An All-Star Interview: Sheila Heti in Conversation With Sloane Crosley

Sarah Harrison Smith on May 04, 2018

Sheila_Heti_by_Sylvia_Plachy.jpgSheila Heti's new novel, Motherhood, has everyone talking about her carefully, cleverly observed thoughts on whether or not to have a child. "I wanted to think," Heti says below, "through the question of motherhood from the point of view of my own personality and values, but also from the perspective of feeling the social pressure all women feel to become mothers; to think the dilemma through so thoroughly that I could move into my forties feeling I had dug my hand all the way to the bottom of this bag of confusion and received ideas and touched everything in it."

Here she talks to Sloane Crosley, author of the new essay collection, Look Alive Out There, one of our Best Books of the Month, in which Crosley considers the same question. It's a thrilling match of minds. We hope you'll enjoy hearing their thoughts on the art of writing, and yes, motherhood.

Sloane Crosley: The title of this novel seems both obvious and abstract in the sense that this is a novel about the existential elephant in the room (having a baby), but there’s an actual elephant on the cover. By which I mean: This is not a book about a woman who has a child or even a woman who is expecting a child. It’s about the looming. I know the longer I looked at the title, the more “motherhood” seemed less like a state of being and more cut from the same cloth as “brotherhood,” a kind of fraternal origination or club. Can you talk about what the title means to you?

Sheila Heti: I had not really wanted to call it Motherhood—but that was the first title I thought of. Over the years of working on the book, I continued to look for other titles. I feared it was too arrogant or preposterous to call a book Motherhood when it was about not being a mother. Various friends reassured me that it was a good title—and one friend said, “It’s like War and Peace. It’s so big!” After she said that, the title Motherhood sounded like War and Peace in that it sounded like a huge, monumental subject, that could even be the title of a book that wasn’t about raising children, but a book about being a woman, a person, what it means to have to think about motherhood, to be a daughter; a word that was like a threatening word, like “monsters”—something the narrator fears—a word that stands in front of every woman, as a temptation or a sadness or something to run away from.

I like the title now. But it took me a long time to accept that it had to be the title. I like titles that make sense on every page of the book, and Motherhood makes sense on every page of the book, because even the pages that are not about motherhood—still the narrator is, in the back of her mind, thinking about motherhood and her relationship to that word and activity and state of being, just as, when I was in my thirties, I could never locate a moment when some part of me wasn’t aware of this prospect somewhere in the vicinity of my consciousness.

As well, I think I wanted to define motherhood for myself. I am a little tired of depictions of motherhood in popular culture—how it’s about buying the right products, or appearing like “a perfect mother,” and I wanted the word to take on the heaviness I think it naturally has. I hope my book makes the word heavier.

Your name is often paraded out in all conversations about “autofiction.” Motherhood is not a direct example the way How Should a Person Be? is, and this is a bit meta, but how close do you, Sheila Heti, feel to the term? What associations do you have with it? What pitfalls? For example, as a reader asking you these questions, I am having an almost gender-level pronoun debate. The urge to refer to the character you’ve created as “you” and not “the narrator” is strong.

I understand why that term came into being: to label a number of writers, including myself, whose novels seemed to be very close to the lives of the authors, and the narrators very close to the personality of the authors. The word wasn’t around when I was writing How Should a Person Be?or at least, I had never encountered it. When I started hearing it, it sounded very academic to me, as opposed to artistic or natural. To me, the natural word is simply “novel.” The auto is not relevant. I think all books are drawn from the lives of the people who write them, and all narrators are drawn from aspects of their authors—it’s a sliding scale of resemblance. But for me, a book like Ticknor, which I wrote before How Should a Person Be? and is the story of a nineteenth-century Bostonian man, feels as much a portrait of my self and soul and life, even if no one else would be able to see it.

I think the problem I have with the word “autofiction” is that I’m interested less in the book that is made, than in the process that made the book. For me, the process that led me to use the names of all my friends in How Should a Person Be? (including my own name)—the thinking behind it, the decision to do this—was different from why other writers whose books are considered “autofiction” made their choice to have their narrators use their own name, or details pulled from their lives. So the category seems to me very superficial. I never use the term “autofiction”when I’m thinking or talking about books. I just say “fiction.”

You have a “further note” at the start of the novel in which you say that “all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.” So my question is a two-hander, one logistical and one philosophical. First, did you ever cheat and flip the coin again if you felt you were close to an ideal kicker for a passage or on an appealing train of thought? Second, the note itself follows a note about the nature of the coin-flipping and the origins within the I Ching. I wonder if the second note is partially for comedic effect or if there’s something larger going on with the nature of your fiction, a need to say “hey guys, this is the author speaking.”

No, I never cheated! I wrote about 40,000 words of the coin-flipping stuff, so if it seems like the ending is always perfect to those passages, it’s just because I had so much material to choose from. There were many, many pages of coin-flipping writing that were so incredibly rambling and didn’t lead to any revelation, and were utterly without interest to anyone but me—for instance, I remember once tossing coins to figure out whether to color my hair. All the coin-flipping writing was writing I did before I came up with the idea of a book dealing with the question of motherhood. It was just writing I was doing for myself. When I started putting together Motherhood, I realized a lot of the coin-tossing had to do with this question of whether or not to have a child, so I put it into the book. But originally it was just a way of occupying myself in the lull between finishing How Should a Person Be? and deciding what book I was going to write next. In retrospect, I see I was already writing this “next” book, but I didn’t know it then.

The note is just there for the practical reason that I do want people to know that the coin-flipping really happened. I think it’s more interesting to know that than to think I made up the yesses and nos. Also I think it’s funny.

What do you hope readers will get from this book? An abnormal question for an average novel but a pretty solid one for this one, I think. “Maybe don’t have a baby” seems like an acceptable answer. 

I’m not sure. Maybe I do hope that people who don’t know whether they want a child will be closer to an answer by the end. Maybe I want women to know that it’s a fair question to ask yourself for years on end—that they’re not alone in asking this question (“do I want a child?”). I also think I’d like to live in a world where women don’t feel as much pressure to have children; where women can feel normal even if they don’t want a child; and a world in which, when a person looks at a woman without a child, they realize that what led her to this place might be far more complicated and personal and intimate and deep and interesting than whatever they project on her. So many people think that women without children are “selfish,” and I wanted to show the interior of a woman who is not selfish, and who takes the question very seriously. I wanted everyone to take it a bit more seriously. We are past the point in human history where it makes sense for everyone to have babies. I wanted to say that it’s worth thinking through. I wanted also to say that it’s impossible to think through.

I also hoped that this book could create a conversation which is open and honest about the struggles in both deciding to have a child and not to have one. I want mothers and non-mothers to have more empathy for each other, and I think one way to do that is to show a character who could go either way—for almost any of us could go either way. Our society tends, however, to represent non-mothers and mothers as starkly different creatures, when in fact we are quite similar, and it’s often only a series of accidents that led us to one life or the other.

This might dovetail with the previous question, but what drove you to write about motherhood in fictional form? A reflection on the societal pressures and trappings of having a baby or your own personal internal debates? I suspect it’s both, but I would like to know what kept you going. Writing a novel is no quick or easy business, especially one that is so internal yet entertaining.

Yes, it’s both. I suppose there are multiple things that kept me going. One was that I hoped that the longer I worked on the book, the closer I would be to knowing whether or not I wanted a child. I also thought that maybe I really could, by writing, solve deep problems in my mother’s life, and maybe make my life worthwhile not only in itself, but as an extension of the life of my mother and grandmother—to validate their lives in some way, by writing this book, and to make myself worthy of being their child and grandchild.

I wanted to think through the question of motherhood from the point of view of my own personality and values, but also from the perspective of feeling the social pressure all women feel to become mothers; to think the dilemma through so thoroughly that I could move into my forties feeling I had dug my hand all the way to the bottom of this bag of confusion and received ideas and touched everything in it; so I could move into my future without the chaotic thoughts around motherhood that were plaguing me, wordlessly.

Also, I kept writing because my publisher had already paid me for the book! But most important, I finished writing it because I would have felt awful to have left it undone. If you don’t finish a book, it haunts you forever as a failure.

Later in the book, the narrator writes: “I am sitting here, writing, in order to discover the simple secret of my existence -- what sort of creature I am.” Is this your sentiment as well? It very much reminds me of how Joan Didion says she writes in order to discover what she thinks, and I’ve always thought, sure, that may be the cue-ball break for any piece of writing, but by the time I see it, it’s art, not musing. Is there a difference to you?

Writing books, for me, is a way of making an object that I hope is real and beautiful and lasting. I don’t write to discover what I think. I write to create a beautiful form, a strong form—that holds together, has a shape, and that I can give to other people. I write to put something into the world that I hope will tilt the world slightly—make it more the sort of place I want to live in.

Many people argue that art has no purpose—and this is what makes it special and different from everything else humans do. But I feel the opposite: I think art has every purpose—way more purpose than most human activities. A world without art or literature is like a bone without marrow. I write and read to feel like I’m living in a way that is not completely mundane, and to touch those objects which transform the mundane—which for me is books and literature.

As someone who has also entered into this debate, though through narrative nonfiction and in a less sustained form, I have found it interesting that after all my analysis and tackling of the moral choice, people still assume that the end result is “this woman would make a good mother.” That this is my secret message-in-bottle. And maybe that’s true, but it’s also a testament to how desperately our society needs women to be mothers. I wonder if that’s how people will think of your narrator and, by extension, you, after reading this book. So even after you’ve submitted about three hundred pages to the world on your deep questioning of the subject, it’s no match for our ingrained assumptions about women. This is more of a musing than a direct question. I guess I learned from the best.

It’s going to be a long time, if ever, before people don’t think that secretly every woman wants to be a mother, or else that every woman wouldn’t be happier if she had children. It’s hard for us to accept that we are more than our biology, much more, and that—even though we are all alike—we are also all different from each other, in important and fundamental ways. I think it’s very hard for women to be seen as individuals, before they are seen as “women,” and I think that’s probably why both of us write: to insist on the individual. Your work is intimately about your thoughts and your perception of things, but I imagine that you write not only make people see you as someone with interesting thoughts in her head but to slow down a bit and realize that all women have interesting thoughts—their own thoughts. Pushing back on the idea that women are destined to think and reason along certain lines, and toward certain ends, still seems like necessary work.

But your observation that people want to take your writing about motherhood and conclude “this woman would make a good mother” is depressing—and reminds me of something a woman said to me recently, over email. She’s in her fifties and chose not to have kids, and I love what she wrote: “Even the decision not to have a child is an act of maternal power. I feel like I made an executive decision not to bring my children here, and that they’re better off wherever else they may be.”

I love statements like this, which give us a different way of thinking about the world—a more expansive, exciting, and beautiful way. I’m deeply interested in the stories we invent for ourselves—so that we may live more freely.

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(Sheila Heti: Photo by Sylvia Plachy) 

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