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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.