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Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald chats with Heather McElhatton

By Posted on 31 7 m read 18.3K views

Left or right?
A fork in the road?
College or Europe?

As writers we get to tinker a bit with our endings. Sometimes it’s the one perfect ending that consumes our long hours in front of the screen.

It’s that power over narrative that leads me into some trouble now and then. You meet someone new, the narrative takes off in your head. Just introduced and you’re imagining the great adventures, the journey ahead. Not always thinking about the choices in that impulsive narrative. Somewhere along the way the life story you imagined doesn’t look like your well crafted design. It must have gone wrong in a moment. You need to hit the delete key on a few chapters, you need to rewrite a bit, you deserve a Do-over. Right?

What would you do differently? How many right turns would you make lefts?

Point A to B to C into a tidy happy ending?

Does it look like this:

A->B->C= finished.

or, like this:

Some of you might remember the above from junior high. Back when I was a twelve year old we called them Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Well, those were for kids, not very adult themes. Your choices didn’t lead you to being a millionaire, being homeless, having a drug problem or a bit of hanky-panky with a primate.

Such a genre certainly deserves a good name.

Interactive Hyperfiction according to the press release.

The first Do-Over novel.

I had a lot of fun reading this one. I’ve gone through about a dozen threads and I’m nowhere near seeing the 150 possible endings yet. I’m pretty sure a dog-eared copy of Pretty Little Mistakes is going to follow me around all summer.

It’s an addictive read.

Without it I would have never thought of beef tenderloin, weaponized.

You really have to appreciate a woman who can handle a tenderloin with such style.

Litpark pals, meet Heather McElhatton!


LR: Welcome to the park, Heather. I’ve read that the genesis of Pretty Little Mistakes was your feeling of failure with your first novel. What of that failure led you to crafting interactive hyper-fiction?

HM: I think the feeling of being shattered and scattered made this broken structure seem natural. I felt like I couldn’t follow one story to the end, I had to follow them all at once. I honestly don’t know why I wrote Pretty Little Mistakes this way”¦it just sort of happened. Like if you blacked out and then when you came to there was this manuscript in your hands.

LR: I’ve read through a dozen different scenarios in your book, always amused and surprised by where I end up and how things turn out, but I have yet to have that wild monkey sex I was promised. Where am I going wrong?

HM: I am fascinated by the lives people choose, the threads they follow. Lots of folks have said, “But in the book I did all the right things! I was responsible and I still ended up homeless or working at Denny’s or having sex with a monkey etc…” I usually ask them if they know anyone, possibly themselves, who has done everything “by the book” and still had their lives blow up in their face. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t know of one very unfair story in the world.

So the book gives you no guarantees. The moral of the story is do the right thing, or don’t. You still might end up having sex with a monkey. You might as well do what you really truly bone-marrow want to do. It’s your best bet. So Lance, to read the monkey-sex scene, you must dig very deep into your soul. Really follow your own true path”¦that or go to page # 351.

LR: Many of the choices appear to be the black and white of responsible or impulsive. As a rule, are you responsible or impulsive in your choices?

HM: Yes. Both. I mean, think impulsivity has saved me in a lot of instances. The ability to move quickly and act rashly has let me leapfrog out of bad situations. Sure, sometimes I’ve leapt right into something (or someone) worse, but eventually I always scramble to high ground. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to be super Zen and walk measured steps? In my life however, I’ve seen both methods work, and not work. I think it’s a balancing act.

LR: You seem to be having a great year, how has this quirky book and it’s deal changed your life?

HM: Am I having a great year? I’ve been too swamped to notice. Really, absolutely nothing has changed in my life except I got a little puppy pug named Walter and in general I have bigger deadlines looming over me. Yesterday, I did my taxes and spent the day comparing various pee stain removal products and then testing them out on my Walter-ized furniture. That’s a typical day right now. Not too fancy.

I think the thing about writing though, and life in general, is that you never “arrive.” Your horizon always recedes in perfect proportion your steps. So, after you’ve written one book, then you want to write another. If you can write two books, why not four? You’re never done. No one is. Every single person is struggling to get or get away from something. It doesn’t matter if they have a book, or ten books, or no books. We’re all in this shit storm together ”“ which is kind of beautiful.

LR: You’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the television version of This America Life with Ira Glass on Showtime. How was that experience?

HM: Being on the show was a strange experience. I started in radio for a reason. I love being the anonymous voice. Not being seen and letting the words paint a picture”¦so when I was being filmed and telling my story I was squirmy and self-conscious. I was sweating and there were bright hot lights in my face. Ira kept trying to calm me down ”“ but I was just a fish out of water.

The show itself however is phenomenal. I think the stories are gorgeous on film. Chris Wilcha is the director, and he’s got a great eye, which matches Ira’s perfectly. They both have this “other” way of seeing and it comes across on camera.

LR: Any mistakes you’ve made along the way getting this book out there that you’d like to share with all these writers in Litpark?

HM: My biggest advice is if you send your manuscript out to agents or publishers; keep that piece of information to yourself. Otherwise friends, family and co-workers will keep asking you, “How’s the book?” and after a month or two of hearing “How’s the book? How’s the book?” you want to throw a stapler at them and say “YOU CAN BE SURE IF THERE WAS NEWS ABOUT THE BOOK I WOULD TELL YOU. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP ASKING ME THAT.”

Then after enough time passes people either STOP asking you about the book, and just give “understanding nods” or they ask you about your book in the same gentle concerned tone they’d use to ask you about your contagious disease.

Just save yourself the entire ordeal and keep everything, (your ideas, your writing, your manuscript, your submissions) a secret until you have a book deal. Then you announce it all at once, people buy you champagne and no staplers are thrown.

LR: What do we get to see out of you next?

HM: The next Little Mistakes book will be called “Million Little Mistakes,” and it’ll be out in 2008. (I named it before the James Frey ruckus, but I think it ties together nicely.) There’s actually a section of it in the back of Pretty Little Mistakes. I have under a year to write another book. There’s so much more to tell you… I’ll be in New York on May 23rd at McNally Robinson in New York and the rest of the details are at Excuse me, will you? I have to go take some aspirin and lay down.

Thanks for playing in the Park!



HEATHER McELHATTON is a writer and independent producer for Public Radio International. Her commentaries and stories have been heard nationally on This American Life, Marketplace, Weekend America, Sound Money and The Savvy Traveler. She also produces the radio literary series Talking Volumes. Heather’s audio archive can be found at Pretty Little Mistakes is Heather’s debut novel, available now from HarperCollins.

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, LANCE REYNALD can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.

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  • Susan Henderson
    May 9, 2007

    Ira kept trying to calm me down.

    Oh, it’s hard for me to get past my jealousy of Heather being comforted by Ira Glass!

    But what an interview – both of you. And what I love best is how your book doesn’t reward people with happy endings just for playing by the rules. I hope you’re not kidding about A Million Little Mistakes!

  • Robin Slick
    May 9, 2007

    Lance, awesome interview. (And why am I paranoid I’m the one you want to throw rocks at? Hahahaha – that’s okay, I’ve been told I can’t throw rocks in the park, either, but that’s why I have my own blog…in fact, I’m busy sharpening the pointy edges of a few choice boulders right now)

    My favorite portion of this interview?

    My biggest advice is if you send your manuscript out to agents or publishers; keep that piece of information to yourself. Otherwise friends, family and co-workers will keep asking you, “How’s the book?” and after a month or two of hearing “How’s the book? How’s the book?” you want to throw a stapler at them and say “YOU CAN BE SURE IF THERE WAS NEWS ABOUT THE BOOK I WOULD TELL YOU. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP ASKING ME THAT.”

    Then after enough time passes people either STOP asking you about the book, and just give “understanding nods” or they ask you about your book in the same gentle concerned tone they’d use to ask you about your contagious disease.

    Just save yourself the entire ordeal and keep everything, (your ideas, your writing, your manuscript, your submissions) a secret until you have a book deal. Then you announce it all at once, people buy you champagne and no staplers are thrown.”

    Advice duly noted and taken. I think we’d all save ourselves a lot of unnecessary heartache in addition to saving ourselves from alienating/boring our friends and family to tears and throwing a stapler at us.

    One other point – I am dying laughing at Ric Marion’s Fedex mix-up (been there, done that, just did something way worse the other day…don’t ask, and I’m taking HM’s advice anyway and not talking about it) and his daughter being conceived at Woodstock, which means she was conceived on my birthday, August 17. And who the hell can process that Woodstock was almost forty years ago? Not me! I’m still in shock that Sgt. Pepper is forty this year. And still sounds fresh and better than anything out there today, but don’t even get me started on that.

  • amy
    May 9, 2007

    You had me at monkey sex. This book is totally going on my wishlist.

  • Heather McElhatton
    May 9, 2007

    Lance – I love this interview! Lots of folks have talked to me, but you got some juicy bits no one else did. I can’t thank you and Susan enough. I’ll check back this afternoon and chat some more!

  • Juliet
    May 9, 2007

    Lance: in the novel of my day, page 351 is all about you. You get all our juicy bits, and then some.

    Heather: Lance sent me an email a few weeks ago which read, “Get yourself a copy of ‘pretty little mistakes’ as soon as possible.”

    I took his advice and since I was, at the time, wandering around feeling deliciously sorry for myself, I took Mistakes to a cafe and proceeded to restore my faith in the written word.

    I spent the next two hours engaged in Mistakes world, periodically reading portions aloud to no one in particular.

    I must admit, I was at monkey sex within the first hour of picking it up.

  • Betsy
    May 9, 2007

    a) I need those gold shoes and that puppy.
    b) I too have written stories as though I were in a blackout.
    c) I so relate to the how’s the book/stapler scenario.

    Great interview Lance!

  • Colin Matthew
    May 9, 2007

    What are you talking about? I remember being a millionaire, being homeless, and fighting off Hitler in the choose your own adventure books. Then there was the time I was a shark……

    That aside, I am greatly enjoy Pretty Little Mistakes.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    May 9, 2007

    Great interview, Lance and Heather!

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    May 9, 2007

    What a boring world it would be if we all followed the same book. Choices are what makes life interesting.

    Heather, I’d love to hear more about the PRETTY LITTLE MISTAKES journey to print and some of the comments you heard from agents/editors along the way. Care to share a bit more?

  • Susanna
    May 9, 2007

    I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the interview, both of you.

  • Juliet
    May 10, 2007

    Listen, if more people don’t start coming by here, I’m just going to keep commenting.

    So, Heather, I’m still working my way through Mistakes. It’s a secret reward for doing the things I don’t want to: dishes, paying bills, trip to the gym…

    okay well I skipped the gym, but I was thinking ABOUT going which meant I should read some.

    In a world where it can feel like things are way out of control, it’s quite lovely to have a book which allows me to be ultimately in control… somewhat.

  • Juliet
    May 10, 2007

    Okay folks,

    I don’t throw stones, but I throw a hell of a left hook, and can kick higher than most men I know stand.

    Here’s the thing:

    I am known, in the world where I do my daily living, for my gift of opinionation. I have much to say, and while I don’t want or like to hurt people with my words, I don’t have problem freely expressing my opinion.

    But what I’ve found at Litpark over the last few months is really starting to piss me off.

    We flock like starving refugees to the Question of the Week. Like stars on the red carpet we savour every moment of the all-about-me.

    But then, some question like Monday’s comes up and we (well, by “we” I mean many of you) bail. You decide that fear of being googled or exposed means that you need to hide.

    I can understand that. I’ve screwed up much, and feared much, and facing my shame has been incredibly painful.

    I can understand saying “you know what? I can’t right now.”

    But what I do not understand is that when someone like Heather, or Lance for that matter, comes along and says “Hey, so… here’s my heart—all its tenderest bits, all the vulnerability of who I am, what I live and breathe and do,” it’s met with empty comment boxes.

    Little reference to the actual interview.
    So I wonder: does the lure of the mighty comment box make us skip through the actual interview because we just want to write more of “all about me”?

    If it doesn’t affect our lives, do we not engage?

    I’ve sat for two days wanting to prove myself wrong.
    I’ve purposely not mentioned the article in order to see if it was just me.

    But hell,

    I fear that the park has turned into nothing but a self-congratulatory post-highschool myspace.


  • Robin Slick
    May 10, 2007

    I hate to say it, but I have noticed the same thing and agree with you…but only on the point you make that we all flock to answer the Monday question and like to write about ourselves but then when all the hard work is poured into the Wednesday interview, the comments dry up.

    Juliet, there’s a lot I could say about my past errors but I do worry about Google because I have kids who use it and there are things I would love to share here but simply can’t because of the pain it would inflict. I just this day had a conversation with someone about Blogger…they have a new service where you can have a private, unpublished blog and you can invite only your closest friends to participate which to me seems like the way to go if you enjoy forums such as this and want to discuss deeply personal issues.

    But in all fairness to Susan, I would hardly call LitPark a self-congratulatory MySpace. A lot of hard work goes into this site and a lot of us have bonded because of it. I have new friends who are very special to me already, like Mark and Nick, and we are helping each other out with our writing…which really, LitPark is all about.

  • lance reynald
    May 10, 2007

    Jules and Robin-

    That’s what we’re talking about ladies…a conversation.

    sometimes heated, opinionated…hell, even a debate.

    opportunities to learn and grow.

    as for the google issue…and the notion of shame censoring you. I respect the point about the kids, I really do. I’m just often curious about writers dealing with family and edgier material in the age of google…but, that might just be a question of the week for a later date…

    with respect for Heather, my most awesome and engaging interview this week…I’m gonna bow out of debating harshly in this comment thread.

    But….Thank you Heather, you were a joy to work with and I feel you brought some great insights and some fun to my corner of the park.


  • Juliet
    May 10, 2007

    My comment was not in any regard a slam at Susan. I am quite aware of the investment of self and time it takes for Susan and all at Litpark to provide us a space where we can express ourselves.

    In fact, my comments were with regard TO the fact that it feels like people pick and choose when they feel like investing themselves.

    With regard to the google issue, you’ll notice I said that I can very much understand the desire to keep parts of one’s life to oneself.
    And that I very much understand the need to say “I can’t do this right now.”

    My issue is that the work Susan, Lance and others put into providing both interviews and nourishment for us as writers seems to not be met with the respect it deserves.

  • Robin Slick
    May 10, 2007

    Okay, I am in total agreement with you. You can do a search of the week by week interviews and the numbers speak for themselves. Monday there are 50 replies; Wednesdays there are 10.

    And ha! I probably misunderstood you on purpose on the Google issue. I think I’m just frustrated because I’d love to spill here among kindred spirits, believe me. But in fairness to myself, I do comment every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, unless I am out of town.

    And um, I buy all the books, too. 99% of the time, anyway.

  • Heather McElhatton
    May 10, 2007

    Hi guys! wow – you are a feisty group! I love it.

    in response to Carolyn Bass Burns comment:

    “Heather, I’d love to hear more about the PRETTY LITTLE MISTAKES journey to print and some of the comments you heard from agents/editors along the way. Care to share a bit more?”

    I would love to. Only because it’s so much different then one would think. Everything moves at a glacial pace. After you get a deal, the soonest you can see your books on the shelves is a year. At least thats what I was told at Harpercollins, maybe smaller presses are quicker.

    So there is alot of waiting and silence, your editor doesn’t call for weeks or months and you get paranoid they’ve all realized you’re a jerk, and then they call you and say WE NEED THIS ONE WEIRD RANDOM THING RIGHT NOW!!!! It could be copy for your inside jacket cover, or a shorter bio – anything. Then you scramble like hell.

    It is HARD giving up your manuscript that last time, after your final final final copyediting, when you make the last changes and then send it in. I didn’t think it would be – but it was. I Fed-Exed my last mss in the morning, and later that night, at a dinner party, I burst into tears.

    I discovered part of you will never want to be published. Part of you hates you for doing this, for dragging your hearts content into the public eye. For including others in on “your” work.

    But in the end, my particular team of people was solid gold. They all want whats best for the book too. So I had to learn to let go, and breathe.

    Thats not too specific – but the first thing that popped into my head.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    May 10, 2007

    I don’t want to fight with anyone but I will say that I see more comments on LitPark – whatever day of the week – than appear on most blogs, even blogs that I know have enormous page views a day. I’ll be the first to admit I can be given here to the pithy one-liner or a “Great job!” But in a world where time is always at a premium, I think it says something that so many of us do take the time to make some verbal gesture, however short, to let all those who labor here know they are being heard.

  • Jody Reale
    May 10, 2007

    Q: Does the lure of the mighty comment box make us skip through the actual interview because we just want to write more of “all about me”?
    A: Not at all. It’s just that “Question of the Week” asks me for a response. “Interview” asks me to listen more and speak less. That’s about it.
    Juliet, you raise an interesting point. I almost always start typing some sort of “good job” or “I’m with you” comment to these interviews and then delete them, thinking, “That’s already been said a few times,” or, “Well that’s kind of empty and not all that helpful.”

    Maybe I stand corrected.

  • Anneliese
    May 10, 2007

    What Jody said about “That’s already been said a few times.” and that Monday asks for a response and Wednesday asks for me to listen. That is how I have inferred the action to take around here. It’s kinda like the neighborhood preschool I walk by: at lunchtime all the little rugrats run around the play yard screaming and having fun (Mondays at LitPark) and the rest of the day they are inside being taught how to draw and paint (Wednesdays at LitPark).

    But please, for the sake of comment, allow me to add:

    Lance, your story map leaves me breathless! THAT is a work of art.


    Heather, your poker party costume – fabulous!


  • n.l. belardes
    May 10, 2007

    The book cover design is as entrancing as the interview.

  • Aurelio
    May 10, 2007

    Nice interview, Lance, and what a fascinating book!

    And Heather, thanks for friending me on MySpace – you are too kind!

  • lance reynald
    May 10, 2007

    (vanishing comments again)

  • Nathalie
    May 11, 2007

    Great interview, so thanks to both of you for this. And that book sure looks like fun (up it goes on the wish list…).

  • Betsy
    May 12, 2007

    I’ve been thinking about Juliet’s comment since yesterday and hoping to come up with some way to articulate my thoughts about it. I can certainly understand the desire for a more raw, if you will, dialogue, but there are a lot of factors to consider here. One is, it’s true, the all about me factor – but I think that’s just human nature and I don’t really have any problem with it. It still gives me a chance to get to know something about all the folks here. The primary factor, though, I think, as some folks have noted, is that this is a public forum, and a wonderful one I might say, that’s allowed me introductions to some lovely people and to communicate and share about what the life of a writer is like. But because it is public, as Robin pointed out – she has kids and they or anyone could google her. I teach college and I’d like to keep that job. But also – and perhaps I speak only for myself here, but I have chosen to write fiction for a reason. Much of my own fiction is autobiographical in origin, to be sure – no one with half a brain who read my work next to a bio would miss that. But I chose to write fiction both so I could play with reality and so I could be as raw and honest as I can be without worrying about hurting other people, or having to stick to some facts that were probably nebulous to begin with.
    I think it would be very different if we had a litpark party IRL, as they say, and actually got to meet and talk about all of the questions of the week in person. (Which I would really love, Susan! Camp litpark!) Speaking for myself again, in person I might very well reveal more of myself, depending on who I was talking to. I just think it’s really important to remember where we are. It may be frustrating not to go deeper sometimes, but I think that’s just the nature of the forum. We are a bunch of folks with one primary thing in common, and we all have the option of connecting offline – but really, we haven’t met. And I’m inclined to guard my private life a good bit even with people I have met.

  • lance reynald
    May 12, 2007

    maybe this comment will stick this time:
    what a great conversation…

    good to see conversation here again…

    and, to clarify. Anneliese, that diagram is actually Heather’s outline for the book, written on a 10X10 scrap of linoleum (yeah, that big!)…I wish I could take credit for that , the first time I saw it I thought it was pure genius…I still do.

    and n.l.- I met Heather over at myspace because I was so easily won over by the cover design; so yeah, Sometimes we can really judge a great book by it’s cover…

    and to everyone about the rules or etiquette of comments here… whenever I direct my readers to litpark I tend to include some line to the effects of “drop in and join the conversation”…a literary playground…just don’t put anyones eye out with those sharp sticks…the last thing I want is to turn Susan’s park into Lord of the Flies on my watch. You’re all welcome to participate, debate, argue and all like of interaction in my interviews… not my audience…but playground pals.

    now quick, hide those cigarettes; I think I see the principal coming.


  • Terry
    May 12, 2007

    Sorry, Lance. Your comments were getting tossed into the SPAM box. I have a feeling the SPAM checker sees lines that start without capitalization followed by sentences that do start with capitalization and says, “oh, SPAM.” Let us know if it happens again.

  • Alexander Chee
    May 13, 2007

    I can’t wait to try it, actually.

    The bit about receding horizons is dead on. Also the advice about avoiding stapler-throwing. Congratulations again, Heather. Loaded, huge hint: Is there a PLM podcast series in your future?

  • john w mc elhatton _
    July 7, 2007

    How interesting to see people enjoying, I was the monkey!

  • Danielle
    March 17, 2018

    I stumbled across this article and comment thread when googling Heather Mcelhatton. A Million Little Mistakes is one of my favorite books to “read again”. I have been looking for another one of her do over books periodically hoping one will pop up someday.
    When I read the article and then the comments I was struck by the not often seen (these days) grammatical and tactful grace of all the participants. I am not a writer of any kind but I do attempt to use spell check and I get annoyed when I see the blatant disregard of what our educators spent their lives teaching us…especially on YouTube and the like. It was a pleasure to get a peek at the musings of folks that aren’t afraid to demonstrate that they still have functioning brains with concern to grammar and tact. Thank you again!

    • Susan Henderson
      March 19, 2018

      Danielle, What a gift for your comment to bring me back to this beautiful moment in time. And the community here is EVERYTHING. Glad you noticed their grace and their spark.

Susan Henderson