Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny

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In “Andorra,” one of the 11 stories in Katherine Heiny’s 2015 collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, a character justifies not firing her incompetent housekeeper. “She had a vague idea,” a third-person omniscient narrator explains, “that having so many people around the house gave her children a sense of family and community that might otherwise be lacking.” 

It is this idea of community—in all its warmth, frustration, and ambivalence—that connects Heiny’s literary works. Community can be a place or a group of people, but at its most intimate and evocative, the term blurs these distinctions, as individuals shape and are shaped by the spaces they share. The settings of her two novels and two story collections—from Boyne City, Michigan, to Manhattan to Fairfax—set up the indelible contours of her character studies. Her protagonists are not just keen observers of people, of their sweet-faced offspring and unfaithful spouses, but also of the places they live.

The first story of Heiny’s latest collection, Games and Rituals, released on April 18 from Penguin Random House, opens onto a world both literally and figuratively familiar. “It is early February in Maryland,” it reads, “the day as bleak as a pen-and-ink drawing done on old gray paper—bare trees, muddy snow, the road clear but scored with white salt stains like the scars from old injuries.” The protagonist of “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented,” Colette, is a warm, calm driving instructor with a soft spot for nervous test-takers and an even softer spot for her work crush, for whom she spends her weekends pining. Colette’s loneliness, the tenderness she shows others but rarely gets returned, resonates with the drained, colorless portrait of where she lives.

Heiny has lived in many places, she tells City Paper: London, The Hague, the aforementioned Boyne City, New York, Bethesda, and now, Havre de Grace, Maryland. And her stories bear the imprint of these cities. Heiny conceived of “Turn Back, Turn Back,” about a Manhattan couple and a suspected infidelity, 30 years ago, while living in the city. “It took me some time to work out the details,” she says, smiling. “It was natural for me to set that in New York.” 

Meanwhile, “Bridesmaid, Revisited” is based on her real-life experience of wearing a bridesmaid dress to a temp job, a lark of a choice that quickly turns sour. And the title story, “Games & Rituals,” Heiny wrote in 1990, the year after she moved to New York, where she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. “I think New York is so important in that character’s life—she’s learning to love the city,” Heiny adds. Despite that character’s dead-end job and crummy apartment, she “sees her future there, and I wanted to explore that.” 

In addition to “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented,” two more stories notably take place in the D.C. metropolitan area: “Damascus,” one of the author’s personal favorites, published last month in Narrative Magazine, and “561,” about a woman who helps her husband’s ex-wife move out of their family home. With the latter story, Heiny says, “I wanted to play around with how so much of D.C. is about where you live.” Not wanting to compete with the first wife and their big house in the suburbs, the protagonist chooses to live with her husband in Georgetown. The two women of “561” mostly know each other from sharing a spouse, but they met as fellow suicide hotline operators, another testament to how Heiny creates community in her stories, here between co-workers, between callers and operators, between wives past and present.

“I think I write to process the world, to make things make sense to me,” Heiny explains. She refers to how she began writing “Chicken-Flavored” back in 2019, while waiting for her son to take his driving test. “The more tense I am, the better I write, and the more I see connections, and the better I interpret the world around me.” 

A documented eavesdropper, she raves of how much she has been able to glean from listening in on cell phone calls, but the last story of Games and Rituals, “Sky Bar,” was inspired by an actual eaves-counter (that’s an eavesdropped encounter). While visiting her hometown airport in Michigan five years ago, she overheard a man explaining he had just come to drink at the bar. Because her flight was boarding, she was left to speculate: Why would someone come to drink at an airport? Had he, perhaps, been thrown out of every other, more convenient local establishment? If so, why? With these questions, the story of Fawn and her doting ex-husband, Joel, plus a ragtag bunch of airport friends all came into focus.

Unlikely bedfellows, cherished companions, and makeshift collectives are some of Heiny’s literary hallmarks, and for lovers of short fiction, it is pleasant to think of collections as comprising their own kinds of communities, even families, each story a cousin to the next, floating around in a gene pool of sorts. “Writing a novel is a long marathon,” Heiny says, “but the second half of the marathon gets a lot easier. You know the characters and what they would say … [But] with short stories, you’re starting totally from scratch each time. There’s more instant gratification, but also more peaks and valleys.” Because she always likes her most recent story best, Heiny allows her editor to help determine the collection’s organization. “Order is important to me,” she explains. “But actually, when I read a story collection, I read out of order. I don’t know why.”

Katherine Heiny; courtesy of the author

Of course, no writer works alone. “When we lived in the Netherlands,” she recalls, “I had this writing group. It was really, really hard to say goodbye to them. We all sort of vibed. It was every Wednesday, and just made me excited about writing. It made me write, because we had deadlines, and so if you were up, you had to do that.” When the family relocated to Maryland, she joined a local group that, while supportive as well, only met once a month. It was through this group she met her friend and writing buddy, Bethesda-based fiction writer Patrick Walczy.

Heiny also jokingly names “bad influenceJennifer Close (“such a great person,” she explains, if too kind and fun to hold her to account with deadlines) as one of her closest creative interlocutors. And having read novelist Stephen McCauley for years, the two became friends after he blurbed her first book. They share work (which is expected) and pictures of “really egregious throw-pillows” (which is less expected). 

And, when she needs a creative bolster, Heiny turns to the pile of Anne Tyler books she keeps by her desk. “[Tyler] taught me so much about writing,” she gushes. “Whenever I’m stuck… I just randomly read a page, and I see how to do it again.” Incidentally, Tyler and Heiny are both longtime Maryland residents, writing stories about or sometimes obliquely touched by this region of the country. 

One, I might add, that is full of excellent bookstores. In addition to Politics and Prose, where Heiny will be reading from Games and Rituals on Saturday, April 22, Heiny delights in detailing her single morning-long stint as a bookseller at Solid State Books on H Street NE. “I did an event for Solid State,” she recounts. “They had me come in for a morning to sell books, and I thought, ‘What could be better? I love books! I can be a bookseller!’ And I was so bad at it, you wouldn’t believe it. They got a bunch of doughnuts in, so eventually I gave up and ate doughnuts. I realized there’s a lot that goes into selling books that I don’t have… They were so nice. I loved the part with the donuts.” 

Katherine Heiny will discuss Games and Rituals with author Jennifer Close (The Hopefuls, Girls in White Dresses) at 5 p.m. on April 22 at Politics and Prose’s Connecticut Avenue NW location. Free.