Why author spent nearly 14 years on ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

We are being watched.

As Sheila Heti discusses her new book, “Alphabetical Diaries,” during a Zoom call from her home in Toronto, her dog Feldman can be seen onscreen in the background, his head resting on the arm of the couch, watching her and waiting to go for a walk. Four thousand miles away in Southern California, my own dog is doing the same thing.

“The man’s best friend thing? When I used to hear that I’d think, I guess that’s just what people say. But when you have a dog, you’re like, Oh, it’s actually just the truth; they’re your best friend in this way that no human could ever be. Like, who would ever be sitting there like this?” says Heti about Feldman, who occasionally emits a mournful sigh during our conversation.

The author of acclaimed books that include “Motherhood,” “Pure Colour,” “How Should a Person Be?” and more, Heti created her latest book by extracting lines from 10 years of her diaries and arranging them in alphabetical, rather than chronological or contextual, order to create a unique and compelling reading experience.

“It really did take me a decade to figure out,” she says. “I started to see that, with certain kinds of edits, I was starting to create a world the same way there is one in a novel.

“I was able to see this as a separate fictional world in which a person is living and thinking and moving rather than earlier in the process when it just felt like it was my diaries,” she says.

So is it a novel or a diary or memoir? “At one point, I wanted to call it a memoir, but I think it’s closest to a novel because I don’t feel like it’s confessional,” she says. “I feel like it’s a portrait of a person.”

Q. Why did you decide to alphabetize your diary in the first place?

I don’t know honestly, I just remember one day I was putting the sentences into Excel and alphabetizing them. I can come up with all sorts of reasons after the fact, but I honestly don’t know what the spark of that idea was.

Q. You got a book idea while using an Excel spreadsheet?

I use Excel a lot. [laughs] I use it to keep track of how many words I’ve written in a day or how many words I’ve cut or just tracking progress. Yeah, I like it. I like Excel very much.

Q. These are actual diary entries. Were you thinking, I have all this writing already – maybe I could put it to use?

Yeah, I’d just finished “How Should a Person Be?” and it was such a huge project – like seven years writing – that I knew was going to be a long time before I had anything else to work on, before I had a lot of material to edit, which is my favorite part of the process. It was like, ‘I have a lot of writing; maybe I can just start working because I like working and I suddenly had nothing to work on. So I think I was like, ‘Here’s this archive – what happens if I start playing with it?’

‘How Should a Person Be?’ was sort of about my life, but this was about my life in a much more real way because ‘How Should a Person Be?’ was this fiction whereas with this, once I pulled all the words together, there was no fiction. It was at first just a diary.

Q. The people and names you mention are fictionalized?

I didn’t write any [new] sentences, but I made composite characters out of the sentences … they were like archetypes of the people that I did encounter over the 10 years. But nobody who was in my life would be able to track any of the characters because they are recombined from sentences about lots of different people turned into one character.