David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between The Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 61 literary publishers. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature, all in one place. What’s more? For a limited time, listeners of Between The Covers get 10% off all books on All Lit Up with promo code betweenthecovers. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Katya Kazbek’s debut novel Little Foxes Took Up Matches, which K-Ming Chang calls, “Stunning and transformative.” The novel follows Mitya whose young life mirrors the uncertain future of his country, which is attempting to rebuild itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union, torn between its past and the promise of modern freedom. Mitya finds himself facing a different sort of ambiguity: is he a boy, as everyone keeps telling him, or is he not quite a boy, as he often feels? Told with deep empathy, humor, and a bit of surreality, Katya Kazbek’s Little Foxes Took Up Matches is a revelation about the life of one community in a country of turmoil and upheaval, glimpsed through the eyes of a precocious and empathetic child, whose heart and mind understand that there are often more than two choices. Little Foxes Took Up Matches is out on April 5th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited to welcome back Sheila Heti to the show. There’s something unique about her return this time, which I’ll refrain from telling you about here so that it can reveal itself naturally within the conversation you’re about to hear. But Sheila, in addition to the release of her new book, has been serializing an Oulipian experiment of hers in The New York Times Magazine, one where she takes 10 years of her diary entries and reorders it alphabetically to great effect. For the bonus audio, she discusses this project and reads for us the letters H and I, which joins the past contribution by Sheila of a reading of the fantastic essay My Life Is a Joke. To learn about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a supporter of the show, which include the possibility of becoming a Tin House early reader receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, and also rare collectibles from everyone from Nikky Finney to Ursula K. Le Guin to things every supporter gets, from participating in our collective brainstorm of who to invite in the future to be on the show and the resource-rich emails that accompany each episode, pointing you to other things to read, watch, or listen to, related to the conversation at hand, you can find out more about joining the Between The Covers community at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Sheila Heti.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Sheila Heti, is a formerly restless and eternally curious artist. She spent a year studying playwriting at National Theatre School of Canada, studied art, history, and philosophy at the University of Toronto. She’s a founder of the Trampoline Hall lecture series, appeared in Margaux Williamson’s film Teenager Hamlet, is a sporadic podcaster with her show Podcast with Raisins, plays the character Lenore Doolan within Leanne Shapton’s book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. She co-edited a book of image text with Shapton and Heidi Julavits called Women in Clothes, which features the voices of 639 women from Miranda July and Roxane Gay to Kim Gordon, and Renee Gladman, to my wife, Lucy. She co-wrote with Misha Glouberman the book of conversational philosophy The Chairs Are Where the People Go. She was a long-standing interviews editor for the Believer Magazine and has conducted incredible interviews with the likes of Sophie Calle, Joan Didion, Agnes Varda, and Elena Ferrante. She writes literary criticism and art criticism. She has a serialized Oulipian project now in The New York Times Magazine, taking her diary of 10 years, a half million words, putting it into Excel, and reshaping it alphabetically as both a self-diagnostic and a making of art. She’s a children’s book author of both We Need a Horse, and the forthcoming, A Garden of Creatures, and her play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid with songs by destroyers Dan Bejar, was staged to sold-out runs in both Toronto and New York city. But Sheila Heti is best known for her novels—if we can call them that—particularly her last three. Her novel How Should a Person Be? for which she first appeared on the show. A novel influenced and shaped by everything from playwriting, performance art, and painting to self-help books and psychoanalysis. A novel that reimagines what a novel is and can be. In her next book Motherhood, for which she returned to the show was again a departure and a surprise, was again a way of reimagining the form, a book written by facing backwards to time, a book written in collaboration with chance, a book trying to begin to tell a new story from which other stories could be built. Our conversation about it is one of those rare ones where people mention listening to it many times. Rachel Cusk said of Motherhood, “This inquiry into the modern woman’s moral, social and psychological relationship to procreation is an illumination, a provocation, and a response – finally – to the new norms of femininity, formulated from the deepest reaches of female intellectual authority. It is unlike anything else I’ve read. Sheila Heti has broken new ground, both in her maturity as an artist and in the possibilities of the female discourse itself.” It should probably come as no surprise, though it always does, that Heti’s new book, another new way to look at a book, Pure Colour, would set its own terms in such a way as to unmoor the critics whose words themselves become abstract when normal attempts to classify a work of literature simply don’t apply. Alexandra Kleeman in her rave review for the New York Times calls Pure Colour, “Part bonkers cosmology and part contemporary parable. In a creation myth viewed through the keyhole-size aperture of a single life.” Judith Shulevitz in her rave review for The Atlantic calls it, “A gloriously implausible book.” Kirkus, in its starred review calls it, “The rarest of novels—as alien as a moon rock and every bit as wondrous.” Finally, Michael Silverblatt declares, “This is a singular novel.” A galaxy of a novel by a philosopher of modern experience, it offers a new beginning for the novel. This is the new beginning for the novel. Welcome back to Between The Covers, Sheila Heti.
Sheila Heti: Thank you.
DN: I know that originally, this book was to be a book about art critics. That you had this sentence that goes back 15 years, “God is three art critics in the sky,” and that perhaps, this was finally the time to figure out why this line had been lingering for you. But when your father died during the writing of the book, the book became about many other things. But I’d like to first start with your initial impulse to write about art criticism before the grief of losing your father reshaped things. I’d love to know, beyond this lingering sentence, what emotions, questions, or grievances motivated your desire to write about art critics. Because if we step back from Pure Colour where God himself has decided he is not happy with his creation, that it will be just a first draft, that the warming of the Earth is the first sign of his future destruction of what we know and where our role on Earth as humans is to be God’s art critics in three different modes as part of his revision process for the next draft, if we step back from this and think about criticism more generally, you’ve been an art and literary critic. You were married to a music critic, you interview art critics, but I mainly think about, especially the last time we talked, how polarizing your work can be with critics, which I think is often true about art that is harder to immediately contextualize or categorize. For instance, Parul Sehgal, for the New Yorker about your new book says, “It is written in a register that is so involute and so new for this writer that it demands bespoke criteria,” and while your books have received extreme praise, they also often simultaneously receive sometimes extremely negative responses and you could say this about each of your last three books but probably more so with Motherhood, which when you were here, we talked about the criticism, particularly some intellectual female critics who seemed super triggered by the project and in a way revealed more about themselves than they did about you or the book in the way that they critiqued it. I remember Leni Zumas, at the time, who called your book, “Deeply thoughtful, ambivalent, and self-questioning and a bracing antidote to the sexist sentimentalization of motherhood,” noticed how these critics were reinscribing the sexism, perpetuating the cliche that child free people never grow up by saying that your narrator was throwing a tantrum or acting like a neglected baby. I guess this is my long-winded preamble to ask you to unpack this for us, the original impulse. Is it coming from this bipolar response from your work? Is it coming from a wound or an anger or more of a curiosity or a simple love of art criticism or to figure out whether art criticism is even necessary?
SH: I think before the art criticism investigation, I guess, I had a note and the note said something like, “A book about which nobody could say what it’s about.” I had this desire, after Motherhood, to write a book that there was no “about” about the book because I think I was starting this book right around the time that Motherhood came into the world and I was very frustrated that it seemed to be for so easily reduced into a book about what a woman, trying to decide, or specifically me trying to decide whether or not to have a kid. I thought the book was about so much more than that. I wanted whatever next book I wrote to be something that could not be so easily reduced or explained. That was my starting point in some sense. Then I had an impulse to go back to this book that I love called Manet and His Critics. It’s a book that collects all the writing that was done about his paintings during the years that he exhibited in the Paris Salon at the end of the 19th Century. I’m just so fascinated with that book and the way that the critics wrote about the paintings because to anybody who’s modern or contemporary with us, there’s nothing shocking or strange or weird about them at all, but to the critics at the time, it almost seemed like they literally couldn’t see them. There was something that was going on in the paintings that made them so angry, so contemptuous of Manet, and so just furious. You can see that fury in the reviews. I think that I’ve also experienced that kind of contempt and fury. It’s just too hard to look at one’s own critics and one’s own work in relation to one’s critics because you, as an artist, never know like, “Well, maybe they’re right, maybe my work is bad.” You just don’t know but I know that Manet is great. For me, he’s my favorite painter. It was a way of looking at the response that I’ve received through the lens of a painter who I can say, without any hesitation, is great. You can’t say that about yourself, and just to try to understand not only why art can provoke such anger but why, in our daily lives, we’re constantly provoked to criticism, why, in our daily lives, it’s so hard to just be happy to be alive and grateful that we’re here, and to experience the beauty of the world. Criticism of both art but also criticism of our lives, all that stuff was in my mind when I started the book.
DN: At the time we last talked, I don’t think I fully realized how much that criticism had affected you. More recently, when I listened to your podcast, there was an episode around the time we talked where you unpacked some of the criticism at the time and we’re talking about how a lot of it was really happening in the United States, this contempt that in Canada and Europe, people were much more open to the philosophical questions in the book. For instance, about time, lineage, and ancestry. I was just curious, because you’ve thought a lot about criticism and you’ve written it, are there specific things that make criticism work for you, qualities about criticism that you seek when you’re wanting to read about art or writing from another, or on the flip side, something that you particularly recoil from?
SH: When I’m writing it, I am always trying to figure out a way to understand that book as being the best possible book. I want to show how the book is deeply lovable. I think that the person that can love any particular book is always the one that’s right about it because they are accessing whatever it was that inspired the writer to write it. In terms of writing a book review, I’m trying to make the book better for the reader. Those are not the reviews that I like reading, I think that for me, my version of People Magazine or gossip blogs are really negative book reviews. There’s this delicious pleasure I get from reading an incredibly mean spirit, or fair but very analytical, critical review. I love reading them. I don’t think that I love reading them though for any dignified reason. It’s just indulging in gossip with a friend about a third friend but I get such a deep pleasure, probably partly the pleasure that they’re not doing that about my book but they’re doing it about somebody else’s book. I find it interesting but it’s not the kind of thing that I would ever, ever in a million years write or want to write.
DN: In one of your podcast episodes, one of them is a moment where you can’t sleep, you’re up really late at night because you’ve just handed off your book to people you want feedback from and you’re whispering into the microphone. I imagine you’re in bed under the covers in the dark for some reason. You’re both super excited and super anxious about these people you respect, and love reading and assessing your book, and you talk about how it feels like this is a taste of how the book will be in the world and that getting these responses takes you outside of yourself in a way that isn’t pleasant, and you wonder at the time, if you can publish your next book differently but also can’t imagine not being interested in what people say about your book. You also say that it is alienating to spend years alone with something, then all of a sudden, need to speak about a creation that is meant to speak for itself and the talking about it can feel like a betrayal of the work. On the one hand, I feel like there is grief and pain, and maybe even a little resentment in it, moving from a private thing to a public one. But on the other hand, there is this excitement about connection and you, despite your hesitations, send your book to many, many people. I think you might have even said 40 people for this book for feedback: Makenna Goodman who gave you its final title, Sarah Manguso who called it one of the best books she’d ever read about grief and the one book of yours that made her cry, Garth Greenwell, Patrick deWitt, many, many others. It feels like in a sense, a community of writers is helping you find the book’s final form. I think one way to look at How Should a Person Be? is how to resolve this public, private split in a writer, which it feels like that’s the question that you were raising this sleepless night, a question that seems to endure for you, like I think of your Craft Seminar, What Do People See When They Read You, whose description begins, “What do you most want to write?” and the secondary question, “What is going through the minds of other people as they read your work? Is there a value to thinking about the second concern? How should we approach the problem of other minds and what is outside criticism worth?” Is there a value to the second concern, a concern that seems to be one of the animating questions in Pure Colour?
SH: Everybody works in a different way. I know, Sally Rooney, for instance, does not show her work to anybody except her editor at the very end. I know there are lots of writers who don’t share. For them, there’s value in the purity of that process but for me, I’m really interested in art being a way for me to have relationships with people and art making those relationships about the most important thing in my life, which is writing books. To not be alone in that passion is very important for me because I want to feel like we’re all working together to make this world that we live in that’s filtered through art. I don’t think a book stands alone. I think a book is part of other books. It’s a part of culture. It’s a part of life. It’s a part of history. It’s interwoven with everything. It’s not just this object on its own. I want to bring that belief into the way that I make it. I also just think that believing that your mind is the best and only mind in terms of how useful it is in making your book, for me, I just got rid of that belief when I wrote How a Person Should Be? I was trying to work my way out of that feeling that my mind was the best and only mind to make the book. I want to believe that I’m not just taking some random person off the street, it’s people that I respect and who I think have interesting minds. I want their thoughts, their feelings, their reality, and their experience of the world to be part of the shaping of the book in order to make the book the best it can be because the book is for people, so if more brilliant people are involved in the making of it, I would think then that the book will have a greater reach and a deeper reach into human beings rather than if it’s just me alone with my aesthetic, and my guessing of how the book is going to affect other people. If I send it to Garth Greenwell or Sarah Manguso and I get their response, then I know how the book is working because you can’t know how the book is working if you don’t let people read it.
DN: I want to take this back to Manet for a minute. Our main protagonist, Mira, she’s gotten into the prestigious American Academy of American Critics, which is a place where you eat copious croissants, drink tisane, and have mandatory tai chi, which is so great, [laughter] but also the name American Academy of American Critics is such a great poking fun of us Americans and our endless self-regard, so I love that too. But Mira attends a lecture on Manet, which I absolutely love and find so funny, and smart. I would love it if you would read that short chapter for us as we find Mira struggling to maintain her own personal and intimate experience with Manet in the face of this full frontal deconstruction, and assault on him I guess.
DN: I felt like I could feel the delight of you writing this.
SH: This was one of the first things I wrote for the book. This was one of the earliest pieces.
[Sheila Heti reads from Pure Colour]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sheila Heti read from her new book Pure Colour. There’s no compass in his soul, Sheila. [laughter] In this world, there are three types of people: bird people who care about beauty, order, harmony, and meaning and offer an aesthetic critique for God, fish people who give a structural critique through their concerns about collectivity, fairness, and justice, then bear people who are most concerned with intimacy connected to things they can smell and touch. Our main character, Mira, is a bird. You’ve said you’re a bird and we are all, regardless of our types, living in the moment of God standing back before he destroys the canvas. This notion I think happens several times in the Bible itself but I think in a crucially different way, but over 40 days and 40 nights, God destroys the Earth and all its inhabitants by flood, then starts over with Noah and his animals, then Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, receives the covenant but then upon seeing his people worshiping the golden calf, he smashes it and has to go back up again for another 40 days, and 40 nights to receive a second different covenant. But those times, the Earth is destroyed because of God’s disapproval of the people he has created, but it feels in contrast in Pure Colour, the people themselves are enlisted in dreaming the second draft of the world in a way we are critiquing God and his work, we are workshopping God for him, and the critics are crucial to the future world, even as they won’t see it. What I think is interesting is that others have pointed out, and I think it’s true, that there is a conflation in your book; one that feels generative and interesting to me where the artists, and the art critics are one and the same. Yes, the critics won’t see the next representation of reality but it also feels like their imagining of it is not just revision but also simply art making. I guess I wondered if that felt right to you.
SH: Yeah. I’m just thinking that it connects to the earlier part of our conversation where I guess this is the way I make art, which is to bring other artists in to critique it so that I can make it better. I, being the god of this book, so to extrapolate my own experience of art making into how a god might have made this universe and that other eyes are necessary, and criticism during the process is necessary in order to bring about a better final result. I guess the people that I enlist as critics are themselves artists. I think that for me, I’ve always believed that the only people you have to listen to, really in terms of whether your book works or not, are other artists. I think that other artists for me are the only critics that I really take completely seriously because I think they’re open to anything as long as it works.
DN: One of the things that I most like about your work is how influenced it is by non-literary influences and the way you allow your prose to be influenced by these non-literary things feels like one way the novel gets redrafted when you write; that in a strange way, these non-literary influences, again, confuse art making and art remaking. I’m thinking of performance art and Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic theories, the I Ching, but most notably, visual art, which feels like a through line in the last three novels. But before we talk about painting, and by extension, color, I wanted to spend a moment with voice because you’ve assumed a voice like no other you’ve written from before. The voice is often declarative and because the book relies so much on voice more than plot, we realize readers, not on what happens but on these declarations, as the main evidence of how the world works. The voice sometimes reminds me in some ways of the way a God would speak or of a reading a religious text and the voice is outside of what we often encounter because as Sehgal says in her review in Pure Colour, “Heti dispenses with fiction’s staples, including physical description, characterization, revealing dialogue, appreciable stakes, even basic sensory information.” I wondered if Pure Colour had less obvious sources for it or even less respectable sources in literary circles than religious texts for instance, because I think of how, with How Should a Person Be?, one of the influences was self-help books for instance. I think here, I think about fairy tales for instance with characters that are types but also think of things like with the bear, fish, bird, I think of astrology, I think of tarot, like I’m wondering what are the things that you looked toward to make this voice?
SH: I didn’t really look towards anything but tarot, yeah, that’s my psychic speak that way. None of these were things that I was looking to directly but those are all part of my life and the lives of my friends, that we’ll all go talk to this one psychic, and they speak so declaratively with such authority and in such puzzle ways. It’s not a matter of thinking that it’s true but are you going to play the game of believing that it’s true in order to get something out of that belief, that temporary belief that’s like any suspension of disbelief like, “Okay, I’ll go with it and see where that takes me.” I think that’s how all the people that I know, who are interested in this other realm, take that other realm as a proposition about reality.
DN: That’s how it felt as a reader. You just need to accept the terms that are being declared to go along for the ride.
SH: Yeah. I really wasn’t looking at any books or forms and thinking, “How am I going to write this book?” But all that stuff was just in my life, so I’m not surprised to hear you say that’s the tone that you hear.
DN: There were multiple ways I felt like the book had a paradoxical effect on me. One of them is with regard to the direct address. I wondered about audience because sometimes, I feel like the book is addressed to everyone collectively as a species and other times, it feels like it is addressed to no one, that I’m listening to something private or overhearing sometimes, something that might be being spoken to oneself. That made me wonder if your direct address had an imagined target in mind.
SH: No. I like what you said about everyone and no one. I think that’s true of this book. With my other books, there were specific people that I was writing those books towards, audience generally and specific people in my life but with this book, there was no conception of audience in that sense.
DN: The second paradox has to do with your desired effect on the reader I think. In the ArtReview podcast, Subject, Object, Verb, you said that you want to leave space in your books for the reader to have their own thoughts on a subject and that this is a function of what level of description you give. That by not heavily describing, it allows the reader to stay in their own body, in the place that they are as they read, having their own thoughts about what they are reading. In the same conversation, you say that there is so little contemporary fiction that lets the reader step out on their own unless they close the book or where the writer steps out of the narrative with you, like when Jane Austen might suddenly critique her characters. In essence, it feels like you’re trying to create a reading experience that is the opposite of the fictive spell where the reader disappears into the text and where the text seems to disappear itself but instead to create a space for the reader to stay in themselves, having an experience with the book. But what’s interesting about Pure Colour is that it feels like two contradictory things happen. There are aspects of the book that don’t allow the fictive spell for sure, but also don’t allow the reader’s thoughts at all, like we’ve just discussed about these declarations. They’re delivered in a way of “this is how it is.” But other parts of the book are almost this explosion of questions about existence that are also presented abstractly but they feel wildly open and there’s so much space for the reader that I imagine every reader is having a radically different experience, one in the next.
SH: Yeah. I think with declarative sentences, even if maybe, like to say that this is the first draft of existence, I think that the value of those for me in a book is that after you close the book that you go into the world and look at the world through that lens, is that true? If that’s true, what does that mean for this day? What does that mean for this action? In that sense, it’s like getting the reader to do a fictionalization of their life, to put this fictional lens over their life outside the book, which is really exciting to me.
DN: Yeah. As I told you by email, very few people have come on the show twice. Less than 20 episodes out of over 200 are people returning to the show and only one person has been on three times, Ursula K. Le Guin. For many years, I’ve had this superstition about ever having someone on three times. [laughter] At the same time, I’ve known that eventually, with the passage of time, many more people would come on the show twice and certainly people would begin coming on the show three times. I always imagined it would either be you or Mary Ruefle who would be the first post Le Guin person. [laughter] I have trouble imagining Le Guin as a big figure in your writing or reading life for some reason but I did think of her, particularly her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which looks at inherited male forms of story and puts forth an alternative. I think of this essay when thinking of the ways you’ve removed recognizable story, shape, and structure from your work or when Alexandra Clement described Pure Colour structure as like a fishing net, which to me feels like a kindred object to this carrier bag. I also think of when you interviewed Rachel Cusk and she said she doesn’t believe in character or the ideal put forth that a character changes over the course of a novel. She instead believes in moments of truth, particularly moments of female truth and of what she calls iconic utterances. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of that, on this notion of a book built around iconic utterances or an evacuating a book of recognizable story shape.
SH: I just got chills when you were saying what Rachel had said. I love how her mind works so much. It’s wonderful, it’s interesting because she speaks so authoritatively, yet I know that she feels like she has no authority. It’s interesting how everyone is kind of a funny paradox or they don’t see themselves properly. I remember when I was 12 years old or 13, going to improv classes and thinking that I wanted to be a playwright, and reading this book by this Hungarian whose last name is Egri, Lajos Egri, and it was called The Art of Dramatic Writing and I would read this book, and try to teach myself what he said dramatic writing was, which is you have a conflict, then it’s resolved in some way and one person wants one thing, and another person wants another thing. Just laying it all out and using Ibsen, and various great works of playwriting as examples for how plays work. I remember just feeling then trying to do the exercises where you write down a character and what they want, then you write down another character and what they want, and you try to create this scenario and it just always seemed like, “I would never be able to figure that out.” It just felt so alien to me but also something that I really had to learn, figure out, and understand in order to be a great playwright or a playwright at all. I was thinking about that recently because I realized that my solution, and I guess Rachel’s solution, and the solution of many people in the end is just, “Well, that’s not how I think life is, so if that’s not how life is, why am I making art with that structure that I don’t even really recognize in life?” Then you ask yourself, “What do I recognize in life?” I guess in Rachel’s case, it’s iconic utterances. Maybe she listens and she remembers what people say, and she doesn’t experience change in herself or in others, so why would she put that in a book? Because a book is supposed to be a representation of how you understand the world to be. In my case with this book, the years that I was writing it, I had a very mystical experience and a very mystical feeling. There’s different ways of conveying a mystical experience but one way is just to be very declarative because you can’t convince somebody of something irrational. You say it and it’s either believed or not believed. But I guess there’s other parts in the book in which I’m trying to invoke the feeling that Mira had, that magical feeling that she goes through the world. Maybe I was trying different strategies.
DN: Yeah. Let’s hear a couple more of your iconic utterances. I was thinking about the chapter on 165, then the chapter on 87.
[Sheila Heti reads from Pure Colour]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sheila Heti read from Pure Colour. I want to spend much of the rest of the time we have together about the father in the book and how his death changes everything from Mira as you’ve alluded to, just before your readings. You said you recoiled when a friend suggested Pure Colour could have been called fatherhood, and I get why because in almost every way, Pure Colour and Motherhood are different books formally and tonally in almost every conceivable way, but there is a way I feel like they share a similar gesture. In Motherhood, you decide that what you want is not to create another life but to turn toward your mother and her ancestors, and almost mother in that direction towards your matrilineal line. It feels similar here with Mira saying, “It isn’t the living that needs us. Who’s going to save the dead from oblivion if not us?” If we look back toward your patrilineal line, I want to return to painting as an influence for you in your writing. Both Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? have a deep engagement with painting. You yourself write in your friend Margaux’s painting studio, so you see her paintings in progress as you write. Your grandfather was a painter. When your father died and when Mira’s father dies in the book, you both felt like you saw colors differently. That they move you in a new way. Perhaps that color might be a gift from your father to you. You’ve said before that you like to think of writing through the lens of what painters do rather than what other writers do. I was hoping you could talk about that, what that means for you more specifically to think about painting as a mode to approach your writing.
SH: What I love about a painting is that you can take it in one glance and I wish that for the novel. I guess the memory of a novel is experienced, so to speak, in one glance. Eventually, you get that single glance, you get that sense of the whole after you finish the book. But I think I envy painters’ ability to just give that to somebody. When I’m constructing a novel, I think of the way that a painter lays out their canvas, which is more in terms of shape than narrative, though narrative itself is a shape. But when I watch Margaux paint, she fills in the whole canvas and she works intuitively. There’s a relationship between all the shapes and all the colors, and everything has to do with everything else. There’s this integration of everything into the final image. I feel like as I’m writing a book, those are the kinds of concerns that I have in mind. I want everything to resonate with everything else, more in the way of its placement within the novel than this concern with telling a great story. I just feel like I have more in common with whatever impulse the painter has than with whatever impulse the most novelists have.
DN: One of your grandfather’s favorite painters was Pierre Bonnard, and you were on the Financial Times Podcast at the Tate Modern talking about an exhibit of his work. You talked about how Bonnard didn’t paint from models but from memory and recollection. This was really interesting to me in a couple different ways. For one, you said that if he was asked to paint a certain object, he might say he wouldn’t paint it because he hadn’t lived with it long enough to paint it. That it isn’t simply looking at it, then representing it but living with it. But also that because he wasn’t looking at the objects themselves when he was painting, that there isn’t one vantage point to his paintings. Rather, there’s a collection of points of view that isn’t entirely naturalistic. I love thinking about this as a way to write from different angles but within the same frame, angles that don’t quite match up and maybe that there’s something about them not quite matching up that captures something that it wouldn’t capture if they did. Does this mode of seeing/remembering feel reflective to you in any way around your process?
SH: Yeah, that makes sense because I think I’m interested and experienced time as much more confusing, and complicated than a linear narrative. I don’t feel like the present naturally came from the past because I have such a poor memory and I don’t know that the idea that every moment is an eternity feels very right to me. Because how is it that when you’re in a moment and you’re having an emotional reaction, it’s so impossible to step outside it and to remember how you felt at other times. When you hate somebody, it’s so hard to access the feeling of gratitude towards them. There’s just such embeddedness in the present. I think writing this book and trying to write about something mystical, you can’t write about that through the devices of linear narrative because the mystical is not something that exists in the same time space as a human life, it’s somehow outside it. It penetrates it in its own ways and holds this human being that moves through the world as an animal, moment to moment. There would be no way of writing a religious or mystical text without messing with narrative in some way.
DN: You get a lot of Jewish influence questions when you’re on tour. Sometimes, in the Q&A, more than half of them are around this. Of course, we have the failed Moses thread in How Should a Person Be? and Sheila characters various sexual exploits with the character Israel, and her attempts to assert her independence from him, and Motherhood very explicitly engages with the genocide of two out of every three European Jews, and the scattering of most of the rest, and there’s been some really interesting literary criticism about you through Jewish lands, most notably that of Nathan Goldman but also Judith Shulevitz’s recent piece, The Smutty Mystic. What everyone gets wrong about Sheila Heti, where she claims you’ve always been a religious writer but never seen that way and that Pure Colour is your coming out where you flaunt your biblicality. I know you sidestep these takes mainly because you grew up in a staunchly Atheist secular Jewish family and that any of these influences come more through osmosis from whatever the culture imparted to you. You’ve even said that the question of God, while being something generative within your writing, is not at all something you think about or are compelled by as a question, as a person moving in the world. But two things interested me in your own personal narrative. One, you said that when you were little, your parents both worked, then when you were five, your babysitter took you on a bus and there was a disturbing man on it but your babysitter said, “Don’t worry, I prayed for us before we left,” and you were very intrigued by this and even envied it. But perhaps more to the point, you said that being at your father’s deathbed, being with him as he died was a mystical experience that has changed your life. In the book, Mira spends most of the time with her father inside a leaf on a tree and she joins his spirit there for a while inside this leaf, and you’ve said that this didn’t feel like a surreal or fantastical move on your part despite it being read that way but this is how it really felt. You’ve talked about it a little bit. Talk to us more about the mystifying, the shift for you and your life that’s now being reflected in your art.
SH: Just to go back a second to the religious stuff, my parents, for some reason, sent me to an Anglican school from grade four to the end of grade nine at which point I wanted to leave. We had to sing hymns every morning and say The Lord’s Prayer, and we had a class called religious knowledge, so I had a lot of religious education that was Anglican. I was the only Jew in the school, except for one other girl with whom I’m still friends, and I would say Jewish prayers to myself in my head when we were supposed to be saying the Christian prayers. I didn’t even know why. I don’t know why. It was like you talk about being superstitious about somebody being on three times or some kind of superstition involved in doing that. I think religion for me is a very muddled thing. I think part of the frustration with having to talk about the books as being Jewish, which I think they are, but the frustration that I have in talking about them is because I really received a lot of mixed signals about religion growing up. I think the books are some way of untangling it and making it personal, and meaningful to me. Then in terms of mysticism, that’s just something that’s even more alien to me because I never really understood people who spoke about things in that realm as being anything other than flaky. There’s this feeling of, “Well, if that’s true, then anything can be true, then we can’t know anything, so why talk?” But then myself having had a very strange experience of my father dying and feeling like that death is not quite as final as I thought or as sad even, that there was joy in it too and beauty, and there could be this kaleidoscopic beauty in what seems like the most dreadful thing you can imagine. I guess a mystical experience just turns everything upside down, all your previously held beliefs. If you grow up in a culture in which death is to be feared and not talked about, and it’s only bad, it’s on the bad side of the scale, then your experience of it is actually something that opens up this whole other aspect of the world to you and gives you color, and puts you in some different sphere, the sphere you’ve been going about your life in, that’s just so interesting. I felt like I’ve been misled the same way that I felt like I’d been misled about so many other things that I end up writing about. What I want to write about are the things that I feel like I was misled about because other people are being misled and maybe there’s a way of saying, “Well, no, you don’t have to be completely afraid of death or the death of somebody you love.” Again, this was just one experience I had of death in my life. If somebody else I love dies, I might have a completely different experience and may want to write about that, but this was the one that I had. For me, this book is not surreal. I tried to get as close to reality as I did in the last two books.
DN: Yeah. I want to come back to this question of mysticism in relation to secularism and also this not talking about fear of death, but I’m going to take what will seem like a detour first. Caren Beilin, who you just interviewed for the Paris Review, has a question for you about Mira’s love interest in the character Annie, who we haven’t discussed yet, who’s the other major character beyond her father. I’m going to let Caren ask this question.
Caren: “Hi Sheila, this is Caren. I have a question for you about Pure Colour. After reading Pure Colour, the thing that really circles around for me is this relationship between Mira and Annie because there is more than one set of grief in Pure Colour. There’s this grief for Mira’s father who passed away, then there’s Annie, who’s this woman Mira knows, who’s totally alive and who is simply not inclined to return Mira’s love, so there’s this grief too or it’s almost more like the quality as of anguish to not get to love someone and to really spend time with somebody, even though they’re totally alive and living out their life on this Earth. I’m thinking of this unrequited love, love unreturned, a missed connection, which happens in Pure Colour and also throughout your work. I guess my perfectly psychoanalytic question for you, is rejection a form of Jewish sans in your work? I’m wondering what theories you have about the return of this figure of unrequited love, of rejection because I find that so often, there’s so much around that figure that’s like this propulsive energy and insight, and I would also say this tinged clarity forms around this. I wonder what theories you have for the return of this figure.”
SH: I’m glad for that question because that’s not something that I’ve been asked about very much. Like everybody, I’ve had experiences of unrequited love or a distant crush, a crush on somebody you don’t quite know that you idolize or you want somebody that you can’t have. I think there is a lot of life in that. There’s a lot of energy in that. There’s a lot of imagination that goes into that stunted relationship. There’s this great thing that Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, writes about where he talks about this idea of the unlived life; that we almost feel like we know more about the unlived life than we know about the life that we’re living. I’ve had that experience of falling in love with somebody or you feel like you have a real crush on somebody, yet you can’t be with them and you feel you know so clearly what life would be like with them. It’s almost as though you’ve already lived it. You can’t convince yourself that it wouldn’t be anything like what you imagine. I think there’s a lot there.
DN: As an extension of Caren’s question about rejection—which I love, I love this sense of creating a distance and looking at this thing that’s supposed to be bad, like maybe the way you’re describing death shouldn’t be talked about and should be feared but the actual experience with your father was much more nuanced and surprising, and she suggests there’s something there around this rejected figure—but part of the structure of the world that you’ve created of bird types, like Mira, fish types, like Annie, and bear types, like Mira’s dad, is in a way, they don’t quite succeed at loving each other, perhaps because of their types. We don’t really know the narrative of what it’s like to be a bear or a fish in this book from the inside but Mira’s anxiety, at least, as a bird person, as an art maker, is that she can create something beautiful but something that is nevertheless potentially hollow and that maybe she fears she has a deficiency around loving, and God himself seems to be a bird in this way. I wonder if maybe this is also somehow connected to Pierre Bonnard’s notion of these vantage points that don’t quite connect the way we hope they do because we have these types and they clearly are reaching towards each other but there also seems to be the failure of connection as much as there’s connection.
SH: Yeah. All these types are unsuited to human connection actually if I think about it because the bird is not really concerned with other people as much as her own aesthetic experience of the world. The fish is interested in people collectively, not any individual person. The bear gets too close to people for them. Their love is suffocating, so none of them have been made to love well.
DN: To take this back to this question of mysticism and also just to take this back to this notion of you, inviting the world, the world of people who you love and respect into the making of your book, one thing that’s interesting about Annie is she’s an orphan and everyone is super captivated and admiring of her because she created herself from nothing. She’s “self-made” and she has a mystique because of this. But thinking back to the part you read about middle age and how the place in our brains that used to keep up with the latest pop cultural thing is now empty, and ready to be filled with something else, I also think about how, particularly when we’re young, this existentialist notion, we are born alone and we die alone, is so captivating but this experience with her father in contrast really pokes holes into these notions of the individual self or the mystique that we are self-created and the whole God puts in the middle aged brains, according to Mira, is to be filled with things that aren’t us, seasons, birds, trees, wind. This made me think of something the playwright and novelist, and now head of PEN America, Ayad Akhtar, talked about when he was on the show. I’m not quoting him, this is from memory so we should consider them my words having truly or falsely metabolize what I remember. But like you, I grew up in a secular Jewish home and I remember Akhtar talking about the range of experience that modern secular life cultivates, being one that’s quite narrow; that the experience of things that might trouble our sense of self, the ecstatic for instance, are not readily things we encounter partially by design. I think about how the secular liberal humanist world is scaled to the human and to what we know to be true, not the unknown or the unknowable; that even within the human world, how many of us and how often do we attend a birth or to sit next to someone when they die or to wash their bodies afterwards, but also when thinking about God when we think back before the medieval language of God, before God was called the Lord or a King, a lot of what we consider awe, the combination of fear and wonder that was the original notion of awe, the fear and trembling, and beauty was often the way you would describe an encounter with something impossibly large, a large animal that dwarfs us. I wonder if something like the experience of Pure Colour, not the book, but the notion of Pure Colour, something that completely resists language, it resists comprehension, something completely inhuman, is in a way reaching for this, an experience that’s not narrowed down to change the depths and heights of what one could have in a day because it feels like there’s an eco poetics in this to me for a lack of a better word.
SH: Yeah. I hope so. When my father was ill and my boyfriend’s stepmother, Laura [inaudible], who I’m very close to, had recently a year earlier been at her mother’s bedside while her mother died. She just told me, “Pay attention.” She intimated that it could be special, that something might happen that could be incredible as though that had happened to her. If she hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have been open to that possibility and nothing might have happened. I thought that was this great gift that she gave me, to tell me to pay attention in this way. I can’t remember her words, but I think that if you’re not oriented by your culture to look for awe and terror, and the mystical and the beyond, and what can’t be explained, you often don’t find it or see it. That’s the world we live in.
DN: There’s the world of reasonableness. It feels like there’s all sorts of reasonable ways we’ve curated a life where we wouldn’t have those encounters because we also wouldn’t feel unsafe, I wonder.
SH: Yeah, maybe we feel too safe, then that’s why so many people feel bored.
DN: Yeah. To bring this back to our discussion of criticism at the beginning, you’ve said, “If my book is art, a work of art is not the artist talking to you. It is a separate form. It is its own self, an object that has to be separated from the ways we communicate outside of art. All communication apart from art is a person speaking to another person. In America right now, the art object can’t be seen. All that can be seen as the artist. What does art have to say? Nothing. It is the presentation of its own form. If it can be done without losing anything important, it is not art. The art object is an object of mystery ultimately, and the bad art critic is one with the absence of reverence,” or from your New York Times alphabetized diary, “Art is man’s nature. Art is not essential, but love is essential, that’s why people make art to express their love of something– that tree, humans, the world, language, the intensity of thought– and the person who doesn’t respond to a work of art is perhaps missing the love of the thing which the artist is pointing to, lovingly.” I know in your Yaddo Podcast with Lauren Groff, she said that books were physical and that writing was the closest thing one could be to an animal, to a squirrel for instance, and you responded that it’s like a squirrel, and like God at the same time. Then you said you craved to write something that wasn’t another thing somehow about God. Can you point us now, lovingly, to what desire or animating question or formal curiosity you now find yourself with, having written Pure Colour? What elements are pulling on you for your imagined next project?
SH: I don’t want to talk about it because it’ll make it disappear. But I do feel like it’s funny because once the book is done, in my case, there was six months when the book was done on my end in terms of the final edits and the cover, and it appearing in the world. Those last six months was so filled with anticipation and dread, and the sense of being on hold as much as I tried to resist it and say, “Well, no, I’m not in relation to the book coming out. I’m in relation to this moment. It was impossible really.” Then two weeks happen in which all the reviews come out and most of the interviews happen, then it’s done or it feels done. Now, I can think about what I might want to do next but for the last six months, it’s weird. You’re just like on hold as much as you don’t want to be. You’re still psychically tied to the book until that week or two weeks of its entry. I guess it’s just how it is.
DN: I would think it would be particularly after the way Motherhood came into the world. But I’m curious about your impressions and your anticipation and dread about how Pure Colour would be received because, of course, Pure Colour has received both positive and negative reviews but it feels to me like it’s received a preponderance of thoughtful investigations on its own terms. I wondered if that’s how it felt to you, that maybe something has shifted with this book in relationship to the critical world.
SH: I think so. Maybe you know why but I don’t really know why. The reviews that have come out have made me even more clearly feel how negative and how painful the last two rounds of this were for me by contrast. It’s like, “Oh, it can be different from that and it can be like this,” where that’s not what I was anticipating. I don’t know why it’s changed. I don’t think it’s because of the book.
DN: I don’t know either because on the surface of it, I could see the things that you’ve done opening you up to ridicule more than Motherhood honestly, but it feels like it’s being received with less, with more respect.
SH: You don’t know why because I can’t figure it out. [laughter] You’re so smart.
DN: It feels like a mystery to me too. I feel like you keep putting—and I say this with admiration—I think you keep putting the critics back on their heels so maybe they’re learning their lessons not to judge you too quickly. Let’s go out with a reading of two more short excerpts from Pure Colour. I was thinking 86, then 72.
[Sheila Heti reads from Pure Colour]
DN: Thank you for coming back on the show for the third time, Sheila.
SH: Thanks for having me for the third time. I love talking to you. You’re such a great interviewer and such a great critic.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Sheila Heti about her latest book Pure Colour. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
SH: I can never believe the amount of research you do. [laughter] It’s just mind boggling. I’m glad you said that you’re a secular Jew because I was going to ask you. I feel like even though I feel like there is this, in a lot of secular Jews, still, this impulse, this Talmudic reading and annotating, I don’t know, there’s something–
DN: For sure.
SH: You know?
DN: If there’s anything that carries across from religious Judaism to Atheist Judaism, it is that interpretive multiple viewpoint tolerance of contradiction but continually contradicting. That seems very Talmudic and very culturally Jewish to me.
SH: Yeah, and not being troubled by it, like taking pleasure and interest in it.
DN: I mean it’s like the exact polar opposite of the impulse and evangelical Christianity for like this is the literal word. That seems alien to Jewishness to me, the literal word. [laughter] I don’t know if that’s true but it’s so weird, especially when they’re reading it in translation, which is so bizarre also.
SH: Yeah. That’d be really true. That’s so crazy. I never even thought about that.
DN: Because for instance, when I talk to Forrest Gander, it’s in Spanish. In English, I think it’s something like, “In the beginning was the word.” In Spanish, “In the beginning was the verb.”
SH: Oh wow, that’s so different.
DN: Yeah, but it’s like they’re both correct translations.
SH: It’s that Christian thing and that’s what I experienced in that school, and I see it with my friends, that you just have to follow unthinkingly and you have to believe, and the questions are bad and if you ask a question, that’s a bad rebellion, whereas in Judaism, it’s like you don’t have to believe, you’re just as Jewish if you believe or don’t believe, God doesn’t really care. As long as you do the things, you can do it without anything in your heart and it’s fine. Also, I think the idea that God can see your thoughts and you can sin by thinking, that’s so not Jewish.
DN: For sure.
SH: That just prevents intellectual activity.
DN: I totally agree. I love the notion of God wrestling being one of the definitions of Jews too, because they’re all arguing against God in the Bible. From the beginning, these people are not submitting. They’re doing horrible things and good things. They’re inspirations and they’re also murderers, and they’re wrestling. I love that. This idea to me, just while we’re on this topic, the thing that bugs me more than anything is this idea, like I’m skeptical of the progress narrative at large in the world but the idea that we’ve evolved to a better form of God in the New Testament, it’s so weird to me because if you think about it, which is more complex and more nuanced to make God and Jesus purely good, then to have a figure that’s purely bad and Satan, who we all are supposed to be incredibly scared of, then at the end times, you’re going to have all these terrible, terrible things happen to you forever if you don’t do what the good Jesus says versus all of the characters having both of them in the Hebrew Bible, that seems way more nuanced narratively to me. The idea that Moses murdered somebody, he had a speech impediment, he didn’t want to do what God said but he led the people out of Egypt, that’s just way more compelling storytelling.
SH: But that’s so Jewish to think that evolution evolves towards nuance. It could just as easily be that evolution evolves, that somebody else would think evolution evolves to some simplicity and these pulls of good and equal.
DN: To moral cleanliness in some way.
SH: Clarity. It’s funny, I have this friend and he’s talking to me about the Quran, and I was saying to him like, “It’s so boring that Jesus doesn’t have a wife because there’s nobody to humanize him and just to criticize him, so we can see Jesus through his wife’s eyes and be like, ‘Oh, he never does the dishes,’ whatever it would really be.” [laughter] That’s the interesting thing about Muhammad, is that he has all these wives and you constantly are seeing him through the eyes of all these wives, which really humanizes him but Jesus can’t be like us. He can’t be just somebody who’s bad at cleaning up, whose wife gets mad at.
DN: Yeah. I want to see that Jesus.
SH: I know, I know. [laughter]
DN: Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Sheila Heti’s work, her essays, her criticism, her interviews, and other projects can be found at sheilaheti.com. For the bonus audio, Sheila reads from her alphabetized diary project. This joins her past reading of her essay My Life Is a Joke, as well as bonus audio from everyone from Garth Greenwell to Miriam Toews to Doireann Ní Ghríofa. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.