Sheila Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, was among the first dozen books published by McSweeney’s. Stuck to each copy’s cover was a square snapshot that had been hand-defaced (in Sharpie) by Heti and her friends. The book’s humor seemed to reside in a place—a distant but familiar land, a dirty and beautiful kingdom I’d like to call Middle Earth, or maybe Middle Toronto—filled with anger, sadness, euphoria, bitterness, defiance, arousal, and unhappiness. In other words, a place full of intense feeling. The stories often begin with a superficial resemblance to a fable or a fairy tale, but that idyll is immediately perverted by sex, drugs, and modernity. These are fables without morals, but that sounds gimmicky, and the stories aren’t gimmicks. They’re too fierce for gimmickry.
Long out of print, McSweeney’s has just released a lovely new paperback edition of The Middle Stories with a perfect (and undefaced) cover illustration by Tamara Shopsin. It now features nine stories that were previously available only to Canadian citizens. I emailed a handful of questions about the book to Heti, who now works as the interviews editor of the Believer magazine.
— Andrew Leland, co-editor of the Believer
McSweeney’s: How have you changed as a writer since this book was first published?
Sheila Heti: I think I’ve changed a lot. Back then, there was one thing I could barely do, and now it feels like there are many things I can do. I could only express myself through one channel, but now I can pick a channel and express myself through it; I can be me in many forms.
McSweeney’s: How did you find this form?
Heti: I worked very hard to write as close to my sentence-to-sentence instincts as possible, trusting myself, surprising myself, never boring myself. If I got bored with a scene, I instantly switched to a new scene. I wrote them incredibly quickly—probably no story took more than fifteen minutes to write—and I would write five or six or seven or eight whenever I sat down to write. So I wrote hundreds and hundreds of them. I was deliberately after a style that was simple and natural.
McSweeney’s: Why are they called The Middle Stories?
Heti: It just sounded right. I was searching around for a title for months and when I came up with The Middle Stories, I knew it was the right one. But it didn’t mean anything in particular; it was just able to hold them all.
McSweeney’s: Are these stories experimental? What experiment are you performing?
Heti: I wanted to make myself into a machine that wrote stories. I didn’t edit any of them, cause I didn’t know how to edit; they had to come out right the first time. That’s why I had to write so many.
McSweeney’s: Several characters in the book are described as “ugly.” What makes a person ugly?
Heti: Meanness. Feeling bored at life. Not caring about all the beauty in the world and never noticing it. Probably people who exude beauty perceive it.
McSweeney’s: The stories seem to begin with a feeling rather than with an image. Do you write from a feeling? What feeling inspires a story?
Heti: The feeling of wanting to write. Which feels like being full and empty at the same time and having motion in one.
McSweeney’s: How does writing change the feeling that inspires the story?
Heti: Well, at a certain point you’re exhausted and no longer feel like writing. Or you think you should probably go to sleep.
McSweeney’s: What did you read when you were a child?
Heti: What all kids read: Dr. Seuss, Babar, Madeleine… My dad made up stories for me every night.
McSweeney’s: Is there anything particularly Canadian about this book? How is Canadian literature different from American literature?
Heti: That’s a big question. I don’t know enough to say. I can’t tell if this book is Canadian. Do you think it is? All the Canadian literature I read as a kid was about people falling through the ice or about people dying in the snow. My book doesn’t have much snow in it.
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