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When Katherine Heiny was 25, she mailed a short story to the New Yorker on a Thursday and received a call from the fiction editor on Friday. “I didn’t even know the mail worked that fast,” Heiny says. “It’s like an urban legend.”
The story, “How To Give The Wrong Impression,” was about a psychology student who tries to make it seem like her roommate is her boyfriend. In 1997, a few years after appearing in the New Yorker, the story was anthologized in a collection alongside pieces from the likes of John Updike and Alice Munro. It’s still taught in high schools and writing workshops. But after she wrote that story, Heiny herself mostly disappeared from the literary world.
Up until this year, that is. Heiny, who lives in Bethesda, just published her first book: a collection of short stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow. “I’m a little hung over,” Heiny told me when she arrived for our interview; the night before, she’d given her first reading from the book at Politics & Prose. She has lots of reasons to celebrate.
The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review called Heiny’s book “something like Cheever mixed with Ephron.” Lena Dunham blurbed it as “magical.” And Elizabeth Hottel, Politics & Prose’s events coordinator, told the crowd at the reading that she loved Heiny’s stories so much, she volunteered to come to work on a Sunday to introduce her, which she thought she’d never done before.
The collection contains stories of a high school senior bored of her affair with her English teacher; a suburban mother who falls in love with somebody over Facebook; and a woman who can’t help flirting with the veterinarian treating her dying dog. Nearly all of the 11 pieces are about adultery, but they don’t deal with break-ups or confrontations. Instead, Heiny lingers on the details and day-to-day moments that make up the bulk of her heroines’ lives: how wraparound dresses never stay wrapped, or how sad a perfect summer evening on the front porch can feel, even with ice cream and the sprinkler running.
As in Heiny’s short stories, the effects of a momentous event like a whirlwind affair or a phone call from a highly respected publisher of fiction are sometimes felt slowly, little by little over time. Heiny’s New Yorker story didn’t have much of an immediate impact on her life: She paid her bills by writing serialized young-adult novels under a pen name, met her husband, and devoted herself to raising their two sons, now 12 and 14, before she focused on publishing stories with her own name on them.
Heiny was temping in an office and working as a waitress when she received a phone call from an editor at Alloy Entertainment, a book packaging company. The editor had seen a story Heiny had published in the now-defunct teen magazine Sassy and wanted to know if she’d be interested in ghostwriting. “I was like, ‘Is it more money than waitressing? I’ll do it,’” Heiny says. Her job was to take over later books in YA series that had been started by established writers. She hammered out 25 novels in four years. “I was completely tapped out at the end of every day,” she says. “I would go to the gym, come home, have dinner, go to bed. Start over in the morning.”
Even then, Heiny felt like the arrangement was short term. “I always thought one day I’d write a book under my own name,” Heiny says. “I was just kind of waiting.”
Heiny didn’t grow up in the company of other writers. She’s from Midland, Mich., the headquarters of Dow Chemical Company, which employs both of her
parents, a chemical engineer and a chemist. Heiny’s two older brothers are engineers, too—one of chemicals, one of software. “I was sort of the wrong baby home from the hospital,” she says.
But Heiny was lucky that her family lived across the street from the home of the children’s librarian, who’d lend her books and discuss them with her. When Heiny got accepted to Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction and poetry, her parents didn’t understand what her goals were. But they supported her anyway. “I think they thought, ‘Well, it’s a degree’… they thought I would be creative writer… for Dow Chemical,” Heiny says. “They were shocked afterwards when I started waitressing and temping. But in a weird way, they had complete faith in me.”
They believed in her even during the years that she didn’t write at all. Heiny lost her contract with Alloy Entertainment after she became pregnant with her first son. It was a difficult pregnancy, and she was prescribed total bed rest. The break ended up being longer than anticipated. “Either I have really high-maintenence children, or I am a low-energy person, but it took everything,” Heiny said at her Politics & Prose reading. When she got back to writing again after her youngest son started first grade, she was ready to give up her pen name to separate her earlier books from her more literary endeavors.
Heiny speculates that her husband might be the reason why so many of the stories in her collection are about adultery—not because of any weaknesses in their relationship, but because when she married him, she had to learn how to live with secrets. A few weeks after they started dating, he told her he was an MI6 agent, a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service. For years, Heiny had to be careful about what she said on the phone, what she told people at parties, and how she introduced her friends, many of whom had cover jobs she had to remember. “It did kind of color my fiction because it sort of creates a layer,” she says. “It does make [it so] there’s a part of your life you can’t share… and most of my characters have that too.”
But Heiny has embraced the public attention surrounding her latest release. She appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered a few weeks ago and has given interviews to international publications like the Guardian and the Toronto Star. Now, she’s at work on her first novel. After her long silence, Heiny is back with a lot to say. “It seems to me like the floodgates have opened,” said Heiny’s publicist, Jenny Jackson, in a public conversation with Heiny after her Politics & Prose reading.
In the last story of Heiny’s book, the main character, Sadie, juggles a privileged yet disorganized D.C. life and a long-distance lover—“a sign of strength and character; not many people could manage it,” by Sadie’s estimation. The story is one of the most satirical in Heiny’s collection. Sadie drives “a minivan full of dog hair.” Her house is invaded by “sweaty gray-haired men in cycling shorts,” and she gets stuck sitting at an embassy dinner next to a man whose hobby is collecting early American documents. Heiny is generous, though, when describing Sadie’s relationship with her children, how her son’s hands are “sticky on her hair” and how puzzled she is over bellybutton rashes.
During our conversation, Heiny takes frequent peeks at her phone: Her youngest son, Hector, is at the doctor’s office with her husband for a hairline fracture on his thumb, which he doesn’t remember how he got. “Do you suppose we’ll have to be interviewed by child services?” she asks. “He’s been doing archery in school and he really liked it. I thought maybe the thing thwanked him in the hand?”
These are the types of stories that fascinate Heiny. Despite being married to a former spy, she readily admits that she gets her news from Facebook, and despite being raised by scientists, she says she could never write anything “vaguely factually based.” Instead, she finds drama in the suburbs, in the messy minivans and the hairline fractures, turning the banal moments of seemingly unremarkable lives into art.
Photo by Leila Barbaro