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The Long Road To 'Single, Carefree, Mellow'


We're going to spend some time now with writer Katherine Heiny. That profession is not something her family expected and, she says, in some ways, neither did she.

KATHERINE HEINY: I come from a family of scientists. It's kind of the wrong baby home from the hospital. And I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't think that was something you could make a living at.

GONYEA: Heiny is now celebrating the publication of her first book. It's a collection of short stories called "Single, Carefree, Mellow." NPR's Justine Kenin reports that it's had a long and winding road to publication.

JUSTINE KENIN, BYLINE: It's been more than 20 years since Katherine Heiny's very first short story was published, and that's a story in itself. She was just 22, attending Columbia's writing program and living in what she recalls as a horrible apartment building.

HEINY: One day I was in the elevator and there was a girl in the elevator. And we were talking about how the building was out of hot water for the, you know, 18th time that winter. It was nothing new. And she said that the guy she lived with had been in the shower at the exact moment that the hot water ran out. And I was really intrigued that she said the guy I live with. And I said is that your roommate or your boyfriend? And she said he's my roommate. I wanted him to be my boyfriend, but we've worked through that.

KENIN: And Katherine Heiny's imagination had no trouble filling in the rest.

HEINY: And by the time I got back to my desk, I knew the whole story. It had just unfolded like a rug unrolling and you can suddenly see the pattern and see how it all fits together.

KENIN: She liked what she wrote, so she sent it out to 31 literary magazines.

HEINY: And I got 31 rejection letters.

KENIN: But there's one she neglected.

HEINY: Finally, a friend said have you sent it to The New Yorker? And I said no, I didn't know I was supposed to do that. I thought that they only solicited, you know, Alice Munro stories. And she said no, you're supposed to start there. So I mailed it on a Thursday afternoon, and Friday morning, before I was even out of bed, the phone rang. And this man with a deep voice asked for Katherine Heiny. And I thought it was the landlord asking for the rent, so I said no, she's not here. She's gone for the weekend, very difficult to get a hold of her. And he said well, this is Roger Angell from The New Yorker. And I was like oh wait, wait, it's me. I was so excited, and he took the story. He published it with no changes.

KENIN: That story was called "How To Give The Wrong Impression," and she was officially a published writer. Then she met the man who became her husband the very next year.

HEINY: At the time, he was an MI6 agent.

KENIN: Yep, an MI6 agent, and she didn't even know what MI6 was.

HEINY: He had just come from a formal party, so he was wearing a tuxedo. And I said to him, what do you do? - just 'cause I wanted an excuse to talk to him. And he said, what do you think I do? And I said, you look like a Secret Service agent. And I nearly gave the man a heart attack because it was so close to, you know, what he actually did.

KENIN: They married, had their first child, and a new reality set in.

HEINY: I remember my mom saying - after coming to visit me and seeing that, you know, I was sleep-deprived, I wanted to be with my baby all the time, I wanted to write, but I wasn't writing - that she said, you know, I raised you telling you you could have it all. And now I can see that's not true. And I feel bad for having told you that (laughter) which was actually a really helpful thing to say.

KENIN: Her writing certainly wasn't getting any attention. Katherine Heiny jokes she doesn't know if she had particularly high maintenance children or if she was low-energy. But motherhood started to yield more elevator moments.

HEINY: There's a story in the collection about a birthday party, and I wrote that the day after my son's birthday party 'cause I think children's birthday are really stressful and awful. In fact, I remember posting on Facebook it was the best day of the year because it was 364 days until the next party. And all these moms were like, that's a really harsh statement. I was like, but it's true.

KENIN: And that story zeroes in on the mind of a mother struggling to get it right.

HEINY: (Reading) Time to fill the goodie bags. And you realize that you have either miscounted or forgotten someone, but you have 11 guests coming and only 10 goodie bags. A quick scour of the house reveals that the only other paper bag is one from Victoria's Secret. It is hard to imagine what will be worse - trying to persuade some little boy to accept a pink goodie bag when all the other ones are blue or having to see the parent of the Victoria's Secret bag recipient at school.

You wonder if your children's main memories of you will be your inattention to detail, like last year when your older son had to take cello lessons at school and you neglected to buy the special cello chair and spike holder. So at the spring recital, he had to go on stage with a ceramic bread bin and a bathmat. But just then, your younger son comes in and sees what you were doing. Oh mommy, he breathes, can I have the pretty bag with the stripes, please? Of course you can, you answer, and he runs off happily.

Maybe they are too young to hold a grudge or too immature to realize the ramifications of certain actions, or possibly they have just had limited exposure to mothers who do this kind of thing effortlessly. You've been pretty careful in your friend selection. But whatever the reason, right now, for the moment, for a little while longer, you are still OK.

KENIN: And with a sly, knowing smile, Katherine Heiny closes her new book "Single, Carefree, Mellow." Justine Kenin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.