Sheila Heti. Photo: Sylvia Plachy.
I met Sheila Heti at her home in the west end of Toronto on January 31, 2018, three months before the publication of her novel Motherhood. Heti opened her front door with one hand while the other gripped the leather collar of her dog, a Rottweiler named Feldman with a handsome boulder-size head. They led me up the stairs to a rambling second-floor apartment. Heti washed fresh fruit and made black tea before we retreated to her writing studio. We sat facing each other on a velvet couch, Heti’s desk and a hard chair in the opposite corner. She explained that her boyfriend had just rearranged the seating area and with the positioning of the armchairs, coffee table, and bookshelf, it was now much better. Feldman moved between the furniture, negotiating a space for his massive, shining body. He curled himself between us and panted heavily. When I listened back to the tape of our conversation, his breaths sounded as if something were being inflated. Heti explained that she and her boyfriend gave him the name Feldman so he wouldn’t seem so scary to others. Feldman eventually relocated to the floor. As we spoke, Sheila occasionally dropped fruit into his mouth.
Sheila Heti was born in Toronto on Christmas Day in 1976 to Jewish Hungarian parents. After high school, she went on to study playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal (she dropped out after one year), then art history and philosophy at the University of Toronto. She began publishing in her early twenties with the short story collection The Middle Stories (2001) and went on to produce work in nearly every form: collaborations in The Chairs Are Where the People Go (2011) and Women in Clothes (2014); a play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid (2015); a book for children, We Need a Horse (2011); and the novels Ticknor (2005), How Should a Person Be? (2010), and now, Motherhood. Alongside her writing, Heti cofounded the lecture series Trampoline Hall and served as the interviews editor at The Believer. In Motherhood, Heti takes on her most controversial and private debate yet—whether or not to have a child. A brilliant, radical, and moving book, it is sure to cause the cultural riot her earlier work has.
Heti answered every question without hesitation. Her attention never wavered. We laughed often. At times, she turned the question on me. I was struck by her precision and curiosity. We edited the conversation over email for length, but otherwise, it reflects the hours we spent together in her studio as it darkened, neither of us wanting to move from the couch to turn on a light. Though its red glow did not enter the curtained room, it is worth noting that we met on the day of the rare astronomical phenomenon called the super blue blood moon.
Heti and I talked about the noxious divide between mothers and nonmothers, art as a form of offspring, and how every book has its platonic ideal. We talked about the dog I dog sit, who inside the house is aloof and manly but outside becomes the cliché of a dog: leaping at other smaller dogs and peeing on pee. Heti and I agreed that writers must also have inside and outside versions of themselves. As Heti said, “Outside, you have to be a different dog.” —Claudia Dey
You’ve remarked in the past that you were intimidated by the contemporary world, that you were raised outside of the culture. Who were your influences when you were a teenager?
I always think about Marquis de Sade and Henry Miller. Those were probably the biggest ones. Just that very degenerate way of life. I thought that was the right path. And all the stuff that was happening with my boyfriend and his friends and all our friends, we were all trying to model our lives on that kind of … what’s the word? Libertine. I think a lot of young people today want to have open relationships or be polyamorous, which involves a lot of sensitivity and care of other peoples’ feelings, but for us, the whole point was to hurt each other as much as possible and feel sort of invincible in withstanding the hurt. We thought we were living in a Henry Miller novel, basically. Or at least I did.
Was it also the way Miller wrote that drew you to him? Did you want to write like him?
Yeah. It was just so opposite to growing up as a kid in an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Toronto. I’d grown up being told that you should not have sex until marriage. Miller’s work was all of the opposite values. It was all sex and depravity. I was drawn to his way of writing, too, because it was very raw and very unfiltered and he wasn’t interested in a perfect form. It felt so immediate and so close to life. And Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom was so crazy, so over-the-top. I was just so drawn to all these European forms and not the well-made novel. Not the realist novel. I was just so drawn to all these wild forms.
You’ve said that you like a book that “doesn’t show its struggle.”
I want it to seem like the book was written from beginning to end.
Having a spoken quality.
Yeah, a conversational quality. Lately, I have wanted my books to be easy to read in some way. Not for the ideas to be easy necessarily, but I want it to have the veneer of ease because I’m over the Modernist thing of trying to push away the reader. The Modernists wanted to push away the reader, and only the really dedicated readers would last, stick with it—only the elected were deserving of the book.
There’s a new quality to your writing in Motherhood. The only way I can describe it is tenderness.
Well, I don’t think my previous books—I don’t think those subjects allowed for tenderness as much. They weren’t about the deepest things of the heart.
Whereas this book is.
I hope so. I think so. Yeah.
It’s still called a novel.
Because a novel to me indicates the kind of intelligence you use to shape it and to create it, and that it’s a form apart from your life. For me, a memoir is supposed to be understood as a representation of your life. Whereas a novel is self-consciously symbolic. I want this book to be read with an openness toward symbolic associations. How do I put it? I feel like when you read a memoir, you map what you read onto that person’s life and your life, but when you read a novel, you map it also onto an imaginative world. A novel takes up more space.
In your books, there’s always that question of truth. You gave the protagonist of How Should a Person Be? your name. The protagonist of Motherhood is unnamed, but the assumption is that her life is close to your life. Do you ever feel overexposed?
Not through my books. Maybe through photographs or interviews now and then, but not through my books because it’s not my person I’m revealing. It’s something I’ve crafted in the novel form. Even if it contains my thoughts, I am putting a work of imagination into the world. I’m putting an artwork into the world, not myself.
At which point did you impose a structure on the book?
I started writing this book in 2010, but I didn’t begin working on it intently until around 2015. Up until then, I was generating notes and collecting material and writing aimlessly and so on.
Do you think a first draft holds a special power?
Well, my first draft was just a document into which I put all my reading and writing and notes. It was around seven hundred fifty thousand words. It was everything. For me, the process involves accumulating this mass of material, then I start cutting and cutting and shaping and cutting and writing more and cutting. But I keep the original drafts of everything.
A first draft is when you are most alone with your book.
Right. Exactly. With this book, I kept making the mistake of cleaning it up too much, editing it too tightly. I guess I felt some embarrassment about what I was writing at times. I wanted to cut a lot of the embarrassing stuff out, the stuff that seemed to me stupid, or the stuff that I worried people would have problems with.
But then you put that stuff back in.
Yeah. Eventually, I had to start editing backwards.
I want to go back to Henry Miller. He is, in a way, the grandfather of autofiction—though he never had to worry about motherhood! That affinity you felt with his writing, the immediacy, the avoidance of perfect form—is this still true for you?
Not with this book. I wanted something more gemlike, more perfect. I don’t know if I got it, I don’t know if I had enough time, but I wanted every sentence to be a sentence I liked and to be a sentence I could stand behind. Which is different from a raw transcription of life.
With How Should a Person Be?, you said you consciously avoided beautiful sentences.
Yes, so this is different in that way. Maybe that’s the reason for some of the tenderness you’re talking about. I believe there’s a platonic ideal for every book that is written, like there’s the perfect version of the book somewhere in the ether and my job is to find what that book is through my editing. I’m not sure I got it with this book, but I tried to come close. In How Should a Person Be?, I just set that idea aside—I tried to follow the opposite of all my instincts. But with this book, I went with my instincts, which is that for every artwork you create—at least in my experience—you feel like you’re moving toward some shadowy, far-off place. You can sort of feel it, sort of see it in some way, and the far-off place is the final, real form of the book, and editing and writing just gets you closer.
You’ve talked about Eric S. Raymond’s idea of “the cathedral and the bazaar” and how How Should a Person Be? was a “bazaar,” a crowd-sourced creation, while your earlier work came more from the inside of your head, a “cathedral” construction. I found Motherhood incredibly lonely. You write about the biblical Jacob and his wrenched hip, left all night to wrestle with a demon-angel. His loved ones have gone off to the opposite shore. He’s out of earshot, and he’s out of sight to those who might help him. I felt the place of this novel was Jacob’s lonely shore.
That makes perfect sense. That’s so good. That is, in a way, what it feels like when your friends have had or are having children and you are still wrestling: like they are on the other shore, and there you are, alone.
How much do you keep your reader in mind when you’re writing?
I don’t think about the reader when I’m writing, but I do when I’m editing of course. For instance, I self-consciously didn’t want to do anything to increase the divide between mothers and nonmothers—I think that divide is so horrible and destructive and unnecessary.
In Motherhood, for the protagonist, a book holds the same vitality as an imagined child. Even a genetic legacy.
How do you mean?
Books can do what children do. They spread your genes in a way.
Right. I don’t know what it’s like to live without any offspring—if you consider art a form of offspring. Like a mother, I’m trying to imprint myself on the world in some way, with writing. I’m not in the superradical place of not needing to leave anything behind. Being legacyless seems really radical to me. It seems almost saintly.
You’ve written as much nonfiction as fiction by now. Was the book always a novel?
No. Originally, it was going be a book of nonfiction where I’d talk to lots of other women and men about their experiences—
But you did that with clothes.
Right. So I was doing all this research—talking to other people. But then I put the book aside when I started to work on Women in Clothes, and once Women in Clothes was finished, I just felt like I wanted to write my own sentences. I wanted to be back inside my own room, alone, and hear my own voice. I know there are a million experiences of motherhood, and of nonmotherhood, but in the end, I decided to write about one.
Do you curate your reading around whatever project you’re working on?
Is there certain reading that you have to avoid because of adopting cadences?
No, I don’t avoid anything. I read whatever I’m interested in. For Motherhood, I bought so many academic and very intellectual books about motherhood, but I mostly left them on the shelf and instead ended up reading a lot of popular mainstream books about motherhood. At one point, I suspected myself of laziness, but then I realized that no, I wanted to have the contemporary mainstream culture around mothering in my system—to have the mind that wrote the book be the nonartist version of myself and so to read the sort of books that that self would read. Also, I got really obsessed with reading the comments section of online articles that had to do with mothering. For instance, a woman wrote in the Daily Mail about how she wished she hadn’t had kids—she had two grown kids—and people were furious. I read probably all twelve hundred comments. For a while, I was going to include in the book some of these comments I collected—like some man writing, “You’re going to end up loveless and alone. Go ahead and enjoy your martinis now. Mother nature has a way of taking care of the people who are as selfish as you are!” Or whatever.
Then you stripped them away.
Yeah. Because I thought, We all know what those things are.
Did you know from the start that you would write about wrestling with the question of motherhood as well as the experience of being the recipient of mothering—what it was like to be a mother’s daughter?
I knew I was going to write about the idea of tears—a sad mother. I remember being a little kid and feeling like my mother was different from the other mothers because she wasn’t so interested in being a mother. I would have a friend come over, and I’d call up to my mom, “Do you want to say hi to this friend?” And she would say, “No, it’s okay.” And she would just keep doing her work. And that’s just not the picture one gets—from the culture, as a child—of what a mother is. Of course a mother would want to come down and meet her child’s friend, but my mother preferred to keep working, which I respect so much, you know. I get it. As a writer now, I get it. But I think that being a kid and not having a conventional mother, hearing about mothers, I was always like, They’re not talking about my mother with this word mother. But I didn’t feel that there was something wrong with my mother. I felt that there was something wrong with the word mother.
Did you want to recapture the word?
Maybe. I just never felt it was a fair word. I thought, How can the world get this word so wrong? The category has felt off to me my whole life. Then my friends started having kids and becoming mothers, and I was sent back to that original feeling of, But what is a mother? My friends are becoming mothers. But what are they becoming? And why do they want to be this thing? The whole category just has never had any stability for me. I could never trust it. When people would tell me they wanted to be mothers, I would think, What are you even talking about? What is it you want to be? How do you even know what that is, a mother? I’ve just always hated the word. I felt so much resentment around it.
There’s a huge amount of shame in mothers who feel ambivalent about mothering.
And there’s also shame in not wanting a child.
I always pictured that you knew you would be a writer in the way that a monk knows they will be a monk. Is that correct?
I’ve known since I was fifteen.
A lot of writers talk about parallel lives—oh, I could have been an oceanographer, a painter. That wasn’t—
No. Not since I was fifteen.
Did you read as an apprenticeship?
I wasn’t thinking about it like that. I was just reading. I was just trying to catch up to my boyfriend. He gave me Crime and Punishment. Turns out he didn’t even read it.
Were you reading playwrights too?
Yes, many. Ionesco, Pinter, and a lot of gay male playwrights—Joe Orton, Oscar Wilde, Albee.
Because of their outrage?
I guess so. I was talking to a gay male friend of mine about books, and we were talking about our favorite writers, and I realized that growing up, I had read what he called “the gay canon.” I was always drawn to gay male twentieth-century writers like Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White and Raymond Radiguet. I suppose because they were outsiders. They had no place in society. They had to create their lives from no blueprint.
Can you apply that to your writing? Do you feel that you’ve invented a blueprint for something?
I don’t know if I’ve invented anything, but I’m glad I feel the freedom to write in whatever way I want.
There’s so little description in the book, so little about weather and time and outfits and settings. You said about ten years ago that making up fake people and putting them through fake paces felt tiresome to you. Do you think description is decorative or even empty—a stand-in for real thinking?
I don’t know. Maybe description makes the book too specific. Like, if you describe in detail how all the people in the book look, it becomes too much about the writer’s imagination and not enough about the reader’s life. But if you sketch characters very lightly, then the reader can put people from their own life into it. Or if you sketch the narrator very lightly, the thoughts can feel more like they’re the reader’s thoughts.
Did you want the book to function that way for the reader—for the reader to examine her own life by way of the book?
Yes, I wanted the book to make the reader think about their life, and not in a complaining kind of way but in an existential kind of way. For us just to take our thoughts about this question a little more seriously and to let the discussion contain more. A friend of mine who read the book said that if men could have babies, there would be hundreds of books like this one going back to Plato—that whether or not to create life would be the central question of philosophy. There’s a fundamental existential shift that happens when you have this other life you’re responsible for, and also, you are sentencing another person to life when you become pregnant. Yet we tend to talk about it as though it’s a lifestyle choice.
There’s a beautiful scene in the novel when the narrator visits her mother in her new house. There’s a feeling of closeness between them. It is a new feeling. A feeling of possibility. The narrator is doing a tour and taking note of the objects, the color of the walls, and then she slides a door open, and there’s the remnants of an old barn. It is such a surprising moment. It brought to mind a comment you’ve made in the past that when you finish a book, you exit the mood of the book and reenter the world. You feel you can start to think about new things. Do you feel that way now?
Completely. I don’t ever have to think about this book or this question again—specifically the child thing … I’m so glad I don’t have to think about that anymore. It’s such a relief.
Claudia Dey is the author of the forthcoming novel Heartbreaker.
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