In this episode we meet Katherine Heiny, author of Single, Carefree, Mellow. The literary love-child of Nora Ephron and Bridget Jones and written by an author who is incredibly witty, irreverent and charming, the book is finally out today.
Morwenna Loughman: Katherine Heiny, lovely to be talking to you. Congratulations on the very soon to be published in the UK Single Carefree Mellow selection of stories. I was reading that quite a few of these, well, actually, almost all of them have been published in such veritable places as The Atlantic, The New Yorker and I was wondering what the time scale of you writing these is. In other words, when did you start the first one, and finish the last one? And I’m wondering if anything changed significantly over that period of time? Did you get married, did you have children, did you move city, or the kind of wider society, how much did things change and does your writing reflect that?
Katherine Heiny: The oldest story in the collection is ‘How to Give the Wrong Impression’, which I wrote in Graduate school, which I’m sorry to tell you was 25 years ago. And the most recent story is ‘The Rhett Butlers’, which I wrote last Christmas really frantically with the last story added to the collection. I really wanted them to hold space for it. I mean, everything changed in those 25 years. I got married, I had two really high maintenance children, I moved so many times. I moved from New York to London, to Washington, back to London, and then to the Netherlands, and then back to Washington. A bunch of times I moved within cities, too. But through all that, I don’t think my voice has changed a lot, maybe I’m just immature. The older stories in the collection don’t seem to have been written by a much younger version of myself; I’m still familiar with the feelings that I had when I wrote them.
ML: It’s also interesting that you say that ‘The Rhett Butlers’ was the last one that you wrote because that’s obviously the female protagonist in it is the youngest of all the characters. Which character do you think you identify most with?
KH: I think, probably, I most identify with Sasha from ‘The Dive Bar’. Partly because she’s a writer, and she writes Young Adult fiction, which I did for about 5 years. A lot of the other characters in the other stories are really self-deceptive, and I think that Sasha is just a little bit clueless and I’m kind of that way, kind of a bewildered person.
ML: So, Maya features in three of the stories. I’m just wondering what drew you to her, to make her the leading figure, the one that takes you through. Her narrative continues throughout the stories.
KH: The Maya stories were hard for me to write because I always felt that Rhodes deserved better than Maya. I wrote the first story because my dog died, and I wanted to write a story about that. I thought nobody will read a story about a dog dying, so I had to put in something else. So I decided well maybe she’s facing a double loss: the dog, and her relationship. And so, I wrote that story. About three days after I finished that story – sorry, this is too much information – I went to the gynaecologist and he was just really kooky and weird, and I thought “Okay, I’m going to write a story about a girl who has this doctor”. Then I sort of realised that the girl was Maya, that I had more things to say about her and her relationships. Every once in a while I cycle back to her and write another story. There are more stories about her that aren’t in the book. There’s a tartness to her that I enjoy.
ML: Would you call her ending a happy one?
KH: I think so, yeah. I think it’s kind of about acceptance […] her relationship, and take the joy out of it that she can.
ML: You mention that you feel kind of similar to Sasha in different ways, in that Sasha ends up with her light, bright cubby hole. Do you have somewhere special that you write? Is there a place that you always go to?
KH: I have an office, but it’s the opposite of light and bright. I used to have this very nice office on the main floor of our house, and then downstairs we had this little cubby hole where my sons were supposed to do their homework. But they went down there every night and threw rolled up balls paper at each other, goofed off, and never did any homework. We had to bring them upstairs where we could sort of keeps an eye on them. So now I write in the windowless playroom in our basement. It’s kind of nice because my previous office was right off the kitchen and everyone could pop in every two seconds and ask me, you know, where the potato chips were. So, I get a little more done but it’s not as pretty.
ML: We’ve had some writers writing in some great places. One of my favourite ones is an author, Ian Sansom, who writes in a disused bookshop storage room that’s above a Mexican takeaway in Belfast. It sounds very bizarre, with peeling wallpaper. It’s always very interesting to find out. Do you have a schedule or a routine that you go through? Do you find you write better at a certain time of day?
KH: If it doesn’t get done in the morning, it’s in real danger of not getting done. I’m a low energy person; very short work day. I’d be a horrible doctor; a 36 hour shift and I’d be like ‘Wait, I need to go to bed!’ I think if you write more than like two or three hours maybe you’re doing more harm, you start to slither along. So I tend to do a couple of really strong hours in the morning and then I come back to it. I do more editing in the afternoon, and I do more writing in the morning. And I have to go for a walk first, and sort everything out in my head.
ML: I completely understand that. All of the stories are pretty, not brutal – brutal is the wrong word – but there’s no ‘beating around the bush’ or sugar coating it. These characters are quite upfront, and they are very, very honest – even if they’re not really honest with themselves internally. They’re honest about what they’re doing, about who they’re in love with, who they’re having sex with, who they’re cheating with/cheating on. I’m just wondering if, at any point, your husband worried, you know, ‘Shit, do these things come from personal experience?’ I’m wondering if any of them do come from personal experience, or your friend’s experience.
KH: Well, first of all, my husband never reads fiction – except for mine. He always reads books on like foreign policy, or military history. He helps me a lot, he works with me on the plots and the characters. When I was writing ‘Blue Heron Bridge’, he was like: ‘Oh, I want the husband in this story to be older, and British, and a mathematician’ and I was like, ‘everyone’s going to think that’s you’. He was like, ‘Why? Why would they think that?’ He doesn’t transfer anything from fiction to real life. You know, he thinks my stories are the best stories he’s ever read, which might be true because I’m not sure he’s ever read short stories by anybody else. He’s the perfect first reader, and the perfect plot consultant, and the perfect husband. I’m really so lucky. As to the second question, yeah, there’s a lot of things in the stories that either happened to me, or happened to friends. It’s something that I find very satisfying as a writer; to be able to take something that’s true and put it in a narrative where that it takes on a totally new meaning. In ‘The Rhett Butlers’ story where the girl has an affair with her high school teacher. There was a kid who rode his motorcycle around our court all the time to try to get the attention of this one girl, so I put that in the story but when it became a sort of skeezy teacher doing it, it took on a whole sinister level and I really enjoyed doing that. A lot of things are true.
ML: Is Maya based on anyone you know? One person in particular, or is she an amalgamation of lots of different people?
KH: She’s probably more an amalgamation than any other character in there.
ML: And a lot of the men could be called fairly insipid, not many of them – with exceptions – are particularly inspiring. I’m wondering if this is something that just happened because of the ways the stories were evolving, or did you try to purposefully shift the balance of perception?
KH: Usually in every story there’s a very strong character, and the other characters are [a foil] to that character, or revolve around that character. Since these stories are all told by women, it just happens that the women are strong and the men are more [foiled] for them. In ‘Blue Heron Bridge’ I really struggled because the main character is having an affair with this man who’s such a loser. As a writer, I didn’t want to give him any funny lines or any interesting things to say, so that was kind of hard. I think that happens in a couple of the stories, that maybe where I feel the character is making a mistake to get involved with this person then it’s harder to portray that person.
ML: You said earlier that you feel like Rhodes, in a way, Maya doesn’t really deserve Rhodes. Do you think he’s one of the male characters who’s actually someone that you’d really want to root for, and really want things to turn out well for?
KH: I think he’s so smart, and funny, and laidback, and forgiving. He seems to me like a nice person.
ML: Does he know that she’s had an affair?
KH: I think he knows. He might not know the extent of it, but I think he knows something went on and he forgives her for it.
ML: I have to say, I love him as well. I have such a clear image in my mind of him. Bringing your writing to a wider sphere, as a woman author, do you feel patronised or ever discriminated against? I’m just wondering what American literary circles can be like for female authors.
KH: I’ve always gotten rejection letters, I get normal rejection letters too, but there are a certain percent of rejection letters I got that said ‘Oh, this story is lively,’ or ‘This story is cute’; ‘You write prettily’. Would they write that to a man? Not in a million years. I’m like: if you’re going to reject the story, can’t you just reject it without giving me some belittling, girly comment? Plus, they’re stories, they’re not kittens. As for the wider American literary circles: there’s this whole ChickLit thing, which I find to be the worst, most obnoxious phrase since post-nasal drip. It really makes me wonder, ‘ChickLit’ – that phrase came along in the 90s or maybe 2000s. But I wonder, if Anne Tyler had started writing in the 90s, would she have been classified as ‘ChickLit’? We would have all missed her brilliance, and she would never have been taken seriously.
ML: There’s an amazing, beaming quote from Lena Dunham on the front. Have you met Lena?
KH: No, I’ve emailed her but I haven’t met her.
ML: It’s a wonderful quote. We only met her very briefly at the launch of Not that Kind of Girl. Do you feel that this is kind of a good time to be writing about and exploring women’s interior lives, which is something Lena Dunham mentions, praises your book for. It’s really giving a voice to that, which is something that feels like we still have to work really hard for that to be the case, for that to be the norm; for that to be what people expect.
KH: I think that any good fiction really shows you the interior life of somebody. Fiction is really all about getting in somebodies head and understanding somebody else. I guess I didn’t really think about whether it was a man or a woman.
ML: That’s kind of wonderful, it’s like, I wonder sometimes if there would be a huge difference between me saying ‘So who’s your favourite author?’ and then ‘Who’s your favourite male author’, and then ‘female author’. I wonder if we’re ever going to get to that stage where it’s just ‘your author’, it’s not the sex.
KH: Did you read about that whole kerfuffle on Wikipedia last year?
ML: Possibly not, which one?
KH: Basically, Wikipedia, because they do lists, they were listing authors and then they were listing female authors. People began calling them out on it, and they got really angry and they went back retroactively and changed everything. It was this big ‘hoo-ha’, which was really shocking to me because I thought we were past that. I mean, didn’t J.K. Rowling sort of level the playing field in a lot of ways? Evidently not.
ML: It was so interesting when the Robert Galbraith novels, when it was kind of revealed that they were written by J.K. Rowling, and there was all this excitement and people rustling about trying to find sentences that proved that the author was a woman and not a man. We must have known all along because of the syntax of this and that. Not even necessarily saying that ‘We can tell it was J.K. Rowling’, you know, that ‘We can tell it was a woman’.
KH: You know, now that we’ve talked about it, I want to submit a story somewhere under a man’s name and see if I get a whole different species of rejection letters.
ML: Please do! Do you think the protagonist, just off the top of your head, would be a woman or a man, or would it be third person?
KH: I don’t know. I thought of this idea like 5 seconds ago, so I haven’t even considered what story it will be. What a good experiment.
ML: I think you should definitely do that. In the same way people talk about America being ‘post-racial’; it seems like we’re not in a post-racial society. You know, think of Ferguson. And we’re not in a post-sex or post-gender society, and I’m wondering if you think that’s something that we should be striving for? And do you think positive discrimination for that cause actually is a positive thing, or should we be trying to blank out any differences?
KH: I think we should be striving for no discrimination, positive or otherwise, but that’s so far from the reality. Now I feel like I’m a ‘Miss World’ contestant talking about ending world hunger. It’s a fantasy. But that’s what I would hope for: a post-discrimination world.
ML: In terms of the Sandberg Slaughter debate, from last year but is still very pertinent, about women in the workplace and leaning in; what are your thoughts on that?
KH: I think that the work/life/family balance is the hardest thing to do for anybody, male or female. My husband travelled extensively when my children were babies and that was really hard for him. He missed a lot and it broke his heart. And my mother always said when I was growing up: ‘You’re so lucky; you can have it all. You can work, you can have a family – you can do anything you want.’ When my first son was born, and she saw how I was really sleep deprived, and I wanted to be with my baby all the time, but I also wanted to write, but there was no creative energy to write. She actually said ‘I was wrong: nobody can have it all, and I feel bad that I told you that’. That was really interesting to me. Although, I do feel like being a writer and being able to stay home with my children and also write, I feel like I do have it all so I feel like I’m really lucky. I did have to put it on hold for a long time.
ML: I guess it’s also just one of those things were, as you said, a male author’s rejection letter would never describe his writing style as ‘lively and pretty’. It’s a question that’s never really asked of men, can men have it all? I don’t know whether that’s because it’s assumed that they can, I don’t know.
KH: Or it’s assumed that they don’t even worry about it. Maybe it’s actually a slam towards men, thinking ‘Well what man feels conflicted?’
ML: Absolutely! I just wanted to talk about the epigraph a little bit, the Paul Simon quote, which is just one of my favourite song lyrics ever. I was so happy when I first opened the script. Tell me, is that a very personal quote to you?
KH: It is, I mean I love Paul Simon and I love that whole album, but to me that quote; it’s very indicative about falling in love in general but I think even more indicative of falling in love when you’re very young. You may not feel you can love me, but you know, I think you can. It’s like totally ignoring the other person, and being like ‘Well, because I want this so much…’ I thought it was a really neat way to encapsulate the power of falling in love with someone.
ML: I guess the two sidedness of it as well, and not just the two sided in the fact that obviously there’s going to be two people involved, but it just makes me think of another amazing line in ‘Single Carefree Mellow’ – in the title story – that the problem was of course that although Maya’s heart was gone, sometimes it came back. Just that idea that every day, particularly with Maya, she’s so conflicted, every moment brings up a new ‘Ahh! Am I feeling like this, or am I feeling like that?’ it’s very interesting.
KH: That’s from a song also, that Ingrid Michaelson song, which is called ‘Once was Love’. There’s a lyric, which is quoted in the story, about saying sorry, but you just can’t be here now that my heart is gone. I sort of took it another step and I thought you heart can be gone, but it can come back. I think relationships are so confusing; it’s so seldom that you’re just really clear-cut on something. That gave me the impetus for all the Maya stories because she goes back and forth constantly.
ML: It’s great to see that actually because relationships aren’t linear, it’s rare that they work in that really straightforward way. For me that line sums up that moment, even if you feel maybe I’m not in love with this person, also that there’s a positive side because it can come back. I love the ambiguity of it. It’s very forgiving and feels very human as well.
KH: Well thank you!
ML: I love the way in a few of the stories, the voice is directed really clearly at you. So, as you’re reading it, you become the character completely. Your thoughts are their thoughts, their thoughts are your thoughts. I’m just wondering, was that a particular style that you set out to do? Or did it happen more organically with certain stories were you just felt like this one was a – like in ‘That Dance You Do’ – that Every Woman thing?
KH: Yeah, I chose the second person for that story because I thought it was a really universal experience, or at least I hoped it was that everybody hated children’s birthday parties.
ML: And weird creepy clowns, I think that’s definitely universal.
KH: I really like the second person because I think it allows you a lot of freedom with the narrative distance. You can have all this distance were you’re sort of instructing the reader, saying: ‘you go on a date’, ‘you put on your make up’. Very generic things. Then, with no warning, you can zoom in really close and say ‘you would never date a man who wears a speedo’. It’s almost like the author’s kind of reaching out to touch the reader at that moment; they’re very close and then you can pull back. I think with any other point of view you have to be much more consistent, or it’s really irritating to the reader. So I like the freedom of the second person and I also think that there are a lot of lines that are funny in the second person that wouldn’t be funny in anything other person, or voice. But I also think that a little bit goes a long way. I hesitated to put three stories in, I thought that might be pushing it, but I liked all three so we kept them in.
ML: Well I’m, for one, glad you did all three. Do you have any major influences, or living writers that you really admire at the moment?
KH: I love Stephen King. I think that he’s so smart, and so talented, and so diverse. I just think that he’s like this visitor from a more advanced race; he’s Superman. […] But then of course maybe he just like worked harder than the rest of us. I very much admire Anne Tyler, and Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers. In fact, when I first moved to London in 1997, the first two books I read were High Fidelity and Bridget Jones’s Diary. And I was like, ‘I’m going to love living here, this is the best place in the world.’ And going back to what we were talking about earlier, Bridget Jones’s Diary was really inspiring to me because it was this big, hot book and a creation of total comic genius. But it’s really just about this woman who obsesses about her weight, and her clothes, and her relationships. The fact that that could be so relatable to so many people; a blockbuster could be about that, it didn’t have to be about…war, or spies, or the more traditionally ‘male’ topics. It really was inspiring to me. It’s such a great book, I’ve read it so many times.
ML: I completely agree with you. What do you think, do you buy – I’m guessing you don’t because you clearly love it – the arguments like ‘Bridget Jones is a character who’s so reductive towards women’, she’s just ‘perpetuating the stereotype; it’s all self-fulfilling’; ‘pigeonholing women’ just that one bit more. How do you feel about that argument?
KH: I would say I disagree entirely, I mean how could you read Bridget Jones’s Diary and not want to be her? She’s so witty, she’s so quick. Although, I guess, my goal in life is to be, like, witty; if that’s not your goal, you don’t want to be her. And the fact that she made up the term ‘Singleton’, and people are still using it – that seems to me like the opposite of reductive. That seems to me like she gave a name to something that needed a name, and now we all use it.
ML: Absolutely, and also gave a name to that other side of womanhood: the ‘God forbid you’re still single’. She gives it a personality rather than just the horror that no one wants to talk about and no one wants to sit next to at the dinner parties. My last question, on that note, is: which book do you wish you had written of all the books that have ever been written?
KH: Oh, wow! That might be Gone with the Wind. That’s my favourite book. But really, there are so many. Isn’t this awful, so much work I would like to claim credit for. I think The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is a really perfect novel. I think High Fidelity by Nick Hornby is amazing. Yeah, I don’t know. I reread a lot, so when I really like something I’ll read it again for comfort. It’s like comfort eating, I do comfort reading.
ML: I do that, I used to reread Harry Potter when I was at school in America because I missed, like, ‘English’ things. So is Gone with the Wind the book that you’ve probably reread the most?
KH: I used to read it once a year, and then I felt like that was too much, like I was failing to appreciate it. So, now, I read it maybe once every three years, or four years. But don’t even get me started on Gone with the Wind, I’m so crazy about it.
ML: Well thank you so much Katherine for talking to us.
KH: Thank you so much.
ML: And congratulations again on such a wonderful, funny, and poignant book.
KH: Well, thank you very much.