Sheila Heti on the Rush and the Fear of Youth

This week’s story, “Just a Little Fever,” is about a teller named Angela who falls for an older man, a customer at her bank. When did that scenario come to you?

I wrote this story in early January. For two full days I was writing stories, and I hadn’t written any fiction in so long. I felt extremely happy and lit up inside, and I imagined that I was going to be able to write this way for the rest of my life, that I had figured something out, but it wasn’t true: it was just those two days.

Thomas, the older man, is both handsome and calm. Would Angela have found him so attractive were he only one or the other?

You mean if he was handsome and hysterical, or ugly and calm? Probably not! But mostly I think she was destined to fall in love with whoever I brought into the bank that day.

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Angela feels that men her age have a kind of urgency that she finds off-putting; in fact, for her, pretty much all her peers are jumpy and unsettled. “All of them were trying to figure out their lives,” she thinks. “All of them were aware that they were failing and had the feeling that if they didn’t secure a good life for themselves first someone else might jump in and secure that good life for themselves, and they would forever be left behind.” How exhausting is that period of one’s life? And is there any way to escape it?

I’m not sure there’s any way to escape anything. I remember the frantic rush and fear of that time: the desire to build something and the great difficulty of that, and the sense of the scarcity of good lives. It’s a terrifying but also an exciting time because the stakes feel so high—and they really are so high. I’ve been around an eighteen-year-old a lot since the autumn, and it’s been very intense to see the mushy instability of that first year out of high school up close. Of course, Angela is quite a bit older than that. As for myself, the jumpiness has not really gone away: I’m still as rushed and as hurried as Angela.

Thomas wants to call Angela by his late wife’s name, Pearl. Does that mean that she’s essentially interchangeable with any other woman? Or does it mean that it’s common, to some degree or another, to trick oneself into falling in love with someone?

I wrote the story very quickly and wasn’t thinking about it like that; I liked it because it was funny. It’s something a person would never actually do. But I agree with you: Thomas is making a conscious and deliberate request out of an urge that, in real life, would be unconscious, compulsive, and hidden from him. I think it’s interesting in stories to present humans as slightly different from how we are, with some of our qualities removed. For instance, how would things unfold if we could just say or do the things we most want to say or do, and had no shame, and no sense of propriety, or concern for the feelings of other people? I think we are pretty close to being that way, anyway—just centimetres removed.

In February, you published your fourth novel, “Pure Colour.” Its protagonist is a young woman named Mira, who has been studying art criticism. It’s a novel of ontology, in a way, in its concern with the nature of creation. (It’s also almost impossible to categorize in a question like this!) In contrast to Angela, Mira never seems to rush through anything. Her relationships, with her late father, and with a friend, Annie, seem fundamental to her sense of self. Did Angela emerge in reaction to the novel?

I’m not sure! I hadn’t thought about the connection between the story and the novel. It’s really hard to say where any writing comes from, like saying where a dream comes from. You can make little guesses about certain details, and sometimes when a dream is very obvious its source seems clear, but usually it’s a mystery. I feel like that about this story. I hadn’t been thinking about young women, old men—though now, as I write this, I realize that my novel is about a young woman and an old man, so maybe you’re right!

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