I Write what I Like!
(Poet, Amatortisero Ede in conversation with short story writer and novelist, Sheila Heti)
Amatoritsero Ede: Welcome to MTLS’ interview series, Sheila. We have been meaning to have this chat for a while now. But it finally comes on the heels of your nomination for UK’s prestigious Orange Prize, now renamed The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is a very auspicious moment indeed. This brings me to the Toronto Star’s commentary about the significance of your work as a writer. You are described as a representative of the ‘now’ generation. I have a sense that you don’t like to wear that cap. Nevertheless, don’t you think the Toronto Star is justified; does that cap not sit even more squarely now with your being long-listed for the Women’s Prize, your being on Time Magazine’s 2013 poll to select a pool of 100 “leaders, artists, innovators, icons and heroes [who] are the most influential people in the world.”
Sheila Heti: I don’t think things written in the newspaper and award nominations have anything to do with what a book’s actual worth is. I think it takes a much longer time in culture to figure that out, so I don’t see any of these things as signs of anything.
A.E.: I will wager that the Toronto Star’s description of you as representative of a ‘now’ generation has to do, amongst other things, with your postmodern stylistics, the structural departures in your prose. Your most resent work, How Should a Person Be? (2012) is unclassifiable, that is, “original” and “genre defying” according to the New York Times Book Review. Can you elaborate on its sub-titling – ‘a novel from life’ in terms of style?
S.H.: The publisher wanted us to put something on the front cover that would help readers. “A novel from life” came long after the book was written. I would never have chosen, without prodding, to give the book a sub-title. We played around with some ideas and that was the best we came up with. I wasn’t thinking of it as “a novel from life” when I was writing it and I still don’t think of it as “a novel from life.” I would be happiest if it was just called “a novel” or “a book.” Someone suggested a few months ago that “a novel in life” would have been more apt than “from life” and I liked that a lot.
A.E.: From book to book – Ticknor is notable as well as your most recent – you have consistently straddled different genres within each individual work. This makes one wonder: is it fiction, faction, historical fiction, autobiography etc. One gets a sense of that ‘now-ness’ which Toronto Star applauds. What are you trying to do – break with the past stylistically or find a unique voice?
S.H.: I’m just trying to write good books. I’m not trying to break from the past or find a unique voice. It may seem like I’m straddling genres but I’m actually just not thinking about genres. I feel like genre exists for bookstores, so they can shelve things more easily for customers. I don’t think there’s any reason to think about genre when you’re writing. Naturally if you read a lot in a lot of different areas—mythology, business biographies, experimental fiction—all those forms will be part of you and also a part of your work. I think there’s value in all kinds of writing and you can be inspired by anything. One of my favourite books is a manual on how to write in Gregg shorthand. There’s so much that’s interesting in all books.
A.E.: The protagonist in How Should a Person Be? seems to be your alter ego. She has your first name, Sheila. In the same way other characters have the first names of your personal real life friends. The text is interspersed with documented interviews with friends, and actual email exchanges. Where does fiction begin and autobiography ends in that work?
S.H.: It’s all wrapped up together. This is actually the question I get most often about this book and it seems like when people ask it they’re assuming there’s a big difference between fiction and non-fiction, but when you sit down to write, they aren’t so different. There’s literally nothing different happening in the mind or in the hand when you’re writing “what happened” vs. when you’re writing “fiction.” It’s exactly the same process. When I was writing How Should a Person Be?, I told myself I wanted to write without using my imagination, but of course I did end up using my imagination. At no point did I think what I was doing was autobiography, and I still don’t. Autobiography and memoir have very particular meanings: their motivation is to tell the world the story of your life (or about some part of your life) because you want to share it with people, and you think it’s important to share, and you’re trying to say what happened, and none of those things were true of the ways I was thinking when I was writing this. The Sheila character is an example of a human; what happens to her is an example of what can happen to a human. I just wanted to use materials that were close by. I was inspired by Margaux’s idea that one should be resourceful, not wasteful, in the making of art. When that comes to making a painting, that might mean make small paintings, not gigantic ones. That’s the kind of thinking that went into the book. What’s the simplest, most resourceful way to proceed? I also used myself because I wanted to talk about how we make idols of ourselves. For lots of other reasons, but none of them autobiographically motivated. I wasn’t trying to share my story with the world.