"This Writing Career Stuff is Really Easy"...And Other Writing-Life Lessons
Katherine Heiny's stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, The Greensboro Review, The Saranac Review, Seventeen, and many other publications, anthologized in Nothing But You: Love Stories From The New Yorker, presented on Selected Shorts on NPR, optioned by Merchant-Ivory and HBO, and performed off-Broadway. She lives in Washington DC with her husband and two sons. In a number of her stories, she brings to the surface a great deal of the humor and wildness that can be found in domesticity. A birthday party is never just a birthday party—it’s often a war with a number of mortifying battles. A roommate is not just a roommate, but a soulmate/life partner/lover—even if he isn’t quite aware of it.
Interview by Renee Beauregard Lute
Katherine, many of our readers (probably the majority of our readers, actually) are writers who publish/hope to publish with some fabulous literary journals and magazines. The New Yorker is iconic. It’s a big deal. It’s a tough cookie. Your short story, “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” was published in an issue of The New Yorker in 1992. Apart from the story being fantastic (and very, very funny!), what went into this publication process? Was there an agent? Had you submitted to The New Yorker before?
“How to Give the Wrong Impression” was the first story I ever published. I’d been sending stories out but never before to The New Yorker. Then my friend Jennifer said I was an idiot, that I was supposed to start there, so I did, and they called to accept the story less than 24 hours after I mailed it and they published it with almost no changes and I thought, “Wow, this writing career stuff is really easy.” (It turns out I was somewhat mistaken about that.)
The New Yorker is so hard to break into. Why do you think that story was selected? Was there a certain theme or set of characters that made the story particularly appropriate for that magazine?
I don’t know why that story was selected. Maybe because it’s about unrequited love, which is something almost everyone has experienced. And I wrote it when I was very young and unrequited love was about the worst thing I could imagine happening to anyone, so maybe that earnestness set it apart from stories with a more cynical tone. I do know that if I’d known then how hard it was to break into The New Yorker, I would never have tried. It was an impulsive, uninformed, late-night decision – but maybe that’s the best kind.
What is your relationship to lit mags now? Do you still submit to them? Why or why not?
I still submit to literary journals and I’m lucky enough to have work accepted sometimes. Most lit mags are overwhelmed with submissions and can publish only about one percent of what they receive. To have a story succeed against such odds is thrilling--there’s no other word for it.
Do you read lit mags? Which ones? Or if not, why not?
I used to read as many literary reviews as I could get my hands on and the writing would be so excellent I’d feel inferior. I don’t read as much anymore (having children sort of put a stop to that), so now when I do, I feel inferior and out-of-touch – someone wrote a story this great and I’ve never heard of her? But I don’t stop reading.
How much do you target your work when you send something off for publication?
I would love to target my work but I can’t because all I ever write are stories about sex and relationships. I try to pay attention to word limits and other submission guidelines but usually I just figure they’ll like it or they won’t and off it goes. (I should mention that this policy has had extremely mixed results.)
What do you think about the changes the industry has seen over the years? How have these changes affected your work or your career?
I think the changes in the industry are inevitable, and some are exciting and some are sort of depressing. It doesn’t really affect my work – it’s still just me sitting at my desk, trying to write a story (which for me is like trying to roll a boulder uphill with my brain). And lots of other things have affected my career, like how much I like to talk on the telephone and my inexplicable addiction to hair magazines.
Rejection letters. We’ve all received them. Do you have a favorite?
I got a rejection letter a few months ago that said, “We really like this story except for the characters and plot and dialogue,” and I found that delightful on a number of levels, not the least of which being that they bothered to write it.
Do you have a least favorite?
An editor told me once that I was doubly offensive: I not only couldn’t write but had nothing to say.
What does a writing day look like for you?
I drive my sons to school in the morning and on the way home, I mentally sort out what I’m going to write that day, making me probably the most dangerous driver in the metropolitan area. Once I get home I try to write for a couple of hours, often stopping to take a quick walk if I’m having trouble. After lunch, I work for another hour before I pick up my children from school and if I’m feeling really energetic, I may write again in the early evening, but that hardly ever happens.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing two collections of linked stories, which is great because when I get stuck on one collection, I work on the other. The downside is that it will take me twice as long to finish and two times a really long time is, well, a really really long time.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading a novel called Fair With Rain (I bought a used copy on Amazon for fifty cents) and it’s making me happy in the sort of deep and fundamental way that can usually only be achieved by getting a foot rub.
What would you suggest our readers read?
I would suggest they read whatever gives them pleasure. Life is too short for anything else.
You’ve found a time machine. You want to visit a deceased writer and ask him or her one question. Who would it be? What’s the question?
I would visit Margaret Mitchell and ask, “How did you do that and could you teach me to do it, too?”
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
For years my father hinted that my stories needed more gunfights and secret caves, but he’s finally given up doing that.
And the best?
Years and years ago, Evan Hunter told me that unless you get up and start writing in the morning, you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who plans to write something in the very near future. At the time I thought he was crazy. Write in the morning? I didn’t even get up in the morning. I got up about noon and generally started writing at about midnight, except that it wasn’t generally, it was rarely, because usually at midnight I was out drinking with my friends. But eventually I took his advice and I went from being a writer who wants to write to one who actually does, and there’s no better feeling than that. And none worse, either.
Renee Beauregard Lute is the Reviews Editor for The Review Review. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, The Northern New England Review, Roar Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and two cats, and is eagerly awaiting the birth of her first daughter, due in May.