Never Have I Ever Written a Book (Until Now): A Conversation With Katie Heaney
by Jen Doll
Katie Heaney’s book, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date is out today from Grand Central. In it, Katie, an editor at BuzzFeed who’s also responsible for this site’s “Reading Between the Texts” series, recounts her experiences — or lack thereof — with the opposite sex, from childhood to the age of 25. What comes through is not an absence of relationships, however, so much as the presence and importance of the deep, abiding friendships she’s formed over the years. And amid the humor and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, there’s also a hearty message of empowerment to all women to be who they are, and not necessarily what society expects them to be.
I talked to Katie on the eve of her book release about how it all started, her writing and editing process, and what she hopes readers will take from a book about never having dated anyone — yet.
Tell me about the inception of the book. How long as it been in the works?
I started writing it almost three years ago. It actually came about because I was contacted by the person who would become my literary agent after publishing a couple of things on The Hairpin, stuff I wrote over the summer between my years in grad school studying public policy.
Had you always wanted to write a book?
I guess I was waiting for the power of suggestion to tell me to try. I was writing disparate essays that were sort of about dating, and I thought maybe being single was the thing that makes me unique and the book into more of a cohesive story. My first draft took 10 months. I wrote it in that second year at school — I had a part-time research assistant job, too — and sold it after grad school. I would try to write, like, 1,000 words every Friday when I didn’t have class.
While I was writing it, I wasn’t supremely confident it would be sold. My agent was supportive and encouraging and said it was worth finishing. I just took that on faith. I don’t think everyone should be writing for the purpose of sales, but I think I needed to believe it was maybe going to be sold to finish it. By the time it sold I was realizing my life would take a different direction from where I thought it was going. I started doing a weekly advice column for BuzzFeed while I was still in school, freelancing for them and others. After I finished school, I worked halftime with BuzzFeed while editing my book, and then I moved into full-time there.
What was the editing process like?
Editing was hard. My editor — Sara Weiss, at Grand Central — is super-brilliant. She felt like a friend before I met her in person. It felt like we understood each other. But I’m a perfectionist and a control freak, and it’s hard when you get that first packet of notes. I would be shocked if anybody who’s a writer or anyone who makes anything is able to take criticism positively and immediately. There’s that reflexive moment of like, What are you talking about?, I’m going to have to work on this so many more months. It was quickly apparent, however, that she was right about everything.
What sorts of things did you have to work on from that first draft?
A lot of the notes were about going into more depth. I was told to think about it as giving myself a therapy session, not to be afraid to be honest and put it out there. My tendency is to joke over things. It’s supposed to be funny, but I had to balance that with being vulnerable.
How does “putting it all out there” make you feel with regard to the book coming out?
It’s made me much more nervous. Had the original draft been coming out, I maybe wouldn’t be as nervous, but it would have been a worse book. Also, talking to my friends and girls who’ve read it already, I’m recognizing that they’re not getting stuck on things I’d be worried about them being stuck on. In my mind, it’s this one thing, on this one page: Did I say it as perfectly as I could have? But nobody else notices that.
What about the guys you write about?
I gave pseudonyms to all the guys. One of them, who I call Ethan, is still a friend of mine, and he was one of the people I was closer to that something happened with. We talked things out at the time when we were like 20, but we’ve never had a super in-depth talk like, “Remember when you really liked me and I said no and it was really awkward?” I put my half of my thought process out on paper, but I wasn’t sure he’d feel like it was a fair representation, and I didn’t want him to be offended. I told him early on and asked if he wanted to pick his pseudonym, and when he read it, he was like, it’s sweet. There are a couple others where I’m not super sure how they’ll feel, but they’re people I haven’t talked to, and I have no idea if they’ll even find out.
What kind of reactions are you getting to the book, so far, in these early days?
I’ve had a couple of bloggers email and say they find it really relatable. They’re in their early 20s and haven’t dated anyone, and they’re like, it’s like you’ve stolen pages out of my diary. It’s really gratifying to hear that. This is something I was insecure about, especially in college. The feeling that the book could comfort anyone in that stressful age makes me feel a lot better, that giving up the gory details, as it were, was worth it. Among girls who’ve contacted me and liked it, there’s this eagerness to talk about the minutiae of crushes and, more importantly, female friendship.
I’m older than you are, but I felt that the female friendships you describe — and, on page 66, especially, when you talk about how boys can change the way female friends treat one another — were so relatable and real. What have you learned about friendship while being single?
From all the available evidence of my relationship in the first few years with my best friend Rylee — and she would agree with this — she was very much all about the guy. She dated a few guys in the first couple years of college, and it was always this constant struggle of, Why won’t you just be with us, your friends? I don’t know what it was that made me keep trying so hard with her, and she doesn’t know what it was that made her put up with us being continually annoyed with her about that. I’ve had friends where I know right away it’s not worth it to say, “You’re devoting all your free time to your boyfriend; you date someone and you fall off the map.” With her it just felt worth it. Every fight with Rylee I’ve ever had is about how we talk to each other, and trying to figure out how much we value each other. It took a long time to figure out she was not going to be someone who was going to disappear when she found a guy.
The scene when you go to her in the hospital after she passed out from drinking too much seems like kind of a turning point for you two.
I think what might differentiate her, among plenty of reasons, was that she always willing to listen to me, and maybe that’s how you know the difference. You know it’s a friendship worth working on when they’re willing to listen to you, too. Yes, she might want to talk about her boyfriend for hours at a time, and maybe in college she wanted to end all her nights with them, but if I told her about some super-hot guy in my class and asked her to tell me what to do, she’d talk forever to me about it. Our experience levels were so different, but she would have been beyond excited if I got to even, like, hold his hand.
There’s a point in which you’re like, let’s just put this out there — “Allow me to take a brief intermission here to explain that there will be no sex” in the book for you. Was virginity something you felt you had to address?
At first I didn’t really want to talk about it, for a number of reasons. I was worried it would place too much emphasis on that part of my life. I was worried it would make it more sensationalist or something. But that’s what I say, this is not a stamp I’ve taken or something I’ve set out as my declared mission. This is kind of an afterthought. There was so much else I was worrying about, so many other steps to get through. I don’t really feel the need to rationalize it or go on and on about sexuality. We’re just all individual people doing what we want, or at least that’s how it should be. I think it’s important it’s there, otherwise it would have been a question, but it’s not the central part of the book. I’m not embarrassed; it just makes me more nervous because it’s not always something that’s treated with nuance or respect or understanding.
What do you consider the central point of the book, the thing you most hope people will take away?
I think the most important thing is that young women are assured that the way they want to live their personal lives is OK, no matter how it is. Placing a high degree of importance on platonic friendships is never something anyone’s going to regret, even if it means you didn’t get to make out with the basketball star after the game or get asked to homecoming with a basket of roses in your locker. Those are things that feel meaningful at the time, and it’s not like I think anyone should avoid them if they’re available and they want them, but they’re so much less important than they feel at the time, and there should be so much less pressure to worry about them.
Another thing the book made me think about was how much our lives as women are spent thinking about our relationships with men, and why that may be.
This is also something so much more prevalent for young women than guys. We don’t have as much freedom to live our personal lives the way we want without being asked to defend it. I feel unusual because of the narratives I see around me, and maybe demographically I am too. I’m not sure. I sometimes feel unusual in that I can’t name more than one or two friends who haven’t had a boyfriend. But I really don’t think I’m unusual in terms of being much less romantically and sexually active than what we see around us, in movies and TV and so on.
What kind of negative reactions have you had, with regard to people who’ve read the book, or just people who’ve heard about it?
I’ve had some people ask, in terms of my age, is it worthwhile to write a memoir? I think memoir has a connotation of “something crazy happened to me, here’s a book about it, you’re not going to believe this!” I get the impression that some people are thinking, if you’re telling us right up front that you didn’t date anyone and nothing’s happened, why are you writing a book about nothing happening? I find that really dismissive and unrealistic. Maybe this is not an especially unusual or thrilling life, but why does that make it less valid for examination?
If anything, shouldn’t that make it more valid — that this is unlike the other stories we tend to read or the typical depictions of women?
I like reading about people who might have lives that are similar to mine. Even if it’s not super-dramatic or I’m not much older and can’t say what you should and should not do. That doesn’t need to be what the meaning of memoir is. This is one life, early on, so far, what it’s like. Anything that talks about the way girls and women live and talk to each other is extraordinarily valuable to me.
I certainly would never be like, this is a book that is waiting to be told. This was a book I thought would be funny. I wanted to make people laugh. But it’s also something I’ve looked for, and something I haven’t really encountered before. A lot of stories that gain traction in popular media about single women who are unlucky in love, well, those women are not really single and they’re not unlucky. If you’re dating people back-to-back and at the end of the story you’re married, that’s not really what I’m talking about. I want to talk to people about total romantic failure. That’s what I understand and relate to.
Have you dated anyone since you finished the book?
The timeframe ends two years ago, and I have dated a couple of people since then. Nothing serious. I’m single now. At the end of the book, I was writing it in live time. There was a small part of me that was like, what if I meet someone while I’m writing it — that’s what you think from watching all these stupid movies — and I’ll have to change the shape of the book. But when I am reading a book about someone like this, I don’t want them to be with someone in the end. Even if that’s kind of mean. I want them to still be single at the end! So, it’s good it didn’t end up that way.
Tell me about the book cover. That’s you, right?
Yes. I was resistant to that at first. It was something I was worried was a distraction, like, only celebrities are on covers of their own books. I hate being in pictures; I’m constantly avoiding being in other people’s pictures. But the photographer, whom I love, had done my author photos, and the idea was cute. I had a lot of say in terms of making sure I was comfortable with it, and I really like how it came out. I think part of me was worried they’d want me to be sitting on a couch, shoveling ice cream in my face and crying, but of course my wonderful publisher didn’t want anything like that.
Anything else you wanted to say to Hairpin readers?
I was never planning to be a writer professionally. The Hairpin is the first place I ever published anything. I started reading it when I was bored in the spring of my first year in grad school, and I thought, this is somewhere where whatever small thing I have to say about girls might fit in. After I published a couple of things, I was contacted by an agent, and that’s how all of this started. I think without the reception I had on The Hairpin, I never would have done this. I’m so grateful to the site for quite literally changing my life. It’s such an invaluable community when women get together and write about their lives and say crazy shit and try to make each other laugh.
Will there be another book?
I hope so! I’m trying to work on a novel. Which is terrifying. I’ve written very little fiction; Between the Texts — the conversations! The texts are VERY REAL — is some of the only stuff I’ve done. I have no idea what will happen, but I’m excited to try it.
Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.