The Next Chapter

Heidi Sopinka's 70s-era novel Utopia shines a light on gender, agency and empowerment

The Toronto author of The Dictionary of Animal Languages spoke with The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers about her latest book, set in the male-dominated art scene of 1970s Los Angeles.

The Toronto author of The Dictionary of Animal Languages spoke with Shelagh Rogers about her latest book

Utopia is a book by Heidi Sopinka. (Hamish Hamilton, Emma McIntyre)
Heidi Sopinka talks to Shelagh Rogers about her novel, Utopia.

Heidi Sopinka is a Toronto-based writer, editor and designer. Her debut 2018 novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. She is a former environment columnist at the Globe and Mail and the co-founder of Horses Atelier.

Her latest work is the historical novel Utopia, an exploration of the struggle a generation of women artists faced to be taken seriously in an art scene dominated by men in the 1970s.

When Romy, one of the only women to break into the male-dominated art scene of 1970s Los Angeles, mysteriously dies, a young and ambitious artist named Paz is drawn into the world Romy left behind. Soon Paz finds herself in a love triangle with Romy's art-star husband, Billy, and as Paz becomes more obsessed with Romy's life, a disturbing picture begins to emerge.

Sopinka spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Utopia.

Art and optics in Southern California

"Utopia began oddly in my imagination — without any notion of character or plot or even an incident. It started with an image of a woman falling off of a rooftop. This woman became Romy. As I started to explore the notion of falling — in a more philosophical, artistic and aesthetic sense — it led me directly to this time and the ascendancy of performance art in Southern California, where it was very much in full cry.

I read a lot of the feminism texts and about art history about that time — and I became horrified at the notion that it felt like what I was reading was a falsified history of the era it was.

"I did steep myself in 1970s cinema, including films by auteur directors such as Robert Altman and Brian De Palma. This time was literally the height of the male gaze. I also read everything I could get my hands on: Joan Didion wrote so beautifully about California in that time, and Eve Babitz in a more fictive way, obviously. 

"I read a lot of the feminist texts and about art history about that time — and I became horrified at the notion that it felt like what I was reading was a falsified history of the era it was. None of the women's work was really being talked about. It was all labelled as "feminist" or "collective," as though none of them had their own names or careers.

"That gave me a lot of impetus to sort of push forward and really explore that."

Reclaiming power

"I do have three children. Most women writers I know have to take a lot more intense measures and make far more elaborate psychic arrangements than men to access their imaginations. Art making and motherhood are always seen as mutually exclusive. They essentially are, because your time is taken. 

"But what I loved about the women of this era, of the 70s, was that they were looking after small babies, which meant that, according to the patriarchy, that's not the stuff of art. These women decided to take the domestic and look at it and measure the science of it, in a sense.

Most women writers I know have to take a lot more intense measures and make far more elaborate psychic arrangements than men to access their imaginations.

"I love that reclamation. There is the notion that your gaze is not an artist's gaze when you're looking after a small child. But that's just because we've been told that's what it is.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be that way."

Desert light

"The desert is close to my heart. I've spent time out in California's Death Valley. I've camped in Joshua Tree National Park. I love how you are forced into a viewership with the sky. You are in a relationship with it that is so intense. 

Light is the biggest thing we have in our waking lives.

"In a way, it is a metaphor for making art. You're so incredibly aware and present and alive to the moment. Romy studied light in the desert and light is just a way of looking at time. Light is the biggest thing we have in our waking lives. In Southern California and the desert, everything is lit up in a way that there's no edges. It just sort of melds into one.

"It just endlessly fascinates me."

Heidi Sopinka's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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