Sheila Heti, the award-winning author of PURE COLOUR, joins Zibby to chat about her new book, ALPHABETICAL DIARIES, a passionate, reflective, and joyful collection of thoughts she gathered over a ten-year period, and then arranged from A to Z. Sheila describes her creative process, explaining how she explored patterns and repetitions while alphabetizing her diary entries. She and Zibby also delve into the essence of the self, the surprising continuity of personal identity over time, the challenges of editing such an unconventional project, and the allure of reading someone else’s diary. Finally, Sheila shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sheila. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books," now to discuss Alphabetical Diaries, which is so creative and the coolest idea for a book, ever. Why don't you tell listeners how you came up with this?

Sheila Heti: I'm not really sure how I came up with it. In 2010, I started this project. It was this question of, what would my diaries look like if they were alphabetized by sentence, if I broke apart the chronology and just read, "I hate him. I hate him. I hate him," written over ten years? I was trying to look at the past years of my life and see what the patterns were, what the repetitions were, try to understand something about change and who I'd been in that time, but not by reading through the diaries chronologically, but alphabetically.

Zibby: Do you think doing it this way there's anything lost versus someone who sat down and read your diaries straight through?

Sheila: I think it's just different. It's more about the essence of a person and, again, the kinds of things you think about over and over again. More that than narrative scenes. It feels more like being inside somebody's mind, tracking thought and tracking the mundane thoughts and the more philosophical thoughts and the thoughts about sex and the thoughts about clothes to buy. You kind of see what your life contains by doing it this way. Whereas if you read scenes, it's a completely different thing.

Zibby: It was interesting because some of the sentences -- whereas if you're crafting it from scratch, you might explain the transition from one to another. We can't tell in the book if it's something that came right after it or if this was from a different diary. Am I jumping a couple years here or not? Does it even matter? I guess is really the point of it all. Does it matter? It sounds like you're saying it doesn't really matter because it's all me.

Sheila: Yeah. It's surprising that you can have a sentence from 2007 beside a sentence from 2012, beside a sentence from 2005, and it reads very continuously. It reads like the same person. It's mysterious how static the self is. That's kind of what I realized. Your circumstances change, but not as much as it feels when you're going through it. You change, but not nearly as much as you think you're changing. It's interesting. I think it's sobering. You had this idea in life that the point is change. After doing this project and editing it for ten years, I kind of feel like the point is not to change. It's not that the point is not to change, but change isn't the essence of life. The essence of life is this self that you can't help but be no matter what.

Zibby: It's so funny, I read this diary I had out loud, this travel -- I was on a trip. I was taking a similar trip with my kids. I was like, I'm going to read you this from when I was about your age, which was crazy because I felt like I was sort of introducing myself at that age to my kids at this age. As I was reading, I'm like, oh, that's so funny. I still say that all the time. That expression, I still use. I still always write about what I had for breakfast, or whatever it was. That's not so different, even though I was only eleven years old.

Sheila: It's funny, isn't it?

Zibby: I guess we are kind of who we are at the core.

Sheila: I think so.

Zibby: The diaries, you edited it for ten years. How long a period of time did the diaries encompass? From when to when?

Sheila: 2005 to 2014, basically. I started the project in 2010. Then after a few years of working on it, I just thought, I'll put all the diaries of the last few years in it. I write my diaries on the computer, so it's not that hard to do. I didn't have to type them all out. They're there. I don't write every day in a diary, just when I feel like I need to. It ended up being about half a million words altogether and then cut to about sixty thousand words. Ninety percent of it was gone. I think the ten percent that remains, it really is representative of what was there. I wasn't cutting to save myself embarrassment. I was cutting because, how much repetition do you need?

Zibby: Was there anything you were embarrassed to include?

Sheila: Yeah, of course. It's very intimate. It's a diary. When you're publishing such a book, you don't really know what you're revealing. You're like, what kind of person is coming across in this book? You can't tell. When I write my novels, I have a sense of the character I'm trying to create. When it's you, you can't really see yourself. It's like looking in the mirror. You're like, am I pretty? Am I ugly? Do I even look like anything at all? Somebody sees me. How do they recognize me? You're just kind of invisible to yourself. It's the same thing with the diaries. The person that comes across is sort of invisible to me. That's kind of scary. It's scary to publish something like that. Also, what are you going to do? You just have to publish what you finished, what you've been working on, what you're interested in.

Zibby: I would argue that for the reader, it's the opposite of invisibility. You're literally entering somebody else's head. It's all your own thoughts. All you do is see you, so there you go. Do you read it back? Have you ever read it back to yourself just straight through, start to finish?

Sheila: No, I've got better things to do. I like to read other writers. Once in a while, I might dip back in. Say today is February 23rd, which is it, which is my mother's birthday. I might be like, what was I doing on February 23rd ten years ago? With any luck, I'll have a diary from that day or around that day. It'll be interesting to see. I don't really go into it very often.

Zibby: In your diary on your computer, do you have each sentence isolated? Do you write it sort of like poetry?

Sheila: No. I went in and did a "find and replace" and put every sentence on its own line.

Zibby: It's just such a cool idea. I couldn't get over it. It's just the coolest idea. It keeps going on every single letter. Did you find you were attracted to a particular letter when you're like, oh, my gosh, R was the best chapter ever?

Sheila: No, I didn't. I thought I was the worst chapter ever because in a diary, way too many sentences begin with I. That was the hardest one to edit because it could've just taken over the whole book if I hadn’t reined it in. Every sentence has exactly its own place in the book. There's only one place every sentence can be because it's alphabetical by the first letter, second letter, third letter, fourth letter. There would be these sentences that I'd want to keep in, but more important than keeping that sentence was having this sentence over here chronologically and this sentence over here chronologically next to each other. I would have to cut that one in the middle that I really liked because it was more important to have those two next to each other to create a joke or to create some weird juxtaposition. It was just a very different way to edit than I've ever edited.

Zibby: Wow. Do you alphabetize everything in your life? Are all your books alphabetized?

Sheila: No, my books are a mess.

Zibby: Maybe this is your search for control in a crazy world. Do you know what I mean? A way to make sense and put order into things that have no logic.

Sheila: I think when you put chaos inside a container, you can see it in a certain way. This was definitely the chaos of a diary and the fluctuations of a diary within an ordered, regulated shape. Can I bring a scientific approach, almost? Can I bring an analytical or can I bring a controlled approach to looking through ten years of the self?

Zibby: Whose diaries would you really like to read? Who else? What other person, famous or not?

Sheila: I don't think most people keep diaries.

Zibby: Theoretical diaries. Let's pretend. If everyone in the world, living or deceased or anything -- random question.

Sheila: I haven't thought this through. When you're a kid, in grade six, the diary you would want to see is the boy you have a crush on. I'm writing so much about him. Is he writing anything about me? I think in some way, you're interested in the people that you love. You're interested in their thoughts about you, but it would probably be the worst thing possible to read those. I don't know. A lot of writers who I admire, I've read their diaries. It's not something that I do as much as I used to do. When I was young, I would read writers' diaries in my twenties to see, how do you make a life as a writer? What are the things they think about? What do they do every day? I'm really not answering your question. I don't know.

Zibby: It's tough. I don't know. As I was asking it, I was like, would I have an answer to that? I don't know. Part of me feels like I would want to read the diaries of people I love who have passed away, just a chance to get closer to them again and remember their voices and things they would say that maybe have been slipping out of my mind or something. I think the person I would least want to read -- well, no. I shouldn't say that. Never mind.

Sheila: Were you going to say your husband or your children?

Zibby: Perhaps. Perhaps.

Sheila: We don't want too much truth.

Zibby: I don't think I could handle it. What other projects are in the works for you now?

Sheila: I've just been on book tour for the last two weeks through the US and Canada, so I haven't been working. I've just been meeting friends and meeting people. Now that I'm back, I have to start thinking about what's next. I think I might give myself a couple days. I only got back yesterday.

Zibby: I didn't mean you had to start this week. I thought maybe you had another years' long project that you put a pause on to go on the book tour or something.

Sheila: I have some things, but they're so in flux that it's not worth talking about. I'm visualizing cake mix. It's like batter. It's not ready to eat.

Zibby: Sometimes the batter is the best part. Just saying.

Sheila: That is true. If it has an egg in it, then you don't want to eat it.

Zibby: It's true, so it's more like cake batter than cookie batter. My daughter is making chocolate chip cookies downstairs. I was yelling out, "Save the dough." Then I'm like, no, I shouldn't tell her to save the dough. I should just get those cookies in the oven. What was the book tour like? Were you surprised by anything?

Sheila: It was great. There was really good attendance. People enjoyed hearing me read from it. It was fun. It's exhausting, but I enjoy that hour that I'm on stage. I don't really love the lead-up to it, but I enjoy the actual conversations I had with people.

Zibby: Was there anyone who said something and you were like, this makes it all worth it? Some of those comments?

Sheila: People liking the book makes it feel exciting. I got some emails from writer friends that were really enthusiastic about the book. It's gotten better reviews than any of my other books. It's been a very positive reaction, which I'm very excited about because it's a weird project. When you edit something for fourteen years, hopefully, it's good by the end. I feel like it is. I had an opportunity to publish in 2013. I felt like it wasn't quite ready. Not only was it not quite ready, it was ten years from being ready. I'm glad I didn't publish it then because it feels done and good now and in the perfect shape.

Zibby: Wow, it's so neat. I feel like it's art. It's part book, but it's really part art in the way that you can use letters and words and senses of order and the systems that we turn to to make sense of our lives and how that -- I don't know. It's just the coolest. It's the coolest conceptual idea and, of course, in actuality as well, getting these little glimpses of your life all throughout and being like, oh, my gosh. Then, next. It's just very cool, which of course, you know, but I just thought I would say it again.

Sheila: I appreciate you saying that. Thank you.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Sheila: Just read widely. Read old books. Read contemporary books. Read books by people who are like you, who are different from you. Get a sense of what's been done, what can be done, what hasn’t been done. I think that's important. That's really important. Don't just read the one little genre that you're interested in or only books from the last ten years because you think you're not going to relate to a book that was written hundreds of years ago or two thousand years ago. I just think that the more you read, the more you can see where you would fit into literature. What is there that you can say? What can you bring to the conversation? It's a conversation with living people, but it's also a conversation with all the books that have ever been written.

Zibby: I have this book coming out called Blank. That's exactly what my character does. She publishes a book that's blank as a commentary on all the books that have come before it to make a statement about how a lot of times, it's marketing that dictates what books people buy. It's not even about what's inside the books. That was my whole jumping-off point.

Sheila: Does the book become a best-seller?

Zibby: That's the goal. She's like, I'm going to turn it into a best-seller. I won't give away the end. It's interesting to think in the way that art does that. Everything is a conversation with what comes before it. How does literature do that? How can you actually make a difference in the most crowded field ever? There are so many books. How can you stand out? You can reorder your sentences. You can hand it in with nothing there.

Sheila: What is there to express that hasn’t been expressed that you feel in life? You're like, this is something I feel in life that I don't think has been put on the page. You wouldn't know what blanks to fill in if you don't know what has been written and how.

Zibby: Sheila, thank you so much. Thanks for coming back on. Go rest after your tour.

Sheila: Thanks for having me on again.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Sheila: Bye.



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