As all good fictional characters should, the people of Katherine Heiny’s debut short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, indulge in a lot of bad behavior. They sleep with their high school teachers and their married boyfriends and their girlfriends on the side. A lot of writers would use this behavior as an occasion for grand moral questioning, and Heiny’s creations tend to be perfectly aware of their failings. But they’re not exactly wringing their hands.
For the truth is, none of those titular adjectives applies in quite the way you expect. It’s more of a funhouse mirror effect. The carefree ones leave a wake of destruction behind them, the mellow ones leave their companions baffled by the remoteness of their ease. Ultimately, Heiny’s stories are less about being the actual human being who is freed from angst and fetters, and more about the effect of such creatures on the people around them. She is an expert on the baffled and titillated frustration of trying to deal with men and women who go through life so thoroughly untouched.
It’s no small trick to write with lightness and humor that nevertheless has an edge of tartness, but in story after story, Heiny does so with aplomb. Her work is sharp and refreshing, a parade of gin and tonics that somehow never get you drunker than that first expansive, thoughtful buzz. I chatted with her recently over email about going one step further, whether pajamas are an aid to the craft of writing, and the undeniable fact that rubbishy reality TV is really all about the relationships.
Michelle Wildgen: What are the subjects that obsess you, and why? What subjects have you deliberately or accidentally avoided, and why?
Katherine Heiny: If it’s about sex and relationships, I’m interested. I can watch the most rubbishy reality program with a laser-like focus because it’s all about interpersonal relations. But when it comes to politics or finance or foreign policy, that focus deserts me. Also I’m such a loser when it comes to writing suspense or action. I love writers who can do that—it’s a gift and I don’t have it.
MW: Your voice employs such a light, comic touch, even when you’re dealing with material that could easily feel dark—extramarital dalliances, the end of love, teacher-student affair in which the teacher seems less in control than the student—it feels tart and swift. What’s essential to the success of an approach like this?
KH: I think it’s really all about going one step further than necessary. I mean, it’s fine and factual to say something like “Her husband ran off with the hairdresser,” but if you add “and the hairdresser missed all her regular Wednesday clients,” then you’ve moved on from the heartbreak to the unexpected detail, and at that point, I’ll follow you anywhere. Humor, to me, is always about the unexpected. Anyone can tell you something shocking or tragic but how many people can add something surprising to it right at the end? Those are the people I want for my friends.
MW: What is your next literary challenge to yourself?
KH: I’m finishing a novel now and it’s so different from writing a short story. Writing a short story is like stopping somewhere unexpectedly for a drink—you’re in, you’re out and if you’re lucky you minimize the damage and hit a few high points along the way. But a novel is a more like some month-long family reunion—God knows what might happen. So much can go wrong.
MW: What is your best and most productive writing habit? Your least?
KH: I always sit down to write in the morning in my pajamas—if I get dressed, I might be tempted to go to the store or out for coffee. It doesn’t stop me from wasting time on Facebook, but it does keep me indoors. My least productive habit is probably getting all excited and making some crazy resolution, like, “I’m going to write 10 pages a day until my novel’s done!” It never works and then I feel guilty.
MW: Can you tell us about a craft problem you have dealt with successfully?
KH: Does getting out of bed in the morning count as a craft problem? Narrative is probably what I struggle with most; I really dislike writing backstory or exposition of any kind. Usually I solve this by dipping into a story once the relationship or conflict is already underway.
MW: When you read, what books or writers inspire you and why? How about non-literary sources of inspiration?
KH: I love Gone With the Wind so much that my oldest child’s middle name is Mitchell. I have read it a hundred times and always find something new to admire—Margaret Mitchell certainly didn’t struggle with narrative. Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Kate Atkinson, Nick Hornby, Daphne du Maurier . . . I’m always inspired by authors who write with such confidence.
Non-literary sources would definitely include my husband—he can do any accent in the world.
Katherine Heiny‘s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, and many other publications. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and children. Single, Carefree, Mellow is her first book.
Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel, But Not For Long, and You’re Not You. You’re Not You has been adapted for film, starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum.