Interview: Sheila Heti.

Sheila Heti and I corresponded when Ticknor was first released – I was working with a local bookstore to try and get some funds toward having Sheila do a reading here in Portland.  That neverTicknor came together, but when I re-read Ticknor recently for a review, I e-mailed her to see if she’d agree to an interview.  We wrote back and forth through e-mail; what resulted is a little bit disjointed – a professional reviewer, I’m not – but there’s some interesting ideas that are worth seeing the light of day. 

I’m reading Ticknor for the second time now, and I’m that much more impressed this time through with how you took someone respected in his field, made him largely unsuccessful and thoroughly unlikeable, and then made a very likeable story out of that unlikeable person’s thoughts. 


Early on, Ticknor describes Prescott as a man solidly, stubbornly rooted in the habits of his youth, and then as someone disinterested in recapturing the past. Ticknor seems to have access to a lot of Prescott’s life, before the fame, and would seem to know him quite well, but then we get statements like these, Ticknor contradicting himself, which give the impression that he doesn’t really know him at all. 

At some points in the book, Ticknor seems to approach mental illness-levels of personality disorder.  Do you see him that way? 

I think we read literature in a funny way. We try to make sense of it the way we make sense of life, and by this route, look at the characters as though they’re our friends, by which I mean: we gossip about them and cheaply psychoanalyse them. I find this to be a very funny thing to do to a character! In a lot of interviews I’m asked to speculate on Ticknor in this way, as though he is something separate from myself, someone I know, that I can talk about objectively. But of course, he is only my words, my head, my understanding of things, my aesthetic – not a person at all. And so that makes it difficult to say what he’s like much the way that saying what you yourself are like is difficult. It’s stupid to ask an author about their characters, I think.

Well, I suppose I would hesitate to address my character questions in terms of asking you questions about your character – of course he came from your head, but Prescott did as well, and other characters you’ve written (such as in The Middle Stories).  Or are they all more or less reflections of you, to some degree? 

I’m maybe too conscious of the fact that everything I know is enclosed in this ridiculous little box of a head, and the constellation of everything to everything else is pretty much what I’ve been able to make sense of, given my upbringing, my nature, my experiences, my feelings, my interests. We all know this. I’m only bringing up to make the point that it’s hard sometimes know what in common you share, perception-wise, with the other people of the world. I have faith though, that there must be commonalities somewhere, or else literature would not exist. I’m just not always sure where these commonalities lie.

What about you?

I think primarily two things: emotions and basic animal needs.  The differences between people come in the different ways people find to meet those animal needs, and also in the different ways people create meaning in their lives to fill those emotions.  Do you think that covers it, or am I boiling it down a little to far, reducing our commonalities to two?Sheilaheti

Well, I’d be reluctant to say "that covers it" but I think that’s pretty good. Not only animal needs, though — spiritual needs, too. I think that’s parly why romantic love is such a powerful source of story in our culture — it marries our animal and our spiritual and our emotional needs. And completely fails in fulfilling any of them.

I’m wondering: is part two of the book imagined by Ticknor?  I didn’t catch it the first read through, but a lot of those character traits that make him who he is seem absent here – he seemed to me to be much more focused on others, less dismissive, less paranoid. 

It’s like how in war or combat you have to arm yourself with a force equal to that of your enemy. In Part 2, Prescott is dying. He is weaker and less of an obstacle to Ticknor’s well-being than he was in the full burst of his strength and his youth. If the enemy deflates, then we are deflated. That’s why it matters to have a solid wall to push up against always.

Back to the mental illness question: I suppose there is some of that "cheap psychoanalyses" involved – like with that link I sent you, it’s a western thing to do, to try and break characters down into their diagnoses.  I came at it that way, I think, for two reasons – one, that’s the field I’m in for my day job: I work with people who have mental illness, and have become pretty familiar with the "checklist" (of sorts) for personality disorder.  Do you reject the idea of seeing mental illness in characters, or simply the idea that it applies in Ticknor’s case?

I think envy, his paranoia, his sense of inferiority — these aren’t such uncommon things for a person to feel, even at the heightened level at which Ticknor experiences them. I mean, everyone I know is pretty fucked up in the way they go about trying to create happiness for themselves, and often ending up sabatoging their happiness on a path which they think will lead them to satisfaction. I don’t know if that’s mental illness…

Besides, don’t you think those checklists are pretty liberal? Like, what is a ‘healthy personality’ in your profession’s definition? I like Freud’s idea that the aim of psychoanalysis is to get one to an adequate level of unhappiness — rather than the aim being any kind of definitive happiness; but that maybe gets forgotten.
I think we’re all so sensitive to ourselves, like we’re such fragile plants. Like we’re going to die of being human, having feelings, thinking too many things…

Well, I think – for those practicing ethically – that "healthy personality" is a misnomer.  There’s only varying degrees of healthy, and we all have shit we need to work through.  So Freud wasn’t far off, at least on that.  I think it becomes unhealthy when that aspect of the personality bleeds into a majority of interactions/thoughts with/about others; when it becomes disabling for the person.  (This is me talking, not the profession.)  I think in that sense Ticknor certainly meets the criteria; but, then again, we are only presented with his thoughts during the walk on one evening, which is hardly enough to base any sort of diagnosis on.  I guess, in the end, he reminded me more of people I know who live with the mental illness than people I know who, of course, have some of these traits from time to time, but not to the degree that Ticknor does.

Well, what I was trying to do was portray the brain — how it feels to be inside a brain, and not so much a complete person — but the brain’s dialogue with itself; its incessant chatter, and the way it whirls around a few tiresome preoccupations, like for instance, how great Prescott is vs. how shitty I am. Why can’t we rid ourselves of these annoying habits of thought? I think the only solution is to bypass the brain on most things.


5 Replies to “Interview: Sheila Heti.”

  1. “Well, what I was trying to do was portray the brain — how it feels to be inside a brain, and not so much a complete person — but the brain’s dialogue with itself”

    That’s precisely how I felt when I read “Ticknor”. Reading this interview made me want to re-read the book; I’m sure I missed out on a lot of things the first time through.

    It’s interesting how the “aritificiality” of the characters in her book are so pronounced for her. I know there are other authors whose characters, to them, are more tangible. I’ll have to mention something about it on my blog. Thanks for doing the interview!

  2. Heti attempts to protray Ticknor as a young man who experienced a lack of books when he was young. Heti obviously failed to do even a little research because at Dartmouth there is a special reverence for Ticknor which includes:

    The following letter by Elisha Ticknor was written when his son was fourteen years old. The original manuscript is in Special Collections (MS 805374).
    Boston, 24 June, Sunday Eve, 1805

    Dear Sir,
    My little son I hope will be the bearer of this. He leaves me tomorrow morning with a view of placing himself under your parental care and instruction. I expect to follow him in a few days on a visit to Hanover, where I hope to have an opportunity to converse with you particularly as to him and his future studies. Till I arrive I wish him to relax a little from study as he has been very attentive since he left College last fall.

    Dctr Dexter, Mr Bingham and myself have made some exertion and have received several small donations of Books for the College. They are contained in two boxes, which Mr Underwood, a teamster, has agreed to convey to you in the month of August, at the rate of 15 /pr C. Groce.

    In the mean time, please accept Mrs Ticknor’s and my love and compliments and make the same agreeable to your good Lady, and, believe me to be,

    Dear Sir,
    Your most obedient,
    Humble servant,
    (signed) Elisha Ticknor.

    Heti speaks of the lack of books in Ticknor’s boyhood — I feel she was totally wrong. Note that his father is donating books to Dartmouth in 1805 when George was 14 — and George graduated from Dartmouth at age 16.

  3. What a great interview! (and new look) I love Heti’s writing and found this book to have a strange hold over me… nice work on the interview.

  4. What a great interview! (and new look) I love Heti’s writing and found this book to have a strange hold over me… nice work on the interview.

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