With Writing, Opportunity Comes From Small Moments

Author Katherine Heiny describes how the best details in fiction can be ripped from small talk and eavesdropped conversations on the bus.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

“Few critics singled out Mr. Levin as a stylist,” The New York Times wrote in its obituary of Ira Levin, whose books—including Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives—were popular sensations in the '60s and '70s. Levin’s stories have long been enshrined in popular culture, but his writing itself never earned much literary cred.

Katherine Heiny—author of the new story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow—suggests we should reconsider Levin’s prose. Looking at a passage from The Stepford Wives, Heiny explains how Levin uses spare, spring-loaded sentences to depict a relationship with uncanny precision. In our conversation for this series, we discussed the importance of subtlety, the challenges of writing about domestic life, and Heiny's search for details that both capture the everyday and somehow transcend it.

Single, Mellow, Free, a debut collection, has had a long genesis: It began in 1992, when Heiny, then a Columbia MFA student, sold her first short story to The New Yorker. That piece, “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” falls somewhere between Anne Beattie and Patricia Highsmith—a young girl starts to pretend her roommate Boris is her domestic partner, and then takes it way too far. This—everyday life, slightly tweaked—is Heiny’s territory, and her investigations manage to be both heartbreaking and darkly comic.

Katherine Heiny’s fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Narrative, and elsewhere. She spoke to me by phone and email.

Katherine Heiny: When I was 13, on vacation with my family, my mother bought a copy of The Stepford Wives for me at a rummage sale. It’s the copy I still have, and it’s still the copy that I read. The cover is hilarious and very seventies: there are nine women’s faces in rows of three, and they have different hairstyles but their faces are all the same.

My mother had read the book and loved it, and passed it on to me. She didn’t tell me anything about it—“You’ll like this,” was all she said—and I knew nothing about the book. I think most people who read The Stepford Wives today have the surprise spoiled before they start—the novel’s title, after all, has become part of our popular lexicon. As with Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s breakout book, people use the term and expect you to be familiar with the plot. I was lucky to get to read it with the mystery intact.

There’s an accessible quality to Levin’s work that attracted me as a teenager. That approachable quality is probably one reason Levin tends to be dismissed as a “pop” writer, a characterization I don’t think is fair. Yes, his writing is clear and easy to read. But it’s never straightforward. The simplicity is deceiving.

Ira Levin is subtle in the way a vodka Collins is subtle: you’re innocently going along, thinking wow, this a light refreshing drink and the next thing you know, you wake up in bed with the pizza delivery guy and no idea where your clothes are. (This is literary hyperbole, I assure you.) The point—with both Levin and the vodka Collinses—is that you should have been paying attention.

Take, for example, the following scene, which is a great example of how much lurks beneath the surface of his plain-stated prose:

The bed was shaking. She lay in the dark seeing the darker dark of the open bathroom door, and the glint of the dresser's handles, and the bed kept shaking her in a slow steady rhythm, each shake accompanied by a faint spring-squeak, again and again and again. It was Walter who was shaking! He had a fever! Or the d.t.'s? She spun around and leaned to him on one arm, staring, reaching to find his brow. His eye-whites looked at her and turned instantly away; all of him turned from her, and the tenting of the blanket at his groin was gone as she saw it, replaced by the shape of his hip. The bed became still.

He had been—masturbating?

She didn't know what to say.

First of all, how great is it that he’s masturbating and her first thought is that he’s having the d.t.’s? Aside from being very funny, it says a lot about their marriage, or at least their sex life.

But let’s back up: Joanna, the main character, wakes up and the bed is shaking. Not that Levin spells that out. He just says: The bed is shaking. The reader and the character learn that at the same time, and I have always found that—I don’t know any other word for it—cool. I thought that technique was cool when I was 13 years old, and I think it’s cool now.

Joanna lies there, seeing the “darker dark of the bathroom” door. Some less talented author (me, for instance) would have written “while her eyes adjusted to the darkness,” but then I wouldn’t have spent the last thirty years appreciating the darker dark of an open door every time I got up in the middle of the night. And there’s the tenting of the blanket at his groin, replaced by his hip. Walter, Joanna’s husband, has a boner, as my teenage sons say, and he’s turned on his side away from her, and that’s about the neatest, most literary way to describe it that I can imagine.

Okay, so the bed is shaking. That’s scary, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t seen The Exorcist. But the scariness is elusive here: it’s not shaking because of a demon, or even an earthquake, it’s shaking because her husband is shaking, and her husband is shaking because he’s pleasuring himself quite vigorously and apparently doesn’t have the sense to go off and do it in private like a normal person.

Now why is he masturbating, other than the most universal of reasons? Walter has spent the evening at the Men’s Association and if you know the basic premise of the book—that the husbands have conspired to murder their wives and replace them with robots—then you can guess that Walter is all fluffed up because he’s been given a big preview of what the robots are willing to do sexually. Whatever it is, he likes it—a lot—because after she recovers from the shock of him masturbating next to her, Joanna has sex with him and “it turned out to be one of their best times ever—for her, at least.” Poor Joanna, so trusting! Of course it’s not the best time for Walter—that will come later when he has the first overnight with the robot, we assume.

This scene is over almost before it starts, and it’s never referred to again—not one single time!—until over a hundred pages later when Joanna has worked out the truth about the robot/murder scheme. She hurls a few accusations at her husband: “The robot! What does it cost? Would you tell me? I’m dying to know. What the going price for a stay-in-the-kitchen wife with big boobs and no demands?” And then finally, she yells, “What were you doing, trying it for size?” and the reader’s mind flashes back to the bed shaking. Walter doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to. The reader knows the truth. The reader knew the truth back when it first happened. If only Joanna knew. It would have saved her life, and her death breaks my heart more than the death any other character in fiction.

But what I find most remarkable about this scene is that it occurs so early in the book—page 16—and yet, if you’re reading carefully, it tells you everything you need to know about Walter and his involvement and his premeditation and his overall odiousness. It’s all there in the first chapter! Levin doesn’t hide anything from the reader—he just asks that the reader be alert. Joanna wasn’t paying attention but Ira Levin was.

That’s one of the reasons this book is so rewarding to re-read—and I have, many, many times. It’s not that the book is spoiled once you know what happens in the end. Instead, little moments and small gestures shift somehow and start to take on greater significance. You realize Levin had left so many clues out in broad daylight that first-time reader—and Joanna herself—did not pick up on until too late.

One example, of many, occurs when Joanna goes over to a friend’s house to find her doing laundry for another of the wives who’s fallen sick. “But soon she’ll be good as new,” the friend says—an innocuous statement, a figure of speech people use all the time. But once you know the plot, the language twists. For a reader in the know, it means she’s really in the robot place for repairs. You have to realize this, because Joanna never does. She never returns to this moment and thinks, “Oh!” And that’s why her death at the end has always been so upsetting for me. I’ve always wanted her to figure things out just a little bit quicker.

I think Levin is a master at meting out just the right amount of information. He never hits the reader over the head, which is something a writer just can’t do. Instead, he gives us all the details we need—but subtly enough that he knows we will miss them. As a reader, there’s great pleasure in going back later to see how much you missed the first time, noticing new clues and layers of meaning that had been there all along.

I’m such a loser at foreshadowing and suspense. I don’t think it’s anywhere in my work. If I tried to write something like this it would be very ham-handed. In the kind of fiction I write, you aren’t going to get to the end and find all the characters have been murdered and replaced by robots. But the energy still comes from the kind of subtle details you notice when you’re looking closely. I think I’m always on the lookout, whether I want to be or not. I will watch the most trashy, horrible, unredeemable reality show just to witness people interacting. I’ll eavesdrop on people on the bus. The tiny moments between people are what fascinate me.

It’s not that I’m consciously seeking out things to borrow, most of the time. Often, I’m surprised to find things I’ve heard coming back on the page. But it happens all the time. I remember a person at a party told me she had a baby who died when it was just a few days old. And then she said: “But we had a second baby, and then things were okay,” in such a matter-of-fact and happy way that it stayed with me a long time. One of my characters says the same thing, in my story Grendel’s Mother, as the woman at the party.

One of the greatest satisfactions of writing fiction is that you can take things that happened to you, or people you know, or strangers you’ve seen—and you put them in a narrative that is different from the real-life context. Inside the story, those details retain their power but take on a whole new meaning. The emotion reverberates through the story in a new, surprising ways.

The details that work best in fiction are not always the ones that you’d expect. So many times, your best and funniest stories are the ones you’d never try to translate into writing. That’s a sad feeling I’m familiar with—I’d love to write about that, but I’ll never make it work. And other times, some small detail will become compelling for reasons you don’t even understand. The writer’s sixth sense becomes engaged—and, suddenly, you’re on red alert. “Tell me more about that,” I can feel my mind saying, “because I’m going to use it.” Stephen King says when he writes something “hot,” he knows it. And I think maybe a version of that is this: when you hear something good, you know it. You know it’s going to work, even if you don’t know why, even if you don’t know how you’ll use it yet.

If you write about domestic life—which was Levin’s subject, and the thing I tend to write about—you rely on small details that are supercharged with power and significance. These details need to be subtle enough that the reader risks missing them—because life rarely hits us over the head—but they should also contain great significance for someone who’s looking or listening closely. You can find these details through a lifetime of watching people. And you can learn to write them by reading writers like Ira Levin—writers who know how much they need to say, but more importantly, how much they can leave out.