“I don’t think novels have messages”: A Q&A with Sheila Heti
Heti’s new novel, The Alphabetical Diaries, is an experiment in imposing spreadsheet rigour on the messiness of a daily journal. Here, she talks autofiction, favourite Toronto bars and using mushrooms for pre-publication anxiety
Can Microsoft Excel help you know yourself? Back in 2010, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti wondered exactly that. She decided to feed 10 years’ worth of her digital diaries into the software and order each sentence from A to Z. After 14 years (and over half a million words) of editing, that experiment coalesced into The Alphabetical Diaries, Heti’s confessional new novel, which comes out February 6. The book, both enigmatic and intriguing, is a deeply impressionistic dive into one person’s mind. We spoke with Heti about using spreadsheets to write fiction and how not to deal with pre-publication jitters.
How did this book come about?
I started this project in 2010, just after finishing How Should a Person Be? I wanted to take a look at what my life had been like over the previous 10 years. I figured I’d look at my journals not by reading them—a nauseating experience—but by putting each sentence in alphabetical order to get a sense of the patterns. That was the start of a 14-year process.
Fourteen years! Why did it take so long?
The initial Excel results didn’t give me nearly as much information as I thought they would. I had half a million words, and it looked like a huge mess. It took a few years for me to feel ready to publish an early version of it, which came out in n+1 in 2014. I still couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be an experimental text that demonstrates a premise or something edited into more of a narrative that would offer a pleasurable reading experience. It took me another decade to figure out the balance between those two poles.
How did you achieve that?
Mostly by cutting sentences. I went from 500,000 words to 55,000. I didn’t do much editing of the sentences themselves, and I didn’t write any new ones. I wanted to keep the experiment intact while providing a sense of narrative, contradiction and flow.
Who is the narrator of this novel? You? A new character?
If you edit anything enough, it becomes a character. When you make artistic choices to entertain the reader, the text gets further away from you and closer to literature. I don’t see the narrator of this book as a character but instead as a portrait of a time in my life, a set of preoccupations. Freud said work and love are the only things that preoccupy a human mind, and when you look at the book, it’s all about work and love, manifesting in different ways.
You wrote about those preoccupations in candid detail. Was that scary?
Yes, but this project came out in so many forms that I got over that fear a while ago. In 2022, I published it over 10 weeks in the New York Times. I thought a good way to deal with my nerves would be to do mushrooms. It was not—I had a very bad trip—but it did get that anxiety out of me. These days, I don’t feel like I’m revealing anything about myself when I publish a book, which is probably naïve.
If this novel has a message, what is it?
I don’t think it has one. I don’t think novels have messages.
Given that this book seems to exist without chronology or character development, can we still call it a novel?
I like the word novel. I think it does a lot of work. A novel can be anything. I’m not that interested in the idea of genre. To me, the genres are: TV show, movie, book. This is a book! Thinking about genres may help bookstores and critics, but I don’t know if it helps the reader or writer.
You name-drop a few Toronto institutions in the book: Inter Steer, the Local. How does the city figure into the book?
Of course the city you live in is going to figure into your diary, and if you turn it into a book, it’ll still be there. You meet people for drinks at these places. Inter Steer is a different place from Communist’s Daughter, which is different from the Green Room. I like those traces of the city. The book is rooted in Toronto, apart from little adventures here and there.
You’ve got a few thoughts about Toronto here—some praise, some criticism. How are you feeling about our city these days?
I love Toronto. I was in my late 20s and early 30s when I started writing these diaries, and I was asking myself where I wanted to live. I never had enough money to move away, but I was always fantasizing about moving to New York or LA. I’ve lived in Toronto all my life, apart from a few stints in Montreal. It’s home. When you’re younger, a home is a place that you leave. When you’re older, it’s a wonderful thing. I have friends here that I’ve known since kindergarten. The city isn’t the same place as it was 25 years ago—there’s no Honest Ed’s—but on another level it’s still Toronto, and I love Toronto.