New Routes in Fiction:
SHEILA HETI with Alec Niedenthal
Sheila Heti is the author of seven books, including the 2012 novel, How Should a Person Be? which was a New York Times Notable Book and was called by Time magazine "one of the most talked-about books of the year." She is co-editor of the New York Times bestseller Women in Clothes, which features the voices of 639 women from around the world. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. She published a new book, called Motherhood, in May 2018.
Sheila Heti is a romantic writer, I’d say. Romantic in the sense of post-Goethe Germany, of writers who saw that the Infinite—the large, the unthinkable, the eternal—lives in the mundane, the dumb, the lifeless. The very small.
Heti’s ideas thrive in, say, the sway of an exchange between mother and daughter. They speak in the mute moments of a couple’s home life. She uses dramatic technique not for its own sake—to tell a story or show a situation—but to poke at notions of Woman and Duty, to circle around an idea and the shape it takes in our lives. When reading her, I sense the effort of a brain trying to think clearly, of eyes trying to see clearly.
In her new novel, Motherhood, Heti’s narrator wonders whether she, an artist, should conceive. She interrogates her boyfriend, friends with agendas, literary figures. She launches this question at the wall and there’s hardly a page it doesn’t stick to. Outside of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, I don’t think I’ve read a novel that so fearlessly burrows into an idea, dressing philosophy in the artifice of fiction. Of course, unlike The Tunnel, it can be read and enjoyed by actual human beings.
I spoke to Sheila Heti over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I was thinking about when I heard you read from what became Motherhood. I remember your telling me that it was 700 pages at the time. This was 2015. What happened? Did you think in order to be a book it had to be much smaller?
Heti: No, it was just me. Just editing. At that point, when it was 700 pages, that was all my writing, all my notes. I had this idea that I wanted to write a long book when I started. But then you start taking out the passages that aren’t as good, and the passages you don’t like as much, and the stuff that doesn’t fit or doesn’t have a place in the narrative or clashes in some way... In order to have a 700-page book I would’ve had to include a lot of writing I didn’t love.
Rail: It’s interesting you say you had this idea of writing a long book.
Heti: I’d never done that before, so it seemed exciting to me, and as a woman—to take up that kind of space.
Rail: It fits with the metaphor of the book.
Heti: But it just never works out that way for me. I have a friend who says, I wish I could write short books. It’s like hair—people who want curly hair, straight hair... We want what we can’t have. It doesn’t mean anything beyond wanting what you can’t do.
Rail: How do you account for that? Tending toward smaller, more self-contained books? Where does that spring from?
Heti: I’m kind of a perfectionist. I couldn’t stand having six pages of bad rambling. I would feel embarrassed. And when I was in theater school, I remember reading Aristotle’s Poetics, and there was something that stuck with me, which was—anything you can take out of a play that doesn’t alter the whole, should be taken out, so a narrative is the least amount you need in order to tell it. If something can be taken out without alteration to the whole, it should be. That stuck with me. It taught me something and aligned with something that I felt with, intuitively. In this book there’s a lot of thinking. So it’s not like, if a certain thought is not there, it’ll ruin the narrative. But I did ask, “If that thought wasn’t in the book, would the book will be unbalanced or incomplete?”
Rail: It seems like you’re talking about structure, and he might’ve been talking about plot.
Heti: That’s a good distinction.
Rail: I wonder how the structure of this book came about.
Heti: Sorry, I just went and pulled this quote. “A good plot must consist of a single, and not as some people say, of a double, story.” That’s just one line. Anyway, the structure...
Rail: I was wondering how the interesting structure came about. I’m thinking particularly of the way that the book progresses mostly via thought. It’s almost a book whose plot is thought. You could call it essayistic but I’m not sure I would. The dramatic momentum is carried out by thinking. Which is very interesting to me. Did you always know the book would move that way?
Heti: I didn’t know how the book would move. Writing all my last few books, or this book and How Should a Person Be? and Ticknor—well, I guess all of them—it’s just amassing a ton of material and then from all the materials I have—which was written without a structure in mind, and without a plot in mind—taking that material and seeing what kind of story and narrative could be made from it.
I’m working from material I generated without a structure in mind, and without knowing how it was going to all fit together. With this book, much of the writing was me thinking for myself—I really did want to think about this subject. It was material I felt compelled to write in a diaristic way, maybe. But when you put these pieces together as a novel, these episodes of thinking reflect a moment in time as much as they reflect a thought—they reflect who that person might be emotionally, in what state, and at what stage of progress in this journey she might be. I did there want to be this trajectory in the book: what are the earliest thoughts this person would have? Which of these many passages seem like they would’ve come earlier. Which seem less sophisticated? Less nuanced?
The earliest thoughts the protagonist has in the book are not necessarily the first ones I wrote. I tried to build a trajectory from the more received, cultural-notion thoughts to the more personal, individuated thoughts.
Rail: In some ways, it’s a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, but with respect to this one specific line of questioning.
Heti: Yes, kind of a growing up, but growing up in the context of not knowing what to do in relation to this question. Not that we arrive at actually knowing what to do, but we arrive at no longer being disturbed by not knowing what to do.
Rail: I was imagining how it would feel to write this book after working on How Should a Person Be?, which while it was a deeply philosophical book, is very narrative-driven. It’s an interesting book because like Motherhood, it attacks one question from every possible angle. But it does that in a storytelling format, whereas in Motherhood you let us watch this narrator think—often—without the constant dramatic push, with characters flitting in and out. Was there a process of giving yourself permission to do this? To write this way? Did that transition feel hard?
Heti: When I was writing How Should a Person Be? I gave a lot of thought to larger art ideas around novel-writing. I was thinking very conceptually and very ideologically about what a novel could contain. Ninety percent of the thinking I was doing while writing that book was conceptual—was not actually writing—and eventually I was like, “Oh my gosh, you have to actually put words down on a page. You can’t just think about the novel in today’s world, in relation to art, etc.” But with this book, thinking was 10% and writing was 90%. I let myself be led by the good passages, and the main thoughts I had were: how do I practically solve the person of getting a reader to the end of the book? How do I solve the problem of delineating time? But I didn’t ask: can I write a book this way?
Rail: In a lot of ways, Motherhood seems like the more unconventional of the two novels. Do you think you answered the question of what can a novel be, with your last book? Or you just weren’t as interested in it?
Heti: My answer was that it can be anything. With How Should a Person Be? I had an aesthetic agenda. With this one, I didn’t. I simply wanted to make it good. I wanted to make a book that people would read and discuss and feel things about and have thoughts around. I wanted it to be a good book. I kind of felt like maybe a conventional plot wasn’t even necessary, because there aren’t many of places in culture where people are dealing with this theme in this way. I thought maybe the subject matter would be strong enough to keep people interested—which is what I think a book needs to do: get a reader to the end. Of course, there are lots of great books, high-concept books, that don’t do that. Like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy. You can’t even get through the first thirty pages. But I want my novels to pull you through. For instance, I’m the kind of reader who can’t bring myself to finish a book. So to me the real achievement is getting someone to finish the book. Because I’m one of those readers who just don’t. I’m like “Okay, I’ve got a taste. I’ve had enough of it.” So to me, all the formal questions were about that. What’s going to propel it? I ended up cutting partly because I thought, “This book could be 700 pages of rumination, but I do want it to be a novel. I don’t want it to be The Second Sex. It’s a novel. Not a philosophical tract.”
Rail: That’s super interesting and so different from how I as a reader think of your two latest books. I hear you when you say that How Should a Person Be? had an aesthetic agenda. That book was years ago, but—what do you mean by that?
Heti: I actually haven’t answered that question before, because I don’t think I’ve ever put it like that before. But I wanted to write a book that didn’t concern itself with literary style. With beautiful sentences. With a heroic narrator or protagonist. To make the book feel more like an experience that a reader was walking through or undergoing, than a full complete that you were entering. A book that reached out and stepped into your life. But not only an aesthetic agenda with respect to what the book was for other people, but what the process was for myself. Can you write a book without stepping out of life to write the book? So, the aesthetic agenda would be like, make art in the midst of living, rather than art as a process separate from living—and separate from being with other people. That’s what I mean. And also, making art and using the names of my friends—I knew this would make accountable to real people in the writing of the book. So I was asking, can the writer become more moral to the people around him or her, through the writing of their book, rather than believing the artist is someone who must be amoral in order to make his or her work? Also stuff about open source: can you write without the privacy that people usually associate with art making? Can you write it while showing lots of drafts to lots of people? while letting their comments influence you? without having this authoritative, secretive mode as an artist? Those are some of the things I was thinking about while writing the book. I was trying to figure out what kind of artist I was, or could be. And with this book, Motherhood, I was a little suspicious of myself for not doing that kind of thinking. But maybe I’ve already done it and in some ways I can just be a little more unconscious, now that I’ve done so much conscious thinking.
Rail: So in a way, you have answered those questions for yourself? Or maybe, not questions so much as a test or an experiment.
Heti: It’s like each book has its own struggle, and then with the book that follows, you don’t need to do that same thing again. Like with Ticknor and The Middle Stories, even with Women in Clothes, there were certain things I learned to do while writing them that I didn’t need to learn again while writing the next book. Each new book has a new challenge, and I think the challenge with Motherhood was the subject matter. The other books weren’t really about anything, I think. Well, Ticknor was about character. But there was no relationship to a problem in the world, or a problem in culture.
Rail: Do you see that as a flaw? Or something that’s not there?
Heti: No, it just wasn’t my concern. It’s hard to write a book, and for me, the way I’ve proceeded, has been to learn one thing at a time. With How Should a Person Be? my concern was plot. I needed to teach myself how to tell a story. I asked, “What is plot for you? What is narrative for you?” With Ticknor I was concerned with voice and character. With The Middle Stories I was concerned with sentences and style and how do you get to the end of a story. I would never want to be so ambitious that I would try to do all those things at once—character and style and plot and social relevance all in your first book: I would never believe that a person could do all those in his or her first book, because each is so hard. So I wanted to focus on one thing at a time. I don’t know why I ended up doing it like that, but at some point, I was conscious of it. On some level, it just made sense. I never studied writing. It was just me teaching myself. This is the first book I wrote where I didn’t feel like I was teaching myself. I had gotten outside my self-imposed apprenticeship.
Rail: The way you describe this reminds me of—I think it was Maurice Blanchot who used to talk about the book to come. That all books were partial renderings of a book to come in a messianic sense. So your career is a way of compiling skills and interests, in such a way that you can someday write this “total book,” incorporating everything you’ve taught yourself so far.
Heti: My ideal is to keep adding things with every book. It’s less clear at this point what the struggle will be with the next one. In my twenties, it was so clear to me. I’m not saying there’s not a lot for me to learn, but Motherhood felt to me like a synthesis. I don’t want the next book to be, okay, here’s your second synthesis. Here’s your third synthesis. Now that Motherhood was a synthesis, I want the next book to teach me something new again. I don’t want the apprenticeship to be over. I think that would be death. There’s so impossibly far to go in writing.
Rail: I talked to David Szalay for one of these interviews, and he talked about how in his late twenties he wrote this very funny book, London and the South-East, which was a conventionally realist book. And afterward he thought, why would I do that again? And he’s spent the rest of his career trying to undo that model. That form. In ways that become progressively more challenging to the ideal, model of a linear novel. I suppose there are some writers who do content themselves with writing the same book repeatedly, or with the same aims, and then there are some writers who want to do something with the form each time.
Heti: I think the difference is—it’s the difference between being a conceptual artist versus being, say, a realist painter. Your pleasure comes from a different place. My pleasure comes from a conceptual place. And for the more realist kind of writer, their pleasure comes from creating a world. Telling a story. Very little of my pleasure comes from creating a world and telling a story. It’s more like, here’s an engineering challenge.
Rail: Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?—particularly the latter—are such character-driven books, though.
Heti: I don’t think I gave much thought to character in those books. Character just happened in pursuit of the other things.
Rail: Did it ever feel like a chore to think of characterization and dialogue?
Heti: With How Should a Person Be?, I didn’t think in those terms. I was writing about people around me. I didn’t have to invent character traits. I didn’t have to invent that stuff. The narrative voice is invented, but I wasn’t imagining people in my head and writing about them. And so much of the dialogue was taken from life. So all these things were taken care of.
Rail: So the invention had to do with the form and the composition.
Heti: The process. The narrative. The ending. Where things were going to end up. Different ways of generating material.
Rail: That book and Motherhood have different ways of making the reader feel, in my view. What made me feel, what pricked my conscience, in How Should a Person Be? was—how the narrator was treated by men. In Motherhood, feeling comes from the narrator’s relationship with her mother. It’s a much softer, gentler, kinder set of emotions, I think. Did it feel very different, writing those two types of emotional experience?
Heti: In both cases, I was writing about what I was feeling. They were both conditioned by the life I was living. It wasn’t like a decision where I thought, “Okay, this book is about the harshness of being a woman, and now I’m writing about the familial bond.” I don’t know how to answer—I was in my mid-thirties when I started writing Motherhood. I was in my mid-twenties when I started writing How Should a Person Be? In both cases I was writing about the experiences that were closest to me. That’s all I know how to say. Thinking about The Middle Stories: that’s a much more nihilistic worldview than How Should a Person Be? As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed more tenderness in myself, and in my life, toward other people and toward the world. I’ve felt less lonely and less dark and isolated. That’s been my trajectory. The books reflect that. Even writing The Middle Stories, I thought, “Someday I want to write about how beautiful life is. How beautiful being alive is.” I’m not sure I’ve done that with Motherhood, but each book gets closer to that. That’s always been my aim, because that’s my main feeling about the world.
Rail: When you say that’s always been your worldview—why did you have to work your way up out of your feeling of nihilism?
Heti: I don’t know. There’s a way one could write what I just expressed—about the beauty of life—and it would be very sentimental, and not really touch on the specialness of this feeling. It’s probably still too hard for me to express it the right way, but it’s just been a gradual movement towards being able to say that, because it’s not an easy thing to express without doing it wrong, you know? I think it also has to do with the fact that writing, when you’re younger, seems like the place to put bad feelings. But then you move from that to thinking, writing is also a place to put my noblest and most blissful feelings. But when you’re having those good feelings, you’re just happy feeling them. You don’t need to write them down. Feelings of “oneness with the universe,” you don’t need any witness to them. So much of my books originates from notes—in whatever I need to write down. But every time I write that more blissful stuff down, I seem like a crazy person.
Rail: You have to filter that feeling of wonder through some sort of suffering and loneliness or it doesn’t stick.
Heti: The ending of Motherhood touches on that. That there’s something magical about life. The longer you live, the more you see that. You see more patterns, repetitions, unfoldings.
Rail: Not only the longer you live, but the longer you write. A lot of the labor seems to be noticing patterns and rhythms.
Heti: And that teaches you to see it in life, also.
Rail: You talked about not wanting How Should a Person Be? to be developed outside of the world, but rather in the midst of it. It seems to me you’re unique in that, while many writes are doing this, you thematize it. Explicitly. In the sense that the books spring out of who you are at any given time. They’re like doubles of you in a way. And your specific life conditions. Your specific concerns, aesthetically, morally. Maybe I don’t even a question. Have you found that to be true? That that’s where your material springs from?
Heti: I can’t even think of writing in another way. If I look back on all the books, each book returns me exactly to how I was feeling in my life at the time. I think there’s a sense of it being spiritual biography. I get a sense of that, looking back. I can feel what the tone of my life was at that point. The tone of life at a certain point in your life—that’s the deepest experience of life I know. That’s the deepest thing I know. That will die with me. But if it’s in the books, in some ways, I feel I’ve captured the most effervescent and interesting thing about my life. The tone of what it feels like to be a person. Or what it felt like for me to be a person then. Like when I read Ticknor, I think, oh, there’s that terrible envy and isolation and internal near-madness and obsession. I look at my life through the lens of that book and just shudder. It was kind of awful. Even that modernist form, and writing about a character so far from my lived reality, felt like a perfect expression of my reality. Being in a marriage that was inappropriate. The book’s sense of being trapped and alien in one’s life. I feel all that when I read the book.
Rail: That’s beautifully put. If the book is successful, in a lot of ways it’s because the reader can see that too, even if he or she can’t verbalize it. He or she can see that it bears the tone of this person’s life. Even if it’s not autobiographical.
Heti: I’ve never put it like this before, so it’s nice to have an opportunity to do so. I’ve never related to the idea of writing as just “creating a world out of your imagination which is so far away from your existence, from your life.” That’s like making a toy. To me that doesn’t get at the most that writing can do.
Rail: And yet I wonder how many books that you and I have loved were written by people who were writing that way.
Heti: Maybe all books actually are that—based in the tone of a life—but we can’t see that. Maybe that’s what generates them. The tone of lived experience.
Rail: It’s interesting to think about books you’ve loved that seem like they don’t come from the tone of a writer’s life, like some sort of classic. The Magic Mountain. You’d think of Thomas Mann saying, “Okay, I want to write some allegory about the world right now and I want to do it in this existentially riveting way, and I want to have Hans Kastorp and this character, and this character.” But you don’t think about it as reflecting the tone of Mann’s life in that period. But maybe that’s what a book like that is. It’s a reflection of a particular angst that Mann felt at that time. Maybe he didn’t feel like that ten years later.
Heti: That must be the case.
Rail: Afterward, we think of it as totally divorced from Mann’s life. But maybe it is him, on every page.
Heti: If a book gives a person such a strong feeling as that, it must be the case.
Rail: At what point do you think you understand where a book is coming from—what it’s aiming for?
Heti: I don’t know. I usually can sense it near the beginning. Near the first third of the process. I get a feeling in my body of what the book is. There’s a kind of tone. But to be able to talk about it more tangibly takes having the book be done and materialized as an object. Even a month ago, I had to do a few interviews about Motherhood and I couldn’t talk about it. It felt impossible, because the book was still part of my imagination. It wasn’t an object in the world yet. I’ve only received finished books in the last couple weeks, but now I can talk about it as an objective thing. It has to be an object for me to talk about it like that one. Until then, I don’t know where the book starts and my idea of the book stops.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.