‘Literature is the Soul of the Person Who Has Written It’
Sheila Heti in conversation with Jean Marc Ah-Sen
Sheila Heti’s writing has become synonymous with the pursuit of existential truth. In her breakout novel, How Should a Person Be?, Heti explored the different ways she could live her life according to the models and conventions set by her closest friendships and the extroversions of reality television. Her last novel, Motherhood, was a kind of divinatory guidebook that used the methods of the ancient Chinese text the I Ching (Book of Changes) to decide whether the narrator should have children. The book reshaped our understanding of what influences could constitute both the novel and novelist alike.
Heti is one of those rare authors who, despite having a trailblazing quality in her approach to making books, has found colossal success among a broad readership. Her desire to bend the novel’s defined form to a breaking point is perhaps overshadowed only by her ability to surprise audiences with excursive new projects. They’ve taken the shape of children’s picture books and an anthology of over six hundred women talking about their complicated relationships with clothing.
Heti’s latest release, Pure Colour, is her most ambitious and moving work to date. It follows an art critic named Mira who suffers a blow to her career and love life when her father unexpectedly dies. Rather than dwell on the stages of grief that might accompany this loss, Heti’s novel takes a miraculous turn into, of all things, metempsychosis. Mira’s consciousness is lifted out of her body, melds with her father’s soul, and enters the material confines of a leaf hanging from a tree. From there, Mira goes on to encounter the radiant splendor of God and fishtailing abstractions of time.
The novel’s transcendent moments are grounded by the inclusion of children’s literature influences, producing an amalgam of styles surprisingly not at odds with one another—the wonder elicited by existence’s most impenetrable mysteries co-mingling with the sublimity of a child’s inquiries into meaning.
With the prospect of having created a new literary genre looming over our conversation in a Toronto bar, Heti also discussed her secret desire to write only realist fiction, the state of literary criticism, and the supremacy books hold over all other competing art forms.
Jean Marc Ah-Sen: There’s a point when an author moves past the ruminative, planning stages of a work and writing can really begin. What was that moment for Pure Colour? With a backlist as large as yours, are you often conscious of how a new book will work in relation to things you have published in the past?
Sheila Heti: I do have that consideration in terms of titles, but that’s just for myself. Part of how I like to consider whether a new title works is I put it in a list with the old titles and see if it fits. If it doesn’t, it’s the wrong title. But no, I only do that with titles—not the books themselves.
With Pure Colour, I started writing it around the time that Motherhood came out, and I was reading reviews, and I started wanting to think about art criticism and art critics, and so the first passage I wrote was about Manet and the art critic Albert Wolff. I didn’t yet have a sense of the book as a whole. I was just playing. There’s a book I have that I really love—it’s called Manet and his Critics—and it documents the criticism he received at the time that he exhibited in the Paris Salon. So I was looking at that book, and that’s where I began.
JMA: Although you’re using elements of magical realism, you also blend the narrative logic of philosophical novels with the whimsical qualities and purity of intention that characterize children’s literature. Albert Camus or Hannah Arendt don’t usually go hand in hand with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or Roald Dahl. Do you think both of these traditions are at work in Pure Colour?
SH: That makes sense, because I felt the presence of both of those selves in me when I was writing the book—the child self who sort of looks at the world with awe and wonder and a real openness, and the more middle-aged self who has lived a certain amount of time and can remember the world of their youth, which is now lost, and feels themselves to be aging. I don’t feel I really draw on “traditions” in a conscious way, but traditions are obviously a part of me. I read and was read children’s stories when I was little. I have read philosophical literature. But I wasn’t thinking about genre as I was writing. I felt like I was in the middle of the ocean, or like I was high. And especially the middle parts, I just wrote for myself. It didn’t occur to me that they would go into a book.
JMA: This is your most direct engagement with metaphysical ideas like the transmigration of the soul, the mind-body problem, and a creation myth you invented where humans take on the dispositions of bears, fish and birds. Why did you feel it was the right time to explore these subjects?
SH: I think you’re always dealing with your most pressing questions, and every book you write resolves certain questions in your life. With Pure Colour, when I began, I was thinking, “Why can’t we take more pleasure in life?” Life is obviously some weird, magical, rare and unexpected gift that you don’t know what to do with as a human, and you always feel like you’re not using life right. You’re only alive once and what do we do with it? Shop online? So I was asking myself that question. Maybe it’s a middle-aged question. When I was younger, I’d feel the questions more as obstacles that I had to overcome, or things I had to really figure out, in order to live with a basic feeling of sanity. But when I started Pure Colour, it felt like I had more freedom to sit and think and decide what I wanted to write about, rather than reacting to some pressing difficulty.
JMA: You’ve written about Judaism before, and have described God as representing for you “the hope of some kind of order.” Did religious thinking inform how Pure Colour was going to explore the concept of God and the nature of love?
SH: No, I don’t think so. This book didn’t come out of reading. I mean, I have some religious background in the sense of being Jewish and having studied philosophy of religion in university, but I feel that with this book, I was just starting from scratch. The world felt so new to me after my father died. After his death, I just felt like I was brand new, or a newly born person. I suppose you start thinking about religion or God or the meaning of life when you’re confronted with a death that’s so close to you. You’re just pushed in that direction.
JMA: Can you talk about the balancing you had to do with the tone of the novel? On the one hand, there is the lightness that accompanies Mira’s blooming love for her schoolmate Annie and the migration of her consciousness into a leaf. On the other, there is the weight of death that accompanies Mira everywhere. Is the book’s inquiry into existence about reconciling these two registers, or is it more fair to say that life is shaped by their irresolution?
SH: Maybe humour reconciles them? What do you mean by reconcile?
JMA: I mean in the sense that there are good things and bad things, serious things and trivial things that can occur, which might make you either an optimist or a cynic, but there is also the opportunity to incorporate both viewpoints in literature.
SH: I think you don’t know what’s good or bad. For instance, I’ve seen so many friends get divorced during the pandemic, and at first, maybe that seems bad, but in all of the cases, it’s actually been good. You think death is bad, but there’s also this great liberation and freedom in no longer having to be alive. I think it’s more that you don’t know what’s good or what’s bad in the moment that it’s happening. Sometimes you think you’re in a bad relationship, but then it turns out to have just been a difficult one that ends up having had a very good influence on your life, in the sense that you both changed each other in positive ways. On the other hand, there are relationships that seem easy and they’re a pleasure, but years later you look back and you realize you just coddled each other, so now you judge it as bad.
I think with the tone, there is both a heaviness and a lightness, but that’s because both things are always existing in the universe. So what are you choosing to perceive? I always feel that things are one step away from being a joke. Because it’s kind of ridiculous to be alive and then be dead. You have to take life seriously, and you can’t take it too seriously at the same time.
JMA: Mira is studying to become an art critic, which you describe in the book as “a difficult life on the knife-edge of feelings.” So much of criticism relies on dispassionate, clinical observation. Do you believe that something of the emotional world is missing from the practice?
SH: I don’t know. It’s not something that I would go around saying because I think sometimes criticism is too emotional and critics don’t see the book for what it is. All they can see are their feelings. I wouldn’t say that criticism is too cold—sometimes it can be too hot, and the book is lost. I felt like that with some of the reviews of Motherhood: the criticism was too emotional and reviewers didn’t really see the book. But it doesn’t matter. A book exists independently of the writer and the reader. A work of art has its own life that’s separate from being interpreted and experienced. It doesn’t only exist when it’s being reacted to. It has its own form.
JMA: The Trampoline Hall lecture series you created features speakers from various fields and stages of their careers discussing subjects they are not experts on, and just celebrated its twentieth anniversary. How did the idea for this modern-day salon start? Was it meant to be a talent showcase that could conceivably go on for years?
SH: I was ready to stop it after the first one! I just wanted to see if it would work, and it did, and that was good enough for me. I move on very quickly from things. It’s Misha [Glouberman, the host] who kept it going. Misha is someone who really gets pleasure from repetition, whereas I don’t. I only worked on it for three or four years, and even then, that was too much for me. I can’t do the same thing, month after month, in terms of art.
The meaning of the show has changed a lot since 2001. Now there’s social media, and everyone has an opinion that you can access, but part of the reason I started it was because I felt it was a shame that we never got to hear from each other—that we only got to hear from those people who were in positions of power, or were in the media, or were elected by the media to speak. So there’s something that’s really outdated about the originating idea of Trampoline Hall. Part of what’s exhausting now is that we only hear from each other, and there are no authorities. That’s interesting, too. But that insistence in Trampoline Hall where you have to be an amateur and you can only talk about things you don’t know about—that’s the whole world now. Everyone’s talking about things they don’t know anything about, you know?
I think the reason it could last for twenty years, despite all these changes, is because it’s theatre, and because seeing someone on stage, being vulnerable, will always be interesting.
JMA: Is there something in the publishing world that is holding your attention at the moment—a writer, a national literature, maybe a movement or trend that you find particularly heartening?
SH: I don’t think of literature like that. I just think of it as individual people. I don’t think about trends or countries. I know people are interested in all of that, but I think that literature is the soul of the person who has written it, and you’re drawn to that soul the same way you’re drawn to a friend—their being and their experience, you want to be near it. Everything apart from that is people trying to sell books and write magazine articles.
JMA: You’ve described your books How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood as being a product of “constructed reality.” What drew you to this form of writing, and to your way of thinking now? Is it still different from things like the roman à clef or creative non-fiction?
SH: When I was writing How Should a Person Be?, I didn’t have the words for what I was doing. It was very exploratory and the only model I had was reality TV. At the time, I missed being in the theatre, where you’re in a kind of family with the people you’re making a play with. So I wanted to bring some of that feeling into my writing and my life. I was young and recently divorced and I just wanted to be out in the world. I wanted to connect with other people and with life outside of a marriage and a home. I wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a book, because I love working and the puzzle of making art. I was thinking about how I can combine these two things: how can I be among my friends and at the same time make a work? So I thought that I’d just make scenes happen in my life and then write about them. But there were also a million other thoughts that went into writing that book. I can never express it coherently in an interview. There was a lot of experimenting and thought, and of course, the artistic influence of Margaux [Williamson].
JMA: It sounds like you’re describing an act of self-preservation?
SH: Sometimes when you come out of a marriage that you don’t want to be in, you can feel a tremendous liberation. I was suddenly feeling free, like the world was wide open, so it was more about curiosity about that world than about self-preservation. I felt I’d preserved myself by leaving the marriage. I was concerned with the question of, “What do friends say to each other, actually?” I was tired of the artifices in fiction. In a marriage, you’re sort of living in an artifice, or an artificial structure, so coming out of that, I didn’t want to feel hemmed in by any traditions. I think “constructed reality” was Margaux’s term, but she may have got it from Werner Herzog.
JMA: Do you think you’ll return to that method of writing?
SH: I have no idea what I will write next, but I don’t think it will be along those lines, because I can’t imagine being curious about something I’ve already resolved for myself, unless there’s something that happens that makes it interesting to me all over again. Every time I start a book, I just want to write like Émile Zola. I just want to write an A+, straight realist novel, and I feel like every book I write is just a different variety of failing at that.
I try not to bore myself, so I edit a book in such a way so that I would be interested to read it. You can’t imagine how anyone else is going to read it. You can’t predict, and there’s no theory—everyone reads differently. If anything, I feel like I’m writing for the writers I admire. I wouldn’t say I want to please them, but if the writers I admire and that I am friends with like what I’ve written, then it feels good, and if they don’t, I worry. Writers are more willing to accept something they haven’t read before—if it’s good—but I feel most readers simply want to read something that’s familiar. It’s like the way people like songs that sound like other songs.
I think the forms that are interesting to writers in the contemporary moment are the ones that will last and be passed down, and then they’ll become the conventions that will have to be reacted against. I always feel uncertain when I finish a book about whether it counts as a book, but that’s also an exciting feeling for me.
JMA: Now more than ever, writing seems to be tied to the social good for large sections of the reading public. It seems like questions of formalism and aesthetics have been replaced with moral investigations of a writer’s behaviour and their accountability to others. Do you think that this is the case? Does it make for a better or worse kind of literature?
SH: Probably worse? I’m old-fashioned and I just don’t care what the artist is like in real life. I assume they’re probably not going to be good people because I don’t think good people sit around writing books.
JMA: I wonder what that says about us…
SH: Yeah, right? I think art is supposed to be outside of morality. Aesthetics and morality don’t have anything to do with each other. Somebody who’s really interested in aesthetic propositions—which is what a work of art is—is probably not going to be the same person who is deeply interested in performing a moral good, so I’m not sure why we expect our artists to be moral paragons or even necessarily right-acting people.
JMA: I used to think that the hardest thing about writing books was fighting torpor or the quality of your prose, but now I obsess about maintaining fortitude or appealing to acquisitions editors. How do you approach these kinds of auxiliary considerations of our profession? I didn’t do an MFA, so I don’t know if that’s tackled in those programs, but I imagine it would be pertinent—techniques to make this strange job as painless as possible.
SH: I didn’t do an MFA either. I think it’s bullshit and a money grab by universities. I’m sure people do get something out of it, but people get something out of going through war. People get something out of everything! If you’re an intelligent person, you can get something out of being buried alive!
I do think writers should have other artists around them, but why should it be other writers? Why wouldn’t you want to be friends with, and share your work with, a painter, or a filmmaker, or a film critic? Why wouldn’t you choose these people yourself, rather than just be thrown together with those who were also accepted into that university? I know some people get paid to be part of an MFA, and I can see why that’s a reason to do it—who wouldn’t want to be paid to fuck off for a year and just write? But overall, I think it’s really wrong. Most of them aren’t going to make a living as writers, and they’re going into debt, and for what?
JMA: A lot of writers look at their work as being a proof of concept for film and television adaptation, which is great. A possible consequence, though, is that writing can become less about maximizing the unique features of one medium, and more about being extrapolative for others. I expect dialogue, pacing, plotting and subject matter are all affected. How much of a consideration is this for you, if at all?
SH: I don’t want my books to be adapted. Several people over the years have approached me about wanting to make How Should a Person Be? into a movie or a television show and I said no. Once you adapt a book into a film, the characters can’t be yours—it’s like, Margaux is now always going to be Kristen Stewart, and she’s never again going to be the Margaux in your head. I definitely don’t think about whether something I’m working on can be turned into a movie. I hope it never will be!
I think literature is very special and way better than film, and more intimate. You create the book in your imagination, and I think that makes it a more exciting art form. I was asked to write a movie script, and I did, but it wasn’t very good. I think I just don’t love film enough. Film seems to me not as eternal an art form as literature, because I always feel that one day the technologies are all going to break down and no one’s going to be able to watch films ever again. But they’ll still be able to read books. Literature has a life force that persists through time in a way that feels unique. My boyfriend pointed out something, which is that they don’t give Nobel Prizes for visual art or even for music. I think there’s something about literature that is deeply woven into the human soul and the progress of mankind. ✲
Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation and a participant in the collaborative omnibus novel Disintegration in Four Parts. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.