Sheila Heti Q&A: “I was happiest in university, living alone with no friends”

The novelist talks studying art history and philosophy, Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Natural Causes, and orphan Annie.

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Sheila Heti was born on Christmas Day 1976 in “an upper-middle-class Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto”. She is the author of eight books, including the novels “How Should a Person Be?”, “Ticknor” and “Motherhood”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Smoking in junior high school.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a child it was Annie, the orphan from the movie. I loved the way she was in the world: tough and optimistic but not a fool, independent but she also cared about the other orphans. I’m not sure I have a hero still. I’m too envious to have heroes.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I am listening to Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Natural Causes, which is changing the way I think about medicine, the health care system, meditation, so much. I would recommend it to anybody. She is a completely independent thinker and her writing is like water.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Does Simone Weil count?

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A friend told me that someone who claimed to be from 6,000 AD has come to visit us and is in the newspapers saying that his time machine broke down. I would be curious to see what it’s like on Earth in 4,000 years, though from this anecdote it sounds much the same.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The first names of my immediate family.

What TV show could you not live without?

I could live without any TV show, no problem.

Who would paint your portrait?

My friend Margaux Williamson. I trust her, and love her paintings more than anything.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t listen to music very much. I have a white noise generator on my phone, and I like to listen to “Massive Arctic Cavern”. So maybe that?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My ex-husband’s mother once told me, about bad or difficult situations, “Sometimes there’s nothing to be done – you just have to live through it.” I get better at taking this advice as I get older. When I was younger it was impossible. I thought you had to fix trouble or run away from it.

What’s currently bugging you?

I was supposed to meet a friend at his house at one o’clock and he wasn’t home. I’m not bugged in the sense that I’m desperate to see him, but I’m bugged because I don’t know which of us screwed up. I think it was him.

What single thing would make your life better?

Breakfast.

When were you happiest?

In university, studying art history and philosophy, living alone in a room, and I had no friends.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

Very sad.

Are we all doomed?

I don’t think of death as doom. If we had to live forever then yes, we would be doomed, but I think we are saved from doom by our individual deaths. 

Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood” is published by Harvill Secker

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce