Friday, August 7, 2015

Katherine Heiny Offers Her Apologies

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Heiny, author of Single, Carefree, Mellow (Alfred A. Knopf), talks about some things she regrets—and some she doesn't.

I would like to start with an apology to all my former students who asked about the protocol for using details from real life in fiction, and to whom I said the policy was full speed ahead and take no prisoners. Now that I’ve had a book published, I understand that it’s a little more complicated than that.

I would like to apologize to the principal of a middle school in my hometown because I wrote a story about a teacher who was a sexual predator and I used a name generator to find a name for the character, and when it suggested “Mr. Poole,” I thought it sounded good and natural but I really didn’t think about why it might sound good and natural. The story was published first in The Atlantic and then in my collection, giving everyone in my hometown two chances to see it.  (Mr. Poole, I really am so sorry!)

I would like to apologize to the friend whose boyfriend ejaculated prematurely in Lake Michigan and the semen floated around, following them—and I used that in a story.  I would also like to apologize to my former roommate who confessed to me that a man she’d just given a blow job to told her he wasn’t sure he’d consider her his girlfriend, and I used that in a story, too.
Wholesome family fare: TED talks, BS walks

I would like to apologize to my children, since I have taken every cute or funny thing they have ever said and given it to a fictional child to say. I would like to apologize also to the guidance counselor at my children’s school for going in last week and asking a long rambling research question about the penalties for students who look at porn on school computers and only realizing far, far too late that the scenario I described didn’t sound exactly hypothetical. And I apologize further for not leaving her office meekly and speedily, but compounding my initial error by telling her that I wasn’t talking about my boys, that my boys would never do that, that my boys only watch TED talks on the Internet to improve their minds. And I said that actually they have to watch the TED talks at the library because we don’t even have wi-fi at our house. We don’t believe in it, I said. We don’t even watch TV, I said. We pretty much spend all our free time reading aloud from inspirational works. (I could see in her face that she desperately wanted me to stop talking but I couldn’t seem to.)

I apologize to my husband for having all the male characters in my stories tell the female characters boring facts. My husband would like me to apologize to his first wife for using all sorts of details from their marriage in my fiction, but I don’t really see the point of that. What’s she going to do—not speak to us for another twenty years?

Fiction, for me, has always been at least as much about re-invention as it is about invention. And if you think that I’m truly sorry for using any detail from real life to make a story better or funnier—well, that may be an invention on your part.