Mistakes Were Made

Mulling a lifetime of bad decisions, the author searches for a release valve to keep her head from exploding
Tony Nelson

Heather McElhatton
Pretty Little Mistakes

Heather McElhatton has made a lot of mistakes. There's something universally appealing about that. We like heroes who have screwed up as badly as we have and landed not just on their feet, but in McElhatton's case smack on top of a big pink pile of chic lit.

One of McElhatton's mistakes may have been spending six years writing a novel in "purple prose"—her words—set on a Georgia barrier island. Two years ago, that failed quest brought the Minneapolis writer to the edge of tragedy for the modern creative class: 35 years old, living with her mother, having just heard from her agent, "Honey, there just isn't anywhere else to send it."

But that mistake also brought her to where she is today: in the pages of Vanity Fair and Playgirl, talking up the book she wrote as therapy after she hit that wall.

McElhatton's Pretty Little Mistakes is all about screwing up in big and little ways, and reaping the rewards and kicks in the ass that fate sees fit to dole out. And you—that's "you" in the Time magazine person-of-the-year sense—get to play along, because Mistakes is a choose-your-own adventure book. Gen-Xers, like McElhatton, surely remember the second-person adventure series from the 1980s that closed every short chapter with an agonizing decision for the reader to make. Call it perfect timing. The generation that first followed directions to flip to page 79 if you choose to board the pirate ship is now ripe for a pre-midlife crisis: What if I had married Ivo and raised his children by a lake in Finland?

McElhatton started by chasing down all those what-ifs in her own life. Having gathered a stack of what she calls "the nicest rejection letters," she traced her path back to the last moment she knew she was absolutely where she was supposed to be—the last day of high school. And she mapped, on a massive sheet of linoleum, the choices she had made and where the alternate choices might have taken her.

"This was not supposed to be a funny lark," she said recently over coffee at the "Starschmucks" in St. Louis Park. "This was, Okay, before I commit suicide, I'm going to figure this out, so I know. It got really dark. It wasn't ever supposed to be published. This was my little self-help project. After writing it, I really did feel a much deeper sense of peace."

At the start of the book, readers join McElhatton in going back to high school graduation. The first choice we make is whether to attend college or travel. McElhatton, after graduating from the private, Christian, Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, chose Italy.

"I was like a bat out of hell," she says. "I was just, boom, on a plane over to Europe, ran around for over a year—my father had just died, so I was a little upset—drinking, traveling, getting my ya-yas out."

And you, dear reader, also enjoy the chance to get some very exotic ya-yas out, some you might not have known you had. There's wild monkey sex—as in sex with monkeys—an erotic circus, a very sweet lesbian affair, and far more kept-woman scenarios than a modern woman should be comfortable with.

McElhatton says the sexy bits are "little rewards" to keep readers flipping around through the 150 possible endings. She also doesn't mind keeping people guessing about when she stopped writing about her own pretty little mistakes.

"I know I'm namedropping, but Salman Rushdie once told me...I had a bunch of short stories and I said 'Salman, I write all these things but the only things that sell are the ones with a lot of sex in them.' And he looks at me over his glasses and he says, 'Heather, push on the open door.' And then I said, 'Well, what do I say if people ask me if these stories are true.' He said, 'Tell them it's all true.'"

How much of the raunch in the book is invented doesn't interest me much, but I now know that the monkey in question is named after a former boyfriend's penis. And, if I wanted to, I could publish the nickname of McElhatton's own, um, ya-ya. It's the sort of thing McElhatton seems comfortable talking about over a massive iced latte. Or maybe it's just her way of surviving the umpteenth interview. Maybe her eyes are twinkling behind those enormous sunglasses—"Go ahead, stick that in your little alt-weekly!"

Or, maybe—and this is most likely—she's just one chatty, chatty woman.


The first time I read Pretty Little Mistakes, I thought, All right, I've got this literary bad girl figured out. I'm going to take the risky path every time, and I'll be rewarded.

So I choose to strap slabs of meat to my body for the sake of art and end up so obese that "the fire department has to saw through the living room floor in order to get you out of the basement. They're too late of course; they've arrived to find you cold dead, legs straight up in the air, skirt over your head with a Mallomar clutched in one hand." (Fun trivia: All the deaths in the book are ripped from the headlines.)

Next, I stick to the safe paths. I turn down a role in a possibly sleazy movie and end up convicted of a murder I didn't commit. There, I die in prison of a staph infection.

Staph or morbid obesity. Some choice.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek—bear with me here, this is going to be worth it—compared one of the choices we ritually make every four years, elections, to the "door close" button on an elevator: It exists purely to give us a false sense of choice and power. Those doors are going to close when they're going to close no matter what we do. We all know deep down that life is pretty random, that we don't choose our own adventure. It chooses us.

All the same, it's fun, for an escapist evening or two, to try to take the reins in our own hands: I know I can choose my way to the monkey sex! I know I can.

McElhatton's decision to take a teenage Italian sojourn didn't bring her to an erotic circus (I'm guessing). Instead there was waitressing and photography school, an MFA, decent success as a short-story writer, and a downright solid career as a radio producer, which allowed her to rub elbows with the likes of Rushdie. (She currently hosts an occasional live variety show, Stage Sessions, which can be heard on MPR.) For her, the end of the chapter didn't read, "Sell novel, flip to page 86. Live life in obscure penury, flip to page 119."

First novel sold, McElhatton now has two new deadlines to meet. HarperCollins is awaiting the follow-up to Pretty Little Mistakes, Million Little Mistakes, about everything we can do wrong after winning $22 million in the Big Money Suckah Lottery. And HarperPerennial has signed her up to write the female counterpart to Chad Kultgen's jerk-lit novel Average American Male.

"Overnight success is, You didn't know about me yesterday," she says, with only the faintest hint of defensiveness, "but I've been here duking it out."

McElhatton figures she'll never be immune to the what-if game. "I had kind of a tumultuous childhood," she says. "I think people who were insecure as children never really totally lose that. They're always looking around, 'Okay, what's going to happen next? Am I in the safest possible place? Is it as good as it could be?'"

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