Sheila Heti wearing a shirt that says Natures Child.
Sheila Heti in a shirt that says Nature's Child. Her story in the New Yorker is about a dead woman who climbs out of a grave because she finally thought of a good comeback. Photograph by Lee Towndrow

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A little trivia for you literary nerds: Sheila Heti's first-ever piece in the New Yorker, a short story called "My Life Is a Joke," was originally written for a February event at Hugo House.

What's that? You didn't know about it? Oh come on, I tried to get you to go, but you just wouldn't listen. Serves you right. It was a great night—helped along by a great theme, Laugh After Death—and it also included amazing new poems by Rick Kenney. But no one could even remember Rick Kenney after Sheila Heti got up there and started reading.

She began:

When I died, there was no one around to see it. I died all alone. It’s fine. Some people think it’s a great tragedy to die all alone, with no one around to see it.

I don't want to say any more (go read it), except that the story used to be ever so slightly different—the parts where the narrator talks about coming all this way to tell the story were a little different in context, because Heti had really come all the way out here (from Toronto) to tell this story. The night before she read it, we had drinks and she told me she was going back to her hotel room to work on her story some more, to make it fit the Laugh After Death theme better, to make it funnier.

The funniest thing to me? The words "the raisins." Can someone explain to me why "the raisins" is so funny in this paragraph?

Lying there under the ground, salt and soil and sweat and worms and seedlings and saplings and the bones of dried birds collecting in my mouth, and my blood caked dry, and my toes curled up, and my brain filled with hair and the feathers of birds, and the little white balls of whatever it is that sometimes specks the soil—those little Styrofoam balls—and the shit of dogs, and the piss of skunks, and the seedlings and the saplings and the acorns and the raisins; it is so amazing I could think down there, in that total, wet darkness. You never know, lying in the ground, what your niggling thought will be. You can take only one thought with you to the grave, and invariably it is a thought that bugs you, something that must be thought all the way through to the end before you find your peace. The thought I took was of a man I loved saying, “You are a joke, and your life is a joke.” It cleaved to my head and my muscles and my bones, until I was nothing but those words.

My first thought, sitting there in the crowd, listening to Heti read the story aloud, was: We have to publish this in The Stranger. My second thought was: No, she should send it to the New Yorker—it's so perfect for the New Yorker.

There was an after-party thing, and during the after-party I explained where I thought the story should go. It was so funny and fully formed and fit the New Yorker perfectly, or at least my dream of the New Yorker, that edge between laughter and darkness. Heti didn't seem to think so. She had all sorts of reasons not to send it to the New Yorker. The story wasn't good enough. The Paris Review had recently rejected something of hers. The cocktail she'd ordered looked like a bowl of soup. Blah blah blah. I told her we'd be happy/honored/etc. to publish it in The Stranger, but she really ought to try the New Yorker first because I had a distinct premonition of it being in the New Yorker—and the New Yorker, what do you know, couple weeks later, agreed.

It's not the first time a piece of writing commissioned specifically for Hugo House ended up in the most prominent place to publish a short story in the world.

A story by Sam Lipsyte specifically written for the Hugo Literary Series also ended up in the magazine, according to Peter Mountford, a novelist who also curates Hugo House programming.

As we were talking, I asked Mountford how he would describe "My Life Is a Joke" and what he remembered about it from that night at Hugo House. He described the story as "hilariously Heti" and "so on-the-nose and self-aware" (regarding the night's theme) and said "it has that quality of her writing I love, in that it's brutally self-effacing." He added, "I love how her work is both confident and filled with self-doubt, and I think that really came through in that piece."

How did he come up with the theme Laugh After Death?

"When we came up with that prompt for the literary series, I wanted to do one on death but I realized so much writing about death is monotonous and morbid and drab. I think the best writing about death fights against it, so I asked people to write humorously about death."

"I love that piece," he said about "My Life Is a Joke." "I thought it was an amazing evening in general."

If you care about literary culture, if you want to be up on the latest, you might want to hang around Hugo House more. After Heti read that night, she gave a talk the next day on A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, a talk Maria Semple attended.

When I tried to get Mountford to tell me who was coming to Hugo House next year, he said, "We haven't unveiled our forthcoming season, but we'll have a bunch of exciting stuff." Then he let it slip that Maggie Nelson is coming (!!) and got off the phone.

Needless to say, "My Life as a Joke" never ended up in The Stranger, but the fiction series "Everyone Sees Through You" did.