From HBO TV to her debut novel: Miranda Cowley Heller on finding her voice

Miranda Cowley Heller speaks to Marjorie Brennan about the inspiration for her debut novel and what it was like making some of television's greatest shows at HBO
From HBO TV to her debut novel: Miranda Cowley Heller on finding her voice

Miranda Cowley Heller is one of those people who is in the enviable position of dividing her time between residences on either side of the Atlantic — she is talking to me from London, but also has homes in LA and Cape Cod, which serves as the inspiration for her debut novel, The Paper Palace. Cowley Heller has been immersed in words her whole life but it has taken her until now, in her 50s, to get published. 

Along the way, she has had a hugely interesting and varied career, including stints on Cosmopolitan magazine, as a literary editor, and at the US television network HBO.

The Paper Palace is an exquisitely written page-turner which takes place over 24 hours at the titular Cape Cod holiday home of Elle, who is torn between her husband and her childhood love. She looks back over a life, which, beneath its privileged facade, is haunted by familial dysfunction, cruelty and tragedy. The metaphorical significance of the famous holiday location was obvious to Cowley Heller.

“It is always very interesting to me to think about what is beneath,” she says. “Swimming with sharks is the best metaphor. You are looking at the most beautiful ocean on the Cape, yet it has become one of the biggest meeting places in the world now for great white sharks, that were never there before. So you look at the sea, and then underneath it, at what is actually going on.”

Cowley Heller was raised in New York in a family of artists, writers and editors — her grandfather was the renowned US writer, critic and editor, Malcolm Cowley. She always wanted to be a writer but self-doubt and a struggle to find her voice meant she circled around it for many years.

“I always thought I was going to be a writer, that was the supposed plan growing up in a house of writers and editors. I tried to write the ‘great American novel’ and I couldn’t. It took me a really long time to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t just being worried about everybody else’s expectations — I think I had to access a different part of my brain. I was always very controlled when I was writing — I wrote a lot but it was not anything that had my voice. I basically wandered around doing all sorts of other work but feeling that I was not fulfilling the thing I was meant to be doing.”

After graduating from Harvard, Cowley Heller became a books editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, before working for a decade as head of drama series at HBO, where she worked on legendary shows including The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. She says it was ‘fantastic’ to be at the network at the beginning of what came to be known as television’s golden age.

“When I started there, there was no drama series department, it was sort of experimental. The team was brilliant and I felt like we had this amazing freedom. The thinking at the time was that everybody else in Hollywood tells the writer what to do, they take over, they give a thousand notes and if the show fails, the writers always say that the network or the studio screwed it up. But our mandate was that the writer must rise or fall on their own sword, that they must be involved in every piece of the process. David Chase [The Sopranos] or David Simon [The Wire] even watched the on-air promos, they would have a say in everything — it was up to them, not up to us.”

This writer-led approach led to an explosion in quality content, with HBO leading the charge. Ultimately, however, that inventive spirit lost out to corporate considerations.

“If you let really brilliant, creative people be brilliant and creative, it is a lot better than when you have to insert yourself and say ‘it must make money, it must be a hit’. We just wanted it to be good. That was really fun but then it got so big that everyone’s expectations got bigger, that starts to put on pressure. Every time the company got bigger, the independent voice of the writer got a tiny bit smaller.”

While Cowley Heller moved on to other things, the shows she worked on still occupy a significant place in the cultural imagination, with many people returning to the boxsets over lockdown. She sees parallels between shows like The Wire and The Sopranos and great novels.

“Those shows were like really great books, that you go back and read. There are still some wonderful shows out there — Succession is a fantastic example — but there are too many mediocre shows, for me, as a viewer. People do want to go back to something where the writing, the story, everything about a show comes together in a way that gets under the skin, makes you think.”

Cowley Heller says that the work she did at HBO also influenced her book, for which she is also now writing a screenplay.

“I had a background in criticising screenplays and editing and fixing them but I had never written a screenplay before this year,” she laughs. “But yes, even though I left HBO quite a long time ago, it absolutely had an effect on how I write. A lot of what I learned about what I thought was good or bad in terms of writing came from working as a book doctor at literary agencies and reading manuscript after manuscript — the things that work get under your skin. Being in the editing room at HBO and reading literally thousands of scripts, I absorbed various affinities with screenwriting. 

"I definitely think very visually, I see things as if I’m watching a film in my head. Also, I learned so much in terms of dialogue, understanding the way people actually speak, not the way people think people should speak. I definitely developed an ear for conversation and for that non-linear back-and-forth, repetition, evasions, the way that people really speak.”

When Cowley Heller found herself at a loose end after plans to enrol on a PhD art history programme fell through, some advice from a friend made her return to the drawer and the handful of pages that would become The Paper Palace. That, coupled with the mentorship of a poetry teacher, unlocked everything for her.

“I applied to a PhD programme at UCLA and got accepted, then my husband [Bruno Heller] who is a TV screenwriter, had a show picked up by Warner Brothers that we needed to move to New York for. I put the UCLA thing on deferral and applied instead to a PhD programme in New York. I got into that then they changed their mind and decided they wanted his show to be set up in LA. 

"I was taking a beautiful walk in the Santa Monica mountains with one of my best friends and I was complaining saying I didn’t know what I wanted to do. She said ‘as long as I’ve known you, you’ve talked about these books that you’ve started but didn’t finish, why not just give it a go this year, and if it doesn’t work, fine’. 

"I thought, okay, so I went back and took it out of the drawer. At the same time, I began studying with an amazing poetry teacher and I started writing a lot of poetry. Getting into that brain opened up everything for me — I began writing from the ‘dream’ brain rather than the superego brain where you are criticising everything.”

Even when The Paper Palace was finished, Cowley Heller was unsure how it would be received, so when it went to a nine-way publishing auction, she was taken aback, to say the least.

“It was unbelievable. The whole thing happened within two weeks in both countries, in the UK and the US. Having spent so much of my life thinking ‘am I ever going to do this?’ then actually writing it, I put it out there thinking, ‘well I like it, but I don’t know if anyone else will get it’ so to sell it was a dream come true. To wait this long, to be in my fifties and finally have done this, there is so much meaning attached to it for me. I have also had a lot of people contacting me on social media about how much it means to them, and that is incredible. Every time someone says that, I’m so happy and excited.”

  • The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller, published by Viking, is out now.

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