Through her acclaimed novels “How Should a Person Be?,” “Motherhood” and “Pure Colour,” Sheila Heti has blended the autobiographical and the fictitious in the pursuit of truth. Her newest book, “Alphabetical Diaries,” out Feb. 6 via Farrar, Straus and Giroux, conjures magic out of a wild exercise: Heti took a decade of her diary entries and alphabetized each sentence, stripping away extraneous ideas and creating a rush through her mind. Heti spoke with Variety about her process for this unconventional work and how she’s able to be so honest in her writing.
“Alphabetical Diaries” started as a series of columns in The New York Times in 2022. What was the genesis of looking at your diaries and thinking, “There’s something here I could expand on”?
I started working on this in 2010, so there were many different forms. The New York Times form was the last before the book, but there was the idea that it was going to be an Internet project at one point that was 500,000 words.
What started me thinking about it was I had all this writing on my computer, all these years of diary entries and I had just finished writing “How Should a Person Be?” I’d worked on that book for seven years, and when it was done, I still had that working energy, but I had no idea for a new book. So I thought, “What if I look back on these years that I had fictionalized in this novel?” and just started. What were those years really like? What were the thoughts that I was really having? It’s so easy when you make a fictional work about your life to take that as the real life that you lived. I didn’t want to be confused. But I didn’t want to read through them. So I thought, “Maybe if I have this way of looking through them alphabetically, I can get an overview of what that time was like, the themes and repetitions.” So it was the impulse to ground myself in what had actually happened, and curious as to how that would read.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I wanted to publish this book in 2013, though it wouldn’t have been as good because I didn’t quite know what I was doing at that point. But there was something else about publishing in 2013 that would have been wrong, which was I was too close to who that person had been, who had been writing those journals. I had the feeling in 2013 that a person doesn’t change. I’m still exactly the same person, but now, 10 years later, I feel like there have been changes. It’s not that the thoughts are different, or the preoccupations are different, but as a human grows, ideally you don’t change, but you have strategies for dealing with who you are that you didn’t when you were younger. Change is real, but it’s not the kind of change you imagine where you become this wholly different person. But maybe there’s a greater distance from yourself in some way. There’s more of an objective self that comes that grows with time.
Were there any initial goals you had as you were writing or editing? Did you hope to represent every letter, etc.?
I had something for every letter except for X, and in the last year when I was putting the finishing touches on it, I said, “Do I need something in X? Should I make one of the character names start with an X?” I tried it and I showed it to my editor and they said, ” “I don’t know if that’s necessary,” so I didn’t do that. I figured it’s OK to show that not a lot of English sentences start with an X, and a lot of diary sentences start with an I. I thought, “Just go with what’s true.”
You’re so open and honest in your writing. What is your secret to getting to that zone where you can put it all on the page and be completely vulnerable?
I think I don’t care about myself in some way; like, I’m not important. I can sacrifice myself; I just don’t feel like I’m precious, like I have to protect myself. To me, the books are more important than myself. So I’ll suffer whatever humiliations might come along with being honest for the sake of a book which, to me, has more value than a human. It’s a crazy thing to say, and I don’t think overall a world just of books and no humans is better, but I think books reach more people than a human does.
Are there any other non-traditional books that inspired you during this project?
For this book in particular, there’s a book called “Soliloquy” that Kenneth Goldsmith wrote. He wrote in the ’90s, and he was wearing headphones around his neck attached to a Walkman, as though he was listening to music. But the headphones recorded him, and he just recorded himself for a full week and transcribed it perfectly. There are no stage directions, and each chapter was a different day — and it’s unreadable. It’s so tedious and confusing.
But that book was such an inspiration. There was just something about the completeness and the audacity of it, and how boring it was. When I started this book, I thought, “Maybe this book’s gonna be 500,000 words, the same way Kenny’s book was 500,000 words. Maybe it’s going to be kind of unbearable and unreadable.” But after 13 years, I wanted it to be like a novel and readable and fun for the audience. But I did start with this idea of offending the audience, pushing them away. The non-readable book…but then, in the end, my instincts for entertainment and pleasure went over.
Would you be interested in writing another book that experimented with form in the future?
What I’d want to do next would be sort of the opposite. I would just want to write a traditional novel. I always kind of want to do the opposite after I finish a book.
Is there a sentence or transition in “Alphabetical Diaries“ that sticks out in your mind as especially impactful?
The thing that comes to mind right now is Chapter Q, which is one sentence: “Quiet days not seeing people, feeling fine.” That’s kind of an ambition because there are almost no quiet days of not seeing people and feeling fine. All three things together just seem so beautiful.
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