Miranda Cowley Heller’s novel “Paper Palace” is a book that you don’t want to put down and yet you have to because otherwise you would have read it through too quickly. And that would be a shame. Because you don’t want it to stop. Cowley Heller writes how we would talk to our best friend. It tells the story of the American Elle, a fifty-year-old woman who has to make a decision that will affect her whole life – and only because she indulged her – old – sexual desires for a few minutes during the holidays. ntv.de talks to the author about her enormous success, and she already has the next project on the roll: “The Paper Palace” is being filmed, she is writing the screenplay. She has been successfully involved in this in recent years – Cowley Heller has developed and is responsible for series such as “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” for HBO.

ntv.de: I’m in the middle of the book right now and I wish I was on vacation and lying by a lake so I could read the “Paper Palace” in one go…

Cowley Heller: That’s ambitious, because there are passages that aren’t that easy or funny at all. But in general I also believe that it is a book that you can read quickly.

On the other hand, it’s the case that you just take a break and read something or let it go through your head, simply because the scenes are so complex.

That’s how I read too. This skim reading is not for me, I always need a bit and have to think about it when I really like a book. I am a slow reader. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes when it’s a long book (laughs).

I already know that I will read the last five pages very slowly and that I wish there would be a sequel, because the book only describes one day, if you take it seriously.

I’ll take that as a compliment (laughs). And excitation.

How did you start writing? For me, this is a book that kind of “had to come out” because you had it in you for a long time…

That’s correct. I started writing the book eight or ten years ago. But then, after about twenty pages, I put it back in a drawer for some reason. At the time, I was treading water because I really wanted to do it perfectly. That was absolutely the wrong approach. And maybe I had to be of a certain age to be able to honestly tell such a story. To write about the life of a grown woman, you have to be a grown woman with a life lived. So yes, right, the book was inside me, but it still had to grow with me before I could actually write it and let it go.

How important was your age as the author of this novel?

I could not have written this novel sooner. I used to be a little scared of the blank sheet. I wrote this book never knowing what would happen on the day where my characters and the story would take me. It was a really interesting experience for me to let myself drift like that. When I was younger I was always too worried about whether I’m good, whether people understand me, whether they like me, whether they like reading my story. Now I don’t care, mostly (laughs).

What was the most fun thing about writing?

That my protagonist is a woman in her fifties, like me. which is real.

A woman in her prime, in the middle of life…

Yes! Often women in their fifties are portrayed as a bit boring. Society’s idea is that you’ve gained a certain degree of wisdom, you’re madly grown up, you hardly have sex anymore, you’re adjusting to being a grandmother – but that’s not the case at all! (laughs)

I have the feeling that women of this age have been waiting for a book like this, because women in their mid-50s still want to start things, they are curious and sometimes just torn between their many roles…

Just as. Who says that I already know everything, that I’ve experienced everything? That I don’t want to feel or act like a teenager too? It’s more my impression that men get boring in their fifties – after their midlife crisis. Women, on the other hand, are becoming more provocative, more interesting and want to seize opportunities.

It’s definitely comforting to see a woman like Elle who could be a friend.

Younger women now come to me and say that they are looking forward to the future, that they are not afraid of old age, but on the contrary are excited about how they will be then. It used to be different. It makes me really happy to hear something like that.

Telling the whole story in one day, with the flashbacks of course, that’s not a lot of time…

Yes, the idea was that we all do something over and over that we instantly regret: “How in God’s name could I do that?” we ask ourselves then. With this hesitation, quarreling and with all the pain, I wanted to accompany Elle. She needs to make a decision, and she needs to make it fast, she doesn’t have forever. Because the scenario she is in doesn’t lend itself to an affair. It’s about the fact that her whole life could change completely, even if you don’t really understand it at first. Also, I wanted to tell a woman’s story in different ways.

From two perspectives?

It’s more like this: We lead one life, and then there’s the life in our heads, where our own cinema is created. It’s a mix of everyday daydreaming and what we always imagined our life would be like.

What have you imagined for your life?

That I live in Italy, in a big old house, but that didn’t happen (laughs).

Until now. California isn’t bad either, is it?

Oh yes, I love California, I don’t want to complain, but we have ideas and some we get close to, some we don’t. And then there is real life, it passes us by. A door opens for Elle to the life she always imagined. Suddenly it would be possible to lead this life after all. So I told the life that mostly takes place in Elle’s head one day and the rest of the 50+ years in flashbacks.

How many cubits are there in you?

Not that much, surprisingly. I think I’m more like Elle’s sister Anna. Elle is more reserved, Anna falls into the house with the door. Elle is more reserved, logical, she also has a lot more secrets.

Siblings are fascinating…

Yes, I noticed that as I was writing. You come from the same family, have the same gene pool, are similar – and then again not. Most importantly, siblings can objectively have experienced exactly the same thing and yet feel or make something completely different out of it. My sisters and I are so alike in many ways, and not at all in others. But the older we get, the closer we get. Siblings not only carry their own story with them, but also that of the other. I put a lot of effort into writing with Anna and Elle, because at first they didn’t like each other.

Wallace, the mother, is also a very special person, not necessarily sympathetic in the way she treats her daughters, but then again full of love – within the scope of her possibilities…

Yes, and in many ways we can hardly understand them today. She has always acted in a way that puts her life with a man first. She almost sacrificed her daughters several times for this, I would like to say. But she already knew that from her family. We must always keep in mind that it was not easy for women to exist without a man back then, especially when they had children.

And the sex scenes? Haven’t you sometimes asked yourself what will my friends, my children, my parents think of me now?

Yes, of course, I’m already thinking about it, but as I said, that’s the good thing about old age: I don’t care anymore. But in fact, what you think, write and want yourself and what others think of you has always been a potential source of conflict for the great struggle inside me. I come from a family of divorced parents, and everything I did was conditional. At least that’s how it felt to me. There was always a risk that a parent would disappear, that they would no longer love you, that they would no longer be there. That means I learned how to please others. However, the older I got, the clearer I became, and more and more I dared to say what I really mean. Even at the risk of the other person not liking it.

You always lie so as not to hurt others. Elle has to lie a lot.

Yes, she is fighting a great fight. You have to try to represent your interests with passion, with sincerity.

“The Paper Palace” is being filmed and you are writing the screenplay. How do you get all this translated into pictures? And can you just let your characters go, because on TV they are somehow demystified.

I’ve never written a screenplay, so that’s where it starts (laughs). Discovering the difference to the book is interesting. I realized that sometimes you have to tell the same story in a completely different way. So a movie can totally frustrate someone who has read the book. But you have to die one death: not making the film – or the series – or disappointing others. So the art will lie in maintaining the mystery surrounding the individual figures. It’s going to be difficult, admittedly. But what could help me is the fact that I write very vividly anyway, that I’ve always pictured everything very precisely. When I write about a landscape, I would like to mention every tree.

Unhappy people are the more interesting people, it says at one point in the “Paper Palace”. Do you agree?

Maybe not unhappy, but people who have already experienced something, including negative ones, are definitely more interesting. If you have “survived” something, perhaps even as a child or young person, and know how to deal with it, then you have already gained a lot as an experience for life.

One critic wrote, “This is a book about what it means to be a woman these days” – what does it mean to you to be a woman these days?

For me it means having a choice. For example, being a woman who has experienced trauma and can deal with it is powerful. To be a woman who stands up for her concerns. We all have a story, but the sum of all experiences, all generations is within us, and we are now living out what women have wanted for a long time but could not: to be a mother, to be a woman, to be able to work, to have our own money earn. Not being dependent on a man. It’s only when women decide to leave their families or have a younger lover that the world still looks uncomfortable.

Sabine Oelmann spoke to Miranda Cowley Heller