When Professor Stephen McCauley (ENG), associate director of the Brandeis Creative Writing Program, first introduced author Katherine Heiny, he said that within reading just a few sentences of her prose, he fell in love with her writing and with the voices of her characters. “You just want to read along for the sheer pleasure of being in her company,” he stated. Heiny, who held a reading and discussion on campus on Thursday, March 26 has become somewhat of a sensation this winter with her debut book of short stories titled “Single, Carefree and Mellow.” The book has received extensive praise, along the lines of McCauley’s statement, and Heiny has also had numerous stories published in major publications such as The New Yorker, Seventeen and more. However, what came across most clearly at Heiny’s reading is this fact: Heiny is a real, relatable and terribly funny person.
She is the kind of person who isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself, saying “every eight days I write a sentence … that is my normal level of productivity.” She recalled attempting to write a full, finished story in just 10 days, saying she fed her children only McDonald’s and allowed them to watch some inappropriate movie, joking that it was, of course, basically the best week of her children’s lives. She prefaced the statement that “usually characters come to me with their names already” by warning that yeah, maybe it sounded like she belonged in some kind of special home. While she reported feeling happy about most of the critics’ reviews for “Single, Carefree and Mellow,” she also argued that literary reviews are like “hearing people talk about you at your funeral.”
Heiny’s presence as an entertaining speaker is only outmatched by her writing. She has the kind of easy flowing prose that is the envy of so many writers, and just like she herself is charismatic and accessible, so are her characters. For the reading, she chose to present a story titled “The Rhett Butlers.” It is about a teenager having a relationship with her teacher. Before reading it out loud, Heiny discussed the inspiration behind the story. She reported having just watched a lot of “Teen Mom,” the hit reality television show, and said the series taught her that “nobody in the history of the world has ever been able to tell a teenager anything.” She also dubbed this story her favorite one, despite the fact that it was the last addition to her collection.
The story begins: “You always thinking of him as Mr. Eagleton, even after you start sleeping with him. You always call him that, too.” Heiny then describes the tale of a teenager who, in her naivete, comes to view Mr. Eagleton (her history teacher) as a disappointing boyfriend (instead of any kind of sexual predator). Many of the instances in the story are incredibly relatable, others laugh-out-loud funny. Heiny is remarkably in tune with the thoughts that many women have. For example, in the story, the narrator states that telling secrets to her best friend Macy is a given, because Macy is “less like a person and more like your frontal lobe.”
Heiny mentioned that many people have asked her if this story is autobiographical, to which she replies “my answer is I didn’t have nearly as good grades as the narrator.” She also stated that many of the events in the story did actually occur, but perhaps not in the same context as presented in the short story.
Heiny is known for writing in the second-person point of view, which she utilizes very well in “The Rhett Brothers.” When asked about this point of view choice during the question and answer session, she stated, “I needed a certain distance from the narrator,” and “I wanted her to be an every teenager kind of character.”
The question-and-answer session revealed more information about Heiny and her writing process. “One of my bad habits as a writer is to say, oh it’s all in my head, give me two hours and I’ll write it all down…but it never works out like that,” she said. Heiny was also asked about the time The New Yorker accepted one of her short stories This a huge accomplishment considering she was still in graduate school at the time. She divulged that when The New Yorker editor called her, she actually at first pretended to be somebody else, not herself, because she feared it was her landlord calling about the rent.
Heiny made an impression on the Brandeis campus, both for her writing prowess and amusing public speaking. “My stories are sort of short on plot and long on personal crises,” she said, which is correct yet endearing. Reading about flawed people is fascinating, because we as members of the human race are all flawed. Heiny knows how to tap into this, and create beautiful prose in the process.