Sari Botton | Longreads | February 2015 | 14 minutes (3,683 words)
Ed. note: Katherine Heiny will be in conversation with Sari Botton at McNally Jackson in New York on Wednesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.
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In the fall of 1992, I found myself very much affected by “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” a short story in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker about a twentysomething psych grad student who’s trying hard to seem satisfied keeping things platonic between her and her handsome roommate.
To begin with, I had a lot in common with the protagonist, more than I’d have wanted to admit at the time. I was in my twenties, too—27 to be exact—newly divorced from the second person I’d ever so much as dated, and most importantly, I was very busy trying to seem satisfied keeping things platonic with a rakish “friend.” I didn’t just recognize that young woman, I was her at that moment in my life.
But the story also appealed to me because it was written in the second person, a literary device made popular in the eighties by Pam Houston, Lorrie Moore and Jay McInerney, and subsequently overused, mostly badly, by just about every man, woman and child to enroll in a creative writing course. I was no exception. I’d just begun dabbling in MFA programs (ultimately I’d start and then drop out of two) and like my cohorts, I thought second person voice was the coolest, so much so that after reading Heiny’s piece, and having not that long ago read Houston’s second-person narrative short story “How to Talk to a Hunter,” I found myself trying my hand and producing something of an impersonation.
I hoped there’d be more to read from this new writer. Surely she had to have a story collection or novel in the works. Occasionally over the years I’d search and find nothing, then give up and find myself re-reading “How to Give The Wrong Impression” to scratch the itch.
Needless to say, when I learned recently that Heiny was at last about to publish a book, I couldn’t wait to read it. Single, Carefree, Mellow (Knopf, Feb 3.) doesn’t disappoint. It’s a collection of 11 stories, including “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” most of which had been published in literary journals in recent years. They all feature young or middle-aged women who have secrets, who are in some way having difficulty reconciling the version of themselves they present to the world with less virtuous interiors. Heiny has created women—and placed men around them—who are complex, flawed and not always likable in ways that are recognizable, sometimes wincingly so, which I find refreshing and liberating. She holds no punches, but often her subtle, wry humor softens the blows.
Heiny spoke with me, by phone, from her home in Maryland, about publishing a debut story collection more than two decades after finding herself in the spotlight with her first piece ever published in The New Yorker, about the value of an MFA, and about daring to write complex female characters.
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The first time you published a story, it was in The New Yorker while you were a student in Columbia University’s MFA program in creative writing. What happened for you is what people only dream of: Roger Angell fished “How to Give the Wrong Impression” out of the slush pile and then published it unedited. Were you just stunned by that?
It was unbelievable. I mailed it on Thursday and on Friday, the phone rang. It’s funny, because when I picked it up, and this man on the other end asked to speak to Katherine Heiny, I thought it was the landlord. We were always late with our rent, and so I said, “I’m sorry, she’s not here. Can I take a message?” And he said, “Yes, tell her Roger Angell from The New Yorker called,” and I immediately said, “No, no—wait! It’s me!”
But first you had the piece rejected 31 places. How was that for you?
Rejection letters don’t really bother me. I have nine million insecurities but I don’t take rejections personally.
What emboldened you to send it to The New Yorker after having it so widely rejected?
My friend Jennifer told me I should start there. I hadn’t known that before. I didn’t really have a master plan—I just sent stories out everywhere, all the time, to every magazine. I don’t know why I hadn’t sent to The New Yorker—I think it honestly hadn’t occurred to me. Actually, I recently looked through a bunch of old rejection letters from that time period and lots of them were so encouraging, and a couple even basically said that they’d take a story if I changed the ending or something, but I couldn’t read between the lines then—I was just like, “Okay,” and sent the story somewhere else.
What do you think is the prevailing wisdom these days, regarding submitting stories to magazines and journals?
I’m not sure what the prevailing wisdom these days is. Obviously I didn’t even know the prevailing wisdom in my own day. But when I taught creative writing a few years ago, it really surprised me how few of my students were sending stuff out. What’s the point of writing a story and sticking it in a drawer? Did they think elves were going to come and publish it in the night? I have never taken rejection letters personally, though—maybe if you do, it’s way harder.
Being published in The New Yorker must have opened doors for you. What kinds of opportunities arose?
I feel like it’s still opening doors for me! Though at the time, I felt like people defined me by that story–like they were saying, “Here, you write about unrequited love, that’s what you do.” But maybe I imagined that. I don’t know. I was very young and kind of clueless. But mainly, it was just this fantastic wonderful experience that fell into my lap.
Did you feel at all pressured to capitalize on the success of the story before too much time passed?
No. I knew I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to produce something substandard. I’m kind of a perfectionist. And I didn’t have anything ready to go. That was part of it. I couldn’t say, well I’m so glad I’m getting this attention, because I have this manuscript here that I’ve been working on. I didn’t have that. It might have been a totally different story if I had.
Over the past two decades, I’ve gone back to “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” and looked for other pieces of yours, maybe finding a couple here and there. It sort of always surprised me that you didn’t have a collection of stories out there. Had you hoped to complete and publish a collection sooner?
No, not at all. The prevailing wisdom for so long was that you should publish a novel, not a story collection. A novel was going to make your career. And so I always felt like a book of short stories was not a good idea, not prudent. I really took that to heart. But I wasn’t writing a novel, I was writing short stories. In fact, when I first queried my agent and she wrote back asking to see my work, I sent her dozens of files. I wanted an agent but I didn’t look past that to a book. It surprised me more than anyone when she put it together and sold it. But if I’d known how fun it is, I would have done it years ago!
I personally take comfort in the fact that waiting didn’t mean you missed your chance. I mean, I’m in your age group, and I still haven’t managed to pull a book together for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve been riddled with fear, and procrastinating for two decades.
Ha! I know something about that.
So was procrastination a factor for you, too?
Well, yes, but there were many other factors. I mean, I had offers right when the story came out, but I thought I didn’t have that many stories, and I thought, oh my book would come out with this one sort of star story, and everything else would look really half formed. I could just see it being a disaster, so I was just like, no, no, we’re going to wait on that. I was happy to just write a short story and place it in a magazine. I waited for a long time for an idea for a really big novel. And that didn’t come. Then I wrote YA for four or five years, and that took all my creative energy. There was just nothing left to write.
What kind of YA were you writing?
It was a series of romances. None of them were under my own name. I’d had a story in Seventeen, and it had a very young protagonist, and a YA publisher called me and asked if I wanted to write books for them. At the time I was waitressing, so I was like, is it more money? Okay, I’ll do it. And I absolutely loved it. It was really fun. It taught me a lot. It was great. I’m glad I did it, but I left at the right time. I think if I would have gone on with it, I would have burned out. And then I had children. I don’t know, maybe my children are really high maintenance, or I’m really low energy. It really wasn’t until my youngest son started first grade that I could go back to writing.
Three of the stories in Single, Carefree, Mellow, including the one the book takes its title from, are about a character named Maya. I wondered whether we might see her in a novel, down the road.
I think that there will definitely be more stories about her, but maybe not a whole novel. The Maya stories were difficult for me to write because I thought [Maya’s love interest] Rhodes deserved better than Maya. She’s kind of an unsympathetic character, and that made her a little harder to write about, but she’s also interesting to me. There’s a kind of tartness to her observations that I like. So I’m kind of drawn back to her over and over again.
I really appreciate that you write women who aren’t necessarily nice, who have some hard edges. I think in almost every story, there’s a woman who is lying—to herself or others—or cheating on someone. They’ve got dirty secrets. What is it about that kind of character that compels you?
Well it’s a two-part answer. The first part is my husband is a former MI6 agent.
It’s like James Bond, a British spy.
Did you know that when you met him? How did you meet him?
I met my husband in a bar. He was wearing a tuxedo because he’d been to some formal party and I said, “What do you do?” and he said, “What do you think I do?” and I said, “Well, you look like a Secret Service agent,” and nearly gave the poor man a heart attack. I always believed he was a British diplomat. In fact, when he told me he really worked for MI6, I was like, “What’s that?” and he said, “Well, you know, MI6,” and I said, “I just told you I don’t know what that is,” and in general it was probably a very deflating conversation for him. He can do any accent perfectly, though—we have built our whole relationship on that.
For most of our married life he was undercover, and I couldn’t tell people what he did. We had to be careful about what we said on the phone. He was under death threats some of that time. So I think that because I lived with secrets being part of my life for so long, it’s kind of second nature.
The second part [about writing complex characters] is that usually what I start to write about is kind of small and not enough for a story. Like the first Maya story I wanted to write about my dog dying, and I was like, well nobody is gonna want to read that, and so, in order to make the story sustainable, I had to add another issue and I thought, well okay, if she’s losing both her relationship and her pet, then that’s gonna be more interesting. In the final story, Andora, I really wanted to write about the relationship between Sadie and the housekeeper, who’s kind of like the voice of reason in her life, and ends up being almost like a life coach. But I thought, well, there has to be a reason that Sadie’s life is so out of control. And so I thought, well, she’s having an affair, that’s what’s out of control. So secrets and infidelity are themes I reach for to sort of bulk out a story.
Do you care at all about whether readers will find your characters likeable? That’s something women writers get asked about all the time. I remember when I was in a fiction program at City College, some guy in a workshop commented on my piece by saying, “I don’t like your characters. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them.” And I thought, well, a) that’s not what I’m here for and b) good.
I don’t think I ever cared about it. I mean, I love all my characters the way I love my children and my pets. To me, they might be flawed, but they’re loveable. And for other people to view them as unlikeable or complicated makes sense to me. It’s not like I would argue and say, no, she’s really a nice person. One of my favorite books is The Accidental Tourist (Knopf, 1985) by Ann Tyler. There’s a whole section in the middle where the main character wonders how he can be in love with somebody so unlikeable. And then he lists all the ways that she’s unlikeable, which are really funny. And that has always kind of stuck with me in that, well, she is kind of unlikeable, but we like her. I mean, it’s balanced out by other stuff. It really makes her, the character, Muriel, a real person. I’ve read The Accidental Tourist 25 times, so maybe a lot of it came from there.
Who else have you been influenced by?
Stephen King is a genius. Alice Munro is amazing. I really like Elizabeth Strout’s collection, Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008). I’ve read that a lot of times too. Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver—all those great writers. Kate Atkinson I think writes really cool sentences.
Earlier you talked about using your experience with your dog dying, and some other autobiographic elements. In your acknowledgments you thank friends for inspiring characters in the book. How much comes from your own life, and what’s your philosophy about autobiographical elements making their way into fiction?
I think if you get involved with a writer, some details are gonna appear. But not the way they happened. The story “The Rhett Butlers” is very satisfying to me, because everything in it really happens, but not to me, and not in the way that it happens in the story. Almost every detail in that story was taken from real life, but it’s put into the framework of this girl having an illicit affair. That’s really the only time I think I’ve ever done that, that it was all real details that I could skew into having resonance in a narrative.
So, you take all these pieces that kind of exist in the world and you throw them into a situation together?
Yeah, and then they make sense in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. In “The Rhett Butlers,” there’s this detail I’d been waiting thirty years to use. When I was growing up, there was this guy who rode his motorcycle around our court, trying to impress the girl next door to us, and her father went out and told him he was disturbing the peace and to go away. Thirty years later, I find a use for that in the story, and but it has this sinister context, that it’s this teacher riding past the teenage girl’s house. I don’t know, that was really thrilling to me as a writer.
I just heard an interview with this guy who has won 13 Moth story slams. He said he keeps an Excel sheet where every night he inputs things that have happened in his day, experiences that could become stories later one. Maybe they’re not interesting now, but down the road they might be interesting. Do you do anything like that? Does that sound crazy to you?
It sounds really nerdy! I’m not nearly organized enough to do that. I don’t even keep a notebook or a journal. I have a really good memory, so generally when I want to pull something from real life or something that happened to somebody I know, I can remember it. pretty well. Also, when I get together with my friends we have the most tedious (to everybody else) kind of conversations, where we’re like, remember when that guy, you know, told you your legs were too pale? I mean, we re-live the moments over and over, so they don’t really get lost or forgotten.
There’s a line in one of the stories about the main character taking notes on things that happen in her life to use in her writing. I reminded me of Lorrie Moore’s short story, “How to Become a Writer.” Were you influenced by Lorrie Moore?
Oh, so much. I read Self Help (Knopf, 1985) when I was around 18 and just beginning to think maybe I’d want to be a writer. It was the kind of book I read with my hair standing on end, thinking, Oh my god! I didn’t think this existed! It was electrifying. I think it’s hard to read Lorrie Moore and not be impressed and amazed and inspired.
Also, it struck me as surprising that three stories in the book are written in second person voice. It’s something you don’t really see as much as you used to, before it became old hat. How did you come to make that choice?
I think I wrote “How To Give the Wrong Impression,” in the second person because of Lorrie Moore, and probably because of Pam Houston as well. I’d loved “How to Talk to a Hunter,” a story in Cowboys Are My Weakness (W. W. Norton & Co, 1992), which was a big book that year and I really liked it.
I think that in the second person, things are often funny that wouldn’t be funny in the third person. And I will do anything for a laugh, really. I’ll set up a whole theme just if I think I can get some sort of joke in there. But then it’s also limiting sometimes, because I think it keeps the reader at a distance, which is sometimes something you want and sometimes something you don’t. But once you’ve committed to the second person, you can’t turn that around.
I think it’s really easy to overdo it, though. It’s kind of like anything—child narrators, for instance. Almost anything stylistically that you can think of is kind of good in small doses, or it’s not really sustainable.
So, in the never-ending debate over whether it’s worthwhile to pursue an MFA in creative writing, where do you stand? The programs only get more expensive, and it’s less and less viable to try and make a living as a writer. You could spend the rest of your life in debt. Many people do. Was it worthwhile for you? Do you think it’s worthwhile, generally?
It was wonderful. I loved every minute of it. Socially, I wouldn’t say it was the first time I fit in, because I had plenty of friends in high school and college, but I was like wow, everyone here is just like me. I can relate to every single person here and it’s wonderful. But I was lucky. My dad was paying for it. My poor dad, you should call my dad, I’ll give you his phone number. Ask him whether he feels it was a good investment. And it was 25 years ago. MFAs weren’t quite so ubiquitous as they are now. But I got my MFA with no plan or thought of what was going to come after, which is really amazing to me. How frustrating for my parents. I think of my own children saying that to me, and I’m thinking, let’s talk about this a little more. I wound up temping and waitressing after the program until I got the offer to write YA books, so, in terms of financial security, I’m sure I would have been better served to go to dental technician school or something. But I really did learn a lot about writing and my own writing in particular.
You never felt pressured by your parents to produce something big while you were studying and they were paying for it? Your parents weren’t like, well, okay, so what’s this going to lead to?
Well first of all my parents are like really clueless about that stuff. They’re both scientists, so I think that they had some really delusional thoughts that I would graduate and get a job with a company, that I would be the creative writer at Prell or something like that.
Would you recommend getting an MFA to someone today, who isn’t in the same position that you were in 25 years ago?
Probably not! Isn’t that awful? I guess it would depend what you’re hoping to get out of it. I hear, sometimes people say, well I’m going because I’m going to come out of it with a book, and a book contract. And I think that’s really unrealistic. But if somebody was saying, well, you know, I really want to hone my skills as a writer and I need help and structure to do that, then that’s a different question.
What’s next? Will you eventually do a novel, or have you decided you’re a short story writer?
Well, it’s funny because I did decide I was a short story writer, and then I started writing short stories that were all about the same characters, and told by the same person, the same point of view. And eventually, as I went on, I realized that each short story was sort of picking up where the other one left off. And I was like, oh they’re chapters, I get it now. So I do have a novel coming out in 2016, but I had to sort of back into it. I think, I told you I had no insecurities as a writer, that rejection letters don’t bother me. But saying, “I’m gonna write a novel,” I don’t think I could just sit down and do that. I would be seized with fear and insecurity. But to back into it that way, that was something I could do.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, New York. She is the editor of the award-winning anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and the New York Times Bestselling follow-up Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York.