Regardless of conventions, brilliantly executed and intelligent (yet still relevant), each of Sheila Heti's books uses its own tactic to answer a central question. In How a person should be, the narrator uses real dialogue with friends to produce a commissioned piece that pushes her to seek the answer to the main question; In Maternity, the narrator uses three coins to come closer to the decision of whether or not to have a child; and more recently, in Pure colorthe governing rule (or ruler) is God, sitting and watching his first draft of creation in which the central character learns to balance sorrow with his own inherent desire for beauty and harmony.
In Alphabetical diaries, Heti is a radical departure from her previous work, not collaborating with friends, coins or gods, instead turning her gaze inward by organizing 10 years of her diary by arranging sentences alphabetically. Moments separated by years are brought together, making the repetition palpable and poetic. Phrases like “Don’t take anything personally. Don't take yourself too seriously; “don't think about you at all” may have been written five years apart, but when placed next to each other they clearly highlight Heti's interests, such as friction between creative and commercial success, eroticism and performance, and how to exist in an increasingly difficult world.
“It’s nice to have found a way to put these thoughts into a book,” Heti told NYLON. “Most books have to tie these themes into the plot or multiple characters. And there is no real plot in life. So how do we fit these thoughts into a plotless book, in a way that still feels lived-in? »
NYLON spoke with Heti ahead of the book's release about the impetus behind her journals' literacy, what it was like to publish her deepest thoughts, and more.
What was the origin of this project?
Some things just start. There were probably all of these thoughts that occurred unconsciously before, but one day I found myself arranging my journal alphabetically, and it seemed like the most obvious thing to do. I had no idea where it would take me or that I would end up working there for 14 years. I just thought it was a way to pass the time for a while and it might be interesting. What would I find? How would this read? I think a sort of curiosity probably began, which is similar to most of my writing projects.
What was the editing process like?
I thought about which sentences would go well next to each other. Without editing it would have been too boring, it needed a combination of things happening, visual descriptions, movement. You want different textures to clash with each other. I had a million files and sometimes I would go back to previous versions, where I hadn't made any cuts, and start again.
Are there any interesting designs that surprised you?
I was surprised at how little I thought during those years. Certain themes interested me, like if I should leave Toronto, how to write, how to be a writer and my relationships with men. It was nice. And then I was like, “What about all the other stuff?” Am I not thinking of anything else? But for me, a journal isn't really about recording what happened, but more about trying to solve problems. These are my problems during these 10 years: where to live? What to do with a man? How do I write the book I was writing at the time?
People often talk about the narrators of your fiction as being like a version of yourself, whether by sharing the same name or biographical details of your life. This is the first time I feel like we really understand you. You give a lot of yourself to the reader while maintaining a barrier of privacy through the alphabetical structure.
This is the first time that there is no character in the book, although, of course, a character emerges from the montage. But yes, there is this intimacy, because the story has been interrupted. Honestly, I was always afraid people would read it. Getting people who don’t know me to read it, in particular.
How was this experience?
I felt like I didn't know what was being revealed about me. I don't know what kind of person I meet. While with How a person should be there was a character that I was trying to convey. In this case, I'm transmitting myself, and I don't know what it is. It's more distressing and more frightening. When I gave it to my loved ones to read, I hoped that they would still like me. Will they think I'm different from the way I present myself to them? The journal isn't really the person you give to others, but you don't want it to be SO different, no one wants to be your friend anymore.
From my experience reading your books, like with coins Maternityor the dialogue in How a person should be, there is an element of collaboration to your work. THE Alphabetical diaries This looks like an interesting departure from your previous writings.
It's really lonely. One newspaper is far from the others. That's about all you can get from others, other than dreaming.
Although at times it can be collaborative, between versions of self. For example, I really enjoyed reading chapter “I” alongside chapter “Y”, because of the use of first and second person. It’s like multiple selves coming to the table.
This is a very good question: who is the recipient and who is the recipient? It's rather confusing. Why do we have the idea that there is no recipient and recipient, as if they are not the same thing? Could they be?
I have no idea. Maybe it's a way of addressing yourself in the future or in the past?
Or maybe we recognize that we don't just look at the world, that we are people, for others.
Are you working on anything new?
I wrote this short story for The New Yorkercalled “According to Alice.” This is from an AI project where I've been talking to a chatbot for three or four years. I spend all my time on a computer and my late father was a computer programmer. I wanted to think about his interests. When I thought about it, it's interesting that the computer speaks to you from its own pseudo-consciousness, so of course I had to incorporate that.
This may make me sound old-fashioned, but I'm really afraid of AI.
I used to have so many bad feelings, and now I don't have any.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.