Monday, July 5, 2010

Interview by Alex Snukal (Hart House Review, 2010)

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AS: As I was preparing for this interview, I noticed you've interviewed a really broad range of people in a variety of disciplines. I think this extends to all the work you do as well. Where do you get the cross-disciplinary confidence?

SH: I think that's just because I'm interested in the people that I interview. So interest just makes all things possible [laughs]. I interviewed Mary Gaitskill and that was the hardest. I think it's hard to interview novelists and I didn't realize that. And ever since then I don't want to interview novelists anymore. [laughs]

AS: I know, right.

SH: I don't know why, it's just that I have no questions for novelists. The novel's self-evident. You read a novel and it is what it is. I don't think there are any questions to ask the writer. Everything they wanted to say they put into the novel and it's words. And so to get words to interpret words… It's like talking to a painter and saying "What the hell were you thinking?" [laughs] 

AS: But there's got to be some level of interpretation. On the other hand it seems kind of funny to ask a novelist what they meant about something.

SH: It's stupid. It's the stupidest question. 

AS: But why is it stupid? I feel like we do ask other artists that same question and get away with it.

SH: Because it's like asking somebody "what do you like?" It's just not a question that a person can answer. If you're a really good novelist, you're books are your whole life. So Ticknor was five years of my life. So if you ask what it meant it's like asking: “What did you mean by those five years of your life?” And asking somebody "what did you mean with those five years of your life" is a meaningless question. I just lived. Or I just wrote. Books mean different things for different people, so asking the author what they meant by it is sort of insulting. It's almost like saying, "I didn't get anything out of it." Because you've had to ask the author what it meant. So you're saying the book isn't communicating anything. 

AS: I read an interview where you said that you were glad that the interviewer couldn't find your voice in The Middle Stories. Is that something you cultivate? And is it connected to your dislike of someone asking you "what did you mean by that?"

SH: I think it's more interesting to write from a part of yourself that you don't know. If you just write from a part of yourself that you do know, then it's not really an exploration. When I say I didn't want to put myself in it, it's more that I didn't want to put the self that I really know very well. 

AS: Do you think that comes from your theatre background? That in a sense you're writing in character, for a character?

SH: Yeah I think so. For me, I almost feel like I'm acting when I'm writing. You put on a character and then you write from that. 

AS: I think that's why Ticknor felt so complete. 

SH: I used to want to be an actress; I think that was my first dream. But I just wasn't so good at it. So I think it's interesting when you have to do the art that you really want to do through the art that you can do. Say you really want to be a dancer but your real talent is painting and so the dance comes through the painting. Whereas, if you're just a storyteller whose a writer, that's not as mysterious as being an actress who's a writer or a director who's an architect. 

AS: I know you've been working on this project with Misha Glouberman, who you started Trampoline Hall with, called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Can you talk a little about how it happened?

SH: I quit Trampoline Hall in 2005. So I still curate shows but I quit basically. Part of it was that I wanted to work with Misha again. Because that was so fun and we struggled so much to get to a good place. And also because originally I wanted to write a book about Misha, and I wrote one in 2006, called The Moral Development of Misha

AS: And it hasn't been published right?

SH: No, there's only 80 pages of it, it wasn't done. I showed it to him and he read it and said, "This is the best book that's ever been written". [laughs]

AS: Well yeah of course he would. 

SH: So, I wrote that, and it wasn't any good and I'd been taping Margaux Williamson - this other book that I'm finishing is me and Margaux in conversation, called How Should a Person Be? - and it just wasn't fair to not to tape Misha. [laughs] They're two of my closest friends and they live in the same house so it would be too unbalanced if I wrote a book about Margaux and didn't write one about Misha. 

AS: Right right, it would ruin their relationship. 

SH: Yeah exactly, they'd break up and I'd be responsible. But I don't know how it came about, I just think Misha needs a book. Misha is one of the smartest people I know and he should have a book of the things that he knows. So then he came over and we came up with a list of all the things that he knew, and we asked his friends: "What does Misha talk about?"

AS: But I always wondered, how did you know when you got to the bottom of the list? How did you know to stop thinking about what Misha know about?

SH: We got to the bottom of the list! We couldn’t think of any more subjects. And it's not what he knows, like who are all the characters in a Superman comic. What does he think about? We really came to the bottom of the list. We were like "What else? What else? What else?" and there was nothing. A friend said to me that the book is really about the boundaries of a human and that we do have boundaries. That there is an end to the list.

AS: I've read the sample chapter online, and it's interesting that it doesn't sound exactly like Misha speaking. It sounds like a mix between his way of talking and your writing. These crisp short sentences, which seem more like your writing than the way Misha talks. Did you guys talk about the style or presentation of in the book? How did you get to the piece on the website?

SH: No literarily, he talked and I typed. So where I put the punctuation, was me and maybe my mishearing of something was me. But we didn't edit it. So what you read is pretty much as he spoke it. Because he can speak so perfectly that there's a thesis in each paragraph. You'd think it was edited but we probably only did ten minutes of editing on it. 

AS: That's the thing about the book, if you know him, if you've been to Trampoline Hall, you know he can talk so well, so of course you'd want of book of him talking. 

SH: Yeah it's his gift. And I think that he hates writing. And I hate thinking [laughs]. No but he hates writing and so there's no way he was ever going to write a book, unless it would happen this way. 

AS: So what's the book with Margaux? Is it similar to this?

SH: It's more of a novel. 

AS: But it's based on conversations you had with her?

SH: Yeah, like there's a lot of transcribed dialoge and it's based on our friendship in some way. It's sort of like reality TV. Reality TV is the sense that that's how real it is. So it is real but it's also a fiction.

AS: That seems to happen a lot with you. Like the Agnes Varda interview where you made up the questions because, in fact, she was talking to a room full of reporters. It seems like an interest of yours, to play with those conventions.

SH: Yeah because it's hard to just totally tell the truth and it's hard to just completely make things up and there's value in the things that you imagine and there's value in the things that really happen. So it's nice to be able to use them both. 

AS: I read an interview where you said that you were increasingly less interested in writing about fictional people. That you prefer interacting with actual people in the world. Do you still feel the same way after these two books?

SH: Yeah more. 

AS: But do you think you really need to decide? It seems to me like you've always done both. 

SH: Misha always encouraged me to take the other stuff as seriously as the fiction. Because he doesn't have an inborn respect or higher valuing of literature. That made me feel like I don't need to value the books above everything else and right now I don't feel like I need to value fiction above non-fiction. I've always assumed all my life that the most serious or important writing you could do would be novels. But as I get older I less and less care about novels but I still love writing. So, what do you write if not novels? And I'm not a journalist because I use my imagination. I would feel stifled and bored if I had to stick to the exact facts. So that's why these two books make sense. And whatever book comes next will hopefully be even more integrated with what I'm really interested in. I like the direct address of non-fiction. I don't like that it has to be non-fiction but I like the direct address. I like the writer talking directly to the reader, I feel like that's more intimate than a novel, in some ways. 

AS: Because of the voice of the author? 

SH: Because it's so much more plaintive and desperate and needy. [laughs] 

AS: But you don't feel like you could put that in the voice of a character? Didn't Ticknor do that?

SH: Ideally, one goes more and more into the world, as an artist and as a human. And deeper and deeper into yourself and other people and all those things at once. So if the art is formatted in such a way to allow all those three things to happen at the same time then that's ideal. It’s this continual search for the form in which I'll be able to make all those three things true. Because the thing about just being a fiction writer in your room, is that you go less and less and less into the world, into other people. With this book I'm writing with Margaux, before you came over, we talked for two hours because she's a character in the book. I was trying to remember these parts in our relationship and asking the character, who is my friend, what she was feeling. That's so great that I don’t just have to sit in my own head and say "well what's the character feeling?" I can actually ask the character.

AS: Does it get weird? 

SH: It's totally weird. 

AS: Are you rehashing bad parts of the relationship?

SH: Yeah, because it's more dramatic.

AS: So it's like simultaneous mutual therapy.

SH: Totally. One of the hardest and most rewarding relationships I've had in my life is with Margaux. It's really threatening for her to have a book written about her and for me to write about her. That really takes a tremendous amount of trust and courage. It's such a weird thing to do. Whatever I write about her, in fiction, she's going to read and she's going to see things that I didn't even mean to put there. I showed her a draft two years ago and it almost ruined our friendship. She was said "I can't believe that you think that if we have a problem, all you have to do is say sorry and then it's solved!" And that's not what I think; it's just really hard to write conflict resolution! But maybe on a subconscious level I did think that. Who knows? It's nice to be called on one's own morality as a human being in the process of trying to write a good book. Usually you don't have to account for yourself. [laughs]

AS: Well especially on that level. You kind of assume that you could do one thing and the person would forgive you. Like what the hell else do you have to do? 

SH: Yeah, and then she was like "You're going to show the world that I'm such a fucking pushover?" She doesn't want to seem like a pushover and if I accidentally portray her that way then she's humiliated publicly. Which is not what I want to do to my friend. 

AS: So you're faced with not only having to talk through your relationship but then find some way of representing these two levels, the friendship and the talking, in a way that's fair to everyone involved?

SH: I've had to become a more ethical or better person. Because I don't want to betray my friends but I also want to write a good book. So how do you do both at the same time? [laughs] 

AS: And without totally demonizing yourself in the process...

SH: Well, I want to tell the truth so... 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Trampoline Hall (The Phoenix, University of Chicago, 2002) by Andy Rathburn

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Public speaking is generally regarded as a painful thing, something best avoided, akin to sewage and "Family Ties" reruns. So it's no small feat that Sheila Heti would be able to give birth to a speaking forum that is not only open to but completely reliant on volunteers. However, with her public participatory lecture series Trampoline Hall, the tiny Canadian has done just that. 

First and foremost, Heti is an author. It took some time to publish her debut collection, The Middle Stories, but after being released to critical accolades in Canada, it will receive its American release through independent publisher McSweeney's this month. When asked if it was tough in the lean days, Heti brushed aside any difficulties.

"It wasn't so hard because I always had readers," she explained via email. "I would give stories to people I knew or send them out randomly in the mail or leave them on the subway. Of course, not getting published in Canada made me angry, but that doesn't mean it was hard. It's good to be angry about some things. Now that [the stories] are getting attention, it speeds up my life in some ways but not in other ways. I am surprised at the ways it is speeding it up and surprised at the ways it's not speeding it up. For instance, I don't have a desire to publish something again any time soon. I would like to wait a long time, I think."

While she was evasive about any specific message Trampoline Hall hopes to convey, one can't help but think it has a lot to do with giving others a forum to share their stories. The series has become a staple in Toronto, with shows selling out on a regular basis. And while the speakers may vary with every date, Heti does have some constants to help her with the productions. Her troupe, a tiny consortium of friends, got its start when Misha Glouberman, who now emcees the show, overheard Heti's idea at a party. According to Heti, Glouberman thought the idea was "terrible," but he wanted to host the shows regardless. She enlisted the help of tow other chums: Leah Walter, Heti's oldest friend and set designer for the series, and Carl Wilson, Heti's recent fiancee and Trampoline Hall doorman.

Past Trampoline Hall presentations have run the gamut from an in-depth discussion of the number 32 (the speaker realized it was about order, citing, among other facts, that 32 is the number of chess pieces used in the game, the number of sonatas Beethoven wrote, the amount of classes of crystal, and, of course, an important marker on the Farehnheit scale), while other speakers have talked about more personal subjects, like hating God or having a liver transplant. Basically, all is fair game. And what's more, Heti is taking it to the road.

Curious? You should be. Chicago's date alone will feature Heti reading from The Middle Stories, as well as three brave Chicagoans (Brian Bieber, Elizabeth Lindau and Starlee Kine) set to speak on whistling, birth control in Romania and a talk simply titled "The Run-down."

One might assume that at times a prima donna would try to grab the mic, getting more than her deserved 15 minute of fame out of the program. Heti, however, tries to steer clear of these types.

"I have met such people, but those I like to have speak are the ones who beg me not to make them speak," Heti explained. "I like pulling people into it. Those who are reluctant about the whole thing make the best lecturers."

That may give one pause. After all, Heti has not had the time to talk with the presenters for each tour date; they were selected after encouraged interested folks to email proposals Heti's way. It would seem there is room for disaster. But Heti washes away any worries with a general description of Trampline Hall's events, and said the presentations are "all disasters."

Of course, the whole enterprise calls to mind a mass of questions. For instance, why call on the general public?

"Who else would we call on?" Heti answered.

What is the message?

"There is no message. Or perhaps: There are some things a gal must do to make a city livable," she explained.

Do people ever just bail? Get stage fright and simply not show?

"No. People come close, but it has never actually happened.

And has Heti herself given a lecture?

"I have never spoken."

Why not?

"Because I prefer to skulk around and worry."

Fair enough.

The Middle Stories (The Literary Review of Canada, 2001) by Steven Naylor

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Sheila Heti's short story collection, The Middle Stories, is fantastic and bleak. We open with the fantastic: whimsical reworkings of tales involving, for example, a princess and a love-struck plumber and a frog, or an evil child with her captive mermaid, or the tale of the "woman who lived in a shoe." It is as if, by way of an introduction, Heti needed to twist reality with fables before the dark psyche of men, women and humanity could be explored. From here on, all is bleak. Heti assaults us through characterization, for characterization has shock value in these extremely brief but powerful stories.

In "The Girl Who Planted Flowers," the girl wakes up between two boys, one ugly and one intellectual. They go for breakfast, to a place which "had eggs, it seemed," and, sitting in a booth, say next to nothing to each other. The story ends with the girl pondering her life, "'What a waste,' she thought. And nothing convinced her otherwise."

In "Mr. Jones's First Outing," Mr. Jones sits in a bar with an old friend named Fritz. They are approached by a couple of women, one is quiet, pretty and self-centered, the other is a bitter, contemptuous hag who does all the talking. Fritz is uncomfortable with the female company -- "He hated talking to new people. One never knew how one was being evaluated." When his feelings on the matter are revealed, the hag exclaims, "We're nothing! Not at all! Not a thing!" Mr. Jones ends up at home lamenting the dreary hours he had spent caring for his dying wife. "Those were gentle times; how the light came through the window, how he barely slept at all, and how she lived with pain." Brilliant. Don't you think? -- "and how she lived with pain." It is reconfigured trauma with the wife's suffering newly coddled and made cozy inside the husband's attentiveness. This is reevaluation as therapy in light of Mr. Jones's recent demoralizing encounter.

In "A Bench for Marianne and Todd," Marianne contemplates her and her boyfriend's ugliness. "We're both filthy, ugly, unattractive people. There are people much more beautiful than us, with better lives than us..." She broadens her despair. " we are on the coldest day of the year, alone in the sand, looking out over the water, and we're totally miserable." Todd tries to reassure her, reminding her that although it looks bad, they have each other and they have love. But Marianne is unmoved: "We're just a couple of dumb animals... nobody loves us and nobody looks at us, but when they do they shudder. That matters more than any paltry love we have." I like that Marianne values cruel loveless intolerance of others over what really matters. Most of us would concede that the ill-in-nature morality of humanity should never matter, but always does. As the afternoon progresses, Marianne and Todd sit by the sea "so dark and grim" and declare love for each other.

The Middle Stories heralds in a New Nihilism, a smack in the face of conservative fiction. Heti despises people; she despises humanity. It is this nihilistic vigour that fuels her darker than dark characterizations and her bizarre/twisted relationships. Sheila Heti's stories are fantastic, strange and -- as I said -- bleak. Bleakly bleak.

The Middle Stories (eye, 2001) by Kevin Connolly

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Newcomer Sheila Heti hits her stride in The Middle Stories

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Sheila Heti certainly doesn't give you the impression she thinks she's the Next Big Thing in Canadian writing. Thoughtful, unassuming, even a little bashful, Heti possesses none of the brash, self-involved confidence of which media darlings are usually made.

When she's described by those who know her, the word elfin keeps coming up: the hair is short; the eyes, big; the voice, vaguely childlike. Only a particularly chunky pair of shoes puts her height definitively above 5 feet. And though born and raised in Toronto, she says (over a bite at the Mars diner on College), she has little stake in being identified as "Canadian."

Still, she's got a compelling resumé. There's her age, 25, a plus in a cultural sphere where youth, suddenly, is capital. Then there's the requisite international approbation -- the cred that goes with being showcased in David Eggers' impossibly smart McSweeney's magazine. Heti is well aware that one event more than anything is responsible for the palpable hype surrounding her first book of fiction, The Middle Stories (Anansi, $24.95), which she launches April 26 at the Gladstone Hotel.

"I feel very ambivalent about it in some ways," Heti says of her McSweeney's break. "I'm so lucky that it happened, otherwise this kind of thing would not be happening. But it's also like constantly being asked about your sister." Though she doesn't recognize it as such, it may also have been Heti's introduction to professional jealousy.

"The weirdest thing was that who knows how many copies of that issue were printed -- probably thousands -- and I had almost no response, from anyone," Heti recalls. "It was so odd; all these people were reading it and I had no idea what their reaction was.

"They talk about the 'lonely life of the writer,'" Heti mugs. "I never experienced that except in that context."

If it was jealousy Heti was encountering, there's ample grounds for it. Narrated in a deliberately distanced, economic style and labelled like fables ("The Princess and the Plumber," "The Littlest Dumpling"), Heti's mostly very short stories are by turns harsh, fantastical and broadly satirical. Most work off a recurring premise -- what if you wrote contemporary urban tales in the form of parables, but instead of princess, crones, fantastical beasts and heroic tests you cast them with self-involved mall girls, office workers, writers and the like working through their often thoroughly quotidian problems?

There's not much character development here -- people are usually defined by one or two traits or factual details. In "The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates," we never learn the title characters' names, while the object of the Poet's sexual attention is described as the "woman in the cubicle with the husband and three lovely kids." Despite his growing psychological disturbance, there is little else we learn about "The Man From Out of Town," while the male character in "A Bench for Marianne and Todd" is described as a "big guy with red hair and nothing much going for him except his exacting kindness."

"That's just the way they came out," Heti says of her well-defined style. "It's hard to say why. I don't think it's the stuff I'm influenced by, or the stuff I'm interested in reading. It could be because I was told a lot of stories as a child. My father made up stories -- every night he'd make up a new one. He's an engineer, not a storyteller by nature, so I'm sure he must have had a unique way of doing it."

The stories tend to turn on what little happens or is said, with that lurking (and largely undelivered) promise of a moral lesson or cautionary tale never far from the proceedings.

While the pieces are typically tight and well-honed, Heti is also not afraid to be funny or intellectually frivolous, to cut down a story midstream with a banal turn or anticlimax. Maybe she really does owe it all to Eggers. It's a cynical, but probably accurate, assumption that Heti's writing is just too interesting to have easily moved into the Canadian mainstream on its own obvious merits.

"I think one way of going wrong is to try to get rid of the faults you see in your own fiction or art," Heti suggests. "There's something equally powerful about what you're doing wrong at an early stage in your writing life. In a way, that's where a person's true originality is. To write in a way where you get too far away from that strikes me as hollow -- a little too polished, even a little fraudulent."

But what might first seem perilously close to a standard "first thought, best thought" stance is tempered by the obvious care with which The Middle Stories is written. Granted, Heti goes out of her way to include the awkward diction and cadences of everyday speech, but there's usually some cunning involved and such passages are always conveniently contained by the pointed omniscience of the storyteller's voice.

Several of the stories also contain traces of Heti's keep-it-fresh ethos. "The House at the End of the Lane," in which characters speak lines from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and "The Man With the Hat," where Dali's Diary of a Genius is plundered for incidental dialogue, both suggest a writer adding a specific arbitrary hurdle (much like the games played by the original Surrealists) in an effort to keep the writing surprising.

"It was to add an element of randomness to it, for sure," Heti confirms. "It wasn't like they were these quotes I treasured and I was looking for an excuse to include them. What I liked about them was that they fit with an interest of mine in the fact that you can never get into the mind of anyone else. Even when you're a writer creating characters, you're still in your own mind. By taking text from somewhere else and putting it into the mouths of your characters, you're throwing yourself off again, restoring the strangeness of relationships."

This keen sense of the arbitrary extends to Heti's approach to the implied social structure typically contained by the world of fable. For example, Heti employs a repeating female character - obsessed with beauty and her superficial power over men -- who'd be the princess in a fairy tale. In Heti's ficioonal world, she's a typical, self-obsessed urbanite who has been granted an arbitrary position of authority by society. The goals of Heti's characters, while specific and everyday, from the outside seem fragile and isolated in the face of the random workings of the world.

"It's hard to know what your attitude toward the world is," Heti says when it's suggested all this adds up to a coherent and slightly harsh world view. "It's just the most obvious thing to you -- you can't even talk about it. One of the most difficult things about life is you can't step outside it.

"For me, and I think for a lot of people, sleeping and dreaming makes it seem like a new world every day," she says, shrugging. "When I wake up in the morning, it's almost like I've never been alive before. It's almost like you don't learn anything."

The Middle Stories (Saturday Night, 2001)

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Sheila Heti: Writer, Student, Aspiring Hairdresser

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"The title of my book is The Middle Stories. I had a whole bunch of other titles I was considering, but I was sitting in some college on campus waiting for class to start and just doodling the covers of books and I don't even know how the title came to me, but it was in my mind all of a sudden. And it was a big relief, because I'd thought of all these other titles that never felt quite right. But this title sounded right. I liked saying it. I liked the fact that it sounded a little encyclopedic and that it sounded utilitarian. And after that, that was the title and it just wasn't going to be anything else.

"People are really tense when they read. They're always worried about figuring things out and that stops them from figuring things out. I write in the simplest language possible, the sentences are simple, and there's nothing complex about my writing, but somebody still said to me, 'Maybe if I'd read your story a few more times, I would have understood it.' I don't think it enhances the experience of reading to assume there's more to the story than what you naturally feel when you read it. Really, it's all there on the surface.

"I'm not exactly supporting myself through my writing. I am partly, and that's good enough, but I'm always making lists of ways to make money. I want to work in a flower shop. I thought about being a kindergarten teacher. I want to be a hairdresser. But no one wants me to be their hairdresser, and you have to go to school for that. I don't know if I would write more, or more happily, if I could write all the time. It's more likely I'd nap all the time."

The Middle Stories (FFWD, 2001) by Harry Vandervlist

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It's hard not to look for a key or a moral in the stories collected in Sheila Heti's widely-praised first book, The Middle Stories. A little dumpling falls from the pot to the kitchen floor below. A plumber woos a princess, taking advice from a frog. A small girl is very unkind to a mermaid in a jar that she found at a flea market -- there's just got to be a lesson in that. Yet "The Littlest Dumpling" concludes: "the dumpling was just a dumpling." Well... huh?

In trying to explain away that "huh," you might look into Sheila Heti's career to date. It's pretty extensive for a writer in her mid-20s. Writing since age 15, she's now enrolled at Victoria College's Literary Studies program in Toronto. She's also studied art history and philosophy. Before that, she did theatre, then spent two years working at Shift magazine when it was run by Evan Solomon. Somewhere in there, can a key to Sheila Heti -- and thus to her stories -- be found?

Not really. In a phone interview from her home in Toronto, I asked Heti about the way her stories have an intriguing parable-like quality, yet never offer obvious conclusions. In response, she talked about the temptation to over-analyze writing.

"A lot of the ways that we're taught to read have to do with almost sidestepping the story and saying OK, what's beside it or what's behind it? There's just an avoidance of the fact of the story in a lot of analysis."

Heti seems to look at the world, and at her own stories, as facts that it may be impossible to explain in any one fashion. Often they're singular and surprising facts: "The world is here, you know, and it's almost more difficult to look at it than to look beside it. It's funny that people can make pronouncements about the world, and with such ease, often, and a kind of confidence."

For a writer, Heti's faith in pronouncements, in words, is highly qualified. "I think that as soon as you speak, you lie," she says. "And you can't help it because what you're trying to express is so complex, and by saying one thing you exclude all the other things, and you've presented a much narrower truth."

So Heti wouldn't begin to try to "explain" her own stories. But she is tired of hearing them called fables all the time. "Why can't you just say stories?" she wants to reply to all the reviewers who "position them beside the Brothers Grimm." And though it doesn't explain her stories, she is happy to describe how she developed her unique writing style, one that had me thinking about Calvino and Kafka and sometimes Paul Auster.

First of all, Heti did spend all that time in theatre. She worked with Hillar Liitoja at Toronto's DNA theatre group. She read "the usual suspects" -- Printer, Ionesco, Brecht. She attended Montreal's National Theatre School. And she got some good advice from Jean Cocteau, not in person, but in the form of a quotation suggestion writers should listen carefully to what their earliest critics hate about their work -- and then emphasize that. Heti took Cocteau's words to heart and spent time writing, as she puts it, "everything that I was most afraid of writing." For example, "the idea of repeating yourself in a story." So she did "all of those things that I thought were terrible, which allowed me to create a sort of style I did like and which I did feel was satisfying to me."

Then, while having a very enjoyable time working at Shift magazine, Heti sent some of those stories to McSweeney's. In retrospect, she admits to feeling skeptical that the quirky quarterly (which claimed to print work no one else would accept) would actually publish stories that she expected to be "shunned." Darned if Dave Eggers didn't take all five pieces and print them as a mini-book in McSweeney's famous "box" issue. Appearing alongside Haruki Murakami and Rick Moody doesn't really constitute "shunning."

And that brings us to the moral of this article, which is: you never know.

The Middle Stories (See magazine, 2001) by Alan Reed

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Writer Sheila Heti thought he unique tales would be shunned

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The last of The Middle Stories was written on May 1, 2000. They range in subject matter from the co-habitation of the poet and the novelist, to the little old lady who’s moving out of a shoe. The tales are all very short. They are the sort of stories you would read to children before tucking them into bed for the night, if you wanted them to wrestle with existential angst before falling asleep. That’s the sort of fairy tales these stories are.

It’s hard to describe them beyond that. They are all very short. They start somewhere and end somewhere else. The end is usually not far from the start and there doesn’t seem to be very much of a reason to have gone from the one place to the other. And there isn’t usually very much in between the two places either–just the dull kinds of things that happen everyday.

But it’s somehow very interesting how little is going on. Sheila Heti has a way of writing about dull everyday things. She knows that there’s more to the mundane than how they seem–there are all the things that go unsaid but that still simmer just under the surface, and distort the way things happen without seeming to. She knows these nuances well, and they’re what she writes about. She doesn’t bother with semblances, either. Her writing is an excavation of all those hidden things–she digs them up, puts them on display, and makes them speak for themselves.

In one tale, there is a blind girl who "had the three best days of her life. She met a boy, fell in love, lay out in the sunshine and held his hand and kissed, and fucked behind a video store, and after those three days she had the worst year ever." In another, there is the following exchange in a bar: "‘I suppose you want to talk about events in the world,’ sighed Fritz, with difficulty. ‘No. We want to see if we can become your friends,’ said the hag."

There is a kind of impossible frankness about all these stories. They are strung together out of truths that we don’t care to acknowledge, that we aren’t even aware of most of the time. These are not grand and glorious truths, either, and they’re definitely not the sort of truths that you take solace in. They are the petty little things that no one wants to admit to, the boring things that no one cares to notice–but they are things that are there, that are always there. Sheila Heti taps into this reservoir of unmentionable banalities to tell her stories, and the results are disturbingly amusing. It feels like she prances along, with a smile teasing the corner of her mouth, and she drops precious little nuggets of shit as she goes. It’s the kind of thing that makes you laugh out loud and then hope that this isn’t really what life’s all about.

The Middle Stories (The Toronto Star, 2001) by Eva Tihanyi

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he has been dubbed a "wunderkind" (National Post). Citytv's Book Television featured her launch party. She has been interviewed by Maclean's, Elm Street and Saturday Night. She is represented by the prestigious Anne McDermid literary agency. Her work has been called witty, clever, dark, ironic and beautifully crafted.

This newest star in the CanLit firmament is Sheila Heti, a 24-year-old art history and philosophy student at the University of Toronto. She won a writing award at age 16 (at which point Roch Carrier called her "a great future writer"), but it wasn't until Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius fame) published five of her short stories in the box-set version of McSweeney's print issue Number 4 the buzz about Heti began in earnest.

Now, with the publication of her first slim short fiction collection, The Middle Stories, the buzz has reached hyperbolic proportions. The question is, of course, whether the work merits as much attention as it is getting. The answer is yes, mainly because of Heti's quirky, cheeky approach and the unabashed (yet subtle) way she spotlights the absurdities of contemporary urban life.

As the title suggests, the stories come from the "middle," the centre of everyday existence, wherein oddness can be found. As one narrator says: "I ... looked out at the lawn and thought it was a pretty confusing world, which it is, if you look at it the right way." Heti's overall sensibility is reminiscent of a remark Brassai once made about his photographs: "I never sought to express anything but reality itself, than which there is nothing more surreal."

The 30 very short pieces that comprise this collection are hard to label, and that's not at all a bad thing. While it is tempting to call them fables or parables or fairy tales, they are really none of these. Rather, they are prose riffs — improvisations on a theme - and they are mostly open-ended. There are no tidy conclusions, no life-changing epiphanies. There is what there is, Heti seems to be saying. Look at it.

The temptation with a book such as this is to over-analyze it, strive to "get" it. But, as is often the way with intriguing tales (and with poetry too), the "getting" occurs more in the gut than in the head — intuitively rather than intellectually. Heti's pieces are best ingested in small doses (reading them all at once would be like eating an entire box of chocolates at one sitting) and in a relaxed frame of mind. The less one wrestles with them and simply allows them to work their magic, the more sense they make and the more provocative they become.

Heti's prose style is deceptively simple but slyly incisive, and she enjoys playing with the reader's assumptions. She presents situations and forces the reader to engage with these situations, bring his or her own values to the table, as it were. As with Rorschach ink blots, how the stories are interpreted says more about the reader than the writer.

Finally, there is Heti's underlying sense of humour, the low-key tone of which is illustrated in the opening paragraph of "The Man From Out Of Town": "Since his first day in town the man had been looking for a nice girl to spend good times with, but none of the girls would have him. He wasn't sure why but suspected it had to do with his status. The waitress who served him corroborated this when she called him a bum, even though he was not living on the street and he had two suits."

The Middle Stories does, indeed, signal the arrival of a talented young writer, one who is able to see the complexity of the world through its extraordinary banality.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ticknor (Boldtype, 2006) by Mark Sarvas

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When George Ticknor's Life of William Hickling Prescott was published in 1864, it received rapturous notices, and reviewers were quick to point out that the long-standing friendship between Prescott and Ticknor made the latter an ideal Boswell. Sheila Heti, whose debut short story collection, The Middle Stories, was published in this country by McSweeney's, has pulled this obscure leaf from the literary archives and fashioned a mordantly funny anti-history; a pungent and hilarious study of bitterness and promise unfulfilled.

As a fretful Ticknor navigates his way through the rain-soaked streets of Boston to Prescott's house ("But I am not a late man. I hate to be late."), he recalls his decidedly one-sided lifelong friendship with his great subject, a friendship that Heti has estranged from its factual moorings. Unlike the real-life Ticknor, this one is an embittered also-ran, full of plans and intentions never realized — coveting his friend's wife, writing letters that never get answered, working on essays destined to be rejected — always alive to the fashionable whispers behind his back.

Heti seamlessly inhabits Ticknor's fussy 19th-century diction. It's a feat of virtuoso ventriloquism that puts one in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day. It also raises fascinating questions about biographies and biographers (if this is how it was, what are we to make of Ticknor's glowing, laudatory Life?). Heti's Ticknor would be insufferable if he weren't so funny, and in the end, the black humor brings a leavening poignancy to this brief tale. But don't let the size fool you — this 109-page first novel is small but scarcely slight; it is as dense and textured as a truffle. And with George Ticknor, Heti adds an unforgettable new antihero to the Pantheon of the Misbegotten. Surely, Prufrock is smiling.

Ticknor (Geist) by Stephen Osborne

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Relief from the enumerative school of writing can be found in Sheila Heti’s first novel. Ticknor (Anansi) is written in the manner of the great narratives of eastern Europe and South America, of Kafka and Stevenson. Neither the subject nor the setting seems promising in the common way: George Ticknor, a troubled citizen of nineteenth-century Boston, prepares himself to attend a dinner party. Like the persons first and third in the pages of the Ryerson Review, Ticknor stands, watches, sits, looks and so on, but always in narrative mode, and so we are repeatedly engaged and taken into the story by the simplest of sentences: “I looked about me for a towel but all the towels were gone”; “I can see the bicycles tied to the poles and the drooping awnings and my soiled shoes.” Ticknor’s story is told by Ticknor himself, to himself, in a complex version of the first person that ren ders wonderfully the near-second person that we use when we talk to our­selves: “There was a woman I loved more than books, but she is gone … You loved first a drunk, second a woman who was deformed in the face. I have only ever loved hopeless women …” Another virtue of this novel is the absence of “authenticating” detail: here are none of the tiresome enumera tions used to fatten up the “historical” novels of recent seasons. The optic nerve is not in evidence in Ticknor, a book that calls out to us to read with our ears and not with our eyes, and proves that the art of narrative remains strong enough to take us any where at all.

Ticknor and Profile (, 2005) by Andrea Curtis

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There's an unusual poster gracing the hoardings and boarded-up buildings of Toronto the past few weeks. It's a grainy black-and-white image of five people of wildly different heights standing side by side in what looks like a police lineup. They've got the defiant, slightly bewildered look of street thugs who've been wrangled into showing up against their will. Most people who follow Canadian culture will recognize the unexpectedly short, frizzy-haired woman in the middle as international superauthor Margaret Atwood. But it's the other woman in the group that you can't keep your eyes off. Her thin arms ramrod straight, she's small like Atwood, though her extraordinary hat—which appears to have a tiny bird's nest perched on a pencil sticking out the top—puts her over the five-foot-six mark. 

The poster, it turns out, is the brainchild of celebrated small press House of Anansi, which is promoting five of its star authors as "NOT THE USUAL SUSPECTS." The petite, be-hatted woman is 28-year-old Sheila Heti, whose much-anticipated first novel, Ticknor, came out last week—much-anticipated because when she debuted with her strange and beguiling short story collection The Middle Stories in 2001, she was lauded as the Next Big Thing. Her stories appeared in Brick, Nerve, Toronto Life, This and a special boxed edition of McSweeney's;The Middle Stories was published in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. Trampoline Hall, the literary salon she created with friend Misha Glouberman, has become the unlikely toast of Toronto nightlife by having regular people hold forth on topics they have no expertise in.

In Canada, at least, that sort of exposure for a young writer gets certain media/literary types feeling huffy. Indeed, though reviews of The Middle Stories were mainly positive (if somewhat mystified by Heti's dream-like creations featuring, among other memorable characters, a giant, a mermaid and a woman who lives in a shoe), she is facing the release of her novel with some trepidation. "I have no idea what to expect about howTicknor will be received. I'm curious, of course. But I don't think anything could be stranger than the kind of suspicious tone to some of my previous reviews. It was a who-does-she-think-she-is kind of attitude," Heti explains on the phone from her apartment in Montreal, where she moved a month ago. "There's nothing more baffling than reading reviews saying, 'Why is Sheila Heti trying to annoy me?' As if I wrote The Middle Stories to alienate or irritate people."

She laughs at this. It's clearly absurd to her. But it's true her writing inspires strong reactions. The slow-simmeringTicknor will undoubtedly elicit some powerful responses of its own. Set in an imagined 19th-century Boston, the book tracks the tortured mental machinations of writer George Ticknor as he reluctantly heads to a dinner party held by his friend and fellow historian William Prescott. It's a tight, paranoid little journey Heti takes us on, her language mimicking both the Latinate backtracking of 19th-century writing and the push and pull of Ticknor's jealousy and admiration. The claustrophobic atmosphere this evokes and the novel's intentionally limited canvas—there is no plot to speak of and not a single moment when the characters interact with one another—manages to catapult the reader right into the writer's unhappy mind. It's a vivid, funny and often painful experience, as Ticknor catalogues the real or imagined slights paid to him: the dinners he's not invited to and the letters he wrote that his correspondents didn't bother keeping for posterity. "You were welcomed in," Ticknor recalls of evenings spent in the Prescott household, "but in the discomforting way of close families—at the end of the night they were never sad enough to see you go."

Heti discovered the real George Ticknor, a Harvard intellectual (1791-1871) known for his work on Spanish literature, several years ago when she stumbled across a book he published in 1863 called The Life of William Hickling Prescott. She was at The Green Room at the time, a rambling bar behind a theatre in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. "I remember opening up this book, and there was a spark. I thought, 'Close it up, take it home with you,'" she remembers. "So I stole it and put it on my desk. I didn't open it for a while. Eventually I did, though I never read it all the way through. I used it more as an ink well, or a paint pot that I would dip into. There's a tremendous power in the book, and I responded to it the way you might be inexplicably struck by a person."

What hit Heti so viscerally was what was happening between the lines in Ticknor's biography: the total lack of scholarly detachment, and what she describes as the author's "weird lustiness for the minutae of Prescott's work." But she wasn't interested in writing a historical novel and purposely learned little about the real-life Ticknor or Prescott, who was famous for his histories of Mexico and Peru. She also avoided reading up on 19th-century Boston society and mischievously slips modern cues into the story (Ticknor misses a streetcar; his partying neighbours keep him up at night) so the reader's glare remains on the man's mind, not his historical milieu.

"I don't consider myself a storyteller like some other writers," Heti explains. "I'm more interested in the essence of the story. In crystallizing something, compacting it, making it so full of energy that it's powerful... I keep pressing my hands together as I say this. It was important to me that Ticknor didn't talk to anyone, for instance, that you don't see him interacting. There's a way in which when we are alone, we are our idea of ourselves. [When] we materialize in society, we become other people's idea. I didn't want Ticknor to act because I didn't want him to be revealed to himself."

He is plainly revealed to us, though, and the result is an intimate portrayal of a man whose intrigues, insecurities and petty jealousies could exist anywhere, from 19th-century Boston to, say, 21st-century Toronto. It's tempting, in fact, to read the novel as an indictment of such a hyper-examined world—a place, perhaps, where someone who stands out from the crowd, who you can't keep your eyes off, is also easy to cut down.

"We think of that 19th-century Boston world as so codified—but our world is coded, too," Heti explains, choosing her words deliberately. "There are all sorts of reasons why certain people are excluded and others aren't. There are very delicate things that hold a social world together. I wouldn't say this is a portrait of my social world. But I definitely put my world into it."

Ticknor (Ottawa Citizen, 2001) by Melanie Little


Heti toys with expectations of what a novel should do

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Sheila Heti garnered universal acclaim—along with swarms of enchanted readers—with her debut book, The Middle Stories. That book, a slim and elegant collection of fables, was quirky, sexy, dark and spare. Heti's followup, the novel Ticknor, is equally quirky, dark, and spare; but it is so superficially different from its predecessor that it may well confound many of her fans, particularly at first dip. No mermaids in jars or sad little dumplings have we here; the novel takes place almost entirely in the mind of its eponymous Victorian bachelor, a miserably lonely man with a life the size of a pea. And yet, as with The Middle Stories, there is a mesmeric quality to Heti's prose, and we are quickly drawn into the story, even as it continually frustrates our entrenched expectations of what a novel should do.

Ticknor was inspired by a book that Heti happened to pick up in a coffee shop: The Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor, published in 1863. Intrigued by the author's voice, she decided, by all accounts on the spot, to spirit it into her next book. Heti has previously referred to her writing technique as akin to sampling in music; in a few pieces in The Middle Stories, she incorporated quotes from other writers' journals and from works of non-fiction, weaving them quietly into her tales and referring to the borrowings only very subtly, in notes at the end of the book. She continues the technique in Ticknor, revealing, again in an endnote: "Certain phrases have been borrowed from (Ticknor's) book, and from several other writers, including Havelock Ellis, Sofia Tolstoy, Florence Nightengale, Marie Stopes, and possibly several others." This note provides a small taste of Heti's considerable authorial charm, of her deadpan blend of modesty and self-assurance.

Heti's confidence allows her to take risks, to play, in ways that few of her contemporaries do. Far from feeling bound by the historical reality of either Prescott or Ticknor, for example, she simply uses The Life as a springboard for her own, wholly separate work. In both books, Ticknor and Prescott are friends and schoolmates in 19th-century Boston; in both, too, Prescott goes on to become a highly successful historian. That, though, is where the similarities end. The factual Ticknor was married, a published author (obviously), and a Harvard professor. Heti's Ticknor, by contrast, is a spectacular failure at even the simplest of life's tasks, and has published, to his great chagrin, no books. He has, instead, laboured for 10 years on an article about canals, a subject which he admits holds no interest for him. The one constant in this Ticknor's life is his obsession with Prescott—he might as well be writing his biography—yet in Heti's version, Ticknor's observations about his friend are coloured by envy, resentment and frustrated desire.

Psychologically rich material, to be sure, but Ticknor is as disrespectful of its own story as it is of history. Ticknor is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, slipping schizophrenically between the "I" and "you" modes, changing the very facts of his life constantly, even contradicting himself within the same sentences. The book's opening paragraph provides a good sampling of what we're in for: "There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop literary taste. I read what I found and it was for fun. You read mostly for idle pleasure. I did not read for fun, nor was I cultivating my mind. I cannot imagine cultivating anything as a young boy. It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries. No, the whole country lacked books then."

The real sleight of hand is that Heti crafts a compelling, even moving novel out of all this. Her Ticknor is both absurd and grand in his small but relentless failures and his self-torturing fantasies of a normal life. Most of the narrative takes place on a walk (or perhaps several separate walks) in which Ticknor is making his way to Prescott's house for a party, a party that he has been both longing for and dreading for weeks. He has had great difficulty bathing and dressing. He is late and alternates between fearing that his friend will be angered by this lapse and suspecting that everyone would be happier if he didn't show up at all. He spends many moments cowering in the Prescott's garden with an ever-more-rain-soaked pie. In short, he works himself into such accesses of self-torment that he makes Hamlet seem as prevaricating as a puppy with a bone.

Prescott, by contrast, is the quintessential golden man of Victorian industry. He has composed serious works of history that win him accolades "on both sides of the Atlantic." He is an ideal husband and contributes to charity. He toils virtuously in the face of a painful debility, a near-blindness caused by being clocked in the eye with a projectile bun while at boarding school (a classic "stranger than fiction" detail taken, uniquely, straight from The Life).

And yet, Heti's Prescott may not be as perfect as he appears. We are given tantalizing hints. Is Prescott's treatment of Ticknor shabbily condescending, even cruel? Or is Ticknor an eminently deserving pariah, an appalling narcissist who lusts after his friend's wife and who, at the funeral of Prescott's father, can think only of the fact no one is talking to him? This question is the book's tenacious mystery; I'll leave it to you to decide whether it is ever really resolved.

Ticknor is a book that defies easy interpretation and even classification. It's neither serious nor comic, neither "straight" nor parodic, neither historical nor contemporary. It is a succession of shrewdly observed moments that do, ultimately, cohere into an experience that is no less affecting for being mysterious. Heti has proved once again that no matter how congested our literary byways become, she can be counted on to beat a path entirely her own.