Marissa Higgins

On Writing Authentic Sex, Banging Out Drafts, The Privilege of Being Unemployed, and Her Debut Novel ‘A Good Happy Girl’

Cover of Marissa Higgins: On Writing Authentic Sex, Banging Out Drafts, The Privilege of Being Unemployed, and Her Debut Novel ‘A Good Happy Girl’

The first time I experienced Marissa Higgins’ writing I was standing in the corner of a dark lesbian bar in Seattle surrounded by queers sitting cross legged on the ground, absolutely rapt. It was an AWP offsite event in celebration of Melissa Crane’s newly published I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself (one of my favorite books from 2022). Marissa read the first few pages of her forthcoming novel, A Good Happy Girl (Catapult, 2024) , and I was immediately intrigued. I am a sucker for any sapphic literary fiction, but the malaise of the protagonist and her unique voice quickly drew me in.

A Good Happy Girl follows Helen, a 30-something lawyer in Boston, as she begins a relationship with two wives—Catherine and Katrina. While Helen might seem to have things together on paper, the book reveals snippets from her troubled past as Helen picks up phone calls from her mom and dad—both in prison—between dates with the wives. Helen is slowly coming apart at the seams. With the wives she is searching for stand-in parents—a form of guardianship she never had growing up. Throughout their relationship, it becomes hard to tell when the role-playing ends and the character’s true feelings begin—even Helen herself doesn’t seem to know. Helen’s voice is entirely singular, and you’ll keep reading not only because of the impeccable sentences—each one carrying so much weight—but also to find out how deep into desperation Helen will let herself slip before asking to be saved.

I recently had the chance to talk to Marissa about Helen’s journey from short story into novel, the unconscious fascinations that work their way into our writing, and pushing through problems on the page to get to a first draft.


Kim Narby: First of all, I want to say how much I loved this book. It was so compelling. The sentences were immaculate. I want to start with your protagonist, Helen. There are a lot of different facets to her character: she’s looking for this relationship with a sapphic couple that has specific role playing elements, she’s a camgirl for people with a foot fetish, and her parents are in prison for a crime committed against one of her family members. I’m wondering if you could talk about what piece of this came to you first and tell us about the journey from that into the full story?

Marissa Higgins: I love this question. I think Helen’s voice—her looking back and being reflective, kind of like a retrospective—came from the beginning. Some of the themes in the book [were there in the beginning as well]. It opened from the start with Helen in a cab headed to see the wives. It ended with grandma at the hospital and the light—that was one of the earlier bits that I wrote of the whole book. I originally started [the story] in a workshop on style that I took early into the pandemic. I wrote it as a short story, and it did not do well at all. But that’s where I first had Helen and the wives and the same Boston setting. The voice and the movement and the rhythm has been pretty much the same. Over the years with my agent, and then again with my editor Alicia at Catapult, I rewrote tons and tons in terms of scene and plot and pacing. But Helen’s voice, and the mood, has been the same from day one.

KN: That’s interesting that you started and ended at the same place. A lot of authors talk about rewriting those first pages over and over again.

MH: I know. I feel like I got lucky, honestly. When I write, I just try to write as quickly as I can. So I think it just lasted the longest and then became the opening.

KN: In Helen’s relationship with this couple, Katrina and Catherine, she’s looking to be mothered in what she describes as a “mean” sort of way. She goes out of her way to act out in order to prompt the wives to discipline her, which is a specific sort of attention she desires. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that this attention was something that she was desperately missing in childhood with her own parental figures, and it ends up manifesting itself in her sexual desires. What interests you about exploring this connection between trauma and sexual desire?

MH: Helen lives kind of like an open pore. She’s very transparent, very easy to suss out as not doing well, as being vulnerable or alone or just a little disconnected from others. In terms of sex, if Helen were suddenly very passionate and if she suddenly fit the norms of what we expect people to act like during sex, it would feel inauthentic for Helen. If she doesn’t perform or if she doesn’t fit in well at work or, or socializing, or just in her daily life, I don’t know that she could pull off a more expected experience during sex. The sex scenes were something that actually haven’t changed much either, funnily enough. But when I first wrote it, I didn’t have any explicit sex in the book. And my agent during edits really encouraged me to go there and embrace it. And then my editor thankfully was happy with it as well. The sort of detached clinical more distant tone during sex is not what all of my reviewers so far have enjoyed per se. But for Helen, the only way to write her, like all parts of her from eating to trauma is just with this wound. Helen sexually doesn’t feel much different to me than Helen at any other point of her existence because she’s so molded by what she’s holding.

KN: You mentioned food, which was another thing that I wanted to talk to you about because food is almost like a character in and of itself in this book. Helen spends a lot of time describing the food that Katrina and Catherine give to her; it is represented as a form of specific caretaking. Helen uses food to self-soothe on her own—sometimes to an extreme level—almost as a way to feel more within her body as she’s processing a lot of trauma related to her family. Is this something that you were consciously aware of while you were writing, or is this a theme that came up once the book was in a more final state?

MH: No, I didn’t think about it. I write about food quite a bit, and I guess it is subconscious. I have a hard time making it clear on the page where people are in a room. I usually go in for the vibe and the mood and it can be difficult to see for sure. And so something that I try to be aware of in writing, just for myself, is the senses—smell, touch, taste, all of that. Maybe it’s just a weird connection in my brain to bring in food and how people process. Do people think about the flavor, the presentation? How much is it? Who’s doing the serving versus who’s doing the cooking? I could just dig into it forever. All that comes around—who we nourish first or, or why we are or what we make for others. I spend a good amount of time thinking about food, so it came in pretty subconsciously, somehow.

KN: Another thing I wanted to talk about is the location of the book. It’s primarily set in Boston, in suburbs around Boston, and then parts of the book move deeper into New England. As someone who spent a long time living in Boston, I was really interested in how it both seems to align with and subvert the way New England has been represented in pop culture, which is more heteronormative, patriarchal, and traditional. What was behind your decision to set the story there?

MH: I’m originally from Massachusetts, south of Boston, a really small little beach town, which I think is the same exact history I gave Helen. So I’m from the area, I guess. And then I lived in Somerville and in Cambridge as an adult. I was [between] both Davis Square and Porter Square. I don’t think I gave it much more thought than that. The Boston winter felt really important to me—the mood and having things feel close, in terms of grandma and the court and the jails. It felt important to me that I didn’t make it too easy for Helen to avoid all of this by literally being across the country. So I guess plotting wise, I thought about it, but really it was just what I know. And honestly, I’ve never been to Vermont in my life. I am going up to Vermont for a little residency soon, so I am excited to see it. It feels like a really cool gift that I happened to get into one.

KN: What are you planning on working on during the residency?

MH: I’m already late on edits for my next book. But once that is edited, I’m hoping that when I’m in Vermont that I will be able to finish a draft of a new book that I’m trying to put together in my brain called Phone Friend. I think it’s gonna be a rotating cast, rotating points of view of a woman who is semi-trapped in a small town MLM who is  “rescued” by an insane woman she’s been talking to secretly online.

KN: I did want to ask about your second book, because I know you sold that book last fall to Catapult. It’s not often that you see debut authors sell two books before their first book’s even been published. I’m wondering if you can talk about how you had these two manuscripts to sell and what that process was like? 

MH: Honestly, it shocked me. It still hardly feels real. I did have what felt like a long lead time between selling the first book and it coming out. I am on an accelerated schedule for book two, internally I guess, because I’m already looking at cover stuff. It’s surreal. They’re both separate deals; it wasn’t a two book deal at one time. My agent and I edited and worked on the second book pretty consistently so that it would be ready to go shortly after I was contractually allowed by Catapult to submit it for consideration [since] there’s a waiting period. I basically just bang out writing. I try to write fast and get into the world and get it done. And I try to edit the same way. My agent is very, very editorial, and so I rewrote both of them over and over before my editor actually saw them. The practical answer is, my agent submitted it [to Catapult] and they contractually had 30 days to respond. It can be a yes and no or we’re giving you blessings to go broader, but come back before you decide. It’s kind of a murky thing. But I got an offer over email with no phone call or anything. It totally shocked me. My first experience on submission with A Good Happy GirlI got a revise and resubmit from Alicia, my editor. And then in the second round, my agent sent them the revision as well as sending it to other editors. Alicia offered and I went with them immediately. But people were not jumping for my book. And then with this one, we didn’t go out to more houses or anything. Alicia offered and said yes. I had no desire to put myself through submission misery more than I had to. I don’t think I had sales numbers or anything to speak of, especially then, so I was surprised.

KN: Can you tell us about that second book at all?

MH: It’s called Sweetener, unless it changes. It’s also adult literary fiction. It’s going to be about 65,000 words, so pretty short. It’s about two women, both named Rebecca, who are in a trial separation from their marriage who both accidentally end up dating the same woman from a sugar baby dating app. That’s the top layer. The Rebeccas are going through the process of becoming foster parents at the same time that the woman they’re both dating is processing her pregnancy fetish with both of them separately. It’s a really weird one. I think Catapult is going with it being a weird romcom vibe. Hopefully people find it funny.

KN: That classic lesbian conundrum of dating somebody with your same name. It happens all the time.

Common writing advice I hear frequently on writing podcasts and craft essays is to always be escalating with your plot or character. I think this is something you do so well with Helen. Just when you think she couldn’t possibly be more of a mess she makes a choice and causes things to be even worse for herself. It’s something I’ve struggled with in a lot of my own characters—putting them under so much stress. Have you always been good at pushing your characters like this? Or is it something you had to learn over time?

MH: First of all, thank you. I appreciate it. From the beginning Helen was filled with bad decisions and self-sabotage. But honestly in terms of the plotting and the pacing, my agent really helped me enormously to get it in shape. For the initial offer for Catapult my agent had to push pretty hard on me to not only amp up tension and plot, but to squeeze the most out of poor Helen’s feelings. It doesn’t come naturally to me either.

KN: The last question I wanted to ask you is about your writing life in general. I know you’re also a freelance journalist and I’m curious how you balance that type of writing work with your fiction and more creative work. Do you break your day into pieces? Does it all flow together? Have you ever had difficulty making time for both? 

MH: I was laid off last year, and I’m still unemployed, so right now it’s honestly not really a problem because I don’t have a schedule I’m beholden to. It’s the privilege of being unemployed. But when I started writing the book and when I wrote Sweetener I was working full-time. I usually set goals for myself to draft a book in a month or six weeks, or to do a 5,000-word-day or a 10,000-word-day. I try to push really tight turnarounds, and pushing through so that something is getting worked out on the page. Sometimes I would do that before and after work and just on breaks. I was basically always typing at some points. That was horrible for my brain, my eyes on the screen that long. I don’t have a writing ritual or anything unfortunately. I just get myself worked up thinking about it and set a little goal and go for it as much as I can.

KN: What do you consider a successful writing day? Is it working through a problem or hitting a certain word count?

MH: It depends, honestly. I’ll use almost anything. I’ve done the word counts, I’ve done Pomodoro, like setting a timer. But sometimes it’ll be: by the time I’m done listening to this CD I want to just read through this many pages looking for this issue, or I’m going to read aloud this much while I’m folding laundry. Anything I can do in tandem. I feel like it almost lets me not get stuck thinking about writing and just actually write. So even if [the writing] isn’t great, but this other scene opens, I feel like that’s a win. I mean all of that said, I am late [on my edits]. Grain of salt with all of my advice.



Marissa Higgins (she/her/hers) is a lesbian writer. A Good Happy Girl is her first novel.

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