Tucked away in an alley behind Toronto’s earthy Annex neighbourhood is The Green Room, a bohemian watering hole styled with worn couches, cheap beer and unreliable washrooms. It was on The Green Room’s bookshelves that writer Sheila Heti found her muse—a neglected copy of The Life of William Hickling Prescott, written in 1863 by Harvard professor George Ticknor.
While waiting for a friend, Heti pulled the biography off one of the shelves where many rows of discarded books have found a new home. She was intrigued by its appearance; the author’s name running down a leather spine with only an embossed star to keep it company.
“It appealed to me because it looked so different from all the other books,” says Heti, calling from Montreal. “I brought it over, sat down with it and was struck by the voice and what he was talking about, and how he was talking about Prescott. It just seemed incredibly beautiful and full of something—I just wasn’t sure what—I knew that it had an energy for me. So I stole it, brought it home and that was that.”
What was born out of that serendipitous encounter was Heti’s first full-length novel Ticknor, a fictional account of the relationship between William Prescott, and his biographer and life-long friend George Ticknor, as told from Ticknor’s perspective. Although the novel is light by weightlifting standards, at just over 100 pages, it’s a full, satisfying meal—plus dessert. Although Heti’s 19th-century writing style requires some acclimatization, a patient reader is rewarded with beautifully crafted language and an imaginative dry wit that also permeates Heti’s debut collection of short stories, the popular The Middle Stories.
While the “real” George Ticknor was a successful writer and teacher, Heti’s titular character is actually closer in spirit to the narrator of My Friends (Mes Amis), Emmanuel Bove’s 1920s story about a man who desperately wanders the streets looking for companionship. “That book was the single inspiration. It was in my head while writing Ticknor,” Heti says. “It was also about relationships. It’s called My Friends but he really didn’t have any. He’s the giant looming over this one.”
An unreliable narrator at best, Ticknor dearly loves his childhood friend Prescott (who, in a bizarre true fact, lost sight in one eye due to a childhood incident involving a crusty bread roll), but he’s also blindly jealous of him. Ticknor’s language vacillates between adoration—“Nothing had so filled my heart as my dear friend Prescott”—and envy over his pal’s social status, marriage and writing career. Their life in mid-1800s Boston is a whirl of parties, dinners and receptions, where Ticknor is constantly reminded of his shortcomings outside the spotlight of Prescott’s popularity and successes.
“I was thinking about the social world because I just escaped an incredibly busy social life and while I was writing this book, I was the most social I’ve ever been in my life, by far, far, far,” Heti recounts. “So certainly those things were going on in my head. Like what is this thing called ‘friends’? The kind of friends that one has in a social group are different than the kind of friends one has one-on-one.”
A couple of years ago, Heti, along with her husband, The Globe and Mail music columnist Carl Wilson, were feeling lonely and unhappy, so they took the advice of Heti’s Hungarian grandmother and began hosting bi-weekly Wednesday night parties at their home. During this time, Heti was also running the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series—a monthly event she co-founded where the city’s literati and intellectually curious gather to listen to speakers and topics as diverse as Peter Lynch lamenting the fate of female poisoners of 18th century France, or writer Andrew Kaufman’s dissection of teen star Molly Ringwald.
“The world in which Ticknor lived was a similar kind of world. They entertain at their house and if not regularly, in a more formal way than here in Toronto where you tend to go out to a bar. So I think that ended up reproducing a world, not completely unlike our own in certain aspects,” says Heti.
What sets Heti’s writing apart is her ability to draw on these contemporary experiences within a historical setting without any obvious seams showing. In part, it’s because she didn’t intend Ticknor to be a historically accurate novel: “I didn’t feel like I had to figure out whether they had cigarettes or not, or if they had gas lamps or electricity. I wanted a little bit of a merge between a contemporary world and their world. I didn’t want to exoticize his life. I didn’t want him to walk around with a candle in the evening; I wanted him to have a lamp, so we can be closer to Ticknor because his life closely resembles our lives.”
Ticknor’s modern-day counterpart could be Miles Raymond, Paul Giamatti’s character in the Oscar-nominated movie Sideways. In fact, Raymond and Ticknor have plenty in common—a desperate desire to have their work published, an envy of their friends’ easy-going nature, and a social awkwardness veiled in intellectualism.
Imagine Giamatti playing a scene where Ticknor tries to offer support for his friend after Prescott’s father dies from a stroke. Like every other social occasion, he’s compelled to survey his ranking: “I stood by and didn’t know what was expected of me, and could not tell with certainty whether Prescott knew that I was there or not… How could I have expected him to be concerned with whether he was being polite to me, though he was not, or whether I was at ease and had anyone to stand with, which I did not.”
Heti admits that entering deep, deep into Ticknor’s head was a slow and laborious process, a far cry from her process writing The Middle Stories, a collection of 30 modern-day fairy tales without a “happily ever after” in sight. “I wrote all those stories very quickly,” Heti says. “I wrote hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those really fast. I wanted to turn myself into a machine that would write stories. I felt like if I were to write more short stories, I would end up writing the same book over again. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t—that would be boring.”
Boring is probably the last word you would use to describe The Middle Stories, published in 2001 when Heti was only 24. A sad little dumpling realizes his fate is to dry up and die. A mermaid in a jar, purchased at a garage sale for twenty-five cents, is neglected by her cruel owner on a school trip to Niagara Falls. The old woman who lives in a shoe departs for unknownadventures.
With Ticknor, Heti wanted to take on the challenge of sustaining a narrative and another voice: “I know if I try to write a short story, something like the tone of The Middle Stories will creep into it. When I was writing The Middle Stories I was trying to write as much like myself as possible. So in order to write differently, I knew that I would have to write in another form.”
While Heti’s staying in Montreal, enjoying the break from her hectic life—“responsibilities can pile up and life gets lost in all of it”—she plans on reading, working and walking. Perhaps she’s influenced by her own creation, George Ticknor, who after Prescott’s death, walks through nameless streets in peace: “There was no looking at me, not by the trees or the houses or the streetlamps.”