Mary Winn Heider is the author of the wickedly hilarious novel The Mortification of Fovea Munson – which we called the most delightfully funny novel ever set in a cadaver lab (and we stand by that assertion) – and The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy.
Her work is marked by startling characters, humorous set pieces and an understanding of how the absurd provides an insightful window into how the world works.
We sat down with Heider to discuss books, literature, the theater and…circuses!
You’ve held a number of interesting jobs over the years from public radio reporter to working in a cadaver lab. What job has been your favorite?
Writing is absolutely the best job I’ve ever had. Better than cadavers and being on the radio and bartending my way through the Alaskan wilderness and selling t-shirts. But also—all of those things definitely made me a better writer.
Now you had the same job in a cadaver lab as your character, Fovea Munson. Like her, you accidentally ordered 600 legs. Is that the kind of order that anyone blinks at? Or do they just say: yep, 600, no problem. We’ll get them to you on Tuesday.
Hahahaha—thankfully it never got that far! I submitted the order, and (like all orders in my cadaver lab) it had to go through two additional levels of approvals. It made it through the first one, but thank goodness, not through the second! I can only imagine what that would have been like on the other end—going about your day and then getting that whopper of an order? I have a feeling it would have caused a lot of blinks.
Given your insider knowledge, are you an organ donor?
I am! And my grandparents donated their bodies to science, so that was definitely on my mind the whole time I was writing Fovea.
You traveled with an Italian circus for a time. What was that like? How did you get involved with the circus?
After I graduated from college, I spent about a year working/saving up/writing grants and collaborating with my former fourth grade teacher to put together a program for her students that wove together family oral histories and performance. I set up a residency at the Italian circus (and a German circus after that), and traveled around with them, acting as a conduit for the students at home—the performers would tell their stories, and then the kids could ask questions or respond with their own stories.
When I got back home, my beloved teacher (shout out to Kathy Murray!) and I did some creative writing workshops with her students, and we adapted their stories into a narrative circus that they performed.
It was a really wild time. I hung out with the performers, traveled in the caravan, helped out at the circus (they even made me go on a few times), and talked stories. I was always in touch with the kids at home, and at the same time having a big thrilling adventure of my own.
Circus novels seem like a popular subgenre (Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Night Circus, Water for Elephants). Considering your experience, is there a circus novel in your future?
I don’t really have a circus story I need to tell right now. I felt that way about theater, too—as much as I loved it, there was no story that I had to tell. But then a few years ago, I had an idea and it became the theater story of my heart—and now it’s almost done! So I won’t rule out a circus story somewhere down the road, but I don’t have one on my docket at the moment.
Your father is Karl Heider, the renowned anthropologist, educator and author of Seeing Anthropology. How has your father’s work informed your own writing?
So many ways! Growing up with somebody who found such joy in his work really set a cool example of a way to live. And it was invaluable to grow up being so aware of the content of his work, which asks a lot of questions about whose story is being told (and how).
Plus there was that time I was five and got to see the Indonesian movie about a family of were-crocodiles. That probably changed my brain forever!
As a child you spent a few years in Indonesia. Tell me about your time there.
I think the biggest thing was the experience of being a stranger—it was fun and scary and lonely and it supercharged my imagination in a million ways.
You studied both anthropology and theater at Wesleyan. Why that particular combination? And did you know at that time that you wanted to be a writer?
By the time I got to college, I’d already been steeped in both theater and anthropology. The combination made a lot of sense to me as a person who loved stories and storytelling and the many deep ways stories keep us connected.
Both disciplines allowed me to explore new ways of thinking about how we express our humanity and how we empathize with people who aren’t like us. I’d always been an avid reader, but at the time, I would never have believed I could be a writer. I didn’t have any confidence in myself as a writer, and to be honest, I was very intimidated by the English Department at Wesleyan, and didn’t feel like I deserved to be part of it.
You earned a Masters Degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What drew you specifically to wanting to write for young people?
Kids are the coolest. They’re non-stop in this liminal purgatory of growing up and they’re doing so much hard work figuring out who they are and what they want while adults demand things from them and don’t really listen to them.
They’re courageous in ways that we forget about when we get older. They are literally shape-shifting. They’re both the best audience and the most exciting people to write about.
Who are some great, underrated middle grade writers working today?
Oh man—Mel Beatty is super underrated. She has a fantastic duology—Riverbound and Heartseeker—about a kid who can see if you’re lying. Her world-building is incredible, her characters rock, and on a sentence level she never fails to blow me away.
How do you like Chicago? What’s the literary scene like in the Windy City?
I love Chicago—and the kidlit community is fantastic. When my first book (Fovea Munson) came out, I discovered there were two other people within three blocks of my apartment who also had their first kidlit books coming out that summer! And now one of those two, Chad Sell, is my partner on a new series that hasn’t been announced yet.
Do you spend much time in bookstores in Chicago? What are some of your favorites?
There are so many wonderful indies in the city: Semicolon, Women and Children First, Unabridged, 57th Street Co-op—but the one that’s nearest and dearest to my heart is the Book Cellar, where I sometimes work!
One of my favorite things in the world is finding someone the right book (or the right book to gift!) and my co-workers at the Book Cellar are absolute geniuses in that department.
You teach creative writing at the PlayMakers Lab and have taught high school as well. What do you like about teaching?
I freaking love working with kids. I’ve left the active company of PlayMakers, and now I’m on the board—and I really miss the kids. It’s such an honor to be part of anybody else’s growing up. And this is a side benefit, but when I’m teaching, I become a better learner. And as much as I value that capacity in myself, I don’t always water those seeds the way I should.
At PlayMakers Lab, you would take student writing and turn it into performances that you put on for the students themselves. What kind of impact have you seen from taking the writing of young people seriously?
Big things happen in your brain when someone tells you your words have value. We have a lot of data about our students’ confidence in class and their enthusiasm for participating, and how they both go up after we’ve done a residency. Which makes sense! When your name is called and the whole school cheers for you and your words, that’s a powerful message.
Your new novel The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy is centered around a family whose father was the worst quarterback in the history of the sport. Are you a football fan specifically? A sports fan in general?
Full disclosure: most of what I knew about football I’d learned in high school when I was in marching band. And to be honest, we…were not always watching the game?
So when I realized what direction this story was headed, I gave myself a crash course. (It’s also helpful that the football in the book is slightly more bonkers than real-life football!)
You’ve written that Losers is about the “escape velocity of grief” and that as a child books were important tools in helping you to understand loss and grieving. What books in particular would you recommend for young people coping with loss?
Generally speaking, I think children’s books are built around hope, so they can be very effective at holding us when we need to be held. They can be comforting just by existing, which is why for a lot of us, the most comforting books of our childhood are simply the ones we were familiar with, the ones that took us to a place we knew and felt safe in.
But some recent books that I think handle loss particularly beautifully include King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, The Aquanaut by Dan Santat, and A Time Traveler’s Guide to Relativity by Nicole Valentine.
Another one that handles grief beautifully and is actually also about CTE is Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After.
For picture books, I love Bright Star by Yuyi Morales. I could sit with that book for hours. And a book that helped me process loss and change when I was young was Maurice Sendak’s Outside, Over There. The fact that it’s so unsettling and so fantastical really acknowledges the feeling that sometimes bad things happen for reasons that don’t make sense.
Watching your short video for Inside Indies, I discovered we have the exact same standing desk. Do you like to write standing up or sitting down? Are you a first draft by hand kind of writer?
Ha! I love the desk! Do you?
I’ve found that I like switching it up—I usually start off the day standing, and then go back and forth for the rest of the day. It’s good for my body, but it also definitely helps me stay focused.
And nope—I don’t draft by hand. The idea of doing that makes me sweat. I never learned to type properly (I’m a very fast hunt and peck-er), but that means transcribing things takes me a reeeaaaally long time. I do take a lot of notes longhand, and I’ll draft picture books on legal pads. But oof, not novels.
You’ve noted that Young Frankenstein and Noises Off are favorite comedy films of yours. What are your Top 10 Comedy Movies of All Time?
Oh man. This is an impossible question!
In no particular order, and subject to change again in thirty seconds, and with plenty of annotation, I’ll say: Young Frankenstein, Noises Off (although really it’s still second to the play, which I’ve seen live and on a video tape approximately a thousand times), Clue, Everything Everywhere All at Once (I cried laughing and cried crying), The Thin Man, Spaceballs, The Pink Panther (for the pratfalls ALONE), The Big Lebowski, Good Boys (I don’t know if it’ll last, but I saw it recently and it made me HOWL), Shaun of the Dead. Woof.
Ask me in an hour and it’ll be different.
It seems to me that young writers are either encouraged to go into MFA programs or go Out Into the Real World in order to learn and become writers. But a third option might be to encourage young writers to go into theater. What are your thoughts on theater as a place to learn one’s craft as a writer, and how does it compare to your time in Vermont?
Theater’s a killer place to learn craft! I learned so many fundamentals of storytelling: setting a scene; how needs drive character; pacing—I could go on.
The crucial lesson Vermont gave me was that it’s okay to fail. That you have to have drafts and that’s how the story actually gets better. Or you try a story that doesn’t work at all, but then you just try something else. Which in retrospect, was me learning that I have to allow for rehearsal in my stories.
It seems so obvious now, but before Vermont, I didn’t give myself room to fail in my writing.
Do you enjoy reading plays? What are some of your favorite plays?
I do! My favorite play to read is maybe always going to be Noises Off? It’s an incredible reading experience. I don’t read as many as I used to, but I love reading Jenny Weiner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lauren Yee. And Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, which will never not destroy me.
Music plays an integral role in both your novels. What kind of music do you listen to? What’s your ultimate road trip playlist look like?
This is tragic, but since I started writing, my music listening has drastically declined! I need a last decade primer in a bad way. That said, some music I have been listening to lately is the demos for the upcoming musical of Fovea. Which is extremely bonkers.
A couple years ago, the Kennedy Center in DC commissioned an adaptation, and I’ve been working with Justin Huertas, an absolutely BRILLIANT composer.
I’m writing the book of the show, and he’s writing lyrics and music. So I’ve been listening to a lot of Justin’s music! Which is…indescribably amazing. And this from a person who describes things for a living. The musical premiers at the Kennedy Center in March of 2023. Can’t wait.
Who are your favorite writers?
My feelings change easily depending on what I’m engaged with at the moment. But some authors who are among my faves these days are Maurice Sendak, BB Alston, Tamsyn Muir, Martha Wells, Daniel Pinkwater, and Varian Johnson.
If you had to pick one middle grade novel for President Biden to read, what would you pick and why?
Ack. JUST ONE???
Beatles or Stones?
* The editor would like to note that the only correct answer to this question is The Rolling Stones.
Chocolate or vanilla?