Scotiabank Giller Prize·How I Wrote It

How flipping a coin helped Sheila Heti make tough decisions about motherhood — and write a novel about it

The Toronto-based playwright and author discusses her novel Motherhood, which is nominated for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Sheila Heti is the author of several books, including the novel Motherhood. (Malcolm Brown/Knopf Canada)

Sheila Heti is a Toronto-based playwright and the author of eight works of fiction and nonfiction. Her books have been translated in over a dozen languages. Her latest novel, Motherhood, is about a woman debating the meaning of motherhood and coming to terms with the idea that she may not want to be a mother at all. 

Motherhood is on the shortlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Heti joined the other Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists on stage at Calgary's Wordfest for a special event hosted by The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers. While on stage, Heti discussed how she wrote Motherhood.

Not quite fiction  

"The 'yeses' and 'nos' represent coin flips. There's a note at the beginning of the book which says these coin flips actually happened. So the 'yeses' and the 'nos' aren't made up. They're not fiction. They're the result of real coin flips and I didn't change any of them." 

"The coin's way of writing is a small part of the book. Whether or not to have a child was a question that was really on my mind. By putting them in a fictional frame, I was able to objectify my life and my process and my struggles and questions in a way that made it more apart from me. There was something about making it art and conceiving of it as a novel that did that. It separated it from myself and made it something I could work on, as opposed to something I was living through in a muddled way." 

Sharing souls, solving problems

"One of the concepts in the book is that you have this problem in your life and you think, 'Am I going to solve it or not?' or 'How am I going to solve it?' It becomes very solipsistic and you think your soul is yours. The idea in the book is that the soul is something that can be shared among people. In this book, it's the protagonist and the mother and the grandmother that share the same soul. 

"You can solve a problem in your own life and in some way it can go back and change your dead grandmother's life because that living thing is not contained within your body. There's something that transcends your own life. Time itself is the thing that solves the problem. We want to solve our problems ourselves and at our own pace. But time has its own pace and we can't really do anything about that." 

Finding her voice

"I don't have characters in the traditional sense. The voice in Motherhood is very close to my own. The idea of voice, to me, was almost the first thing I had as a writer. There's something that's a bit out-of-your-control about [writing]. I remember being 15 years old and writing short stories and feeling confronted with this — something other than me — and I found it repulsive. I felt like it was something I couldn't control.

"The voice of Motherhood in particular comes a lot through the editing. I write hundreds and hundreds more pages than I could ever use and it's in the whittling away and the deciding what doesn't belong that I find the voice. It's a process of selecting the right tone." 

Sheila Heti's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


The 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists

The winner will be announced on Nov. 19, 2018. Here's how you can tune into the broadcast.


 

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