Katherine Heiny, GAMES AND RITUALS: Stories

Katherine Heiny, GAMES AND RITUALS: Stories

Zibby speaks to beloved author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Katherine Heiny about Games and Rituals, a beautiful collection of stories brimming with humor, tenderness, and empathy. Katherine talks about her favorite stories (they involve the DMV, teenagers smoking weed, hearing aids being mistaken for cashews, infidelity, and dying parents). She reveals that all her stories are inspired by real events and shares how each one came to be (one of them took her 35 years!!). Finally, the two share their top book recommendations.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Games and Rituals: Stories. Thank you.

Katherine Heiny: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You are so funny. Your sense of humor is so amazing in these stories. You’re so clever and so unexpected, just your view of human nature and how people interact. First of all, I will never take a driving test again the same way. All your stories, it’s really amazing. I’m such a huge fan. You’re such a huge talent. It’s just wonderful to read.

Katherine: Thank you.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners about the story collection and why a story collection after Early Morning Riser and when these stories started and the backstories of the stories?

Katherine: The DMV story, the first one, comes to you courtesy of my son’s driving test. I took him there for the road test. We had to go sit in a different part of the DMV. I could see the driving examiners. One of them was a woman. Because I watch a lot of true crime, I was like, Ted Bundy had a driver’s license. That means somebody gave him a driving test. Maybe that was a woman. I shouldn’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. I think I write to make sense of the world. I write to process things. I love it that you’re nodding really .

Zibby: I’m nodding. I do the same thing. I totally understand.

Katherine: When I’m tense or stressed, I write more because I’m trying to process things. I wrote the whole outline of that story on a receipt from my purse. It just came to me very quickly. I knew the broad strokes of it. Then I actually wrote it before driving out of state to get an abortion became such a topical — I very accidentally wrote a politically relevant story. That never happened to me before. That instant actually happened just before the pandemic. Then I didn’t write the story until 2021. I had a lot of trouble writing during the actual lockdown part of the pandemic, which I think is because we were all super stressed. Also, I think I was too isolated. I didn’t have enough exposure to funny things. Before the pandemic, I flew to Michigan to see my parents. A man on the flight told me politely that the legs of his underpants were too tight. I was just like, that’s a gift. I’m so happy. I was like, is everything that happens to me from here on out going to be less than? Since being out and being inspired by things that happen, even if they’re not what you write, they sort of put you in the mood to write. I would say about half the stories were written in the time between Standard Deviation and Early Morning Riser. I wrote some stories. Then the other half were planned during the pandemic and then written in a big burst probably right around starting maybe spring of ’21. Except there was one story, the title story, “Games and Rituals,” I actually wrote that when I was in graduate school. We found it when we were moving.

My husband read it. He said, “I love it. I want it to be in your new book, and I want that to be the title.” Nobody ever likes my titles, so I thought maybe they’ll like Ian’s. It was funny because I updated it a little bit. Then my editor read it. She was like, “It’s almost like this takes place in the nineties.” I was like, “Guess what? It takes place in the eighties.” I updated it because it was really hilarious. People were leaving each other voicemails on home answering machines and stuff. I have such a fondness for that story. My children are now older than I was when I wrote that story. It’s a really weird Lion King circle of life. They’re not writers, so it’s not really. The second story is called “Damascus.” It’s about the mother who suspects her teenage son of smoking weed. When I was in high school and I would go out drinking to parties, I would come home — my parents’ bedroom was right at the top of the stairs. I would go in there, and I would basically do stand-up at the foot of their bed for half an hour before I went to bed. My parents never ever thought it was anything other than spontaneous sociability. I wanted to write this story about a mother who’s sort of projecting her own teen years onto her very nice teen son. That’s how that story came about. I sort of stalled out with the idea until I thought of the idea that maybe she does the drugs that she’s so worried about him. That really allowed me to finish the story. Also, she has an ex-husband with whom she has a very complicated relationship. I think I like to write about relationships after they’ve ended. What’s left over? The fact that neither of those characters have gotten married to anybody else in twelve years makes me think there’s still a connection there.

Zibby: Wait, can we talk about “Damascus” for a minute?

Katherine: Sure.

Zibby: I’m kind of obsessed with this. With all your stories, you don’t see where it’s going at all, whether it’s going off the embankment, literally in one story, or the drug use of the mom and, actually, the sexual assault and awful stuff that happens to her that she’s so flippant about in her own high school years. There is this passage — can I read two paragraphs? Is that okay?

Katherine: Sure.

Zibby: You wrote, “Mia knew how drug use started. It started for her when she got invited to a party. It was the kind of party that other kids went to every single weekend, but she only got invited this one time, and she wanted to make sure she got invited again. So when someone passed a joint around this party and everyone looked at Mia expectantly, she took a hit, saw them still looking, and took another hit. Mia really had been shit at resisting peer pressure in high school, but over time, she began to think these other kids were onto something. Being high made every cell in your body relax and made every social situation manageable. She became funny and extroverted, and suddenly, she had tons of friends, tons of parties to go to. She had begun to feel that stoned Mia was the real Mia, and sober Mia was like someone with an unmedicated condition, an ulcer or a migraine, and nobody thought people with ulcers or migraines shouldn’t be medicated. Everyone had the right to treat their afflictions. Soon, Mia had to smoke in the morning before school and at lunch hour and during bathroom breaks in the afternoon, because the afternoons were just too fucking long without it, and after school and before dinner and after dinner and before bed, never mind the weekends when it was one long inhalation from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.” I’m obsessed with this passage. Also, having been a very shy teenager and having felt much more open when I was drinking — not that I want my kids to hear this. I do write about it. It’s fine. The fact that there is this solution to introversion, essentially, that Mia has also stumbled upon, I related and just loved that passage.

Katherine: I had written maybe two thirds of the story. I don’t write chronologically. I’ll leave two question marks, and then I’ll come back to it later. I remember writing that thinking, I need a transition scene here to explain her past drug usage. Then I remember writing it and it making me really happy. I get migraines. I was like, we all do have the right to treat our afflictions, which seems like the totally self-serving but also weirdly prissy things teens say. Sometimes they say these really judgmental, sort of puritan things. It’s very funny. I like to write about teenagers a lot.

Zibby: There’s so much material there. I have two teenagers right now myself. I feel like I could fill many books just talking about what they do and say every day.

Katherine: I feel like in an uncertain world, teenagers are always going to make bonkers decisions. You can rely on it.

Zibby: That’s even like how you write in the DMV story, about that teenagers, it’s almost like they’re just so stupid. They make these driving judgement calls because they just lack — obviously, we all know the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed for teenagers. The decisions of taking off a sweatshirt in the middle of an intersection, they just don’t think it through. You’re almost forgiving of it. It’s almost like it’s not even their fault. They just don’t even know any better.

Katherine: That’s just the way they are. When my younger son chose the college that he wanted to go to, he actually researched it based on, “These are the classes I want to take,” whereas most people that I went to high school with chose college based on whether the cafeteria served caffeinated beverages. I just think teenagers are really dangerous and crazy for a long time, but we’re all used to it.

Zibby: You just go with it. Anyway, I cut you off and started having you talk about “Damascus,” but if you want to run through the rest or whatever you were going through…

Katherine: I’m thinking of the order. Then there’s the story “Twist and Shout,” which is about a woman whose elderly father mistakes his hearing aid for a cashew and eats it, which my dad did.

Zibby: Stop.

Katherine: No, he did. First of all, he had these really rubbish hearing aids that he got from something that he wrote away in the back of a magazine. Then I saw them — this is so bizarre. I think it was on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. One of them was talking about their super expensive, great hearing aids. I was like, Dad needs this. I made these appointments. I flew to Michigan. I took him to the appointments. It was really, really helping. Then he was having some cashews. He took it out. I guess he didn’t notice. I don’t know. He crunched it up. We had to go to the audiologist. I tell them what happened. I’m like, “Is this not the most hilarious thing ever?” They were like, “Oh, it happens all the time.” It was still under warranty.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Did you go to another doctor?

Katherine: No, same one.

Zibby: Didn’t you have to talk to internists about what happens when you eat a hearing aid?

Katherine: He spit it out. He crunched it up. That was another story that I started and didn’t know where it was going. Then this is going to sound so depressing, but my dad actually died at the end of 2020.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Katherine: There are three stories in the collection that deal with an elderly parent dying. It’s, once again, because I was trying to make sense of it. I feel like I’m about to make you cry. I’m really sorry.

Zibby: No, no, no.

Katherine: You just looked very sad and sympathetic. I thought, oh.

Zibby: I’m not actually going to cry. I feel really sad that you had to go through that. It’s very sad. My heart was going out to you. That’s all. I’m okay.

Katherine: My dad was ninety-two. He thought he had the greatest life, which he did because he was married to my mom, and for other reasons. It made it a lot easier saying goodbye knowing he thought he had a really great run, which he did. My dad was very conservative, although not as conservative as the dad in the story. Once when I took my dad to the audiologist — this was after he’d eaten the hearing aid. He couldn’t hear anything. There was another man in the audiologist waiting room. He was there with his mom. He and I could hear each other, so we got really excited to talk to each other. I remember thinking, in the story, I want him to be in it. I want him to be the husband she would have in this alternate universe. Then as I was writing the story, it became funnier to make it about her teenage self. See, I always go back to — it’s being the mother of teenagers that’s constantly inspiring.

Zibby: How old are your teenagers now?

Katherine: They are actually twenty and twenty-two, so they’re not quite teenagers anymore. Although, I think the pandemic put everybody back, maturity-wise, by five years. How old are your teenagers?

Zibby: Fifteen. They’re twins.

Katherine: That’s a lot. I’m trying to think of the other stories.

Zibby: You don’t have to go through every single one if you don’t want. I’m loving hearing the backstory of the stories. The first one that we were talking about at the DMV was called “Chicken Flavored and Lemon Scented,” based on The Chelsea Girls. “Damascus,” “Twist and Shout,” “Turn Back, Turn Back,” “Games and Rituals,” “Cobra,” “561,” Pandemic Behavior,” “Bridesmaid, Revisited,” “King Midas,” and “Sky Bar.”

Katherine: “Turn Back, Turn Back,” I had an idea of this couple meeting in their New York kitchen and discussing his infidelity but masked in the parameters of the fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom. In the story, the beautiful maiden says, “It was all a dream,” as she lays out the robber bridegroom’s crimes. I had this idea. It took me thirty-five years to write the story. It took me a while to work out the details. I just remember having that very specific idea but not knowing how to make it a story because I was twenty-two. Sometimes I could recognize material but not be able to do anything with it. That was a really gratifying story to write after so long.

Zibby: How do you not lose all those ideas? Even the receipt, do you pin it up to a bulletin board? How did you remember this idea? Do you have a notebook? I don’t remember anything I was thinking from thirty-five years ago, basically.

Katherine: I just have that kind of memory. I never forget anything. Although, a really funny thing is that in “Turn Back, Turn Back,” she finds the Starbucks receipt, and that’s what starts making her suspicious of her husband. When I was finally writing the story, I went to Starbucks. I bought a coffee. Then I was like, now what could I find from the receipt if I was looking? They were super helpful. Then when I left, the girl was like, “I’m so sorry about your husband.” I think she didn’t believe the story at all. She was like, oh, . Who knows what other misunderstandings it led to. That was a really fun story to write because it’s more like a detective story than I usually write. That was fun. Then in “Pandemic Behavior” — I get migraines. They got a lot worse during the pandemic. I did start getting these injections. I have my husband to inject me. It’s very hard to inject yourself. I was like, what if I didn’t have him? What if it was just some clueless roommate? Then I began writing that story. I loved the roommate so much. The whole book, I loved writing, but the drunk speech that gives about bikini waxes is probably my favorite part. That was probably the most fun.

Zibby: Basically, the stories, it’s like stand-up. It’s like you just observe. You laugh to yourself. Then you turn them into stories for the rest of us to laugh at. It’s very clever.

Katherine: That’s a nice way to look at it. I do remember funny things. They do stick out for me. There’s that part of Heartburn by Nora Ephron where —

Zibby: — Oh, my gosh, I just started rereading that. I bought it in the airport the other day. I was like, I haven’t read this in years. It’s been reissued. I should totally read this again. Maybe I’ll have a new view of it. I started it. I was like, this is so good. It’s even better than the first time I read it years ago.

Katherine: This is only your second reread?

Zibby: This is only my second reading.

Katherine: Oh, my gosh. See, I think I reread it every time I mention it. I’ll probably start rereading it again tonight. There’s a part where she talks about how her therapist says that when she retells a story, she varies it slightly to make it more interesting. The narrator is like, me, once I get a story going, I don’t change a syllable. I feel like maybe that’s how I do remember things. I sort of craft them into a story. Then it’s easier to access because you’re accessing the story rather than a random event. I told you at the beginning we are in Florida on vacation. Yesterday, we all went swimming in the pool. As my husband got out, some man sitting there was like, “Are you British? What do you know about World War II?” They had this half-an-hour talk. It made my husband really happy. I’m like, was this some sort of very specific honey trap situation? What are the odds this guy is just hanging out there? I’ll always remember that because it was really funny. We made fun of my husband the whole day about it.

Zibby: As if there’s a lack of people who know about World War II.

Katherine: I know. It was a really weird sort of approach. Does he do that to every British person? Is his family like, “This is the fourth guy this week you’ve bombarded about World War II”? My husband really likes to read books about military history and World War II in particular. If I thought of it, I could’ve given him this as an anniversary gift , but it did actually happen spontaneously.

Zibby: It turns out from now on, this man comes on all your family vacations or parties you don’t want to go to. There he is in the corner. I love it. When you’re putting the stories together, how important was the order to you? How much time did you spend on figuring out which went first, second? How did you do that?

Katherine: It was very important to me. Usually, I only like the story that I’ve most recently written. Every time I would write a story, it would go on at the beginning. My editor saw that when she read it. We mixed it up a lot of different ways and tried to make a balance. There’s a couple of first-person stories. There’s also a couple of stories that take place during the pandemic and a couple after the pandemic. We wanted it to be evenly weighted.

Zibby: How do you know when it’s a story versus that you should save it and turn it into a novel?

Katherine: Both my previous novels started out as short stories. I just had more things to say about those characters, so I went back. I also think that short stories that I used to write, nothing ever happened. It was all character development, no plot whatsoever. I’ve learned to do that a little bit, plot. That shit is hard. I see why Stephen King and Elmore Leonard get the big bucks. This is really difficult. The early stories that I wrote, I was like, wow, I really like Jane and Duncan. I want to write a whole book about them. Here, I felt like I was choosing stories that could only be told as a story. The arc was smaller. There are still things like — last winter, our furnace stopped working. We called the furnace guy. He comes over. He says he can only look at it. He can’t do anything because he doesn’t have his van or his tools.

Zibby: Why did he come?

Katherine: Why did you come? Then he’s like, “It could be an air bubble. It could not be an air bubble.” I’m like, “Schrödinger’s air bubble,” which made me really happy. He didn’t laugh at all. four more times. I was like, I have to write a story about this guy. He’s a thing that I think he could work in a novel. He could be a character. Certain things just come to me. They seem like I could make a story of it. Stories are always easier than novels. Maybe it’s just doing something that’s easier. I would say all the stories in the collection were inspired by some real event.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Do you have a novel going now?

Katherine: I have a new one that I’m planning. It has a lot of teenagers in it.

Zibby: I bet.

Katherine: A lot of people make really bad decisions. It has lots of plot. That’s all I want to say for right now.

Zibby: Those sound like good ingredients. Practicing your plotting, bravo.

Katherine: When I’m writing whatever project, I always want to know what the next project is going to be. If I don’t know that, then I get nervous that there won’t be another project. For years and years and years, I didn’t write anything. I’m always sort of afraid it’s going to go away again.

Zibby: Like you used it all up. You used the content up. There will be no more ideas. That was a fun run. That’s it, pretty much. I just love the idea that you’re going through life picking up these hilarious isolated moments and memorializing them in some way. This sounds so stupid, what I’m about to say. Life is so ridiculous and so crazy and so funny, all the everyday stuff. Seinfeld did it one way. This is another way of the everyday becoming just — I don’t know. Never mind.

Katherine: That’s a huge compliment. Usually when I plan a story, the funny parts are the parts I write first. Those are the ones that are the inspiration. I think that any story — this is also in a novel, but it has to be tighter in a short story. You have to be weaving two things together. It’s not enough to be like — once, when I — I think I was in graduate school. A man eyed me through the sneeze guard of a salad bar and then tried to kiss me.

Zibby: What?

Katherine: He was like, “I’m sorry. You reminded me of someone else.” It was this bonkers encounter. I remember wanting to write a story about it but not knowing how to do it. I think as you get older and wiser and the more you write, the stronger you get. Then you learn there has to be at least two threads, maybe more, that you’re pulling in and weaving together. If it’s going to be a really satisfying short story that’s going to maybe even encapsulate a character’s whole life, then there has to be some sort of texture, some weaving going on.

Zibby: Interesting. Amazing. Go back to the beach. Thank you for taking the time inside talking to me today.

Katherine: It was so fun.

Zibby: It was so fun. Thank you. I want to hear all of the funny things that happen in your days. I get such a kick out of it. I love your sense of humor so much. Thank you.

Katherine: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me on the show.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure.

Katherine: Just quickly, tell me what I should read. I’m in a reading slump.

Zibby: You have to read Jane Roper’s The Society of Shame. I just finished it two days ago. It’s a satire. I laughed so hard. The first chapter, I was crying. I also had no expectations. I didn’t know it was going to be funny. It didn’t seem like it would be funny. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.

Katherine: It’s by Jane Roper, but what’s the title?

Zibby: The Society of Shame.

Katherine: Society of Shame.

Zibby: It comes out in two days or something. A couple days. I think it comes out Tuesday.

Katherine: Anything else?

Zibby: Anything else? I just finished Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Katherine: Was it awesome?

Zibby: It was funny, also very funny. What else? Enchantment, Katherine May. She’s more poetic, beautiful. Also, it’s a lot about anxiety. It’s a different take on pandemic life and all of that. Not all about the pandemic. She’s very funny writing about how all she wanted to do was be on Twitter. Yet you’re reading the book. She’s talking about how she can’t read. Yet you’re reading it, so you already feel like you’re doing better.

Katherine: Did you read — this was a book last year — We All Want Impossible Things?

Zibby: My favorite book.

Katherine: So good.

Zibby: Favorite book of last year. I loved it so much. I just sold it in my bookstore yesterday to somebody. They were like, “I need a really great book.” I was like, “You have to read this book. This is so great.”

Katherine: It made me want to go into hospice, in the best way. That was just such a standout book for me. Maybe I’ll go read it again.

Zibby: Between that and Nora Ephron, you should be pretty good.

Katherine: I’m jealous it’s only your second time through. Enjoy it.

Zibby: I know. I know. It’s so good again. I was younger when I read it. What should I read? Have you read anything great?

Katherine: I’m just reading This Story Will Change by Elizabeth Crane. Have you read that?

Zibby: I did not.

Katherine: It’s about the end of her marriage, but it’s written all in the third person, the wife and the husband. It’s very, very funny. It’s sad, but it’s funny. I really am liking that.

Zibby: I’ll write that down.

Katherine: I liked Either/Or, but not as much as I liked The Idiot. I reread books a lot. I think I reread more than I read new books.

Zibby: Interesting. I hardly ever reread.

Katherine: Jenny Jackson told me that rereading is comfort reading. It’s like comfort eating. You know it’s going to taste a certain way and be really satisfying. You deserve it. I’ve always done a lot of that.

Zibby: I love Jenny Jackson. I’m so excited for her and all of her success. It’s so amazing.

Katherine: I know. When she told me that she’d sold a book, I was like, so everybody’s going to know how cool and funny you are, not just me.

Zibby: She’s so awesome. I feel like I want to be like, couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. That’s awesome. Great, lots of reading now. Can’t wait.

Katherine: Let me know if I can add anything for clarity. Anytime you need anything, I’m here.

Zibby: Thank you. Me too.

Katherine: Such a pleasure.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Katherine Heiny, GAMES AND RITUALS: Stories

GAMES AND RITUALS: Stories by Katherine Heiny

Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts