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13 February 2022

Sheila Heti: “When someone you love dies, you become close to the world of the dead”

The Canadian author on grief, nature, fiction and why criticism may be the purpose of life.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Sheila Heti looks at the world, she sees a mixture of “incredible, unimpeachable beauty and so much unnecessary suffering”. The Canadian author finds wonder in nature – when looking at a tree, or a particular landscape – but is also conscious of the Earth’s inequity, its unfair distribution of wealth and resources. “I was trying to think about what could be a poetic, literary, plausible, philosophical answer to: how can those two things coexist?” she said.

Upon writing her new book Pure Colour (Harvill Secker), Heti found a solution: to set her novel in a “first draft” of the world. “After God created the heavens and the earth, he stood back to contemplate creation, like a painter standing back from the canvas,” she writes. It’s a neat conceit for this tricky duality, and also nods to the author’s ongoing interest in the relationship between life and art.

Heti was born in Toronto in 1976 to Hungarian Jewish parents. At university she studied playwriting, and then art history and philosophy. She wrote short stories, a novella and a children’s book, We Need a Horse (2011), before her breakthrough, How Should a Person Be? (published in Canada in 2010 and the UK three years later), and then Motherhood (2018) established her as an author fascinated in blending reality and fiction. Heti is renowned for her truthfulness as much as her whimsy; her characters often circle around philosophical conundrums concerning selfhood. In an ongoing New York Times series, she is sharing a decade’s worth of diary entries, each sentence ordered alphabetically. The result, she writes, is “the self’s report on itself”.

When we spoke via video call in January, Heti was in a house in the countryside a couple of hours outside Toronto; she and her boyfriend divide their time between that property and their place in the city. I saw just a glimpse of Heti in a plaid shirt, an ornate stone-walled living room behind her, before she asked that we turn our cameras off. She finds having to focus on the screen while talking distracting, she said. Her written works may be curious, avant-garde and interested in how multiple things can be possible at once – but she is, it is evident, committed to clarity.

God is the first character mentioned in Pure Colour. “I’m not somebody who believes in God,” Heti said, “but I think about the idea of God. The idea of a creator has always been compelling.” I see something hopeful in her idea of the “first draft”: the world will get better. She sees an innate sadness. The climate crisis exists in the book as God “heating up” the world “in advance of its destruction” because he decided it contained too many flaws. “We’re not meant to enjoy the world,” Heti explained. “We’re here to help God prepare a better next draft.”

Pure Colour’s central character, Mira, attends the American Academy of American Critics, a competitive school in which students “believed the future would be set in the moulds that they had made”, Heti writes. “It was important to know what you thought of things – what you believed the world to be, and what you thought it should be.”

Heti’s writing is playful here, but poignant too. Motherhood, a wildly experimental work that explores the notion of procreation as art, received a mixed reception. For many readers it was enlightening; some critics found it exasperating. Heti, who reads all of her reviews, found much of the response “very painful”. “It’s hard to see your work be so misunderstood,” she said. She realised that, as an artist, she was always going to receive criticism. She just needed to figure out how best to deal with it. “I wanted to frame it for myself in such a way that it was important: even if it hurt me, it was meaningful and it was inevitable and it was deep. To transform what was this disappointment into a larger perspective.

“The largest perspective I could come up with was that we are here, put down on Earth, as critics, and that’s what God wants of us: to be critics, to be his critics. To be the critics of life on Earth includes being a critic of art, includes being critics of each other, includes being critics of everything.” That her characters attend the American Academy of American Critics is, then, both a jibe at Motherhood’s reviewers and an intelligent literary conceit.

Much of the fascination surrounding Heti’s previous work – and the author’s difficulty with responding to criticism – comes from her tangling of Sheila the character and Sheila the author. That was part of what made Motherhood interesting to readers, she said. Pure Colour is a different kind of book – more fictive, but no less true. The characters are Heti‘s creations, but one important plot point – Mira’s experience of grief following her father’s death – is based upon reality. Heti’s father died in 2018. “I don’t think I could have written about it in that way if I hadn’t gone through something similar,” she said.

In the novel’s strangest scene, Mira’s consciousness joins with her father’s – inside a leaf. It’s a bizarre notion, but one that Heti too finds “simple and humble”.

“It feels like a kind of realism to me,” she said, “when someone you love dies, you do go into a leaf with them. You do become closer to nature, or at least that’s how I felt. I felt much closer to nature suddenly. I felt separated from other humans. I felt like I was in a different realm, like I was very close to my father. When somebody you love dies, you’re close to the world of the dead in a way. You go with them.”

It’s not a surreal image, Heti said, because “surrealism makes the world strange, and I just think the world was strange. In a truthful way I was trying to represent what that strangeness was.”

[See also: Sheila Heti’s dream-world]

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