In her poignant and imaginative new novel, “Pure Colour,” Sheila Heti opens up about an unusual concept: humans are bears, fish, or birds.
Those who care most about their closest relationships are bears. People focused on the common good are fish. And those who care most about beauty and aesthetics are the birds.
“People born from these three different eggs will never fully understand each other,” writes Heti, but “fish, birds, and bears all have equal importance in the sight of God.”
It’s an idea she’s had in her head for almost 15 years. When she was writing her novel “How should a person be?” more than a decade ago, she considered the possibility that “God is three art critics in heaven,” she said in a video interview from her home in Toronto last month.
Criticism features prominently in Heti’s worldview (“I think the critic tries to keep bad art out of art history”) as well as “Pure Colour”, which Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish on February 15. Heti, 45, initially set out to write a novel about art criticism, and traces of her original project sparkle through the book.
Its protagonist, Mira, a young woman living in a “first draft of existence”, enrolls in a prestigious academy for training critics, where novice writers learn to think. (Mira, it must be said, is a bird.)
As a student, Mira meets and falls in love with a young woman named Annie. But Mira’s most complicated relationship is with her father, who introduced her to the beauty and mystery of the world, and whose love she cherished and stifled. “Mira longed to experience a cold ice bath as a lifetime,” writes Heti. “It had been difficult to be held so tightly by the most bearish bear.”
Once her father is dead, however, the heart of the story skips a beat. Mira, who was so sure of her path and her desires, reconsiders her choices. Her father’s soul turns into a leaf, and Mira joins him for a time, weighing whether to remain suspended in the comfort of his closeness or return to live a full life.
Heti had no intention of writing a book about loss. In 2018, while writing “Pure Colour”, her father passed away and she began writing about her experiences and emotions by hand, separately from the novel.
It wasn’t until she looked back at what she wrote months later that she realized it belonged to what became “Pure Colour.” (Heti writes a limited-edition newsletter for the Opinion Section of The Times based on her diary entries from the past decade.)
“I’ve never seen a book turn out for me in such a surprising way,” she said.
Heti, author of 10 books, is used to borrowing from her own life to feed her fiction. Her two most recent novels, “Motherhood,” about a woman’s decision to have a child, and “How Should a Person Be? feature protagonists who are Canadian writers. They wonder, fuss, and look outside of themselves—to their friends, to the art, to the I Ching—for answers. Reconstructed email exchanges and relayed conversations often appear in Heti’s work, inviting comparisons with autofiction writers such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner.
“She understands what it takes to examine and make something out of nothing,” author and artist Leanne Shapton, a friend of Heti’s who has collaborated with her on several picture projects, said in an email. “That sometimes doing work is like giving CPR to a drowning victim for 36 hours, or even months, straight. Whether she lives or dies, she is there.
Heti grew up in Toronto, the daughter of Hungarian Jewish parents, and Jewish theology and history shape much of her work. She studied art history and philosophy at the University of Toronto after leaving the National Theater School of Canada, where she seriously considered becoming a playwright. (She once enjoyed playwriting more than writing novels, she said, which “seemed like the most boring thing you could do.”)
Her first book, a collection of fable-like tales called “The Middle Stories”, was published in 2001, when she was 24 years old. His 2005 novel, “Ticknor”, was inspired by the real-life friendship between 19th century authors. William Hickling Prescott and George Ticknor.
But with “How Should a Person Be?”, released in the United States in 2012, Heti began to “think about the novel from scratch and what writing was for me,” she said. Although she had already written two books, “I had so many very basic questions that I felt I had to answer.”
His friendship with painter Margaux Williamson – along with remembered conversations and scenes from his life – forms the backbone of “How Should a Person Be?”, which is divided into acts like a play and explores how the two women organized their lives as artists. .
“In her work, she used herself as a fool – she trained herself to belittle herself,” Williamson said. “But what Sheila does is recognize the ego that is present in every creative work and eliminate it.”
Some Critics of “How Should a Person Be?” challenged what they saw as the narrator’s self-involvement. But others praised Heti’s insight and voice; Times book reviewer Dwight Garner included it as one of 15 Women’s Books That Changed 21st Century Fiction.
The curiosity that guides her writing corresponds to Heti’s real curiosity. For years she was the interview editor for the literary magazine The Believer, covering everyone from Dave Hickey to Joan Didion.
“She’s a writer who is truly an artist,” Shapton said. “She does not stop to illustrate or enlighten, she always asks questions, thinks, philosophizes.”
The intoxication Heti felt when she launched into “How Should a Person Be?” wasn’t around while she was writing “Pure Colour.” “Maybe it only happens once in your life,” she said. “Maybe you can do it again after 30 years, but not after 20 years. I like that feeling of learning and questioning everything from the beginning and starting with all the new assumptions.
But there is a noticeable change in tone in “Pure Colour”. Williamson also noticed the change after reading an early draft. Even after decades of friendship, she said, “I didn’t know the depth Sheila had in herself.”
In Heti’s early books, readers see worldly characters engage in philosophical or aesthetic contests, at parties, in conversation with friends. The characters in these novels don’t tend to linger in discomfort: scenes and moods change quickly. But “Pure Colour” readers stay with Mira through heartbreaking emotion.
Part of the change, Heti said, comes from her being “less afraid to feel things.” With an experience as global as bereavement, “there is no real escape”.
There are fewer characters in “Pure Colour”, which reflects Heti’s changing life. “I’ve been so interested in people for so long,” said Heti, that she encountered burnout out of curiosity. “I have come to the end of everything I was looking for.”
With the book about to be released, it’s too early for Heti to know what her next project might be. But she has questions, of course.
“What would it be like to write without trying to fix anything, fix anything or embellish anything, comfort or entertain? she wondered. “What if you took away all those motivations? What kind of writing occurs then?
In case it wasn’t clear, Heti, like Mira, is a bird — “obviously,” she laughed.