Man Talking:  The Official Website of Mike Heppner
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Interview with Matt Lee, Hour Magazine, March 2003

I read on the Internet that The Egg Code was actually the thesis for your M.F.A. at Columbia.

Which isn't true.  [Laughs.]  That proves my point about the Internet.  Actually, my thesis was some short stories.  At that point, The Egg Code was a lot longer than it wound up being.  But it was something that I worked on during the time that I was at Columbia.

Fiction writers are divided as to the merit of university creative writing programs.  After going through one of the more prestigious programs, what's your take?

[My experience at Columbia was fantastic, but] there's some validity to the stereotype--the phrase is, "writing that's workshopped to death"--where you sort of overthink all of the possible things that could be wrong about a piece of writing and you don't think about what's right about it, and you end up with something that's sort of criticism proof but also ends up being uninteresting.

Well, creative writing program or not, it didn't seem that you held much back in The Egg Code.  Does that have to do with being a first-time novelist?

Yeah, absolutely.  Because you don't write thinking it's going to be published.  You want it to be published, but when I started writing that book I was still living in Detroit; I was working at Wayne State.  I was making $8 an hour and I was writing at night.  I guess the reason why the book is so opinionated was just this feeling of, whether the book gets published or not, whether anyone reads it, I'm going to say what I think, and I'm just going to get it out there.  There's a real desperation, I think, writing a first-time novel.  It's something that stews inside you for your entire life up to that point.

Speaking of which, you grew up in Grosse Pointe.  How has that played into your writing?

Well, I've written about it.  When I was younger, and the experience of growing up in Grosse Pointe was a little bit closer to me, I wrote about it more often.  But the whole Crane City thing [in The Egg Code] was just another word for Detroit and its metropolitan area.  I didn't call it Detroit because I didn't want people to be thinking quite so literally.  You know, I didn't want it to be limited to Detroit.  And yet, there's a lot of areas--like there's a town called Hedgemont Heights in the book that I always thought of as being the Grosse Pointe equivalent.  Living in Grosse Pointe, I had the privilege of a really excellent public school education, which is definitely a dying quality in our country now.  I had a really strenuous education.

What do you think you'd be doing right now if The Egg Code hadn't found a publisher?

Oh, man, I don't really want to think about it.  People always say, "If you're going into the arts you should have something to fall back on," and I always tell them that you might as well cut to the chase and give up now, because you can't have that attitude.  You have to be willing to have your life be totally ruined if this doesn't pan out.  And I just don't think it's possible, for something this difficult to succeed in, to split your focus.  I mean, this has got to be it.  It's either this or walk the plank.

Author Q&A, Borzoi Reader, March 2006

Entertainment Weekly has written that you're a "fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist's clothes."  One could argue the truth of this statement is borne out in Pike's Folly, namely with its descriptions of younger characters like Stuart, Marlene, Allison, and Heath.  What are you trying to say (if anything) about the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today?

I don't think of these characters as archetypal or emblematic in any way, and I'm reluctant to tell people what constitutes their collective identity.  To be honest with you, I have such little contact with anyone other than my immediate family that I'm the last person to answer this.  Generally speaking, I think one's twenties are a time to experiment and make mistakes.  Obviously some mistakes are worse than others, but when you're young, you at least have the benefit of being able to recover from a vast majority of those mistakes.  I'm thirty-three now, and I feel my mistake-making days are over.  I guess you could say that the character of Allison is exploring life a little and screwing up a lot, and while all that seems traumatic at the time, there's nothing particularly wrong with it.  She's more together than I was at her age.  Heath is in that phase too, though I think he's less likely to grow out of it.  Stuart and Marlene, being a bit older, have a more defined sense of who they are, for what that's worth--probably not much.

Do you miss being in your twenties?

No, I like the age I am now.  You have to get excited about getting older.  I'm not looking forward to rotting away someday, but I don't need to be twenty-one again.

I've heard that true Providence history inspired much of the book.  Is there a real life counterpart to the farmhouse where the Reese family crimes of yore were played out?  Is there anything else that matches up to real events in history?

No counterpart to the farmhouse that I'm aware of.  The brief chapters that take place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are all "drawn from fact."  I've tried being accurate with my contemporary references to Rhode Island society and politics.  But most of the book is a fable.

So why Rhode Island?

I was born there and moved to Michigan with my mom when I was six.  Every summer I'd go back to Rhode Island to spend time with my dad.  Then when I was in my late twenties I moved back to Rhode Island.  I just like it.  It's easy to make too much of the size, but the fact that it is so small gives it a special character.  It's possible to know every landmark and vista in the state, which I think makes it unique.  I don't live there anymore--my wife's job took us up to Boston about two years ago--but we get down there a lot.  It's a short drive.  By the way, I think not being a true "Rhode Islander" made it more possible for me to write the book. Sometimes it helps to be an outsider.

The character of Stuart is a young novelist who has written a debut novel and is married.  You are a young novelist who has written a debut novel (and successfully finished your second) and you're married. Are we supposed to see a bit of you in Stuart?

I'd rather you didn't, though that's fine too.  I made Stuart a writer because I wanted to put his feelings across with as little play-pretend as possible.  He's a lot more passive than I am, more cynical and defeatist.  But I can relate to him, sure.

In what sense?

In the sense of working toward a goal that in some respects has defined your life for a number of years (in my case, writing a novel), accomplishing that goal, then realizing you still have some time left on the earth, and wondering what to do next--that part I can relate to.  But Stuart's response and my response are so different.  I didn't become morose--at least I don't think I did.  I just wrote a morose character and put him in a book.

Pike's Folly is, among other things, a snapshot of our imperfect world.  All the characters are caught in some sort of foolishness.  What made you want to explore this aspect of humankind and how did you come to the title Pike's Folly?

Pike's Folly just sounded right--I went through a number of titles but kept coming back to that one; it suggests something about the book without revealing too much.  Reading from Thomas Cleary's translation of the Dhammapada: "A fool who is conscious of his folly is thereby wise; the fool who thinks himself wise is the one to be called a fool."

I have to admit that my favorite character is Marlene.  Where did you come up with the inspiration for her?

She's my favorite as well.  She wasn't really inspired by anyone in particular.  When I was writing her, someone told me they couldn't understand why a person with so many body issues would want to expose herself like that.  It made sense to me, but the challenge was getting it to make sense to a reader.  She's a potentially alienating character, but I think we come to sympathize with her.

How do you go about researching a character like that?

I don't think you can.  You just try to imagine what's in her heart and mind and go from there.  Certainly you can find a wealth of information about exhibitionists and nudists on the Web, but I think most of it's pretty dishonest--I don't know how truthfully people represent themselves online.  That's part of the exhibitionism too, I suppose.

Heath's obsession with Brian Wilson plays a big role in the novel, to say the least.  Why did you incorporate this into Pike's Folly?

I love Brian Wilson.  I love the Beach Boys.  Stop reading this right now and listen to "The Little Girl I Once Knew," or "Let's Get Away For Awhile."  Or "Darlin'," or "Long Promised Road."  I love those artists who somehow manage to straddle the line between experimentation and accessibility.  This book needed a spiritual guide--a guru of sorts--and Brian got the job.  Like so much about this book, I was motivated more by instinct and feel rather than some rational plan.

How do you think your writing has grown or changed since your debut novel, The Egg Code?

I haven't read The Egg Code since I put it to bed, so my memory of it has dimmed somewhat.  I was trying on a number of different hats, and some fit and some didn't.

As a teacher, what advice do you have for other young writers?

Please make it worth the paper it's written on.  Try to change a life--I think anything short of that is a waste of everyone's time.

What's next for you?

My next novel is so different from either The Egg Code or Pike's Folly that it's nearly unrecognizable as the work of the same person.  My writing has become a lot simpler and less showy as I've gotten older.  I'm trying to write more from the heart than the mind.  I went through a personally shattering experience while I was writing Pike's Folly (which had nothing to do with my "writing career," but rather something much more urgent and immediate).  Pike's Folly, which is a boisterous and (hopefully) loveable book, was my way of maintaining my sanity during that experience.  I didn't write it because it made sense from a professional standpoint or to prove anything to anyone, but because it offered an escape from all that.  The "all that" forms the subject of my next book.  After that comes something lighter, but that's far in the future.

From The Christian Science Monitor, February 2009

A new book - yours for the taking
by Matthew Shaer

New York - Not so long ago, Ed Medina was studying in the library of Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., when he noticed a peculiar package on a nearby table.  It appeared at first to be the pieces of a abandoned essay, but when Mr. Medina peered more closely, he saw two lines of thick black printing: "Please Read!!! Do Not Discard."

"I was mostly suspicious," Medina explained later.  "Like, is this for real?  But the concept was too intriguing for me to ignore it completely."

As it turned out, that package was a novella--some 11 pages in length, each page split into two columns--typed up by a guy named Mike Heppner, who lived hundreds of miles away, in Belmont, Mass.

In 2002, Mr. Heppner was catapulted into the limelight when his debut novel, The Egg Code, was nominated by both The Washington Post and Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year.  A second novel, Pike's Folly, also fared well--Esquire magazine gushed over it--and Heppner seemed poised for a successful literary career.

But by 2007, Heppner, who now teaches at Emerson College in Boston, was having trouble placing his work.  "I was frustrated," he remembers.  "No one was biting anymore.  I felt out of the scene.  I wondered for a while there if I should just give up."

Part of the problem, he knew, was the shrinking demand for literary fiction.  Sales across the country were slumping, independent bookstores were shuttering, and most publishers had not yet discovered how to best reach a Web audience.  Still, Heppner had been a writer for 15 years, "and if you've been doing something for 15 years," he says with a laugh, "it's hard to stop."

Eventually, he finished Man Talking, a first-person novella.  The themes were simple and ageless: Why do we tell each other stories?  And what do those stories mean?

Heppner thought about shipping the book off to publishers, but he worried that it might not be marketable.  "It was a fairly substantial amount of work that I had put in--maybe eight months in all," he estimates.  "I thought, 'Might as well put it up online.'  Readers could get it for free, and at the same time, I might get a little bit of attention."

Some 4,000 readers did eventually click through the site, and Heppner garnered some blog buzz, enough to get him thinking big.  A few months afterward, Heppner contacted his friend Jen Hyde, the founder of Brooklyn's Small Anchor Press.

The idea was relatively simple: Publish a limited-edition run of a second novella, Talking Man, which was loosely related to Man Talking.  Then release a third novella, Man, to random locations across the United States, with the help of a network of friends and acquaintances.

Heppner, in other words, hoped to explore three avenues of distribution: online, with Man Talking; through a small press, with Talking Man; and haphazardly, with Man.

"I was very curious about how stories get into the world," he says.  Man Talking and Man, for instance, are both largely concerned with matters of communication--among peers, family members, friends, and strangers.  "What is the relationship between readers and writers, and consumers and producers?" he adds.  "I wanted the way I presented these novellas to be another layer of commentary."

Ms. Hyde was enthusiastic.  "I was fascinated," she says.  "It became this great experiment.  With Man,  we said, 'Let's send these out into the worlds, and let's have absolutely no expectations for it,' which is kind of awesome, when you think about it, because it's something Mike's worked on, and something close and personal.  And by virtue of making these copies, you're almost giving it no monetary value."

In the end, Hyde and Heppner settled on 500 copies of Man and sent stacks out scattershot to college campuses, coffee shops, gyms, offices, and airports.  Each edition was bundled with a one-page cover letter, which informed readers of the Man Talking project and asked that readers send comments and questions to Heppner.

"You hold in your hands a copy of Man, the third in a series of four novellas," the letter read.  "Please do one of the following: (a) read it, (b) leave it where you found it, or (c) give it to a friend."

Among the recipients of Man was Gina Hoch-Stall, a student of dance and psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia.  "I found the story quite touching," Ms. Hoch-Stall wrote to Heppner.  "As a choreographer I am often trying to use gestures, memories, and intimate details to bring people into my dances; I feel like this is what made Man successful."

Meanwhile, Heppner and Hyde had released Talking Man in September, to a good deal of acclaim.  (Talking Man will be released this month in a trade edition.)  A fourth installment, Talking, is planned for a March release, although Heppner is keeping mum on the plot and distribution details.  He will say only that he's "extremely excited."

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