Author Features / Features

Secret Lives: Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow

by Joe Schuster

You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University­—“How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate—and you send it out to 31 literary journals, who all turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say.

When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what the New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with the New Yorker.

So, on a Thursday, you send the story there, and the next day Roger Angell, the fiction editor, calls you—early enough that he wakes you up—and says he wants to publish it. You do not believe him: you are a poor grad student, behind on your rent, and you think the caller is really your landlord trying to trick you into talking to him. And you doubt the magazine reads stories so quickly.

But it really is Roger Angell, and the story appears in the September 1992 issue of the New Yorker.

Half-a-dozen years later, the magazine reprints it in an anthology, Nothing but You. Your name is in the table of contents between Jean Rhys and John Cheever.

That story helps you get an agent, but you and she later part ways and it takes more than twenty years before you finally publish, at age 47, a book under your own name, a collection of stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow.

You are elated you have a book out in the world, but then the book brings you significant attention, especially for a debut collection of short stories. A month before its publication, Entertainment Weekly runs a half-page interview with you in a piece about books the magazine’s editors are anticipating for the year. Glamour and Elle exhort their readers to buy it.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the New York Times reviews it, calling it a “wry, bittersweet debut,” and saying the work is “something like Cheever mixed with Ephron.” The next day the newspaper publishes a long feature on you and the book on the first page of its feature section.

When the reporter talks about your first publication in the New Yorker, she describes your start as “explosive” and adds that, because of your “disappearance from the literary scene for nearly two decades,” your story carries a whiff of legend, but is actually “more prosaic and compelling.”

The truth is, however, that although the work that followed your first story did not get the same attention as “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you did not, of course, disappear. You were just continuing to live your life and write—write a lot. It was just that most people did not notice.

When you were growing up, you were different in some crucial ways from everyone else in your family, who are all scientists. You were raised in Midland, Michigan, home of Dow Chemical, and your mother was a chemist, your father a chemical engineer. One of your brothers is also a chemical engineer, and the other one a software engineer, but you say, “My math and science grades were, well, let’s just say that I may have been the wrong baby brought home from the hospital.”

You “read like crazy,” reading every sort of fiction you could get your hands on, including Judy Blume and later Stephen King, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel; all of them will influence you as a writer. You say, “I used to get into trouble because I would read in school when the rest of the class was doing other things.”

You allude to this sense of being different in some of your stories.

In one, “Dark Matter,” a character who is a physicist makes fun of his sister because she does not know the difference between Ebola and E. coli. “Sometimes I really think we brought the wrong baby home from the hospital,” he says. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a naïve minister comes to stay with a family that is amazed because he knows so little about their world. You write:

So many experiences were new to him! It was like having an exchange student from the Sudan. . . . Reverend McWilliams had never eaten risotto or drunk Pimm’s. He did not know that shampoo could cost forty dollars . . . and he jumped every time the GPS spoke in the car. . . .He had never seen a Wii before [and] had never seen “Jurassic Park.”

You decide to become a writer because, you “have never been any good at anything else,” and in college you take every writing class you can; so many, in fact, that when you apply to law school because you feel obligated to find a career that will allow you to support yourself, you joke that they all reject you because of all of the creative writing classes on your transcript.

Having no other idea what to do, you apply to two graduate writing programs: at Columbia University and at the University of Iowa. Columbia accepts you and you go there, in both poetry and fiction, and study with a faculty that includes Peter Cameron, whose story “Jump or Dive” you’ve read multiple times because it is what you call “comfort reading,” i.e. work you read over and over again because you love it so much. You say, “The fact that I was writing stories and he was reading them was so exciting to me.”

At Columbia, you also take a workshop with Rick Rofihe, where you write the story you will sell to the New Yorker. At the time, your only income is from reading the slush pile submitted to a literary agent, Roberta Pryor, whose big book was Peter Benchley’s Jaws nearly 20 years earlier, and who also was P.D. James’s American agent.

You read the unsolicited novels that people send in, mostly thrillers, and write reports on them. You get paid only $7 for each report you submit and yet you feel obliged to read every manuscript all the way through even if you know within the first 25 pages you will not be recommending the novel to Roberta Pryor.

This is what you are doing for a living when Roger Angell calls, and why you do not have enough money to be current with your rent. The magazine pays you an unimaginable dollar a word.

After you publish the story in the New Yorker, it does not change your life in any significant way but, contrary to what the Times writer later says, you do not disappear from the literary scene: you continue writing, and your work appears in some of the best journals in the country, including Narrative, Ploughshares, Greensboro Review, Glimmer Train and others. You also sell stories about young girls and their unrequited love to Sassy and Seventeen, and a publisher for a series of young adult romance novels contacts you to ask if you would like to try writing a book in the series for them. You write more than 20 romance novels. You do it largely because the money is good; compared with what you are earning as a waitress, it seems a fortune.

The work is hard but you enjoy it; when you have a contract for a book, you end up writing every day, and while your name is not on any of the books, you nonetheless learn “to deal with deadlines and how to write a novel-length manuscript.” The publisher insisted on an outline first before you would get the go-ahead on the project and you realize “that the outline is half the work. If you have the structure and you are not just meandering along, it makes it easier.”

It also teaches you the value of persistence; you say, “When I first started writing YA and had a contract for a 200-page novel and I would write five pages, I would freak out at all that there was left to do but it taught me that you write a little bit every day, it gets longer. You get there.”

You give it up after you marry and are expecting your first child and the doctor tells you that you need to stop working so hard for your sake and for the baby’s. You regret having to stop, but you do, and then you have a second child, and then family life means you cannot go back to it, but you continue writing short stories.

A few years ago, you decide that you feel at sea without an agent, so you find a new one. She asks you to send her what you have. You worry that you do not have a novel, as you have heard that agents cannot sell collections of short stories; but your agent says that is not the case, not in a time when a collection, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize, as did another novel-in-stories, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

You send her 30-something files, all the stories you have, not organized in any fashion. She tells you that you can make a collection from your work, and the two of you go back and forth, choosing stories—including “How to Give the Wrong Impression”—and organizing them into a collection of ten stories, all about women, most about women having affairs.

In “Dive Bar,” a woman agrees to meet her lover’s soon-to-be ex-wife. In another, “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid,” a bridesmaid helps her more glamorous friend get married, although even as she prepares go do down the aisle, the bride has been having affairs with two other men. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a married woman has an affair with a man she meets while she’s running—a man who, it turns out, betrays her by having another affair, with the woman’s next-door neighbor; perhaps worse than that betrayal of her affections, however, is the fact that she considers her neighbor silly and uninteresting.

Three of the stories give the collection a sort of narrative spine as they all center on the same character, Maya; in the first of the three, “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” she is preparing for the death of her dog who has cancer, while at the same time she is trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend, Rhodes; in the second, “Dark Matter,” she and Rhodes are engaged but she is having an affair with her boss at work; in the third, “Grendel’s Mother,” she and Rhodes are married and expecting their first child.

On Halloween 2013, your agent calls to tell you that Knopf is offering you a two-book deal, for your collection and for a novel you’ve recently begun that will appear in 2016.

In the middle of editing the collection, you have an idea for a new story. You imagine a high school girl, a good student, who begins having an affair with her history teacher who gives her a “B” in his class so that no one will suspect they are sleeping together—although, ironically, she is such a good student that her father, while not suspecting the affair, does find it odd that she earns only a B in the class. Like “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you write this one, “The Rhett Butlers,” in the second person because, you say, “Very early on I imagined the scene where getting the B in history lowers her GPA [and her class rank from 10 to 11], and I knew that it would be funnier to say, ‘Will you think of this bitterly in the future?’ and then say, ‘You better believe it.’ That’s funnier in the second person. It wouldn’t be in any other point-of-view. I will do anything for a joke.” The story appears in the Atlantic, and you ask your editor if you can include it in the collection. She agrees, making the final count eleven stories in all.

(Your collection will also have a third story in the second-person, about a mother staging what turns out to be a nearly disastrous eighth-birthday party for her son, where the mother is groped by a nearly inept magician she hires for the event who perhaps is naked beneath his robes.)

Your work is, in fact, marked by humor; but also secrets and sometimes a gentle sadness.

The jokes: some of them are wry observations your characters make. In “Andorra,” the last story in the collection, the main character, who is having an affair with a man who is in marriage counseling with his wife, muses at one point about what she has in her life: “two little boys . . . and a 50-year-old husband named Roderick who worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a big house in Washington, D.C., and a minivan full of dog hair.” She thinks, “The fact that she has all this and a long-distance lover seemed to her a sign of strength and character.”

In “Blue Heron Bridge,” your character is preparing to go with her husband and daughters to a block party where she knows she will run into her lover and his wife and spends a good deal of time on her appearance beforehand. As she is about to leave the house, she realizes that her husband and children do not look to her satisfaction, and she thinks, “dating . . . was easier when you were single and had to make only yourself, and not your whole family, presentable.”

In yet another story, “Cranberry Relish,” a character has an affair with a man she meets on Facebook (who later replaces her as his lover with someone he meets on Twitter), and after she decides the sex is not just disappointing but bad, she thinks, “She was just a boring fool who’d had sex with a man who sometimes wrote defiantly when he meant definitely.

The sadness: in “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” after her dog dies and Maya’s boyfriend seems to grieve even more than she does, she realizes that she cannot, as she had planned, break up with him. She thinks, “There is such a thing as too much loss.” In “Andorra,” as a woman contemplates a relationship that is ending, she thinks, “This was how it was going to be from here on out . . . nothing but a long series of partings.”

Your fascination with secrets arises from your own life. After you start seeing the man you eventually marry, he confesses that he is actually an MI-6 agent, something you cannot reveal to anyone, not even your family after you marry, because it can endanger your husband and perhaps your entire family. You feel anxious about letting the fact slip (although it’s okay to talk about it now, after he’s left the agency), and so you channel your anxiety into your fiction. In nearly every story, a woman keeps a secret from those closest to her: women hide their affairs from their husbands; in “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” the narrator tries to hide from her roommate the fact that she loves him, and the fact that she is not actually in a romantic relationship with him from everyone else. In the title story, the character tries to hide from her boyfriend the fact that she wants to leave him, at the same time she is discovering that perhaps he is really too good for her. In “That Dance You Do,” the one story in the collection not centered on some kind of romantic love, the mother does not want to reveal to her son that she abhors one of the friends he invites to his party.

So now, almost a quarter-century after the day that Roger Angell called you with the news that he wanted to publish your story, a book with your name on it is at last out in the world and bringing you acclaim that surprises you. The attention is good, and you appreciate it, but then you go back to work on the novel you are writing for next year because, as you once said, there are few things better for a working writer than to be writing. You say:

[Writing] is such an important part of my identity. When I’m not writing and people ask me what I do, I feel like such a fraud.  [I]t’s also a coping mechanism—a good one.  Nothing so awful can happen that I can’t write a story about it.

Bloom Post End

Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012), a finalist for the CASEY award for the best baseball book of the year and one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 25 favorite fiction books of 2012. A member of the faculty of Webster University, he has published short fiction in the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Missouri Review, among other journals.

Homepage photo credit: Détails et matières P1030776_1024 via photopin (license)

Joe Schuster’s previous features: Found in Space: Gender and Beyond in Ann Leckie’s Science Fiction, Time, Death, and Grief: The Risky Fiction of Paul Harding, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn: Ghosts Into AncestorsKarl Marlantes: An Audio Conversation With Joe SchusterExperience Required: The Polar Explorer’s Guide to Writing a NovelQ&A with Joe Schuster

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