We've been crowing to anyone who'll listen about how much we enjoyed Sheila Heti's debut novel Ticknor. It tops our Recommended sidebar, was our LBC pick for Spring and was even the subject of our first mainstream print review. We've been holding this interview back so it didn't get lost amid BEA madness but we're pleased to present the latest Three Minute Interview - Sheila Heti. (For those who don't remember the rules, first three questions are custom, last two the same for all 3MI players.)
TEV: Please tell my readers a little bit about how you stumbled onto this obscure relationship, what drew you to it and what animated your decision to render George Ticknor in considerably different hues than the original?
SH: I randomly came across "The Life of William Hickling Prescott" by George Ticknor on a bookshelf in a cafe in Toronto. I looked inside, and felt at once that I could make good use of the book, so I stole it. Then I had to use it, to justify my stealing. Around the same time, I began thinking that I wanted to write something that would mirror the way the mind speaks to itself, and that there should be nothing in the book outside this mind, just as in life our minds are everything. Happily, Ticknor turned out to be a natural specimen; I intuited a character that was sympathetic and yet disgusting. His cadences held hands well with my own understanding of rhythm. And my anxieties at the time melded well with what someone who was part of the most elite class in American history might also have been concerned about, such as whether your behaviour is causing constant offence, whether your friends truly love you or are simply putting on a show, whether you're an insider or an outsider, whether your letters are being preserved by friends outside of Boston…
TEV: Both you and your editor responded to a line in my Boldtype review – "If this is how it was, what are we to make of Ticknor's laudatory Life?" Would you explain why that particular line struck you so?
SH: Well, it's a reasonable question. If Ticknor really was a deeply envious man, as my book illustrates – though I don't mean to suggest I know anything about the real Ticknor – why would he write in such outlandish praise of one of his closest friends, who bested him? How could any man not be envious? And yet, if indeed he was, how could he write except in the way he did? Praising someone you're jealous of is not a lie, it's good manners. Ticknor was from a different age. He was a gentleman, and in his biography of Prescott, he portrayed a gentleman. In my case, I am a mess portraying a mess.
TEV: Can you tell us a bit about your reading series Trampoline Hall?
SH: I think a common misconception about Trampoline Hall among the seven people who even have a conception of it, is that it's a lecture series at which people speak on subjects outside their areas of expertise, which is of course true – people prepare lectures on slightly off subjects, but the point of the nights is not to hear some quirky talk or so that we all might take delight in amateurism. It's about the feelings you have as an audience member while watching someone on a stage talking, as the person they are, having been put in a slightly awkward situation. Now you see someone up there who is no better than you, because they are not an expert, and they are speaking the way we all speak all the time, about things we only half-know anything about, but they are performing this role that we do naturally, constantly, without thinking about it. And you can judge them, or not. And you can question them – there's a Q+A portion – and even in your questioning of them, the audience can judge you, the host can, the lecturer can judge you, and by the response you evoke in the lecturer, by your question leading the show in the direction of something inspired or down into something lame, you can see yourself for yourself; there's proof of the extent your value and contribution, and in all this, clues to the question we all have about whether we are a good human being. It's not about the topics.
TEV: (Bonus question): Hungarians are just naturally cool, aren't we? I mean, they?
SH: The Hungarians didn't let me watch rock videos as a kid.
TEV: Who's the best writer we've never heard of?
SH: You might have heard of them, but I adore Jane Bowles. "My Sister's Hand in Mine" collects her sole novel, play and story collection in one volume. She was American but lived in Tangiers mostly, and wrote in the 40s and 50s. Each sentence is a wild surprise, prim and odd and colloquial; she's totally hilarious in the unsettling way of funny people who never smile at their own jokes. And she wastes no time.
I also love Raymond Radiguet, who was Jean Cocteau's protégée and maybe lover. He died of typhoid fever when he was twenty and wrote two great novels, "The Devil in the Flesh," and the second, which I slightly prefer, "Count D'Orgel's Ball." He was a teenage classicist socializing with Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, so on.... Both of these writers understand people in really original ways, and have such distinctive ideas about the role of cause-and-effect in personality and romance.
TEV: Ask yourself anything you like - just make sure to answer it.
SH: You got a staring problem, kid? No.