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The Chat with 2022 Governor General's Award Winner Sheila Heti

We kick off our extended coverage of this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners in conversation with Sheila Heti, whose novel Pure Colour (Knopf) has won the 2022 prize for fiction.


This year's peer assessment committee says,

"Pure Colour is a work of genius, juxtaposing the profound and the everyday to tell the story of Mira struggling with the death of her beloved father. In familiar yet philosophical language, Heti presents art-making, love, and solitude in a stunningly original work. Renewing our sense of the world-changing power of art, the writing is gorgeous, poetic, funny, and 'more than here.'"

Sheila Heti is a writer of plays, short fiction, and novels. She has written 10 books, including the novels Motherhood, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and How Should a Person Be?, which New York Magazine deemed one of the “New Classics” of the 21st century. She was named one of the "New Vanguard" by the New York Times book critics, who, along with a dozen other magazines and newspapers, chose Motherhood as a top book of 2018. Her books have been translated into 24 languages. Sheila Heti lives in Toronto, Ontario.



Imagine you could spend a day with any author, living or dead. Who would you choose, what would you do, and what would you learn?

I'm very much looking forward to spending not just one day but several days with Makenna Goodman, author of The Shame. She is my friend and she lives in Vermont, so we never see each other, and she is finally coming with her husband and children to visit me and my boyfriend next week. I have been looking forward to her visit for so long. What will we do? Walk and talk.  

What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?

I wouldn’t give her any advice. She did things well and fine.

Pure Colour is such a deeply philosophical novel, concerned with the deepest questions of existence, art, love, and family ties. How was it born?

The book first came to me first in a dream—not the book itself, but a title, "Critics Bare." That is where I started from. I don't know why this dream pushed me to write a book by that title (“Critics Bare” was the book’s title for so long) but something about that title hooked into me. I started writing to try and evoke what that title evoked for me when I dreamed it.

In an alternate version of the world, who would you be if you weren’t an artist?

I would run a school. Even when I was little, I dreamed of creating a school and running it. I used to stay home from school, pretending to be sick, and I would spend the entire day planning my own school.

What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way? 

Welfare, by Steve Anwyll. I don't know how books change you apart from putting a new a world inside your mind, that you then walk around with, and live with forever. This book did that for me. I have a new landscape inside my mind that is a part of my being now, as vivid as an actual lived memory. 


Excerpt from Pure Colour

Can we say that friendships were different then? That they were like lamps, alone with you in your total privacy? One knew no more than a dozen or two dozen people, and you never knew when you would see them again. There was always the chance, after you parted, that it was for the last time. After a party, it was always possible that you would never see their faces ever again. It wasn’t even something you thought about. Everyone had their own little life, which touched the lives of other people only at parties. Between the parties, there was no interaction with most.

There was nothing show-offy about friendships then. Your friends were simply who was around. It didn’t occur to anyone that it could be another way. If you liked your friends, that was okay. If you didn’t like your friends, that was okay, too. We were fine with living our mediocre lives. It didn’t occur to anyone that we could have great ones. That was for people far away. Our lack of awareness of the scope of the world kept us from any great falseness. It was enough to know just four or five people, and to have slept with two or three of them. Was there anything else to be ambitious for? Just an imagined immortality—a sense of one’s own greatness, which could in no way be tested.

It wasn’t that long ago, is the funny thing. We are, for the most part, all of us still alive. Yet none of us keep in touch with the other ones. We only keep in touch with the friends we have made since the friendship revolution, which made being in touch of primary importance. The friends we knew from way back when—we felt content to let them slip away; to continue the traditions of the old world into now.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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