I am early to meet Sheila Heti on Dundas West in Toronto and, as I pass Trinity Bellwoods Park, I see a young woman with a stroller. It brings to mind a moment in Motherhood, Heti’s illuminating and bracingly sincere third novel, published this week. The narrator, agonizing over the decision of whether to have kids, unable to wrap her head around the endlessness of the commitment, sees a mom pushing her small offspring on the sidewalk and wants to scream: “But there are so many years still to go!”
It’s an almost too-perfect prelude to my interview with Heti. Then the mom and child also bring to mind an article in Vulture that I read as preparation: a profile that Heti wrote in 2015 on Raffi, the beloved Canadian children’s musician. While interviewing him, she became preoccupied with the question of what happened to his little devotees when they grew up. Could childhood worship turn into a more regular kind of rock-star idolatry? Did Raffi ever sleep with his grown-up fans?
Heti’s curiosity might appear somewhere between off-colour and hilarious; regardless, it epitomizes her instincts as a writer, both her stubborn probing of psychology and her disregard of (or attraction to) taboo. The Toronto-based author of seven very different books has pushed against conventions of what a contemporary novel can look like and raised questions about fiction and truth and what good art should do.
She writes into the overlap between the obvious, the subconscious and the abject, whether it be through an exploration of art, the self and celebrity culture, as it was in her 2010 genre-bending novel How Should a Person Be? or when imagining Raffi planting an inchoate yearning in his young listeners’ hearts. In Vulture she reflects, “Yes, Sheila, you are a pervert.”
I wonder if perversion is the risk of sincere intellectual persistence. In Motherhood, Heti’s intellectual persistence is able to think through ideas about women and child-bearing that have been unbelievably – and exasperatingly – under-thought. Like her earlier work, the novel’s content seems to demand the invention of its own form, but this time she’s writing directly into polemical terrain: the question of why a woman’s decision to have children feels tied to her perceived value as a human being.
When she arrives at the bar I’ve chosen, she seems both nervous and excited about Motherhood’s publication. She tells me that her friend, the twice Giller-nominated novelist Rachel Cusk, has given some strict advice about whatever press the novel generates. “She said don’t read anything,” Heti relays wryly. Readers – female readers in particular – responded viciously to Cusk’s 2001 book A Life’s Work, which offered a frank and uncoloured reflection on the challenges of early motherhood. Heti plans to heed her friend’s suggestion.
Cusk and Heti are associated with the same literary school of thinly veiled autobiography, which can make the distinction between author and narrator a bit blurry. But Heti feels more distance from her narrators than you might expect. “With How Should a Person Be? it was so clear to me that it wasn’t me. And with this book, I feel a little more confused about it myself. I know that it’s not me in the sense of how memoir would be me … it’s kind of like what would have been in the background of my mind brought to the foreground, other things from the foreground pushed away. So it is a construction. But the thoughts are more or less mine.”
For her last few books, she started writing – not from any desire to be confessional – thinking she was going to solve a problem for herself. The idea came after finishing her first novel, Ticknor, which depicts the jealous friendship between a 19th-century writer and his biographer in hypnotic prose. (James Wood called the writing “velvety” in The New Yorker).
“I realized I could use this book for the rest of my life as a warning against slipping into a state of envy, what happens to you when you become envious. I thought: if my books can help me for the rest of my life, why not use that as my intention.”
When she started working on Motherhood in 2010, she didn’t really know what she was writing. She thought the project might be a kind of oral history composed of interviews with different people: mothers, non-mothers, men. But then she wrote Women In Clothes, a 2014 book that was essentially just that, a compilation of other voices. When she returned to Motherhood, she wanted to pare it down to a single point of view and have that point of view grapple with the decision over whether or not to have a child over a long period of time. And not from any comfortable position of retrospect, but with the urgency and confusion of a “series of nows.”
“I wanted to give a sense of how exhausting this question can be and how, in some ways, it just doesn’t end. I mean, you can ask the same question for years and years and years and it’s still the same question. There’s something kind of crazy about that … I wanted to give a sense that it’s endless and maddening,” she says.
I tell Heti that halfway through reading Motherhood I texted a good friend in a rush of excitement to say that I thought I was reading the feminist book of our generation. Heti smiles a little self-consciously and agrees with my suggestion that Motherhood calls to mind Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in the way it blasts open biological and social assumptions that circumscribe a women’s life (though neither of us have read the 1949 book since university).
Although, she continues, “I don’t think Motherhood is a map for women. I would never say that it’s a template for every woman in response to her biology … This was really not a work of philosophy in that sense. And Simone de Beauvoir is a philosopher, she’s writing about all women. That’s so different from writing a novel, which is based on my own observation. I don’t think that I have a thesis.”
“I’ve written about women’s lives,” she continues. “And I just want to write about them from being a woman. I don’t need feminism on top of that when I’m writing. My feminism is just part of my being – a part of my understanding of the world. The book is about, in lots of ways, that a woman shouldn’t have to be a mother in order to be a full human being. Obviously, that’s a feminist position, if anything, but I don’t want to worry whether it’s acceptable to other feminists.”
Heti explains that she’s wary of books that put their politics first. She thinks it’s crucial not to start with a mandate – ”Because you end up lying. You can be a feminist in life, but when you sit down to write a novel. …” She cuts herself off. “I want the book to be beyond my politics, not a reflection of them,” she says definitively.
As we’re wrapping up, Heti wants to talk more about the aesthetics of her writing, which she describes, partly, as a pursuit of truth. “At the basis, I’m trying to tell the truth so that other people don’t suffer from misrepresentations of what people’s lives are like,” she explains. With Motherhood, she also wanted to create something beautiful, both at the sentence level and in a holistic way, too. “To me, something that’s beautiful in terms of a book is something that lives inside the reader both as a discrete and complete thing, but also something that seeps out into their life and thoughts.”
In the first two pages of Motherhood, the narrator chides herself for being unable to put together a comprehensive world view and decides her only hope is to “transform the grey and muddy landscape of my mind into a solid and concrete thing, utterly apart from me, indeed not me at all.” It’s an opening that shows how good Heti is at thinking on the page, her ability to playfully volley and reiterate an idea, the glassy clarity of her prose. Now I can see the phrase as a reflection of Heti’s own thoughts on literary beauty – an object that seems both deeply personal and then somehow separate from, and beyond, the self.
A few days later, Heti and I speak on the phone. She’s been thinking carefully about our conversation and wants to make sure she hasn’t underplayed feminism’s role in Motherhood, which she says is “almost too big to see.”
“The book is so fundamentally feminist in the sense that it says you can even ask this question [about motherhood] … It’s so basic to the premise of the book, which is that a woman has the right to decide her own life for herself. That a woman is as much her intellect as she is her biology.”