Midland-born novelist Katherine Heiny finds inspiration in Northern Michigan for her latest book, “Early Morning Riser”
By Steph Opitz
About 20 years ago, acclaimed fiction writer Katherine Heiny and her husband, Ian McCredie, a now-retired agent in British Secret Intelligence Service MI6, bought a summerhouse in Boyne City. McCredie’s job took the family all over the world, and the couple purchased the house to have a base for their two young sons (now 18 and 20) between international postings.
The family sold their home in 2019, but for Heiny, who grew up in Midland, Boyne City remains a big presence in her life. Just as the sale was happening, she was writing the last pages of her latest novel, Early Morning Riser (due out this month), a big-hearted story about the residents of the small town on the shores of Lake Charlevoix. “I was so wrapped up in the book and then, like, just to finish it and leave it was a very strange experience,” says Heiny.
Heiny, whose short fiction has been published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, knew she wanted to set a story in Boyne City but her first attempt was a miss. About eight years ago, she got about 50 pages into a tale about siblings who hire someone to get into a car accident with their aging mother to convince her to stop driving. They employ the town Casanova, Duncan … and then the novel stalled. “But,” says Heiny, “I really discovered how much I loved writing about Boyne City and about Duncan, in particular. Everybody in the whole town knows every last thing about him because it’s a very small town.” She reexamined the story and “mapped out” the book, her third, while she was finishing her first novel, Standard Deviation, published in 2017.
Early Morning Riser still employs Duncan, and there’s still a car accident, but both the man and the incident play out differently this time around and take a back seat to the novel’s star, Jane. “It [was] like a train picking up speed,” says Heiny of the story, once it started to gel. Jane moves to Boyne City to teach elementary school and unintentionally becomes the centrifugal force of an unconventional family narrative. Like Standard Deviation, Early Morning Riser deals with living with people you’re not related to. “This sounds so corny, but I write about how any group of people can sort of become a family,” says Heiny, who adds that she didn’t necessarily borrow this concept from her own life. In fact, she’s adamant that certain characters, like Jane’s hyper-critical mother, are not based on people she knows.
Much of the novel takes on big questions: the idea of what happiness looks like, and what “enough” feels like, and how you can or can’t help loving who you love. It’s also funny, with several characters — including Jane’s best friend, a dogged mandolin player named Frida — that somehow both serve as punch lines but also genuinely enrich the plot.
Also enriching is the infusion of music throughout the novel; there are song lyrics in every chapter. Heiny, a lifelong folk music fan, looked for lyrics “that would somehow relate to whatever was going on and then that became one of the most fun parts of the book.” She called on Sean Ryan, a local musician she used to see play at the Perry Hotel in Petoskey, when she had questions about music. “He could recommend song lyrics on almost any subject I asked for,” she says. With lyrics from Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You” to First Aid Kit’s “Tangerine,” it feels like there’s a soundtrack running through the book.
Other locals, like Stephanie Agnew Kornoely, Heiny’s longtime hairstylist, weighed in, too. Kornoely was key in helping Heiny flesh out what Boyne City is like in the winter (cold). Of course, Heiny pulled from her own memories, too: In the novel, there’s a visceral toddler meltdown that takes place at Charlevoix’s North Point Nature Preserve; it was inspired by a similar scene at with Heiny’s own toddler about 15 years ago at the same place. “As soon as I had decided I wanted Jane to have the most horrible day, I reached right for that experience,” she says.
Heiny and her husband now live in Bethesda, Md., but she says that Boyne City “will forever be one of my favorite places.” She adds that both her sons experienced big milestones there, like taking their first steps (one in a bar, but that’s another story), learning to ride their bikes and working their first summer jobs. “It’s been a big part of our family’s life for so long,” she says. “It’s hard to describe what a special place it is to me. I like to think that Jane is still there.”