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Asking the Right Questions

Sheila Heti, interviewed by Lucy McKeon

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

On April 15, 2021, we published Sheila Heti’s afterword to the newly translated 1969 novel by Clarice Lispector An Apprenticeship, which takes as its subject the “quest to love and be loved,” Heti writes. “But in order to truly love and be loved, one must first find one’s way to the most difficult thing, which is a joyful relationship with ‘the mightiness of life’…this love story is a question about this requirement, and can it even be achieved?”

The way Heti describes Lispector’s writing—“spiritually profound…sensually grounded in the things of the world and the pettiest aspects of life as a human—and as a woman, specifically”—sounds to me like the way someone might describe Heti’s own most recent novel, Motherhood (2018), in which Heti’s unnamed narrator, a woman in her late thirties, struggles—philosophically, spiritually, pettily—with the decision of whether or not to have a child. I shared this observation with Heti over e-mail, and asked whether she feels an affinity with Lispector in this way.

The smiling author in a gray skirt suit, standing and leaning on a blue chair

Photo by Malcolm Brown

Sheila Heti

“I wouldn’t say I feel an affinity, I am too much in awe—but I see what you mean,” Heti told me. “I think she is overall more comfortable with disintegration, whereas I am always trying to find and make order.” Heti first read the Brazilian novelist ten or fifteen years ago, starting with The Hour of the Star. “I felt slightly afraid of her,” Heti recalled, “and the power of that book was not diminished by time, as so many books are. Its power grew in me.”

Heti’s narrator in Motherhood employs various spiritual sources, like tarot and psychic readings and a coin tossing exercise based on the I Ching, in her search for answers. But the wrestling she undergoes is, in fact, about much more than simply whether or not to have a child. How to determine one’s own individual path, what trials and courage are necessary, amid the challenges and profundities of love long held? The book is also a close study of gendered expectation and, ultimately, the narrator’s tribute to her mother and grandmother. “When I was writing Motherhood,” Heti told me, “I was trying to find a new story and I wanted to create meaning out of this thing that felt like the opposite of meaning—which we are told is the choice for a less meaningful existence (not having children). I figured, What if motherhood is something that can be turned backward, toward one’s ancestors; what if it’s not only about turning forward, toward the future?”

Like Motherhood, Heti’s celebrated novel How Should a Person Be? (2010) features a narrator who resembles the author, and in it, Sheila and her twentysomething friends ask—earnestly and humorously—the titular question as they realize themselves as artists and individuals. Why does she choose to write fiction, and how does it affect her approach?

“There is no artform I love as much as the novel,” she said. “Nothing makes me feel the way a novel does. I tried writing a screenplay and it didn’t work because a novel is a kind of spiritual comfort, it’s a person, it touches the bottom of life, whereas movies aren’t that for me… I could not write that screenplay well because I didn’t believe in it in the same way. Novels are a place of freedom in a way that other forms, including nonfiction, can’t be, for me.”

About her 2001 story collection The Middle Stories Heti has said that her main interest was in “inventing the self that makes that book,” rather than the book itself. The narrators of Heti’s novels often plumb their insecurities, but Heti the writer seems to proceed from a place of calm confidence. I wondered how she gets there, and whether it is related to inventing this self for a given book? “I think I have a faith in the artistic process,” she told me:

You have to be patient… I don’t feel calm about interacting with other people. Art is a calmer place for me because it’s just me alone with a task with no deadline. And because it’s my book, no one knows better than me what should be done that day, or through the years. Yet when it comes to behaving in the world, I think many people know better than me, and I suspect there are rules… I don’t think you can make mistakes in writing, the way you can in living. Writing mistakes can always be erased or made into something beautiful. In living, if you do something stupid or hurt someone, it can’t really be undone.

This view of writing reminded me of how friends who’ve attended online courses with Heti have emerged seemingly freer, enthusiastic rather than frightened by the mandate to take risks and be playful in their writing. I asked Heti whether she enjoys teaching. “Yes, I love it,” she said. “Both in teaching and writing I am interested in how much freedom a person can have—this freedom leading them to something that only they can do.”

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Had she encountered any writing of that sort recently? “I just read Octavia E. Butler for the first time,” Heti told me. “I find her so moving. I am speaking specifically about her book Imago. It is one of the most tender novels I have ever read.”

Heti has written about the difference between reading a friend’s work-in-progress—an exchange she treats with reverence and generosity—and reading a finished book for pleasure, different still from the work of the critic. I wondered about her experience writing criticism. “For a few years I wrote pretty frequently for the London Review of Books and it seemed to me really clear what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to see all the possibilities in the book, and to write these down; to think of what this book could mean if it meant the most and the grandest things. But lately, when I try to write book criticism, I feel sort of lost and as if I don’t know what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it. The novel I just finished, Pure Colour, is in part about criticism. I seem to have been unable to write arts criticism while thinking about it in this novel.”

For many years, Heti worked as interviews editor at The Believer. “When I was conducting my own interviews for them, I had this idea that other people really did have answers for me,” she said. “I really believed I was talking to an Oracle every time I was interviewing someone, and that gave it all a certain magic and energy. I thought every conversation would change my life.” It occurred to me that much of her work—from the co-authored The Chairs Are Where the People Go (2011) and Women in Clothes (2014) to How Should A Person Be? with its transcribed emails and conversationsinvolves exchange and collaboration. In Motherhood the narrator’s search for interlocutors on the baby question informs her internal dialogue. I begin to see all of Heti’s work as conversational in its essence.

I asked her, with some self-consciousness, what she feels makes a good interview. “A good conversation is an improvisation and creates something new—and two people together, honestly talking, makes both of them new.”


An earlier version of this article misstated the original publication date of Clarice Lispector’s An Apprenticeship.

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