“The Breath of Life”: Sheila Heti on Art, Loss, and Immortality

“Let it become the thing that leads you through your days for years on end—just allowing that problem to live in front of you and to guide you.”

The fact that Canadian author Sheila Heti has been compared to the early 20th-century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, the experimental American writer Kathy Acker, and Lena Dunham of HBO Girls fame is a testament to the range of notes Heti strikes in her work. In her breakthrough novel, How Should a Person Be? (2010), and in Motherhood (2018), Heti drew on her lived experience to wrestle with existential questions that get to the heart of what it means to be human. Pure Colour, Heti’s latest novel, is less overtly autobiographical, more like an extended fable that grapples with what may be the most fundamental question of all: Is there life after death, and what form(s) can it take?

The novel follows a young woman, Mira, through various stages of her adult life in a world that is made up of three types of people: those who are birdlike—cerebral, and at some remove from the mundane matters of the world—like Mira herself; those who are like fish—profoundly communal beings—like Annie, the woman who has captured Mira’s heart; and those, like Mira’s father, who resemble bears in their singular devotion to the one they love most of all.

When we met via Zoom on a Friday in late September, I was immediately disarmed by Heti’s warmth and candor, so rare among artists and intellectuals of her caliber. Over the course of our 45-minute conversation, we talked about God and about her father’s passing, which occurred during her writing of this book, about the ways in which love constrains us, and about how death can sometimes set us free.

Shoshana Olidort (SO): Early on in Pure Colour, an old art professor muses: “What is art but the act of infusing matter with the breath of God?” I wonder, is this what you see yourself doing as a writer—infusing matter with the breath of God?


Sheila Heti (SH): Maybe more like the breath of life. I don’t really know what God is. But you want your books to be alive; alive means imperfect, movement, a musical quality. There is a musical quality to time and the creatures and nature itself. You want the book to have deep symmetry, to be solid, but also to flow like water.


SO: I can’t help thinking of Clarice Lispector when I think about your work—and not only because the “breath of life” takes me back to Lispector’s novel by the same name, A Breath of Life (a novel on whose very first page we read: “Long live the dead because we live in them”), but because it seems to me that for you, as for Lispector, a novel is a malleable form through which to contend with life’s big questions. I’m reminded of how the Author character in Lispector’s novel says that writing is difficult for him “because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” while his imagined character, Angela, wants to write “with words so completely stuck together that there are no gaps between them and me.” As Angela explains, “a word is also a thing—a winged thing that I pluck from the air with my mouth when I speak. I make it concrete.” I’m curious whether any of this resonates with you? Can you talk about Lispector’s influence on your own work—assuming she was an influence? When did you first discover her work?


SH: I first read her about 15 years ago. My friend, the writer Pasha Malla, recommended to me The Hour of the Star. It made a very strong impact on me. Each time I read one of her books, I feel confused, dazzled, full of awe. She is not someone you can imitate. There is no way of understanding how she creates the effects she does. To me, she is like a saint who writes novels, or more like a saint who writes novels than any other novelist I know: not because she is “good” but because she seems to me close to the divine, and—if a saint is a real thing, is more human than most humans—more dirty, not more clean. More dirty and more clean. Just more of everything. I don’t read her very often. It’s too much for me.


SO: I’m curious about the inspiration behind the spiritual thrust in your work. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?


SH: I have always wanted some connection to God—since I was a child—but I grew up in a very atheist household. We celebrated the high holidays and I definitely understood myself to be Jewish, but my parents very adamantly thought the idea of God was ridiculous. I always believed them, but also had a longing for something beyond what I could see. I think that I was a spiritual child in relation to my own imagination, nature, books, contemplation, and so on.

Then, later, I did feel my father’s death was a very spiritual event, which was very surprising and unexpected. It reset my understanding of life and death and the mysteries. I started to feel like death is not just the end of life; that it has its own qualities, which are bound with some continuum, I don’t really know what. But that is why this book is more spiritual than the others, because I had that experience.


SO: The experience of death, of losing someone you love?


SH: Yes. But I mean the specific experience of being so close to my father when he was dying, being in his bed with him, holding him, and then experiencing his last breath, and then the feeling that his spirit somehow left his body and came into mine. I don’t mean that I imagined it. It was almost physical.

Yet that is why I consider it a spiritual experience, because there is no proof, there is no evidence. No one else would have seen anything, but I knew that it had happened.


SO: Your father died while you were in the process of writing this book. Did you have a vision for this book before your father died that would have been very different?


SH: I already knew he was sick when I started writing the book, so some part of me understood that he was going to die. But there is also some way in which books preexist their writing. I don’t want to say, “Oh, I had this idea for a book, and then he died, and the book swerved.” I was writing, and then he died, and then I was writing. Time moved on, and I was writing.

It felt like everything that the book became was preordained in some way, when I started writing. The seed was there, and nothing that grew in those years was anything other than what that seed would have grown into, eventually.


SO: A central premise of this novel is that the world we live in is just a rough draft, messy and full of problems. And this made me want to ask you about your writing process. How many drafts did you go through with this novel? And do you feel when you put a book out in the world that it is a final draft or is each one of your books a new attempt to improve on the book that came before?


SH: They are final when I put them into the world. There is no further I can go with that book.

A book is not a correction of the previous book. There is some growth from book to book, but that has to do with me changing, rather than a desire to have each book follow on the next one. They follow on the next one just because I follow on the person that I was before, and the books are so intimately tied with my living. In terms of drafts, I do rewrite a lot and restructure and move things around and print them out and send them to friends and get feedback and write more. You can’t really count drafts in this age of the computer.


My Mother’s Book, My Grandmother’s Life

By Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

SO: Can you reflect a bit on your evolution as a writer? More specifically, how do you see Pure Colour as somehow coming out of who you were with Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? before that?


SH: How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood solved real conundrums for me. After I had finished those two books, I felt like that type of work of being a human—the solving of my biggest conundrums—was done. The writing of the novels was the ritual, the magic that solved those problems. Externalizing some inchoate spiritual problem into the form of an artwork can sometimes solve it. Or just giving yourself time, in the case of Motherhood, to live with a problem that you might have pushed to the back of your mind, and instead you let it become the thing that leads you through your days for years on end—just allowing that problem to live in front of you and to guide you, that can also help solve it.

“Solve it” is too mathematical a word. Transform it. It is more like alchemy than a philosophical proof.

After those books were done, I thought, What is going to happen next? What am I ever going to write about again?

But Pure Colour is not a book that is trying to solve a problem in the same way as Motherhood or How Should a Person Be?. There was not a question that I needed an answer to, or a question that I needed a new relationship to. This book more was saying, “Here is life as it is—what does it look like?” It was less of a quest.


SO: To return to How Should a Person Be?, do you feel like you now have a better sense of how a person should be?


SH: I decided—the Sheila character decided—that it was the wrong question. It is not that I have the answer to how a person should be, it is just that the question ceased to preoccupy me.

No, there is not an answer to how should a person be, and the book comes to the conclusion that there was a problem with the question. Because the question supposes that a person A) is something fixed rather than something that is essentially always undergoing changes. And if you are constantly undergoing changes, then there is no B).

The problem of the book was making a golden calf, or an idol, of the self. And that question—how should a person be?—only encourages that attitude toward the self.


SO: Is there another big question that you are grappling with now? That you think is going to make its way into another book?


SH: I have been thinking about AI. What is that consciousness? Is it a consciousness? How should we relate to it? What do we want it to be?

SO: I’m thinking again of Motherhood, the quest for immortality, the question of what do I leave behind for the future? Can these questions really be resolved? Can one ever make peace with them?


SH: There is that riddle of how an arrow can never reach its destination because the distance is always halved infinitely, so it never quite reaches the point—Zeno’s paradox. It’s like that: you can get closer to an answer to your question by halves, which is ever, ever closer, infinitely close, almost. But you are always never going to quite touch it.


SO: I’m also curious about the central question of Motherhood


SH: Oh, whether or not to have children? Can a woman ever resolve that?


SO: Yes. I don’t want to pry, but I wonder: Is it a decision that you regret?


SH: Oh God, no, I am ever happier with my choice. I have a niece and a nephew, they fill in something. And I just love my life, I wouldn’t want it to be another way.

I’m sure if I had a child, I would love that life too, but I don’t have any regrets. I made the right decision for myself.

SO: What is it that you want to do with art in the world?


SH: There are different parts to that question. The act of making something is pleasurable and interesting and engaging in itself. And I wouldn’t want to live without that, because I enjoy it so much.

It is difficult. I like making something that engages all parts of me, my personality and my soul and my life. It makes my life … how do I put it? Not a waste.

That is the main thing that I want to do with art: I want to make it so that I’m really living. And giving something back to life. To the human world. Not just taking. Maybe if you express something true or beautiful, then other people will be able to live more fully their own lives. Art makes you aware of what you are living. It makes you more deeply aware of your environment, yourself, your relations to other people.


SO: Do you feel like you can achieve immortality through your art, through your books?


SH: I have no idea how long the books are going to last. There is nobody who makes something that doesn’t hope it lasts a long time. Maybe on a deep psychological level one makes art in order somehow not to die, in order to leave a trace of oneself on the earth. But that is not what I’m consciously thinking about when I’m writing.


SO: That is interesting, because it comes up again and again in your work. Unless I am reading too much into it?


SH: No, you are right. There is a way in which you are trying to create a living creature and you want your living creature to live as long as possible. To the extent that this creature that you make is an extension of you, that would be a way of evading death on one level. But I don’t know.

I don’t know if I’m going to keep writing about that, because I don’t feel the same way about death as I did when I was writing before. I no longer think that the self or the soul entirely disappears with death. So there’s no need for there to be some compensation or life raft or anchor that you need to throw into the ground so that you would never completely die.


SO: Are you saying your perception of death changed after your father’s death?


SH: Yes, I just don’t think anything ever goes away. I don’t even feel like he has completely gone away. There is a way in which I miss him, but there is also a way in which I don’t, because I don’t know if we ever really go away, or if he has.


When Poetry Summons the Dead

By Brais Lamela

SO: In your novel, you talk about parents as umbrellas who offer protection from the rain, and I found that really wonderful. And yet, Mira and her friends envy Annie, who is an orphan, because she is parentless and independent and free. You capture grief so beautifully in this novel, but I wonder, was there also a sense of freedom, of independence, that came after your father’s passing?


SH: Yes. You are more free after, because you don’t have the responsibility of somebody that you love in your life. But it is not necessarily a freedom you would choose, because it is probably not outweighed by the pleasure of having them in your life. Or, of course, outweighed by the pleasure they themselves took in life, or the pleasure they gave to all the other people they knew.

But when you love somebody, you are concerned about them all the time, and there is a lot that constrains you. I have never lived outside of Toronto in large part because my father was living in Toronto. That is exactly the thing that I didn’t want in Motherhood: the constraint that comes when you love someone.


SO: When you describe Mira’s relationship with her father after his death, you talk about how his spirit enters her in these very sexual terms: “She had felt his spirit ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her body, then spreading all the way through her, the way cum feels spreading inside, that warm and tangy feeling.”

Could you say some more about why the relationship is framed in such explicitly sexual terms? I had the sense that maybe it had to do with what happens when the line between life and death is blurred—all other boundaries also start to blur?


SH: That is a really nice way of putting it. I don’t know. There are different answers.

It was a literal rendering on the page of what I felt like when I felt my father’s spirit come into me. It did have that same feeling of warmth spreading—not through my vagina, but through my whole entire body, from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. What other experience does a person have of something coming into your body and spreading so warmly? Swallowing food is not like that. So it just seemed like the best way to describe it. I really wish that it didn’t necessarily have such incestuous overtones because that is not the way that I meant it. But there is no way for it not to, I suppose. And since her father is a bear—the creature who loves too closely—perhaps those overtones have their place.

But to me, it is not that her father is coming in her, but that the universe ejaculated his spirit into her. That is totally different from a father coming inside a daughter—to me they are not the same thing at all. Using the word “ejaculate” is because ejaculation is the beginning of something new, it delivers life. And in this case, it delivered a new life to her in her awareness of death being a continuation of life—a different, new life; and his spirit is born a second time in her. So ejaculation is really the right word. That is really the only word that I could have given to the experience of when his spirit came into me with such force and suddenness.


SO: Do you still feel your father’s spirit in you in the same way?


SH: No. It’s been four years since he died. I just feel him as very present. Not as a ghost and not as a voice, but just as part of the atmosphere of life.

SO: In closing, I wanted to point out that for all its angst and darkness, there is also a hopeful note in this novel. The belief in a better future. It felt to me, at times, almost messianic, in a Jewish sense, an ultimate redemption. Do you feel hopeful?


SH: On a cosmic time scale, even a post-human time scale, I feel hopeful. I don’t know what the fate is for humans, probably not great, but there is more than humans.

I’m listening to this book called Math without Numbers, by Milo Beckman. I’m listening to it as an audiobook because I’m doing a lot of driving right now. The book is about shapes and dimensions and how many shapes are actually in the universe. And this is something that mathematicians cannot figure out, because we can’t conceive of dimensions past the ones that are given in our experience. And I’m really excited these days about thinking about how the universe is of a shape and a dimension that we just can’t experience.

So, on that level, I am very hopeful. That just seems so beautiful to me. It gives me a container for how strange time feels and how strange life and death feel. If we actually are in a container that is completely beyond our comprehension—just on a simple math level, God aside—that is really exciting. icon

Featured image: Sheila Heti. Photograph by Mark Raynes Robert