Making Deliberate Choices: A Conversation with Sheila Heti
“If every woman waited until she was ready to have kids, nobody would have kids.” A mother of four told me this, and I, young and pregnant, took her word for it. Not long after, women started to joke with me about childbirth: “All those happy hormones, to give us amnesia—if we remembered any of it, we would never do it again!”
Becoming a mother, it seems, is such a stupid, difficult thing to do that one would only enter it through sheer ignorance. Sheila Heti, Canadian author of four books of fiction, seems unable to accept ignorance as a reason for anything. In her new novel, Motherhood, she picks up the question of whether to become a mother and holds it to the light. Her story is not about a narrator who feels herself to be unready, but about one who finds herself unwilling, both to have a child and to forget that she, as a woman, is expected to.
Heti’s rise as a literary voice of our time probably seems relatively sudden to Americans, introduced to her through How Should a Person Be?, which was published by Henry Holt in 2012. But Canada liked her before she was cool. Her collection of short stories, The Middle Stories, came out in 2001, when she was twenty-four. It was a small, strange book that made a good gift to your weird friend. She created Trampoline Hall, a lecture series in a bar, where you pay a few bucks to watch somebody stutter over a subject on which they are not an expert. Her work was offbeat and smart and captured the élan of Toronto’s mid-aughts. The feeling that it was a city full of strange people, and that, if only somebody could bottle it, this strangeness could be our most significant cultural export.
Not long ago, during a touring respite in Toronto, Heti and I talked by phone. I found myself asking questions that fell flat, relying as they did on inferred meanings that had been, I realized with a sinking heart, only my own projections. She questioned my questions; she said things and took them back—in short, she was a total fucking delight. We talked for an hour, about the process of writing books, the need for limitations, and how much she dislikes being told that she birthed a book.
The Rumpus: How has the tour gone so far?
Sheila Heti: It’s been interesting, ups and downs. Being on tour is weird. [Laughs] Just to be going to a different city every night and then answering what end up being really difficult or repetitive questions, in some cases. I’ve enjoyed it, I’m just happy to be home. It’s not my favorite thing to do, to tour around
Rumpus: You seemed very present onstage. I think it must be very draining.
Heti: Yeah, I was playing Bejeweled on my phone every second I wasn’t on stage.
Rumpus: When did you first realize you wanted to write Motherhood?
Heti: I was in England because How Should A Person Be? had just come out there. It was the spring of 2013. I remember having a conversation with my then-editor, and we both got excited about this idea. I thought, Oh, I’ve gotta rush home, and after London I did rush home and I wrote this book proposal and sold it to her. I’d never written a proposal for a book before. It just came out and I felt like I had so much to say, so much material. In the proposal, there were long passages of interviews with other people, but there was also autobiographical writing. There wasn’t any fiction in it at the time. Several years in, I realized, Oh, actually I’m writing a novel.
Rumpus: Was that one moment or was it sort of—
Heti: It was a moment. I was on the beach in Los Angeles with a friend of mine. I was talking to her about the book and she said, “You’re writing a novel!” And I was like, Oh, right, I’m writing a novel, and there was this incredible feeling of freedom and relief. Like, Oh, of course, it was there all along. I feel like I sort of tricked myself. I had to think of it as nonfiction in order to gather the material in the way I needed to gather it, and then once I had the material I could say, Okay, it’s actually a novel and I am free to transform all that I gathered.
Rumpus: People seem really interested in what parts are fiction and what parts are not…
Heti: Yeah, people are super nosy. [Laughs] What difference would it make to anyone which happened and which did not? I think the question of what is ‘real’ is just something for people to hold onto. It’s an easy question. But it doesn’t enlighten you about the book in any way.
Rumpus: In your conversation with Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker on Commonplace, you said people always want to see women’s writing as memoir.
Heti: There’s a way in which women aren’t accorded imagination the same way men are accorded imagination. Or they aren’t accorded the intelligence of being able to invent and shape and craft and create from a distance. The number of reviews that are people trying to explain my book to me! As though I didn’t know what I made, or read it a hundred times myself, or make it very deliberately over many years. It’s this sense that women’s writing is an effusion that seeps from the body like breastmilk or something. I guess you’re not given the respect of being a craftsperson who knows what they’re doing, who’s making deliberate choices. Instead, writing is seen as just a narcissistic, egoistic activity if you’re a woman. I find it very frustrating.
Rumpus: It’s interesting because when a woman makes a public sexual assault allegation, the immediate response from many people is, “Oh, she’s making it up, she concocted this, she crafted this narrative.” So we can craft narratives and be scheming sometimes, but only in bad times.
Rumpus: There’s an overused plot device where the woman, sometimes a peripheral character, becomes pregnant and then things have to change. It’s a really easy way of throwing a wrench into a situation when you’re stuck as a writer. But this is the first novel I’ve ever read where the question of whether or not to become pregnant is the central device. It’s such an important question, and women talk about this all the time. I just don’t understand why this hasn’t been in our literature since the beginning of the women’s movement.
Heti: I don’t know either. I don’t have an answer for that.
Rumpus: I guess we just don’t consider women’s experience or agency with regard to having children.
Heti: That might be it. But why don’t more women write about it?
Rumpus: I think that we’re a little bit scared of maternal ambivalence—okay, we’re a lot scared of maternal ambivalence. The fact that a woman might question whether or not to have a child is hinting at maternal ambivalence, that maybe your mom didn’t really want to be a mom; maybe she regretted it. That makes it hard to write about.
Heti: Perhaps there’s something existentially threatening about imagining your mother choosing against having you. You just completely wouldn’t exist; it’s almost mind-boggling.
Rumpus: Do you think these are ideas you’ll return to again?
Heti: I don’t expect the next books I write will be like these two. It’s sort of surprising to me that Motherhood and How Should A Person Be? have so many similarities, formally, because I’ve never done that before. It almost feels like an accident that that happened. It’s hard to imagine that I will ever do it again.
Rumpus: But people will be expecting that for sure, right?
Heti: It’s really good for your career to write two books that are like each other, I’ve discovered. People are like, Oh, now we know what she’s doing. Before, I would always have frustration from editors at the publishing houses being like, “But this is not like the previous book and we’re gonna have to build a whole new audience for you and the people who liked that book aren’t gonna like this book,” and so I’m sure this is very nice for them.
Rumpus: How did you respond when they said that?
Heti: I just shrug. It’s not my problem.
Rumpus: You’re supposed to just find one thing and do it over and over again.
Heti: You can look at it as style, like Hemingway—not that he’s one of my favorite writers, but he has a style and you know what you’re getting into when you open one of his books. I don’t pooh-pooh it or anything like that; it just hasn’t happened.
Rumpus: Do you not like Hemingway?
Heti: I love A Moveable Feast. That’s a really wonderful book. Um, he’s not my go-to. I don’t, like, return to him. I read him and I’m glad I read him and he’s in my body, but I don’t need to reread him particularly. He’s not my hero or anything—I don’t go around recommending him, like, “Read Hemingway.”
Rumpus: In Motherhood, you use a method of coin flipping to answer questions you present. I’m interested in the idea of making decisions in such a controlled but random way. And I think you play with interesting limitations in your work. In Women in Clothes you talk about how you’re going to write down a list of everything that’s in your closet and go home and throw out everything that isn’t on that list. What appeals to you about these methods?
Heti: They’re just games. A game has rules, and if you don’t have rules, you’re not playing a game—you’re doing something else. When you’re writing, there’s always rules, whether you state them or not, even if it’s just an intuitive feeling about what you don’t want to include and what you do want to include. You can’t do anything or make anything if you don’t limit your freedom in certain ways. Even just the decision to be a writer is a limitation. When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor and a director and a writer and a photographer and, at a certain point, I was like, I think I just have to pick one, and just sublimate all the others into this one. Writing was the one that I was best at, so I picked writing. At first it felt like a real loss, not to be doing all these other things. But then you realize it’s not a loss, it’s an enrichment of the thing you did choose. And that principle applies in every area of life, and I think it applies in writing, too. If you restrict yourself in certain ways it ends up making a richer text somehow. It’s kind of a paradox and invisible to some.
When I published How Should a Person Be?, certain people misunderstood it and sent me their diary, you know?
Heti: And they’re like, “I do this.” And I was like, That is the opposite of what I’ve done! The lack of limitation in a diary makes it completely uninteresting to read. It’s not fun to read somebody else’s diary because there is no form.
Rumpus: You know, I was listening to Commonplace when I heard you were writing this book, and my first reaction was anger.
Heti: About what?
Rumpus: I felt immediately defensive. Mothers get a lot of flack, I guess. We’re hypervisible in society in many ways, and with better understanding of early childhood development there’s also been a cutback in social services, so the responsibility for forming a human being in all ways falls on the mother now. I think I’m just touchy; I don’t want to be judged. I was also jealous because I want to write books about motherhood but I have these pesky children! How did your mom-friends respond to the idea that you were writing a book about motherhood?
Heti: They were encouraging. I wasn’t writing a book about motherhood. I mean, it’s called Motherhood, but it’s not about motherhood. It’s more about not wanting to be a mother, and maybe it’s about being mothered by one’s own mother, but it’s not actually about the experience of mothering. I’m not writing about a territory that I’m not living. I tried, at one point, to write from the vantage of a mother and I was like, This is terrible, this is not—this is not what I should be writing.
Rumpus: What was terrible about it?
Heti: It was just boring. I don’t know, the writing wasn’t good. When I read it over again, I was like, This is not good, this is not interesting, this is not right, this is not… It just wasn’t what I should have been writing. But I never said to my friends, “I’m writing a book about motherhood.” It’s about trying to find freedom as a woman much more than it’s about motherhood. And it’s really about making any choices at all, and about having to live one life and not another, and the anxiety of that. I don’t think anybody was upset about it.
Rumpus: I don’t know if you ever saw this documentary, it’s called Hitler’s Children. It’s by Chanoch Zeevi and it’s about the descendants of Nazi war criminals. There’s a lovely, soft-spoken woman, living in the desert. Her name is Bettina Goering and she is the niece of Goering, the war criminal. And both she and her brother had themselves sterilized so that they would not continue that bloodline.
Heti: That’s incredible! That’s so responsible. I wonder if that’s the kind of thing that you can inherit—a lack of empathy, or a propensity for murder…
Rumpus: And the fact that there are so many Jewish bloodlines that are not here, that we don’t even know, because they were wiped out. So it made sense to me that his bloodline should not be here, at the very least. In your book, the narrator talks about her grandparents having survived the Hungarian Holocaust. This is also your family history. Did these questions play out in your mind when you were writing the book?
Heti: That’s in large part what the book is about. What do you do with that lineage? And if you’re somebody who’s the descendant of Holocaust survivors, you’re aware of the fragility of existence, how possible it would be not to exist. I think a lot of people who grew up as I did have that feeling of responsibility—like you’re on this earth and you have to do something with it because you were barely here and it has to have been worth something that they lived. You can’t just sit around smoking pot if your grandparents returned from a concentration camp. You can’t take it for granted—life. It’s almost like when people get a terminal illness and then they say that they have a newfound respect for life. If you were told stories about this part of your family history as a child, you just grow up with that sense of the rare value of life. The book is in some ways an expression of that: What am I going to do with my life? I can’t just fuck around and not choose the most meaningful thing. Not to say that not-having children is the most meaningful thing, but in the case of this one individual it turns out to be the more meaningful thing. Or to write the book rather than not write the book.
Rumpus: The Western world is fixated on maternal identity as defined biologically, but we use birth and parenting metaphors for a lot of creative work. Do you see any of your work as mothering?
Heti: No. I think art does many things for people, but I wouldn’t say it mothers them. I don’t know if I like the dilution of that word into creative acts. Art takes care of people but it doesn’t take care of people the way a mother does. Art also should have the permission to be bad for you. I think mothers should have that permission too, but it’s a different kind of bad for you.
Rumpus: It’s kind of essentializing, too.
Heti: What it suggests is that your body did it on its own. Many of my friends who have experienced pregnancy are like, Oh, my body is doing this but I’m not doing it. I think it’s the opposite with a work of art. It’s hard. You have to create it. Whereas the child, the embryo, creates itself.
Rumpus: And I think art, good art, can be destabilizing… it can make you question your whole world. And that’s not really the task of a mother, I don’t think.
Author photograph © Sylvia Plachy. Motherhood book covers designed by Leanne Shapton.