Interview: Sarah Heyward, ‘Girls’ staff writer, on crossing over from the Workshop to Hollywood

Sarah Heyward is an alum of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently writes for HBO's Girls. -- photo courtesy of Sarah Heyward.
Sarah Heyward is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently writes for HBO’s Girls. — photo courtesy of Sarah Heyward

Sarah Heyward, the plucky Los Angeles screenwriter/actor known best for her achievements as a staff writer on HBO’s Girls, studied literature at Harvard until a fiction course coaxed her onto the creative side of the page.

After a year spent interning at The Paris Review, she began her study at the Writers’ Workshop, where mentor Jonathan Ames — convinced that Heyward was obsessed with TV — suggested she try writing for the screen.

Now, just over five years later, Heyward has her pen behind one of the most beloved television shows in the country. She’s won a Writer’s Guild Award and has been nominated for an Online Film and Television Award. She’s also acted in both television and film, and has directed an episode of LA’d. The most impressive part: she’s barely thirty.

Recently, Sarah Heyward gave Little Village some of her time to talk about literature, life in Hollywood, vintage teen romance novels, and the single sentence that changed her life.

Little Village: So, you entered the Workshop hoping to be a fiction writer?

Definitely. I was not thinking about screenwriting in any way, shape or form. I decided on fiction my freshman or sophomore year of college.

How did you come by writing at Harvard?

I actually started as a literature concentrator. I had never taken a creative writing class in my life, but something in me wanted it. So in the first semester of my sophomore year, I secretly submitted a story — secret only in that I didn’t tell my friends — to Sam Chang, who (spoiler alert!) ended up becoming the director at Iowa.

I wrote the story the night before. It was three pages. I was freaking out about it, and I didn’t even know what to write about, so my sister gave me an opening line, and I wrote the whole story based on that. I almost didn’t check the list [of students accepted to Chang’s class] because I was certain I hadn’t gotten in, but I happened to be in the Barker Center, and somebody walked up to me and said, “Congrats!”

Within two weeks of starting that class, I was in the process of changing concentrations so I could write a creative thesis.

What was your sister’s line?

“We had nothing left to say to each other, so we decided to take a trip.”

There’s a fabled anecdote of your being an assistant on the Girls set until Lena Dunham read one of the stories you wrote while at Iowa. What was that piece? Can you tell us more?

This story has now been repeated so many times, my mom didn’t think it was true.

In short, I was an assistant at the time, and though I’d been in LA for a year, I still hadn’t finished any screenwriting that I was proud of. My boss, Jenn Konnor, was producing the pilot of Girls, and she said — just as a friend — “I’ve never read any of your fiction. Print me out a story to read while we’re on set.” So I printed out two.

After reading the first one, she said, “Do you have anything more sexual?” I told her I had a story called “How To Lose Your Virginity” that tracks one female protagonist’s sexual awakening from age four to middle age. I printed it out for her, and she read a couple of pages, then put it down.

And — this is the part my mom doesn’t believe — Lena walked over, picked it up, and asked what it was. Jenni encouraged her to read it. Two weeks later, I was driving Lena to go shopping, and all of a sudden, she said, “Hey. I read your story. If we get picked up to series, I want you to be our staff writer.”

How had that story gone over at Iowa?

I had Charles D’Ambrosio — he was visiting, and he was one of the teachers at Iowa who changed my writing. I loved him — we really connected as student and teacher. He had a reputation for being tough, but something just clicked.

Charlie was on this tear of making us write balder, weirder, creepier stories. Something opened up in me, and I started writing very differently from the way I had been before. I had always been a classic short story writer, and all of a sudden, I started experimenting with form and making things more personal — returning to the instinctive writing I did before I knew anything about short story writing.

“How to Lose Your Virginity” went over well. I mean, it was a great workshop, so no one was mean. I do remember the one other woman in the class saying she felt sorry for the protagonist, and I had this very writerly moment of thinking, “She thinks it’s me, and she feels sorry for this person — she thinks she feels sorry for me!” But that’s the only negative thing I can remember surrounding the story.

How does the LA-based screenwriting environment differ from the Workshop environment?

Hollywood feels like a small community. The Workshop is a small community — I knew everyone, at least by face — and in Hollywood, it feels weirdly the same way. Out here, it’s the real world, so of course it’s a little more competitive, but I’ve found that if you meet the right people, everyone wants to work together.

At a party, you’re never making small talk about the weather. The way at Iowa, you’re talking about books or poems or writing, here you’re talking about TV, movies, screenwriting. Being at a party could lead to your first assistant job, which could lead to you writing on a show. It has that connective fluidity.

What are you reading right now?

Right now — well, it’s embarrassing, because my mom and I ordered a bunch of ’70s teen paperbacks after reading an article about their covers. So I’m currently going through books no one’s ever heard of, like Just Dial a Number and Madam, Will You Talk?

But I’ve been reading literary fiction as well. When I started on Girls, they actually gave us a list of books they wanted us to read. So back then, I was reading a lot of books about New York and women in the city. We read The Best of Everything and The Group. I liked that it was immersive, that they were having us read fiction to get ready for writing a TV show.

Do you have any advice for fiction writers aspiring to go into screenwriting?

My one piece of advice is often very upsetting to people — that you should move to LA. Of course you can forge a career in screenwriting anywhere, but it’s a thousand times easier in LA because of everyone you’re meeting.

We’re living in a really cool time where TV is changing, and the head honchos out here want non-traditional writers. I remember sitting at a meeting when I was an assistant on Girls, and Judd [Apatow] was telling Lena [Dunham] who to hire for her staff. He said, “I don’t want traditional comedy writers. Hire a playwright. Hire a poet. Hire a fiction writer.” I’ve heard that more and more ever since.

Mallory Hellman received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in English and American literature from Harvard. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review. Her short story “October, Forest River” was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. She’s currently at work on a novel.

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