Literary City: Sheila Heti’s Toronto
Toronto is notorious these days for the antics of its mayor, Rob Ford, but there’s a quieter literary side to the city as novelist Sheila Heti reveals.
In her Toronto based novel, How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti transcribed a conversation between herself and her real-life artist friend, Margaux Williamson, leaving just a duologue and removing all sense of the how and the where.
It would be difficult then to consider the 37-year-old’s most successful book to be a reflection on place, but it is. Even with this intermittent chopping of prose, Heti has a strong appreciation of life in the most populous city in Canada—the place where she was born and continues to live. It is, in fact, a book that deals almost entirely with the intricacies of being in Toronto. Or perhaps more specifically, of being ‘Sheila’ in Toronto.
As an author, Heti’s credits include two novels, a collection of short stories, a children’s book and a book on “conversational philosophy”, but she has also been prolific in several other forms: she has a post as interviews editor at Believer magazine, she began a local lecture series where guest speakers talk about subjects outside of their expertise, and in 2013 her full length-play, All Our Happy Days are Stupid was performed in Toronto to sell-out shows.
It seems Sheila Heti has got to that point that successful authors can get to when they write about the place in which they live. The point where the city knows them as well as they know it.
It would be good to get a sense of the particular area of Toronto you live in. Are there specific traits it has, and what’s its perceived position within the city (historically and now)?
It’s a Portuguese neighborhood—Dundas and Dovercourt. Toronto is laid out like a grid, where the major north-south and the major east-west streets are commercial and the streets in between are residential. I live on the second floor of an old house, with my boyfriend. It’s kind of a falling-down rambly apartment. My best friends (Misha and Margaux) live two blocks away. About ten years ago some hotels were built and the area started gentrifying, and it keeps moving in that direction—condos are going up and things like that. But there’s still something nice and quiet and homey about the area. Have you see Sarah Polley’s film, Take This Waltz? That’s the neighborhood I’m in.
Oh, right! Yes, there is a sense of it being still, even languid in that film. Are these things you value in the city?
Yes, I value it hugely. What I like about living and especially working here is you feel you can go at your own pace. In other cities, it feels like the city sets the pace. Time almost seems to disappear here, but of course the seasons make you realize that time really is passing. I always fantasize about living in Los Angeles but I think the seasons are really important for making things. You work differently when it’s cold than when it’s warm.
That’s such an interesting idea. What’s cold weather work? Would you be able to look back and know what season something is written in?
I can remember what season things were written in. In the cold weather it’s easier to go inside yourself, inside your head. It’s a better time for reading and researching. Winter is for depth and learning. In the summer, because your body is not so tense with the cold, it’s good for writing a lot. You feel loose. You can write a hundred pages a day in the summer and they fly—they’re more narrative, and more disposable. In the winter, whatever you write spirals into itself as if to keep warm.
Do you find yourself walking the streets much?
I walk the streets a lot. I have hankerings for certain parts of the city and then I walk to those. It’s a very familiar place to me, I was born in Toronto. It feels like my home in a very deep way. And yet I’m a very impatient person who needs a lot of change, so sometimes I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long. Yet when you live in one place for a long time, you realize that places change as dramatically as people do. It’s not the same place I grew up in. Though, like a person, some things are ever the same.
But if you were to indulge yourself in literary Toronto, where would you go?
If I was a tourist in Toronto, I’d try to visit Coach House, which is an independent press in Toronto that published early Atwood and Ondaatje and still prints its own amazing books in a coach house off a laneway near the University of Toronto. It’s also where all the editors work and throw parties. It was founded in the 70s and it seems like nothing has changed there since. I love hanging out there. And they do have tours. Any poet who would come through Toronto would sleep and do drugs there. The massive German Heidelberg presses are something else.
Where do you buy the books you read?
There’s a great store not far from me called Type books—you should link to the wild video they did of their bookstore coming alive at night. Friends of mine work there. Book City on Bloor is a classic spot. I’m also partial to The World’s Biggest Bookstore even though now it’s owned by a chain, still I have the feeling about it I did when I was a child: just pain awe. (Even though by now I’ve been in many bookstores that are bigger.) I am still mourning the loss of Pages, which was my favorite bookstore in the city, and has been gone for at least five years, but I always still imagine it’s there. When I was a teenager, most of the books I bought were from Elliot’s on Yonge Street.
Do you consider yourself a writer of place? For example, as I see it, Toronto isn’t absolutely essential to ‘How Should a Person Be?’. It’s not a novel about Toronto, although it’s set there. For me, it is the idea of personal and situational bettering—the improvement of one’s environment—where the sense of place comes in.
A lot changed for me writing that book. Ticknor took place in an imaginary 19th century Boston, The Middle Stories took place in some imaginative realm. But How Should a Person Be? is about Toronto, and so is the book I wrote with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs are Where the People Go. I think those books deal with the ethics in a place like Toronto. I think the conclusions that are arrived at are probably Toronto sort of conclusions; the conclusions arrived at would have been different in a place like New York, for instance. So I think I had the values of my friends very much in mind during the writing of those books, and I think often the values of people in a place reflect the values of that place. I think we’re more our environment that we imagine.
What is some of the best writing coming out of Toronto?
I’m pretty sure I don’t have the pulse on which writers are “to watch” in the city right now. I’ve been out of the literary scene and in my own head and travelling and among my friends and in my home with my boyfriend. But I love the poetry of Souvankham Thanmavongsa, and the fiction of Derek McCormack. Christian Bok’s Eunoia is so great. And Darren O’donnell’s Social Acupuncture is an amazing manifesto about theatre and art-making—I see everything produced by his theatre company, Mammalian Diving Reflex. I feel less involved with writers here than artists, so I want to mention the brilliant paintings of Brad Phillips and Margaux Williamson, and the art collective Life of a Craphead, and the comedy duo The Sufferettes. My brother’s podcast, I Have a Problem with David Heti, is wild. He does very dark stand-up. And ever since seeing it at TIFF last year, I’ve been thinking about the trippy road trip movie Asphalt Watches by Seth Scriver and Shane Ehman.