Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with the Fabulous Katherine Heiny- Early Morning Riser

July 30th, 2021
Books & Authors

Katherine Heiny, author of the delightful Early Morning Riser, is such a talented writer that as soon as I finished it,  I immediately bought Heiny’s other two books- Standard Deviation and Single, Carefree, Mellow.

Early Morning Riser starts with Jane, a young second grade teacher who has just moved to small-town Boyne City, Michigan. She gets locked out of her house and when the local locksmith/carpenter/furniture restorer and town Lothario comes to help, not only does Jane spend the night with him, she ends up spending her life with him. Don’t worry, a fair few curve balls are thrown in, giving this story a plot, but it is essentially a character-driven novel, and what characters Heiny’s imagination has penned!  Jane learns all  about community, loyalty, love and what constitutes family from the quirky cast. Heiny’s writing is sharply observant, tender, insightful and often, very funny.

But don’t listen to me-

I’d read the back of a cereal box if it was written by Katherine Heiny –  Forbes

The perfect pick me-up, filled to the brim with lovable eccentrics and delightful oddballs – Newsweek

Early Morning Riser is a charming, witty and heartwarming novel about life and love in a small town that is destined to improve your mood and restore your faith in humankind. Katherine Heiny — who has long been a personal favorite writer of mine — is at the height of her storytelling powers. Every sentence is a treat!  – Elin Hilderbrand, bestselling author of 28 Summers

Here’s my Q&A with Heiny who lives in Washington D.C.

  • How did the germ of an idea for this novel come to you?

My original idea was about a brother and sister who hire someone to get in a minor car accident with their mother (they want her to stop driving) and the man they hire is the local lothario, Duncan. That story didn’t work, but I liked Duncan so I kept him and started over with Jane. Once I started writing, I wanted to see how Jane’s real life would differ from the life she planned, and who would remain in it. The car accident stayed in although in a very different form.

  • I read in an interview that you said it wasn’t until you read Bridget Jones Diary and High Fidelity that you realised humour could have a more serious side. Can you expand on this?

I just had this weird idea that books had to be SERIOUS. I’d read Heartburn by Nora Ephron and loved it, but that seemed like a one-off or some exception or something. I read a lot of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro and Joan Didion—all wonderful writers but not especially comic ones.  Then I read Bridget Jones Diary and High Fidelity (I read them back-to-back) and it was like my head cracked open.  I realized a novel could have humor and melancholy at the same time.  I was thirty years old at the time, amazingly.  I can be kind of slow on the uptake.

  • I have to ask- How many of your characters are based on real people you know? Was there a Casanova like Duncan in your life or an unfailingly frank mother anything like Jane’s or an ex-wife as luscious and controlling as Aggie?

Surprisingly, no! Although Jane’s children shared certain personality traits with my children, and I am addicted to thrift stores. Also my younger son had a meltdown in Berlin Legoland that was very similar to the one Patrice has in the Kilwin’s factory. I did know of a teacher in middle school who used the term “team teaching” to mean another teacher taught both classes while he went outside and smoked a cigarette and that was the inspiration for Mr. Robicheaux.

  • Where do you get your ideas? Do you sit in a coffee shop and take notes, do you have tons of girlfriends with relationship issues and/or do you just think them up on the fly in the bath or on a walk? Or none of the above?

Usually a story or plot or character starts out as something so small—an overheard remark or fifth-hand gossip or a weird exchange in the supermarket—and I build on it from there. I’m afraid to use my friends’ relationship stories for fear they’ll stop confiding in me, and I really love gossip.

A long time ago, I read that Stephen King goes for a long walk before he starts writing and I thought that Anything Stephen King does is something I should do, so I began doing that and now it’s been part of my writing routine for so long that I have a hard time writing without walking first. Lots of ideas come to me during the walk, but also a surprising amount of stuff just reveals itself to me as I work. That makes me sound crazy, since I’m obviously the one thinking up ideas, but when I’m caught up in a project, it often does feel like connections and insights are given to me by the characters instead of the other way around.

  • What was the most difficult part of writing this book? And the easiest?

The easiest parts were the dinner parties, the classroom scenes, the field trip, and any scene involving Jane’s mother. I remember writing the scene where Jane’s mother talks to Duncan about menopause late at night and then going upstairs and telling my husband, “You won’t believe what Jane’s mother just said!” The hardest chapter to write was the one where Glenn is born—it was so difficult to come up with a fresh perspective on pregnancy and birth but I felt like I needed to show Jane experiencing it.

  • Which authors do you most admire? People have compared you to Ann Tyler and Nora Ephron. Any comment?

Everything I am, everything I hope to be, I owe to Anne Tyler.  She’s a genius and I have loved her work for so long.  I reread her novels frequently and never fail to find something new to admire. I want to BE Nora Ephron—she was such an amazing person—so the idea that I write a little bit like her is an unbelievable compliment. I also love Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver, Louise Erdrich, Ira Levin, Elmore Leonard, Nick Hornby, Alice Thomas Ellis, and about a million other writers.  There’s so much talent and great writing out in the world—we’re really lucky. If I was given a choice between a million dollars and having the memory of one book I’ve loved deleted, it would be a really hard choice.

  • Another question I have to ask- is it true that “for every fifty grams of cinnamon, the FDA allows up to ten rodent hairs and four hundred insect fragments?” That poor second grade class, traumatised forever. Did you spend time with second graders to come up with your hilarious dialogue?

I googled that statistic about the cinnamon and since everything on the internet is obviously true so … I guess so? I have two sons and I was in their second-grade classes quite a bit and hosted innumerable playdates so I have spent a lot of time with second-graders but I wasn’t thinking of any particular kid when I wrote the dialogue—it was more a mindset.  Seven-year-olds have no filter, and their priorities and observations are often so surprising.  My son’s second-grade class took a field trip to a battlefield once and the ONLY thing he could remember afterwards was what movie they watched on the bus.

  • What is your writing process- do you plan it all out or just write spontaneously. Somehow, I am guessing the latter because your writing flows so well.

I didn’t plan my first novel very well and as a result, it has a tendency to ramble.  I outlined EMR a bit more carefully and I think that made it stronger. I don’t write chronologically—I skip back and forth and write whatever part is interesting me that day—although I usually finish one chapter before starting the next. The “flow” is very important to me and I will write and rewrite dialogue over and over until it reads just like it sounds in my head.  Basically, I think I have weird control and perfectionism issues and will keep tinkering until my editor says, “Send it to me NOW.”

  • I also read in aninterview that you write to make sense of things. Is that true for EMR, and if so, how?

I think all writers write to make sense of things.  When you have to examine an incident or thought closely enough to make it real and interesting to a reader, you learn a lot about yourself and your thought processes. And it’s like the way everyone re-read The Stand at the beginning of the pandemic—there’s nothing so comforting as a controlled narrative.

         Tell us something surprising about yourself?

When I was a struggling freelance writer in New York City, I once spent my last $1.25 on a jelly doughnut even though it meant I wouldn’t have subway fare and had to walk about 60 blocks home. I don’t regret it one bit.

          What’s next?

I’m working on a story collection and one of the stories is about a group of teenagers who play strip poker with the youth minister.  This actually happened to a friend of mine and he was kind enough to give me permission to write about it.

Thank you so much and happy writing!

July, 2021

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