Katherine Heiny Knows Storytelling is a Serious Business

After decades of writing short stories, Katherine Heiny is releasing her first novel, Standard Deviation, on May 23. She talks transitioning to a longer form, writing as a mother, and why she’s never perfected the three-minute egg.

By Emma Gordon

This isn’t Katherine Heiny’s first time making a splash. The first publication to print one of her pieces was The New Yorker back in 1992 with How to Give the Wrong Impression. In 2015, her first book, a collection of short stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow, received widespread acclaim for its unsparing look at women who are in love, out of love, or somewhere in between. Now Heiny is on the brink of the publication of her first novel, Standard Deviation, which comes out on May 23. The novel follows Graham, who begins questioning his marriage when his second wife develops a friendship with his first. I talked to Heiny via email about her writing process, her inspiration, and how her time off changed the way she approached her craft.


Emma Gordon: Standard Deviation will be your first novel. How was writing it different from writing a short story?  

Katherine Heiny: There’s a great Lorrie Moore quote about a short story being like a love affair and a novel being like a marriage. I think that a short story is like a cocktail party and a novel is like a really long family reunion where you keep having to see everyone in their bathrobes at breakfast.  But now that it’s over, I wish it had lasted longer.
EG: What was the inspiration for this book?

​KH: A​ long time ago—seriously, like 20 years ago—a friend of mine went to a wedding where she knew nothing about the bride other than the fact that bride gets very wet during sex.  A couple of years ago, I started writing about that wedding, or how I imagined that wedding, and it grew into a novel about love, marriage (second marriages in particular), infidelity, the challenges of raising children, and origami. Lots of origami.

EG: In between the publication of some of your first short stories and your first book, you were contracted to write books for a young adult romance series. What influence did writing these have on your original work?  

KH: I learned so much from writing those books!  I learned that deadlines can almost always be met, that writer’s block is temporary​, that storytelling is a serious business, and that I must never, ever eat bourbon-soaked peaches for breakfast even though it’s technically fruit and therefore healthy.​

​Writing those books​ made me fearless in a way. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.​


EG: You also took time off to raise your children. Do you think you have to write every day in order to excel at it? 

KH: Yes and no. When I resumed writing post-children, I was a lot faster or more prolific than I had been pre-children. But practicing definitely makes me a stronger writer. Your imagination is a muscle and all that.


EG: How would you describe your relationship to writing? Is it something you feel a need or calling to do? What career do you think you would have if you were not a writer?

KH: There’s this great quote by Anita Brookner where she says she could live without love, she just couldn’t live well without it. That’s how I feel about writing. It just makes everything better, although I think that’s an advertising slogan for something. If I weren’t a writer, I would be a 911 operator, which is something I’ve always wanted to be.


EG: What conditions do you need to write well? Are you easily distracted by the Internet, your phone, people around, etc.? What time of day is most productive for your creative process?

KH: Some days I write a lot and it comes fairly easily, and some days I just can’t find a rhythm and spend hours writing a page, which I then delete. Those days I would really be better off trying to perfect a three-minute egg or something.


EG: How much do you know about a story—both in terms of character and plot—before you start writing it? What comes first—a theme, and then the character who can be an entry point to this topic, or a character, and then the theme that she brings up?

KH: Almost always the character is first, and the plot is less of a plot and more like a situation the character finds her/himself in. Usually I like to make connections between things – like the character’s best friend and her mother-in-law, or whatever—and the connection between those things becomes clearer as I write. I usually know early on what the character will think or feel or see at the end, and where it will take place, even if I don’t know the language yet.


EG: How do you know where you should end a story? And then, later, how do you know when you should stop revising it?

KH: I guess you should end the story when you’ve said what you came to say. Someone once told me that a story is ready to send out when you’re sick of revising it, and I found that to be extremely helpful advice.


EG: Your stories in Single, Carefree, Mellow capture an angst that feels very relevant to the moment we’re in, when women have more freedom ostensibly but also are in a lot of ways pigeonholed in how they’re supposed to behave. How do you write stories that resonate in the present but also have longevity?

KH: I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I think that past/present resonance is what makes fiction so compelling. Like in Gone With The Wind when Scarlett gets so bored by the war talk, or in Anna Karenina when she gets grossed out by the hair in her husband’s ears. That moment of connection is amazing.


EG: Would you write from the perspective of a man? Do you think it’s possible—or acceptable—to write outside your own identity group, and if so, to what extent?

KH: My next book is from a man’s point of view, and I’ve written many short stories from that perspective, too. I think it’s completely possible, completely acceptable to write outside your own identity group. Fiction is all about being in someone’s else head.


EG: Your parents are both scientists. Where do you think your interest in the humanities came from, and was it something you had to justify to them? What do you think growing up in an environment that was more heavily focused on STEM fields did for you as a writer?

KH: My parents were so great, so supportive, so everything. If they understood how dire the job prospects were for people with MFAs, they never said so. I did always feel a little bit like the wrong baby brought home from the hospital, though. I flunked geometry in the tenth grade and my dad wasn’t angry, he was just so disbelieving, like, “How could somebody flunk the world’s easiest subject?”


EG: What are you listening to, watching, reading, etc.? What work that is being produced today is inspiring or exciting to you?

KH: Oh, God, I dread this question because the answer is always that I’m reading some book for the 89th time and that doesn’t seem like a very inspiring or admirable thing to say. I love to reread favorite books – I always find something new to admire. Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Nick Hornby … I return to their novels again and again. Also, I think The Walking Dead is a really great show. And I went into a kind a withdrawal when Happy Valley was over. I’m not sure I ever recovered.


Emma Gordon is a contributing writer to The Riveter and a California native who didn’t appreciate how tan she was there until she left. She is about to graduate from Northwestern University with a degree in creative writing, and she hopes her future includes some really good books. You can find her work at www.emma-gordon.com.