Art only exists if it is shared: Writer-in-residence shares thoughts on the craft

Sheila Heti isn’t afraid to get inside her own head and sometimes she climbs inside those of the people she admires and finds interesting.

The young author is The University of Western Ontario’s new James A. and Marjorie Spenceley Canada Council for the Arts Writer-in-Residence for 2011-12.

“I was very much interested in being trapped in your own head. It was a way of translating what I was thinking and feeling inside,” Heti says of her second book, Ticknor, which follows the life of George Ticknor.

It is a paranoid examination of self as he tries to reconcile his own failure with the success of his boyhood friend and famous American historian William Prescott. The book was inspired by the real relationship between the two (Ticknor published a biography of Prescott in 1863). Heti wrote the book at a time when she was wrestling with her sudden fame and public attention to her writing.

The self-examination in Ticknor came on the heels of Heti’s critically acclaimed short stories collection, The Middle Stories, through which she penned her way onto the Canadian literary scene.

“When I started writing it I had no thought of it ever being a book. I was just writing stories … and I was at U of T at the time studying art history and philosophy. I never thought of them as a collection,” says the Toronto-based writer.

The result was an assortment of eclectic fairy tales, which brought Heti’s unique world perspective and voice to life. She has since been revered as a person to watch on the Canadian literary scene.

It is difficult to pinpoint Heti’s writing style, as she dabbles in various mediums, from short stories and novels, to essays and an illustrated children’s book. She also works as the interviews editor for The Believer magazine.

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, McSweeney’s, Brick, Geist, Maisonneuve, Bookforum, The Guardian, among others, and has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Vietnamese and Serbian.

In 2001, Heti co-created the Trampoline Hall lecture series in Toronto. Hosted by friend Misha Glouberman, the event invites people to speak about subjects outside of their expertise.

The genesis of Trampoline Hall was Heti’s veracious interest in people and it allowed her to turn the spotlight off of herself and onto other people.

“I sort-of had some attention on me and I wanted to put the attention on other people,” she says, noting she never took the stage herself. “For me, I felt a bit of discomfort in having people look at me and at my writing and this was a way of just looking at other people.”

Trampoline Hall provided a forum for ordinary people – especially those who did not have public personas – to offer a lecture and take questions from the audience.

“People are interesting. I really wanted to get people who I just wanted to hear talk; somebody I’d want to be in a conversation with. I wanted to put them on stage and have them have a conversation in some way with the audience.”

The popular format has been replicated in the United States, with Heti and Glouberman travelling across the country to facilitate the shows. The pair also collaborated on a non-fiction book, The Chairs Are Where The People Go.

When asked her reaction to being named Western’s writer-in-residence, Heti modestly replied she does not feel comfortable putting herself in a position of authority, particularly when speaking about other people’s writing.

Rather, she plans to adopt a conversational format and leave her door open for discussions on a person’s writing. She is also setting aside an hour each Tuesday to invite budding writers to practice their craft, surrounded by other writers. The collective energy of room will likely cultivate creativity, she notes.

“I’ve always had one or two people I can show my writing to and that’s been so valuable,” she says. “I’m happy to be one of those people. It’s just really important not to keep your stuff in a drawer forever because writing – art – is for the world.

“I don’t think it really even exists unless people are responding to it in some way. So if I can be the first audience for somebody then that work suddenly becomes more real that it was sitting in the drawer.”

When she read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at the age of 16, she realized “you can do anything in art. That gave me permission to be free.”

Likewise, Heti wants to young writers to find courage to express their unique point of view. “I never tell myself not to do something that feels right to do,” she notes. “The only person who you are doing this for is yourself and whoever you hope to touch. But it has to start with you.

“If you don’t move yourself, you aren’t going to move others.”

For information or appointments, contact Vivian Foglton at vlavers@uwo.ca.