Katherine Heiny joins Zibby to discuss her hit novel, Early Morning Riser, which is now out in paperback. The two talk about Katherine’s return to writing after having kids, why she wanted to make her characters all feel complicated and multi-dimensional, and how publishing a story in the New Yorker while getting her MFA encouraged her to keep writing. Katherine also shares the most heartfelt fan letter she received, how she knew it was time to let the novel go, and the comical story from her twenties that inspired an upcoming short story.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Early Morning Riser.

Katherine Heiny: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Zibby: Are you an early morning riser, by the way?

Katherine: No, no, not at all. Not at all. If left to my own devices, I go later and later and later until I’m just around the clock, like switched to being nocturnal.

Zibby: Nice. I had a third child when my twins were seven and a half or six or something. They were learning about nocturnal and diurnal in school. They’re like, “Mommy, we think you’re actually nocturnal.” I was like, “It does feel that way these days.” Anyway, Early Morning Riser, please tell everybody — I’m sure so many people listening have already read this because this book has been so successful and amazing, but tell listeners what it’s about.

Katherine: I’m really bad at elevator pitches. It’s about a schoolteacher who moves to a small town and becomes involved with the local lothario and then a car accident that changes all their lives. I would guess it’s about acceptance and family, which makes it sound really boring. That’s as close as I can come to saying what it’s about. I need to have better elevator pitches.

Zibby: I think that’s pretty good. I do also feel like it’s this quest for love, but it’s so funny. The way you write about it, the whole tone of it and the way Duncan comes in and out of — what is your main character’s name again? Jane — Jane’s life over time, it’s just perfect. She has this kind of laid-back feeling about it. She’s so passionate. Then she’s okay with what happens. I like the trajectory of her passion, I guess. I’m not saying that very well, but do you know what I’m trying to say?

Katherine: When I started writing it, it was just going to be a story that happened in real time. Then I kept realizing that I wanted to see Jane over several years, and especially her relationship with Duncan and that first part of the relationship that was so passionate. In the end, she doesn’t get what she wants, but what she gets is so much better.

Zibby: Which is the way a lot of life goes. Best-laid plans…

Katherine: My sons made me watch a Ted Talk about video games where it says that video games are good life preparation because instead of going from A to B, you have to fall into a river and climb a mountain and hide from bad guys and earn your life back. It’s a jagged line. That’s how that’s life preparation, which totally didn’t make me approve of video games any more.

Zibby: That is the best justification for playing a video game. I love the tenacity of that argument.

Katherine: I think that’s actually very true of life. I think very few people go from A to B, A to Z; this is my life, it was perfect all the way through. Really, nobody does that, actually.

Zibby: Probably not. You wrote really beautifully about Jane’s relationship with Jimmy and how it is to take care of somebody who has special needs of any kind. Tell me a little bit more about that relationship and how you depicted his character so well.

Katherine: Jimmy sort of came in by accident in that my favorite thing to write about, of all things, is dinner parties that don’t go very well. My husband used to be a diplomat. I’ve been to a lot of dinner parties. I think I have a certain amount of PTSD around the whole subject. The first dinner party in the book, I was looking for more people that Jane could invite. I thought, she’ll invite Duncan’s coworker. Duncan’s such a poor businessman and such a lackadaisical proprietor. I couldn’t imagine he’d have an assistant who was super switched on, so I thought, this is the person that he would hire. Then the more I wrote about him, Jimmy sort of became the heart of the book. It was very important to me that he be, even though he has special needs, that he be a complicated person and an honorable man and worthy of love, not just worthy of pity, and that he would add things to Jane’s life. I didn’t want him to be defined by his intellectual disability. I wanted that to just be a part of him.

Zibby: You did a really good job of that. I feel like we really got to know him when the whole, not scandal, but deception — I won’t give anything away. When that whole piece occurred, it was heartbreaking. I was like, no, tell me this is not happening. It’s so easy to take advantage of lots of different people, but it doesn’t make it any better when it happens. The aftermath is super painful.

Katherine: I agree. I think it’s part of the small-town thing that they all watch out for Jimmy. Even with everybody, nobody was really stepping forth to be a caretaker. That’s how that happened.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true. Jane has a lot of different views on being single versus being with the wrong person, how she saw her life, how her life turned out. What should we take away from Jane, aside from falling in love with her as a character?

Katherine: I think that Duncan actually turns out to be a good husband and a great father despite everybody telling her otherwise. I think that Duncan is very redeemed for me by his love for Jimmy. He gets to the point of, “We love Jimmy. He’s a part of our family,” years and years before Jane does because Jane is all caught up in guilt and responsibility. I guess what you should take from her is, it may not be perfect, but it may end up being perfect for you.

Zibby: I like it.

Katherine: I thought it was so .

Zibby: Wait, Katherine, tell me how you became writer. When did you fall in love with writing? When did you start? When did you know you were a writer? Did you like to do it from a young age? Tell me about your first book and how we got here.

Katherine: I always loved writing. I always wrote stories and poems. I remember when my best friend went off to college, I wrote her. Every letter was either in the form of a newspaper interview or some — I’m sure she was just like, get over yourself and write me a normal letter. I never thought I could be an actual writer who supported myself. I was an English major. My dad said that he would pay for me to go to law school or to one of the top creative writing schools, which were Iowa and Columbia at the time. I applied to ten law schools. I didn’t get in because I’m sure they were all like, this girl has taken every creative writing class and no political science classes. Why would we — I didn’t get into Iowa, but I got stuck in their rejection system. They sent me a rejection letter every three days until I had to call them and was like, “Relax. I’m not coming. Don’t worry about it.” Then I got into Columbia, so off I went. I sold my first story to The New Yorker while I was still at Columbia. I remember thinking, this is really easy. I don’t know why people say writing is so hard. I found that out later. It was really this amazingly lucky, wonderful thing to happen to me.

I’m not sure I would be a writer now if I hadn’t gotten that big break. It was such a huge break and so cool. Then my children were born. My children are going to listen to these interviews and be like, thanks a lot, we didn’t ask to be born. When my children were young, I had no energy to write. I had time, but just no creative energy. It wasn’t until my youngest child started first grade that I had the energy to write and solid blocks of time to write. My first book came out when I was forty-seven. Any writers anywhere should learn from that. It’s never too late. I also always want to say to parents who are writers that if you put it away, it’ll be there when you go back for it. I was afraid that I had forgotten how to write, but I think in fact, I had just gotten much stronger. Then you have more to write about.

Zibby: I know, I had the same thing. I used to write, and then I had kids. I basically stayed home for eleven years and didn’t pursue any big projects, things every so often. Just like you, my youngest of four is now in first grade. I’m like, ah, I feel like I’ve crossed over some sort of milestone. He can get himself dressed. Everybody can do their things now, so there’s finally the space. I do feel that when people are in that, at least certainly for me and it sounds like for you, it felt like it would never come back. I had gotten off track. You could not get back on that track. I was watching other people keep going on the track while I was not on the track at all and thinking, oh, well, I guess my life didn’t go that way. I guess that success will not be mine, and that’s okay. More power to them. It’s not the case with writing. I feel like writers — so many people on this podcast are in their forties, fifties, sixties. I feel like your mind maybe has to get to a certain place. It all just kind of shifts. I don’t know. If I had to predict, if you were a child who liked to write and a teacher told you you were a good writer in about third grade, if you were a lawyer or even thought about being a lawyer, and if you love to read in your forties and fifties, watch out, you’re going to publish a book.

Katherine: I remember when my sons were two and four, people would say to me, what are you writing? I’d be like, nothing, but I brushed my teeth today. That’s progress. I definitely had the feeling that writing was happening for other people. I was not as kind as you thinking, great, good for them. I was always very depressed. I remember when we watched Breaking Bad for the first time. Gale, the chemist, has all those notebooks where he just writes prolifically. I remember seeing that and feeling sad because I wasn’t a writer. I didn’t keep notebooks, even. Everything conspired to make me feel bad about it. It was a huge thing. Everybody, if you want to write, you should go back to it, is my advice. It’ll be there.

Zibby: When you went back to it, did you start with a big project? Did you say, okay, now I’m going to work on stories; now I’m going to work on a novel? How did you structure it, or did you just sort of dabble for a little bit first?

Katherine: For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t write a novel. It felt like I didn’t have the reach or the maturity or the interest or whatever. When I was in my early forties and my son went back to school, I thought, okay, I’m just going to be a short story writer. Once I decided that, stories came faster almost than I could write them down. The first story I wrote after a long break was a story about a child’s tenth birthday party and how it goes wrong in every single way. I always found children’s parties to be the most stressful events, worse than dinner parties, even. I often wonder if my sons are going to look back on their birthdays and their predominant memory will be my really unhappy face because I’m worrying about the entertainer or the cake or whatever. I wrote a story about that. Then the stories just came very quickly. A lot of them didn’t have plots because not a lot of my work has plots. The later work does. The earlier work doesn’t. I forget, even, what was your question? Oh, what did I go back — I started doing stories. Then a couple of the stories, I started revisiting because I had more to say about those characters. That’s what became my first collection and my first novel.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you ever think about bringing back some of your earlier characters? Do they still take up space in your head in some way, like you think about them and wonder what they’re up to?

Katherine: I do. The secondary character in my first novel, Audra, was a very unfiltered person. I still think of things that she would say sometimes. I’m like, oh, I wish I was writing that book. In general, I think sequels are really hard. I’m not sure I would ever write a sequel. After I finished Early Morning Riser, I had very major book hangover or whatever you call it. Everything I started to write wound up being about a teacher in Northern Michigan with two girls. I’m just like, okay. Then I got this amazing fan letter from a woman in Boyne City, where the novel takes place, saying that she moved there to be an elementary school teacher. She married her local boyfriend after a very rocky courtship. They had two daughters. Now she’s seventy-two. She said, “I’ve always loved my life, but your book made me realize anybody would be proud to have my life.” That was the most beautiful — I was like, oh, I have closure. That’s why writers write books, is to get that kind of letter. It really helped me put the book to bed and not keep wanting to be there. It was a really fun book to write. It was hard to say goodbye.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so nice. Wouldn’t it be crazy if, actually, all characters, there were those people and maybe they just didn’t know that they had whole books written about them? Then were you able to move on and start something new? What are you working on now?

Katherine: I just finished a short story collection. One of the stories in it is loosely based on the time when I was in my twenties. I lived in New York City. I worked as an office temp. One day, through hangover error and laundry crisis, I wore a bridesmaid’s dress to my office job. Then I spent the rest of the day calling people to tell them how hilarious it was. My friend Mary took the subway forty stops to come see me. I’m not a great fan of the aging process, but the older you get, the better stories you have to tell. The fact that I have that story and I can make a character do that is really funny to me.

Zibby: That is funny.

Katherine: Short stories, in a way, it’s harder than a novel because it’s like you’re starting over fresh with the characters. Also, I think you can take more chances and maybe be a little more experimental in a short story because it’s like, oh, it’s just twenty pages. I just finished that. It’ll be out next year. It’s called Games and Rituals.

Zibby: I love it. Wow, congratulations. I once went to a wedding. I was with my husband or soon-to-be husband at the time. It was his friends. I didn’t even really know them, the people who were getting married. I showed up wearing the same exact dress as all the bridesmaids, but I wasn’t a bridesmaid. It was a red Ann Taylor dress. All night, people were coming over and congratulating me and asking me where the bathroom was and all these things. I’m like, I don’t even know these people. I just met them. It was crazy.

Katherine: Did the bride get angry?

Zibby: No, she thought it was hilarious. She’s like, “Well, I love that dress. It’s my favorite dress. That’s why I picked it.” I was like, okay.

Katherine: The day that I wore the bridesmaid’s dress and my friend Mary took the subway and we went out to lunch — it was at a deli. I wasn’t paying attention. When they called my name, I didn’t go up. The guy behind the counter was like, “Um, hello, woman in the prom dress.” That made me really happy too. It was not a sleeveless dress, which is what everybody asks me. That would’ve been even greater. It was a Laura Ashley. It was a two-piece dress, which is maybe why I thought it would be okay for office wear. Can you imagine the people in the office? They must have been like, don’t get that temp again. She’s insane. It was black. It had puffed sleeves and a sort of floral — it was shiny. There was no real way I passed it off as office wear, but this is what sleep deprivation does to you. You make these decisions early in the morning, and you have to live with them throughout the day.

Zibby: The pre-Zoom world of being trapped in a certain spot all day long, and that’s the end of it. Love it. How great that you just went to a deli. Why not use it for a scene? Of course. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Katherine: Keep going. The whole thing about your brain being a muscle and your imagination getting stronger the more you work it, it’s really trite, but it’s really true. When I taught creative writing, my students never sent anything out. They’d never submitted their work. I was like, elves are not going to come in the night and publish this stuff. You’ve got to get it out there. I sent stories out almost as soon as I started writing them. I mean, I would wait. I would polish them. I would submit them. I would say get your work out there. Don’t take rejections personally. Just keep going.

Zibby: I once went and took a writing class. I like writing personal essays, not short stories. I took this class with Sue Shapiro about writing for magazines and newspapers back when there were magazines and newspapers. She said always have a whole spreadsheet or a whole list. Don’t take it personally. You have your list of twenty places you’re going to send it. As soon as the one comes back and says no, you cross it off and just go right to the next one. You don’t stop. You don’t think. It just means it’s not right for that. Moving on. That whole approach has helped me through so much stuff. You have your list. Moving on.

Katherine: When I sent the story to The New Yorker while I was still in graduate school, it had been thirty other places. Then my friend Jennifer was like, “You’re supposed to start with The New Yorker.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” I sent it in on a Thursday. Roger Angell called me on Friday. I didn’t even know the mail worked that fast, let alone — this man called with a deep voice and was like, “Is Katherine Heiny there?” I thought it was the landlord wondering where the rent was. I was like, “She’s gone. She’s out of town for the whole weekend. Can I take a message?” He was like, “This is Roger Angell from The New Yorker.” I was like, “Oh, wait, it’s me. It’s me.” I think I cemented my image as sort of a ninny for all time by pretending not to be myself. He called to take the story. I almost didn’t send it in. Every writer’s path to where they are is very different, but all of them show persistence.

Zibby: Yes. I love that image of elves in the night publishing stories. It’s so great. What if that’s the way life worked?

Katherine: That would be great. It would save us all so much work.

Zibby: Maybe you could write a short story about that.

Katherine: I know. I just thought, oh, wow, maybe I could.

Zibby: Go for it. Send it to me when it’s done. I’d like to read it. Katherine, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for the true pleasure of reading your book, which I absolutely adored. The way you write, your sentences, your scenes, your sense of humor, the quirkiness to it, it’s just great. It’s just a total joy. It was a total joy. Thank you.

Katherine: Thank you. It was my pleasure. We’re friends on Facebook, so I’ve sort of been stalking you from afar for a couple of years now. You’re just as charming in person — well, live — as you are on Facebook.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s really nice. If you’re ever in New York and you want, I could try to charm you in actual person.

Katherine: I would love that. We can wear bridesmaid’s dresses and meet for coffee somewhere.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that would be so funny. I would love it, little bridesmaid’s party.

Katherine: Let’s do it.

Zibby: Let’s do it. I’m in. I’m totally in. Deli sandwiches all the way. Bye, Katherine.

Katherine: Bye.


EARLY MORNING RISER by Katherine Heiny

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