Giller Prize 2018 Special Series: The Chat with Sheila Heti

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We kick off our annual Scotiabank Giller Prize edition of The Chat in conversation with Sheila Heti, author of the novel Motherhood.

The Giller jury states:

“A personal story, a feminist debate, a philosophical reflection on time, genealogy and Art – these are just some of the narrative strands that Sheila Heti weaves into Motherhood, a complex and defiant exploration of contemporary womanhood. As her narrator interrogates the spaces between motherhood and childlessness, other paths, other choices, emerge, including the possibilities of fiction itself. In her playful but precise prose, Heti turns interiority into an expansive landscape with life-altering implications for her narrator and anyone with an interest in the paradoxes of choice and the randomness of free will.”

Sheila Heti is the author of seven books, including the novel How Should a Person Be? which was named a New York Times Notable Book; the story collection The Middle Stories; and the novel Ticknor. Her books have been translated into twelve languages, and her writing has been featured in various publications, including the New York Times, London Review of Books, the New Yorker, n+ 1, McSweeney’s, Harper’s, and the Believer. She lives in Toronto.

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THE CHAT WITH SHEILA HETI

Trevor Corkum:  How does it feel to be a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for the first time?

Sheila Heti: It feels like cycling down a rocky hill.

TC: Motherhood takes up one of the most important and far-reaching questions in a woman’s life—whether or not to have a child. What was the most satisfying part of working through this particular book?

SH: It is always satisfying to cut all the tens of thousands of bad sentences and know you’ll never have to look at them again.

TC: What particular fears—if any—did you harbour as you wrote?

SH: You always fear you aren’t going to be able to pull it off—the completion of a book.

TC: In an alternate life, what career would you choose if you weren’t writing?

SH: There is no alternate to writing, even in an alternate life. Life and writing are a single thing.

There is no alternate to writing, even in an alternate life. Life and writing are a single thing.

Sheila Heti

TC: The Giller Prize recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Can you talk about a previous winning title (or finalist) that you’ve enjoyed, or that has inspired you in some way?

SH: Alice Munro is the best of the winners. She hasn’t inspired me in my writing for we are very different writers, but she inspires me as a person, in the way she seems to live an absolutely quiet life.

Alice Munro is the best of the winners. She hasn’t inspired me in my writing for we are very different writers, but she inspires me as a person, in the way she seems to live an absolutely quiet life.

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Excerpt from Motherhood

My mother cried for forty days and forty nights. As long as I have known her, I have known her to cry. I used to think that I would grow up to be a different sort of woman, that I would not cry, and that I would solve the problem of her crying. She could never tell me what was wrong except to say, I’m tired. Could it be that she was always tired? I wondered, when I was little, Doesn’t she know she’s unhappy? I thought the worst thing in the world would be to be unhappy, but not to know it. As I grew older, I compulsively checked myself for signs that I was unhappy. Then I grew unhappy, too. I grew filled up with tears.

All through my childhood, I felt I had done something wrong. I searched my every gesture, my words, the way I sat upon a chair. What was I doing to make her cry? A child thinks she is the cause of even the stars in the sky, so of course my mother’s crying was all about me. Why had I been born to cause her pain? Since I had caused it, I wanted to take it away. But I was too little. I didn’t even know how to spell my own name. Knowing so little, how could I have understood a single thing about her suffering? I still don’t understand. No child, through her own will, can pull a mother out of her suffering, and as an adult, I have been very busy. I have been busy writing. My mother often says, You are free. Perhaps I am. I can do what I like. So I will stop her from crying. Once I am finished writing this book, neither one of us will ever cry again. This will be a book to prevent future tears—to prevent me and my mother from crying. It can be called a success if, after reading it, my mother stops crying for good. I know it’s not the job of a child to stop her mother from crying, but I’m not a child anymore. I’m a writer. The change I have undergone, from child to writer, gives me powers—I mean that magical powers are not far from my hand. If I am a good enough writer, perhaps I can stop her from crying. Perhaps I can figure out why she is crying, and why I cry, too, and I can heal us both with my words.

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Is attention soul? If I pay attention to my mother’s sorrow, does that give it soul? If I pay attention to her unhappiness—if I put it into words, transform it, and make it into something new— can I be like the alchemists, turning lead into gold? If I sell this book, I will get back gold in return. That’s a kind of alchemy. The philosophers wanted to turn dark matter into gold, and I want to turn my mother’s sadness into gold. When the gold comes in, I will go to my mother’s doorstep, and I will hand it to her and say: Here is your sadness, turned into gold.

 
Excerpted from Motherhood. Copyright © 2018 Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

October 17, 2018
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