With shotgun impulse, I picked up her short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, from my local library last spring. Five stories in and with tear-stung eyes, I was sold; and by the book’s closing, I was in dire need of a hug. (Or maybe a one-night stand).
With a career prefaced with stories published in The New Yorker (“How to Give the Wrong Impression”) and The Atlantic (“The Rhett Butlers”) that often depict the challenging relationships shared between young women and their aged counterparts—students and teachers, teenagers and grown ass men, to name a few cases—Heiny’s tongue in cheek temperament, determined sarcasm, and sweeping empathy she proffers to the characters in her stories makes her an awfully authentic writer.
So for our second Paperback Chat, I reached out to Heiny directly to poke her brain on everything from life after the success of SCM to our shared heartbreak over HBO‘s Girls series finale (and our admiration for show creator Lena Dunham) to the shifts she took going into writing her very first book.
Read our full interview with Katherine Heiny below.
Paris Close: Infidelity seemed to be the thread that tied together most all the stories in your debut collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. I thought it was clever that you let those acts be interpreted by the women who actually commit them—it showed them as real human beings with complex issues. Would you say that was your intent? Or rather, what inspired you to approach the subject the way you did?
Katherine Heiny: Literally all I ever write about is sex and relationships, so infidelity is a theme I tend to explore over and over. I think maybe it’s a crutch I’ve used to give stories more tension. Recently, though, I’ve been writing stuff that has actual, authentic, honest-to-God plots and I’m like, Whoa, this shit is difficult.
PC: I understand you are also a fan of HBO’s Girls and its show creator, Lena Dunham, who is a fan of yours, too! How did it feel to receive her stamp of approval, having read and reviewed both of your books? Bonus: What did you think about Lena and Co. breaking our effing hearts by bringing Girls to an end this year? (Don’t worry, this question isn’t sponsored by Kleenex.)
KH: I, too, am having an emotionally difficult time dealing with the end of Girls. Lena is so talented, so prolific, and her comic timing is so amazing that sometimes I get jealous and have to go to bed early. I hate clichés as much as the next author, but having her read my book was like a dream come true.
PC: After SCM, what were the themes you wanted to explore in your follow-up, Standard Deviation? Should readers expect any similarities in concept between the two? Or will there, in fact, be deviations? (Pun intended.)
KH: Standard Deviation is very different in that it has a male protagonist and the protagonists in SCM were all female. The novel deals more with parenting and marriage and less with dating and roommates, but there’s still lots of drinking and jealousy and jokes about blowjobs. (I can’t change who I am, I guess.)
PC: Can you describe what the writing process was like for this book? Did you find there were moments within Standard Deviation that proved especially meaningful or even difficult to put into words?
KH: Actually, that were parts that were surprisingly easy, and I’m not a writer for whom writing is usually an easy process. My son went through a period of intense infatuation with origami, and we wound up going to conventions and things because that’s what you do you love someone who loves origami. (And I learned to love it, too, although I don’t actually do origami—once at a convention, a woman said to me, “Oh, you’re a non-folder” and I can’t begin to describe the scorn in her voice.) Anyway, I’d wanted to write about origami for a while and it’s a big part of this book.
PC: From reading the summary, there really is an eccentric bunch of characters: Graham seems like he’s on the fence about his second wife, Audra, who’s outgoing, a people pleaser of sorts, and more uninhibited than his first wife, Elspeth. Was there a character you found yourself relating to more than others? (Should we hate anyone?!)
KH: I love all the characters, even the ones who only deliver a pizza or drop off a library book, so I hope no one hates them. The main character, Graham, is the one I relate to most, I think. His wife, Audra, is a mystery to him—how can anyone be so outgoing and unfiltered? She’s a mystery to me in many ways, too. I can tell you what Audra would say in almost any situation but I couldn’t begin to tell you what she’s thinking. It’s like she came to live with me for a while and now that the novel’s finished, she’s moved away. I miss her.
PC: In SCM, I felt the overarching message was something like, “Don’t cheat yourself out of the happiness you deserve…but also be as honest with your lover(s) as possible.” What sort of takeaways are you hoping your readers will leave with from reading Standard Deviation?
KH: I think the main theme of Standard Deviation is acceptance. You’re never going to have a perfect relationship and you can’t make life perfect for your child, but you can learn to love the people in your life for who they are. (That sentence is so boring I can’t believe I just wrote it.) I guess I think, for most people, acceptance resides somewhere in the gray area between doubt and love.
PC: I absolutely LOVED the cover art for SCM! The artwork for Standard Deviation is equally adorable—is there something that inspired it? And are there any hidden gems behind the title?
KH: I knew I wanted origami on the cover from the very beginning. Then one day I found Gonzalo Calvo, origami photos on Flickr one day and stayed up all night long, copying and pasting photos and bombarding my poor editor with ideas. We chose this one because it seemed to best represent the novel, but there were, like, a thousand that I loved.
PC: Which author(s) would you say inspired or influenced your writing career the most?
KH: Anne Tyler and Nick Hornby are favorites of mine, and I have read all their novels many, many times. And I really love Stephen King’s work. You know how Superman was brought here as a baby? I feel like that’s what happened with Stephen King as well.
PC: Are there any books you’re currently reading at the moment, or hoping to read this year that we should know about? (Recommendations welcomed!)
KH: This is the most difficult question for me because I am a comfort reader and tend to gravitate toward books I’ve already read. But I’m looking forward to Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan and Cockfosters by Helen Simpson.
PC: What’s next for you?
KH: I’m working on another novel but I just finished a short story about a woman who gets very, very drunk at the airport. Everyone I’ve described it to so far has said, “Oh my God, is it about me?”
*Big thanks to our friends at Penguin Random House for letting us speak with Katherine Heiny and promote her first book!
Standard Deviation will be available for purchase on May 23: Order on Amazon.
Also…Katherine Heiny is going on tour this summer: see the dates below!
May 24, 2017 – SILVER SPRINGS, MD
in conversation with Bethanne Patrick
Silver Springs Library 7 p.m.
900 Wayne Avenue
June 2, 2017 – WASHINGTON DC
Politics & Prose Bookstore 7 p.m.
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
June 6, 2017 – NEW YORK NY
In conversation with Rachel Fershleiser
McNally Jackson Bookstore 7 p.m.
52 Prince Street
June 8, 2017 – PORTLAND OR
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne 7:30 p.m
3723 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
June 9, 2017 – SEATTLE WA
Elliot Bay Books 7 p.m.
1521 Tenth Avenue
June 11, 2017 – COLUMBIA MD
Columbia Book Festival 12:30 p.m.
Symphony Woods across from Merriweather Post Pavilion
June 13, 2017 – BROOKLYN NY
With Elin Hilderbrand
Books Are Magic 7:30 p.m.
225 Smith Street
June 14, 2017 – WASHINGTON DC
In conversation with Jennifer Close
Kramer Books 7 p.m.
1517 Connecticut Ave NW
Be sure to stay tuned for our next episode of Paperback Chats!