Q: You say your drawings don’t often come out the way you intended?
Heti: That’s true. I love to draw, but I do not often draw looking at the page. I like it to be a surprise, what the outcome is, and I like to see if I can intuit where a line — like the line of the mouth or the
chin — is supposed to go. The same thing with my stories. When I was writing the stories that ended up in The Middle Stories I often would write faster than I could keep up in my mind, so that I could not see more than one or two sentences ahead.
Q: How did you fall into it?
Heti: Because at first I was writing plays. I didn’t know what to do with myself so I decided to apply to the National Theatre School in Montreal. I felt like it would be enjoyable to put together an application. There was a bar near the school where one could buy pot with one’s bank card. That’s Montreal. In any case, it was a fine year until they refused to put on my play, an adaptation of Faust, which I had been working on all year with a fourth-year director. And we had a workshop production, and were about to go into rehearsals, and the actors had been hired and everything and our teachers came, and they just hated it. They hated it so much. I remember sitting there with the director and I just had chills all over me, I thought it was so fantastic. It was shut down. After that happened I left the school and soon after I started writing stories.
Q: What do you talk about?
Heti: I haven’t been having very good conversations lately. Sometimes you forget how to have them. I was much better at them when I had a job. That keeps you in practise. Lately the only people I’ve been talking to, besides my family, are Misha and Carl, and often it is only about organizing the tour. And I forget what other people say to each other, what I have said to people. I forget how one gets into an intimate conversation. I asked a friend at a party the other night, “Are you pleased?” “Pleased about what?” he answered. I thought it would get us into an intimate conversation, but it didn’t. We ended up talking about the skyline in Singapore.
Q: Do you see a difference between the social roles of Canadian and American writers?
Heti: I don’t know what it’s like to be an American writer, but to be a writer in Canada right now — I can’t think of anything I’d like more. There seems to be no sense of boundaries, either in what can be written, or in terms of what kind of readership a person can have, here and abroad. And so the atmosphere is very festive. People go out together a lot. There’s a sense of prosperity, no end to the party. And it’s not so terribly huge a group, so you get the language poets going to readings with the lyrical poets and that is good for the literature; that people aren’t cloistered away in their little insular groups. I think it must be a bit confusing to be an American writer because of the wealthy entertainment industry, and the jacked-up buzz of film and television and magazines, so that I wonder if it doesn’t sometimes become dismaying for a writer to witness their books becoming part of the gross daily output; that there perhaps isn’t a different place in the culture for literature. Perhaps some people like that. But I like how it feels in Canada, where our literature has a special place because it’s one of the only things we feel nationalistic about, and it’s not equated with television, it’s not part of the same industry at all.
Q: Are you interested in the other arts at all? In painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance?
Heti: Painting very much. I dislike all forms of journalism and having to do any kind of writing except fiction and plays and writing about art. Writing about art is no different from thinking about art, whereas writing essays, writing journalism, is much more about laying something out for someone, which strikes me as very tedious. I learn more from artists, and I get more inspired looking at art, than from books and reading. Reading great books doesn’t inspire me. It is its own thing. It feels disconnected from writing. Whereas how a painter might approach a subject always gives me lots of ideas for how I might write.
Q: What is the greatest essential of a story?
Heti: Every good story names something. In the way that other languages have words for feelings or experiences for which we don’t have equivalent words, a story should be like that word in another language for a feeling or an experience we don’t yet have the name for.
Q: So you don’t have a reader in mind when you sit down and compose?
Heti: If ever a reader comes into my head I feel deflated and that is when I lose track. Sometimes I can get back on, but sometimes I just put an end to the story. Thinking of a reader is the equivalent, for me, of imagining someone picking it apart. That’s not helpful, but it is more difficult now than it used to be to shut such thoughts out. I imagine I’m going to have to find a way around this problem, the problem of the reader cropping up. I’m not going to be very successful, I don’t think, at forcing myself not to think it. So I had better find of way of making it a good thing, when a reader comes into my mind. But I never picture a rapt reader, just one wrinkling his nose.
Q: You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?
Q: Back to the critics again?
Heti: I used to think that I would read reviews and get all sorts of insights into my work, but that only happens if the critic is confused, and is asking questions, like in one review a man wrote: “When the plumber discovers that a plague is causing the princess to `shrivel away,’ he immediately suspects a frog who had lectured him the previous day on how to win the affection of the princess. But why does he finger his adviser?” Perhaps it is juvenile but my boyfriend and I laughed about that for hours. When a critic seems to know what’s going on, or thinks he knows what’s going on, there’s little use in it for me. Also, I think there’s a difference between being a critic and a reviewer, and most of what we have here are reviewers, and often it is other writers, and that gets a little complicated and is also rarely interesting. I always try my best not to write book reviews because I think it is suffocating for a writer to have to think about books in that way. Sometimes I need the money, but usually, thankfully, there are other things I can do besides review books.
Q: Are you afraid you’re going to die on your road trip?
Heti: Only a bit.