Toronto author Sheila Heti finds literary inspiration all around her
Sheila Heti has a way of making you feel as if you’re the most interesting person in the room. She and I are waiting in line at Future Bakery & Café on Bloor Street where we’ve met to talk about her new novel, Ticknor, but already she’s asking me all the questions. “How do you like freelance writing?” she inquires. “Who have you written for?”
When Heti’s hot cider is ready and I’ve filled my mug with coffee, we find a place to sit, and I put a digital recorder on the table between us. I want to begin by asking Heti about the inspiration for her new book, but the miniature device catches her attention, and I soon find myself telling her about a creative project I’m involved in: recording voice messages from people on the street and posting the messages online. Her voice rises as the questions pour out. “Are people able to be free enough with themselves?” she wonders. “Do you use their full names?” “What are you calling the project?”
You expect writers – especially those who write fiction – to show an interest in people, but I sense that Heti, 28, makes a habit of investigating subjects until she’s covered every conceivable angle. She seems to want to know everything, and would be just as happy not to talk about herself at all.
You can find out a lot about Sheila Heti (BA 2002 Trinity) without asking her, thanks to a literary career that went public in 2000 when McSweeney’s, a hip U.S. literary journal founded by American writer Dave Eggers, published five of her short stories. Heti was 23 at the time, and studying art history and philosophy at Trinity College. Her first book, The Middle Stories, was published the following year.
Looking back now, Heti says the spate of sudden attention was a little bewildering – and made her the target of some ill-mannered jealousy, mostly from the press. She felt many of the reviews of The Middle Stories focused on the buzz around the book and gave hardly any thought to the content. “It struck me as suffering from, if not jealousy, at least some kind of preoccupation with whatever degree of success they seemed to think I was having.”
The Canadian literary community is extremely small, and many writers work for years without signing a publishing contract. So when someone new comes along and seems to achieve success too quickly, certain questions arise: about talent, about staying power, about owing one’s success to someone else. Heti knows she has McSweeney’s to thank for getting her noticed, and, indirectly, for her first book, but she became clearly tired of being asked about it. “I’m so lucky that it happened,” she told an interviewer a few years ago. “But it’s also like constantly being asked about your sister.”
Before Heti was a published writer, and before NOW magazine readers voted her “best emerging author” for three of the past four years, she had little idea what she wanted to do with her life. After graduating from North Toronto High School, she thought it would be fun to write plays, so she enrolled at the National Theatre School in Montreal. During her first year, a stage adaptation she’d written of Faust was cancelled by her teachers. “They thought it was going to ruin my career,” she says. The teachers never gave her any specific feedback, but Faust‘s love interest in her version was only 12 years old. “I think it left many of them feeling nauseated.” Heti dropped out after that and moved back to Toronto, where she took a job in the editorial department at Shift magazine. Although she found the work enjoyable, she says the triviality of the assignments eventually wore her down. For one article, she recalls having to interview people who were obsessed with the heroine of The Little Mermaid. “She’s a cartoon character!” Heti exclaims. “I felt like I had to study something real.” So she went back to school.
At the University of Toronto, Heti spent a full semester studying Ulysses with Professor Jennifer Levine, who says Heti was fascinated by the idea of literature within literature. “Sheila was reading not to prove a preordained model in her head, but to think about the world.” Levine enjoyed The Middle Stories and thinks Heti’s writing echoes elements of Joyce. “Underlying their verbal games there is a powerful sympathetic imagination,” Levine says. “Everyone is interesting. No one is boring.”
One day a few years ago, Heti was waiting for a friend at a downtown Toronto lounge, and randomly pulled a book – an old leather-bound volume – from one of the shelves. She began reading and was intrigued by the unique-ness of the writer’s voice. “So I stole it,” she says.
The book, published in 1864, was The Life of William Hickling Prescott, a biography by George Ticknor of his friend and fellow Harvard scholar William Prescott. It was Ticknor’s voice – the style of his writing – that provided Heti with the inspiration for her new book and its central character. She explains that Ticknor wrote in an exceedingly reverent and formal style, leaving the reader to imagine what was going on between the lines. “I didn’t want to write a historical novel. I was doing an impersonation,” she says. “I wanted to know Ticknor through his voice – not through the details or narrative of his life.”
The action in Heti’s psychologically dense 108-page novel takes place over one night as Ticknor reluctantly makes his way to a party at Prescott’s. As he walks along the cobbled streets of Boston, Ticknor wrestles with difficult personal questions: What does his friendship mean to Prescott? Why has he failed to become a great writer? Will he be missed should he forgo the party altogether?
In life, George Ticknor was a respected and influential professor of belles-lettres. Heti’s Ticknor, however, is a paranoid, anxiety-ridden, failing writer who’s jealous of his best friend Prescott, who is extroverted, often published and well loved – much like Heti’s own public persona. I ask Heti whether there is also a Ticknor side to her personality, a hidden, anxious element that sometimes comes into conflict with her Prescott self. “I think that’s a legitimate thing to say,” she responds, but leaves it at that. Heti has never been the kind of author who likes to tell her readers what to think.
Ticknor is ostensibly set in mid-19th century Boston, but Heti deliberately drops clues to suggest otherwise. Streetcars rumble through the city, Ticknor wears rubber earplugs to block out noise from a neighbour’s party, and he feels guilty about smoking – a decidedly modern-day phenomenon. Although the anachronisms are subtle, they’re enough to make a careful reader realize that the story takes place somewhere other than in historical reality. “It doesn’t take place in the history of America, but in the history of an attitude or a feeling,” Heti explains.
Ticknor may not be historical fiction, but Heti used her subject as a starting point – literally. In writing the book, Heti often began by typing directly from the real Ticknor’s own prose, using the beginnings of his sentences as fuel, and continuing on her own from there. Heti used a similar creative technique in writing The Middle Stories, where she would begin sentences without knowing how they would end. It’s how she talks, too. She starts down one path, stops, then starts again on another. If you listen long enough, you can see how her ideas come into existence.
Is everyone interesting? Heti seems to believe it. In The Middle Stories, her characters were often generically identified – the plumber, the middleman, the poet – but she infuses their lives with fantastical events. Similarly, in Ticknor, Heti delves into the mind of a man who thinks he is worthless, but in showing him attention, proves he’s not. Heti tested the notion in real life by creating a venue for “average” people to speak publicly about the things they really care about. That venue is Trampoline Hall, a monthly lecture series held in a variety of Toronto bars, which Heti founded three years ago with her friend Misha Glouberman.
The people Heti asks to speak at Trampoline Hall are not really “experts” and often have never spoken in public. The lectures are not designed to inform or educate, though Heti hopes they do communicate something “truthful.” And so Trampoline Hall audiences have listened to impassioned speeches about the number 32, why gossip is worse than pork, and how fantasy sports leagues allow men to be intimate without being personal. Heti would be the first to admit that the lectures are sometimes rough around the edges, but she says they are never boring.
For Heti, who arranged the speakers each month but has now handed responsibility for the whole enterprise to Glouberman, the series took on a social dimension. “I fall in love with people all the time,” she says, “and Trampoline Hall was a way of doing something with them rather than just going out for coffee.” In his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes a lattice – a figurative snowshoe – whose criss-crossing fibres are made up of the individual connections among people. The lattice gains strength every time two people connect, and if the network grows large enough, it can support anything. Trampoline Hall was Sheila Heti’s lattice.
Now that her involvement with Trampoline Hall has ended, it’s possible that the William Prescott phase of Heti’s life is coming to a close, and the era of Ticknor – the reclusive writer – is beginning. “I’m quitting everything,” she says. “I don’t want anything that was in my life while I was writing this book to be in my life anymore.” She says all her cultural activities from the last four years – Trampoline Hall; her impassioned articles about art in the public sphere; the biweekly cocktail parties that she and her husband, Globe and Mail music columnist Carl Wilson, held at their home in Toronto – share some indefinable quality that she wants to be done with now. She’s even leaving the city, at least for a while, and she doesn’t want to say where she’s going next. She wants to disappear. “I don’t want to know anybody,” she says.
These days, people expect a lot from Heti, who is left with no time to do what is most important to her – write books. Along with reading and just simply thinking about things, Heti says she will have more time in her new city to indulge in her craft.
When we’ve drained our mugs and put on our coats, I walk Heti to her next appointment, which happens to be just around the corner, at the place she discovered Ticknor. As she opens the door to go in, I realize that whoever awaits her there will surely feel like the most extraordinary and exciting person in the room.
Micah Toub is a freelance writer in Toronto.