How it happened: An interview with Joseph Heller

From the Archives

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Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives/File

This interview was originally published in the Oct. 10, 1975 issue of The Daily Californian. It has been edited for space and clarity.

By William Bates

Three weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch (at Chez Panisse) with Joseph Heller, who, as author of “Catch-22,” needs no introduction on a college campus. Mrs. Shirley Heller — in her own right a very charming and intelligent lady — his wife of nearly 30 years and Joyce Cole of Random House books. Heller, now 52, lives and works in New York but was taking a small tour of the country to talk about his “difficult” second novel, “Something Happened,” which appeared just six weeks ago as a paperback version and has already made the No. 1 position on the New York Times bestseller list.

Heller struck this writer as a very serious man to whom the qualities of a stand-up comic have been superadded. He’s very much at home talking to students and professors, and willing to discuss his own work in serious, academic terms, yet his wit pounces on him from behind, surprising himself as often as his audience.

The Daily Californian: You’ve said that you drew the characters from “Catch-22” not so much out of World War II, as out of the McCarthy period.

Joseph Heller: Not just the characters, but even the ideology and the morality — the anti-war feeling of “Catch-22” — is not a feeling I experienced in World War II. There’re numerous episodes in “Catch-22” which are deliberately anachronistic — like a chapter called “The Loyalty Oath,” which relates to the McCarthy period and the House Un-American Activities Committee. There’re several places in which reference is made to stores that were in the newspaper then — many of them lost now — but “what’s good for Milo Minderbinder is good for the country” is taken right from Charles Wilson (“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”) and the one about “Who promoted Major Major?” is the McCarthy hearings, where the big argument he had was “Who promoted Major Peress?” In “Catch-22” Major Major is promoted by a computer which is also an anachronism, but that I didn’t know — there weren’t any computers until after World War II.

DC: But people do take “Catch-22” as an anti-war novel.

JH: It is an anti-war novel, but it’s not an anti-World War II novel. Now there are critics, a couple of English critics and a couple of American critics, who wrote about it lately who’ve turned against the book because Yossarian does justify, in the end, his participation in World War II. It’s only when the war is over that he’s going to desert, that he doesn’t want to fight any more because the war’s not necessary. I’ve been criticized by them because I’m not a pacifist, or rather because the work was being interpreted as a pacifistic work by people, and when they reread it or got to this section, they felt they’d been tricked by me — Yossarian says the war’s about over, the country’s not in danger anymore, but I am. I’ve been criticized for that.

DC: Do you think it fair for them to criticize the book on ideological grounds?

JH: Oh, sure. These are people who are writing for ideologically orientated publications. I benefit from it with certain publications who like the book just because it’s anti-capitalism and anti-profit motive and anti-war — they won’t pick on the literary faults. It’s the kind of criticism I can’t disagree with because it’s true. I think they’re really writing an answer to other people who are writing about it. It’s not a particularly radical book, “Catch-22.” It’s not nearly as radical as I thought it was when I was conceiving it and writing it.

DC: If you wrote it over, how would you change it?

JH: Only language. There is one other point I would make. People occasionally think Yossarian’s desertion is the easy way out for him. They think he’s going to get to Sweden. Two or three times in those last pages Major Danby says you’ll never get there, and Yossarian says I know, but at least I’ll be trying. Many people — maybe because of the movie — will write about him saying he escapes to Sweden because that’s the easiest way out because in the movie that’s the impression you’re left with. I’d try somehow to give emphasis to the fact that the easiest way out is for him to accept the promotion, join the two colonels, keep his mouth shut  and let them send him home.

DC: Does Yossarian get to Sweden?

JH: I’m not sure, but he doesn’t expect to.

DC: What did you think of the movie of “Catch-22”?

JH: With “22,” and with “Something Happened,” I have no opinions at all on it as a movie. I don’t think in terms of movies, and I don’t want to think in terms of movies. I’ve had some experience with motion pictures, and I know it’s very hard to make a good movie. The people who might make the motion picture of “Something Happened” or of “Catch-22” are going to work very, very hard for two, three or four years, and my opinions as an outsider are of no import whatsoever. With “Catch-22,” I went through a large number of charades where I would meet one actor after another who wanted to play Yossarian. They would ask me, “Don’t you think I’m right for the part?” and I would inevitably say “yes” because that’s what I thought they wanted to hear. I didn’t work on the movie of “Catch-22,” and I don’t (want) to work on the movie of “Something Happened.” I think of myself as a novelist and what happens to it in another form is really of no concern of mine. People don’t like to hear me say this, but I really did not care what they did to “Catch-22.” It would have made no difference to me if they’d made it into Phil Silvers with Sergeant Bilko. I’m saying this because at that time the Bilko Show was the best comedy show on television. I sold the movie rights in 1962, and I thought what they would do would be to turn it into a service comedy with a little bit of sex. As it was it was a much grimier, harder work than the book itself was. But I didn’t care — I say I didn’t care and I don’t care, although of course once they made the movie I hoped it would be the best movie ever made. I insist on exercising absolutely no control.