Katherine Heiny has a great story: in 1992, when she wanted to be a writer, her friend told her to submit “How to Give the Wrong Impression” to The New Yorker’s fiction editor, and he accepted it the next day.
Twenty-two years later, Heiny’s long-awaited debut collection nears publication. In a starred review, Kirkus likens the experience of reading Single, Carefree, Mellow to “sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales.”
The first of Single, Carefree, Mellow’s 11 tales is titled “The Dive Bar.” In it, sexy blond twentysomething Sasha faces a dubious situation:
“ ‘I was thinking we ought to have a drink,’ Anne says. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Sasha does not know quite what to say. Should she meet her for drinks? Now what should she do? Well, what would you do if your married lover’s wife asked you?,” Heiny writes.
For such candidness, perhaps, Kirkus also calls Heiny “engagingly louche.”
“Are you the person who reviewed my book for Kirkus? Would you have called me louche?” Heiny asks in a phone interview.
I wasn’t and wouldn’t, but soon wish I had
“That made me so happy, because I’d never read that in a review before. What a fantastic thing! I don’t know, it pleased me on, like, seven levels. I can’t really explain why. Also, the being compared to the drunk friend in the bar—I was like, ‘Oh, you know, that kind of is me,’ ” she says.
Heiny’s stories have been published in The Antioch Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Narrative, Ploughshares and Seventeen, anthologized in Nothing But You: Love Stories From The New Yorker and presented on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Getting reviewed, however, is a new experience.
“With a story, you only ever hear from people who like it. You don’t really get reviews, you just get fan letters. Because ‘How to Give the Wrong Impression’ is about unrequited love, I got the greatest fan letters in the world. People were like, ‘I have a crush on the guy who fixes our Xerox machine, and I’m going to call him today!’—true story. It was wonderful,” she says.
The female protagonists of Single, Carefree, Mellow tipple and titillate, fantasize and fumble, worry and wander. They make poor choices in men and children’s birthday entertainment. They make wise choices in what to wear to meet their lovers’ wives. They love their friends and pets.
“She was thinking that someday, possibly very soon, she would be a single, carefree, mellow, dogless person, able to date full professors and vets and whomever else she wanted. She wished this thought made her happy. She wished she could feel anything other than the purest, most leaden, darkest gray kind of sorrow,” Heiny writes of Maya in “Single, Carefree, Mellow.”
Maya appears in two additional stories, “Dark Matter” and “Grendel’s Mother,” and the trio tracks the trajectory of a deepening relationship with good-guy boyfriend Rhodes. In the titular story, they weather the illness of Maya’s dog, Bailey; but by the next installment she’s cheating on him with her boss, suave French librarian Gildas-Joseph.
“In a way, those stories were challenging for me to write,” Heiny says. “I like the tone of them, and there’s a tartness that I wanted to keep pursuing, but I always felt Rhodes deserved better. I think eventually I’ll write other stories about Maya and Rhodes, because they’re very interesting to me, but I did struggle with that part.”
That’s not to say Heiny stands in judgment of her characters’ indiscretions. In “The Rhett Butlers,” for example, she offers a fresh take on a classic mistake.“You always think of him as Mr. Eagleton, even after you start sleeping with him. You always call him that, too. / You are so naive, even for a teenager. You actually believe that story about a kid dying from eating Pop Rocks and soda together—you not only believe it, you believe it happened in your town—and that’s such an old, old story. But then, so is yours and Mr. Eagleton’s,” she writes.
I really like that story because she, the narrator, withholds judgment of the teacher until the very last line,” Heiny says. “He turns out to be not a very good boyfriend, and that’s why she wants to break up with him—not because he’s clearly some sort of sexual predator, she doesn’t get that at all. It’s more fun for me to write about characters who are a little bit blind and a little bit bewildered. I don’t think I could write a story where I really judged the person.”
Especially when so much of the color in Single, Carefree, Mellow comes from real people: A motel clerk can solve the Wheel of Fortune puzzle “Apocalypse Now” from just the “C.” A mother compulsively bakes when anything of a sexual nature arises. These are true traits of friends and family, stockpiled over the years.“
Everything in [‘The Rhett Butlers’] has a basis in truth. Given what the story was about, I felt maybe that was maybe not the shrewdest choice to make—all these identifiable details—but I love that things that happen to me, or to people dear to me, now have a life in the story,” Heiny says. “I do have a friend whose mother bakes brownies when she’s confronted with anything sexual, like a sex scene in a movie. I wanted to put that in a story for 30 years and I finally did.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.