ask him what his children thought of Something Happened, with its visceral portrayal of misery in the bosom of the family. "As far as I know they were fine about it." But they have never discussed it.

All this blanking out makes him a wily old hand at changing the subject when it suits him and he often turns the tables on me, asking me questions about my opinion of men, and "who bought you your house?" He also loves a good gossip and is full of questions about literary London. "I love the way the British authors and journalists bitch about each other. Heh, heh."

It took Heller 13 years to produce Something Happened. When I ask him if he was hampered by the success of Catch-22, he denies this: "I'm a slow writer."

This is true, since there are large gaps between all the books, but I also sense that if he ever felt any unpleasant pressure, he probably suppressed it. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is believed by many to be caused by stress and Heller must have had a lot of it, not least because he can never do without someone to look after him, and was living alone, separated from his wife, when he was struck down.

Vogel, along with several other friends (including the author Mario Puzo), noted a mellowing in Heller after the illness. Heller concedes this but in his contrary way does not feel it was much to do with the illness. At one stage he held the belief that disease, like the war, proved beneficial to him. He does not recall this. "I would not say that now. Except about the only thing I learned is that a man uses his shoulder muscles making love much more than he realises," he chuckles.

And so we come to another topic on which Heller contradicts himself: his reputation as a womaniser, though he admits that the loss of sexual energy is the hardest thing to accept about growing old. "To my knowledge I don't have a reputation and I've tried very hard to be discreet. In my fiction, my men like women." However, later he tells me that at the end of his 35-year-old marriage to Shirley, she was having him followed by detectives, which makes one think there is no smoke without fire.

Heller is unmistakably a male of the old school. He talks about today's new breed of women with horror. He mentions Norman Mailer's ex-wife writing about her promiscuity in her memoirs. "I'm essentially a private person. It's almost central to a woman to be chaste."

Suddenly, he turns mischievous. "I can conceive of this with today's type of woman: of my being manipulative with a woman who tried to talk me into bed where I would convince her of my helplessness, my weakness and modesty, and encourage her to take the initiative and make all the moves from beginning to end.

"I can't imagine asserting myself. All those girls are vastly more experienced and do drugs, and I've never done them. It's conditioning, not ethics. For much of the time in my generation we felt we were using women, that it's not joint love-making but scoring. Of course, with a few it was two hearts beating as one."

But methinks the gentleman protests too much. At one stage he says airily, "Don't think I haven't noticed your bra strap showing through your sweater." Later he declares with a chuckle, "If we were together I would be less virile than some of the men you know, but better company."

Yet conversely there is little that is misogynous about him. After all, he is the man who famously wrote in Something Happened, "Women don't suffer from penis envy. Men do." Heller is an accomplished flirt because he genuinely likes women. "To be honest, I find women much more interesting than men. Most men I meet now are boring. You don't need to get married. You take care of yourself. Men are pricks, boring pricks."

When I point out to him that I have little time left before my bus leaves, he waves, 'Oh, get the next one.' And we take tea in a tea-room and have a high old time. Me and Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, who feels he is bound to disappoint people who come in awe of him.

"I am not an august intelligence." But quite apart from the pleasure of good company, the sensual realities of life, it is actually work that keeps the idea of death at bay. In Now and Then Heller speaks of his mother's indifferent resignation at the end of her years. Although he once stated that Closing Time would be his last book, one has the impression that he wrote the memoir to ward off precisely this resignation inherent in ageing.

"I get depressed if I don't wake up with an idea about what I'm writing. It's waking up wondering how I'm going to fill the day... it's a kind of dying," he says. All his ideas for his novels come to him with a first line. He hopes he will get the next one soon.

As he waves me off at the bus stop, all warmth and good cheer, I remember a line in Catch-22 when an old man corrects a young soldier who says that it is better to die on one's feet than on one's knees.

"I'm afraid you have it backwards. It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees," says the old man. In a world that he believes to be morally deteriorating, corrupted by politicians and the business ethos, Joseph Heller has a few basic beliefs – in morality, ethics and truth – and clings on to 'eating, kissing and toilking' and work.

But he'd like his last word to be, "I'm the kind of person I would love to meet. Heh, heh, heh." It's Joey Heller and his "twisted mind" again.

Catch-22 airs on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9pm