SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: SHEILA HETI
Sheila Heti is the author of the short-story collection The Middle Stories and the novels Ticknor and How Should a Person Be? which was named one of the best books of 2012 by the New York Times, Salon, The New Republic, The New York Observer, and The New Yorker. The Chairs are Where the People Go, co-written with Misha Glouberman, was named one of the best books of 2011. With Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, she co-edited the book Women in Clothes, which was a New York Times bestseller. She is also the author of the children’s book We Need a Horse and the play All Our Happy Days are Stupid. Heti is the interviews editor at The Believer.
Sheila Heti! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
Yes, I do it often. I like publishing with people I like—or people I imagine I would like, from the letter they wrote me. I wish I could publish more, but it often takes so much time to see something into print (even if there’s no money involved) and I don’t have a lot of things I’ve written that I think are worth putting into the world. But this question is about money. So yeah, I do it. I don’t feel bad about it because I don’t expect every venue has money, and because I don’t think I’m owed money for my writing, unless someone has promised it to me in advance.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
It has for the last few years. This is the life I've always wanted, ever since I used to pretend to be sick as a child so I could stay home from school and just be alone and make things and think.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
I’m not sure I write more now that I don’t have a day job. I tend to work on a lot of things at once, and everything takes so much time, and I write more in spurts than at a daily pace. I always seem to have time to write when I feel like writing, when I’m really inside it. Most of the day I go around feeling near tears because I know I am wasting my time when I could be writing, or at least reading. Then I work well and I no longer feel near tears. Then I stop writing and I feel near tears and wonder why.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
I used to have the idea that one should never revise, under any circumstances—that the first draft had the energy of the moment, and that this was the most important thing. I have almost no allegiance to that idea anymore. I wish I did. It was a very powerful feeling—that something that came out of me was perfect because the moment of writing it was perfect. I haven’t been so happy with anything I’ve written in the past few years. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not taking enough time with things? Or because my expectations for my writing are greater and my abilities haven’t caught up yet? Or because I’ve taken the wrong path as a human? Or because I now have a cell phone? Maybe it’s because I haven’t finished a new book yet, and it’s only a book that can be emotionally satisfying. Smaller forms can’t truly be satisfying, because I only really love books.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
It’s like making spaghetti. You want to stop ten minutes before it turns to mush.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I don’t know. Probably it’s like anything in life: half will, half fate.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
Lolita. I read it when I was twelve. I think I thought I was the audience for it because there was a young girl on the cover. I remember being really jealous of Lolita. Why wasn't an old man attracted to me?