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.