Tall Poppy Interview: Sheila Heti
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Tall Poppy Interview: Sheila Heti

Photo by Lee Towndrow.
Since the publication of her first book The Middle Stories in 2002, Toronto native Sheila Heti has established herself as a writer with an original and unnerving—and often extremely funny—imagination. In 2005 she published Ticknor, a well-received sojourn into the anxious mind of its narrator. Heti is also the founder of the freewheeling lecture series Trampoline Hall, and a regular contributor to McSweeney’s ultra-hip publications. Heti talked to Torontoist about collaboration, engaging with an audience, and why her hometown is a relatively quiet place to live.

Torontoist: There’s been a lot of talk in the last two or three years about a ‘cultural renaissance’ taking place in Toronto, and it does seem that the city is going through a surge in its cultural growth. Why do you think this is happening now?
Sheila Heti: I don’t know, because I wasn’t here and making art and collaborating with people 20 years ago. But I get the sense from people I speak to, who are older, that there was a lot going on in the seventies, like with General Idea or Coach House. Maybe these things go in cycles. Toronto is also a place lots of people go to if they want to make art. Maybe because of the internet there’s more of a collaborative ethic going around, a sense that art is made among people—it’s not made by the authoritative genius. So I see a lot of collaboration going on. That probably helps.
Your piece “Dream of the Waterfront,” which appeared in uTOpia, reads as whimsy, but it has a serious point, and you’re known to have a concern with aesthetics in the public realm—let’s say you have an interest in public space generally….
I wouldn’t really say so.
No. I do have a lot of friends who are activists, public space activists, and I was involved with it for a while and excited about it, but I’m not so interested in it anymore.
Why not?
I’m not exactly sure. There’s very little I can think about for more than three years.
2007_09_28TMS.jpgWhat are some of the things you think are worth paying attention to in Toronto right now, in any area? Who’s doing what?
It depends what you’re interested in. I’m not really paying attention to too much in the city right now. I’m just working and I have other things on my mind. I’m not reading any of the weeklies these days, which keep you in touch with what’s going on. I’m collaborating with my friend Margaux Williamson.
What’s the project?
It’s kind of a reality show in which we’re some version of ourselves.
Is this the one you’re in, as an interviewer?
Yeah. Her trailer is on the internet right now.
What led you to that project?
She did.
You mentioned collaboration earlier. What do you enjoy about collaborating with other artists?
If you’re collaborating you have a way of getting outside of your own thoughts, and it’s a way of making things a little more difficult.
You’re known primarily as a writer, and writers are often perceived as reclusive figures. But public speaking and live events are clearly important to you as an artist. Trampoline Hall is the obvious example.
Yes, I’m interested in live events. It’s a different way of engaging in the world from just sitting in your room and writing something for three or four years, and then putting it out there and there being individuals who read it but no ‘audience.’ I’m interested in audiences and in rooms in which experiences are being created by all the participants—the audience being a big part of that creation. Human bodies are interesting to work with, not just words.
Is there a literary style that is distinctly Torontonian? Are there certain ideas that preoccupy Toronto writers?
I don’t read enough from Toronto writers to know, and I don’t think about them as Toronto writers when I do.
Are there any Toronto writers you do enjoy?
Well, I think Souvankham Thammavongsa does everything really beautifully. Even how she speaks is as exact and thoughtful as how she writes her poetry.
The Middle Stories and Ticknor exasperated some people, but they appealed to many more, and there does seem to be an appetite these days for unconventional, sometimes surreal fiction. I’m thinking of authors like Haruki Murakami, and older writers like Borges and Beckett also spring to mind. What is it about this kind of writing that appeals to people?
In fiction it’s just as easy to make something realistic as it is to make it unusual. Its easy for the writer and it’s easy for the reader. Then there’s the question of pleasure—there’s probably greater pleasure in imagining things that you wouldn’t have imagined on your own. But it surprises me to hear that there’s a great appetite for the authors you mention—I don’t perceive it. Anyway, I think a person would be drawn to Beckett for one reason, and Murakami for a different reason, and so on. Any writer who is loved is loved the way a human is—for something essential to themselves, not something general—like sureallness or unconventionality.
2007_09_28Ticknor.jpgYou once remarked that you had nothing to say while writing The Middle Stories. What exactly did you mean?
Well, because I was in my early twenties, and I didn’t really have anything to say. I don’t think it matters. And I don’t think many people have something to say at that age. Except maybe rock stars, but what they say is often pretty rudimentary.
Would you say that about yourself now?
No, I feel different now. I’ve had more years to think, to talk to more people, to think more. I think it’s right with your first book not to say anything. It’s a lot to ask—it’s a lot to write and to say something at the same time.
You’ve described Toronto as a “neutral” city, and therefore a good place for the imagination. What do you mean by neutral, and how does that quality influence your writing?
By neutral I mean there’s not a lot of extremes in this city. How does that influence my writing? I don’t think it does influence. I think it’s the absence of influence.
It’s calm enough here that you can just get on with it?
I’ve always lived here. It’s a place I take for granted—like the way you take your mother and father for granted.
Sometimes you’re so used to your own hometown that unless something really outrageous happens, you tend not to think about it.
Yeah, I don’t think about Toronto too much. There are interesting things that go on here, but it doesn’t seem dramatic to me, this city. For instance, if you’re living in a place that’s being bombed, you have to think about it. If you’re not, you can think about what you want to think about. Toronto is not being bombed.
This is a fairly privileged placed to live….
There’s health care and it’s not super-expensive, so one can live a cobbled-together life, like be employed for a bit, then take off a month and live on that money—but if you’re in New York or London, you really need a well-paying, steady job, or a trust fund. It seems like a fiction writer has to be a professor in the States. Here you don’t have to be a professor—and you can just spend all afternoon at your friend’s house, working.
Do you think that’s true of Canada in general? is it easier to be an artist here than it is in the US?
There are more grants for artists here. You don’t get grants that easily in America. I don’t think that’s necessarily better, it’s just a little easier. So this country more gets art that the granting bodies like, than the buying public likes. And in both places you get art that neither the buying public nor the granting bodies likes. Our system results in a lot of stupid work. But so does theirs.
Yes, sometimes you see a piece of art and think, “They threw money at that?
Exactly. But to go back to earlier, I think what I meant by Toronto being neutral is that it’s not a visually compelling city. The human here feels more primary than the architecture. It’s a decent-looking city—but it’s not a beautiful woman, you know, and it’s not an ugly woman.
Book cover images and film still from Margaux Williamson’s Teenager Hamlet courtesy Sheila Heti.