Katherine Heiny has learned to ignore conventional wisdom about the path a fiction writer is supposed to take to find success. For one thing, her first book, Single, Carefree, Mellow, released this past February by Knopf, is a short story collection—a genre she had repeatedly been told during her M.F.A. program at Columbia was better for later in one's writing career.

"The belief was that a novel was the first thing you publish," says Heiny. But while waiting for an idea for a novel to occur to her, she kept coming up with concepts for short stories "faster than I could write them down." She trusted these instincts and focused on developing as a short story writer, finding it "really liberating."

Her wry stories of relationship complications found steady interest from magazine and literary journal editors (including the New Yorker, which accepted her story "How to Give the Wrong Impression" for publication the same day Heiny submitted it).

But even as she amassed these stories, over years and then decades, it did not occur to Heiny to turn them into a collection. But, as she says, "other people got there for me." Approaching a new agent, Heiny sent her many stories for consideration, in no particular order and not intended as a collection. "I wasn't thinking ‘book,' I was thinking ‘agent.'" But her agent sensed potential and a unity across the stories that could make them work as a collection.

It helped that by this time, Heiny had an idea for a novel. "When I stopped looking for it, it came to me," she says. While Heiny was working on "stories that were getting way too long," it occurred to her that she wasn't writing stories, but chapters of a larger novel. As she had done before, she followed the writing where it went.

Her agent sold the collection and proposed novel together and at age 47 Heiny celebrated becoming a debut author—on her own terms. As she works on her second book and grows comfortable with trying her hand at a longer form, Heiny is eager to see what the future holds.

"I think if I had known how much fun [publishing a book] was going to be, I would have done it years ago," says Heiny. "I thought it was going to be a lot scarier."

At BEA, she will be speaking on the panel "Coming and Going" along with five other panelists, Heiny will be discussing how an author can use one's life and family in his or her fiction without feeling "exploitative"—walking the line between fiction and autobiography. 

This article appeared in the May 28, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.