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Interview: Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti is the author of The Middle Stories, and the novel Ticknor. This month sees the US publication of her new book How Should a Person Be? Though the form of the story includes Q&A, essays, an attempted play for a feminist theatre, and an interlude at an art fair, the book does not wander much from the question posed by the title. Throughout, Sheila and her friend Margaux interrogate each other about the nature of art making and How Should A Person Be? ends up not a manual, but an unsettling, moving, and often times funny story about living.

This interview was first conducted in 2010 and is reposted here in advance of the book's  launch on June 19 at Powerhouse Arena.

JOYLAND: The kind of autobiographical storytelling you’re doing in the new book has deep roots in performance and theatre (Spalding Gray, for example) but in terms of novels I can’t think of any comparisons. What books are like yours?

SHEILA HETI: I should say that this book is not autobiographical, any more than my last book, Ticknor, was autobiographical. Both are emotional autobiographies, but neither are faithful to the facts of my life or its progress through time.

As for which other novels are like this one – I’m not sure. I didn’t look to books to figure out how to write this book. I didn’t model it on other books. I did think about ideas presented in certain books I was reading, like John Dewey’s Art as Experience or Otto Ranks’ Art and Artists, but those are not books of fiction.

JL: The act of writing is usually a performance for one, rooted in extreme interiority, but in How Should A Person Be? you turn the act of writing into a social performance. Planned…or is that just how it happened?

SH: I didn’t have a plan or a vision when I started this book. I didn’t even know that I was writing a book. I was carrying cue cards with me, and on these cards were ideas or sentences or themes that were running through my life and my mind that I wanted to think about in the context of my interactions. I began tape-recording my friend Margaux, as well as other people. I started to write a book called “The Moral Development of Misha,” a fiction about my friend Misha. I wanted to write a non-fiction book in which I’d interview many people who were successful in different fields, and for those people to give me exercises that could make my brain perceive and think like theirs. One day, all this disparate work cohered in one document. That’s how the book as a book began, then it continued kind of improbably.

I began to understand myself as part of this culture, likely from hanging out with Margaux so much. She really showed me the value of perceiving and being part of one’s time. I had always resisted this time and time in general. That’s one definition of interiority, I think, and I believe many fiction writers are inclined that way: they sort of shut out the world outside and live in the world in their head.

Writing has always been mixed up with performance for me, but if you understand yourself to be in relation to the people around you, and to the world around you, the audience for the performance expands. And this is a culture of performance, right? There are personas everywhere. For a fiction writer, you can choose: you can play with character, or, like the entire culture, you can play with persona. Persona is a social performance, while character is really make-believe.

JL: I know you from a few years ago, and I’ve met many of the names in the book. I’ve seen some of the rooms, or maybe I just think I have. i.e. To be a reader I had to accept How Should A Person Be? as a novel, which I ultimately did. While writing did you give yourself any rules? How much mimesis was allowed? What was too much or too little?

SH: I had no rules around mimesis. What I saw in my head, I tried to put on the page in a way that would remind me of what I saw in my head, same as when I’m writing anything. I used my life the way a painter uses paints, and I used my friends the way an editor of a tabloid uses celebrities – making things up from scraps – except for one major difference: I tried to be as ethical as possible with everyone. I succeeded to greater and lesser extents. I sincerely didn’t want to lose any friendships over the book. To me, that would have meant the book failed.

JL: What was the best thing about writing this book?

SH: When I started this book, the thing I was most interested in was not being alone in my room. I really wanted to be in the world as much as possible, and to try to find some way of writing that wouldn’t entail sitting in my apartment for years, as I had done with Ticknor. I didn’t want another five years of neurotically moving back and forth between art and life – feeling when I was out that I should be home writing, or while I was home writing, wishing I was out. So I wrote this book. And I never felt, all that time I spent hanging out with Margaux – who became a main character – like I wasn’t doing my work, or like I had to rush home to work on my book. All the time we spent together, all the time I spent travelling – it was all justifiable as working on my book. So I think that was the best thing. Most writers, their relationships suffer when they’re deep in a book, but my relationships got better.

JL: What was the worst thing about writing this book?

SH: I completely bankrupted myself, which was a lot of fun then but is not so fun now.

JL: Between your first book and this one, what had changed most for you in regards to how fiction should be?

SH: I used to think I had to search for some Platonic form. I took it for granted, when writing The Middle Stories, for example, that there was a perfect form for each story, and my task as a writer was to uncover that perfect form. With How Should a Person Be? – because it was built from life – ideas of perfection or a perfect form had to fall away; life is always changing, so the book was always in flux.

In the book, I talk about the danger of creating idols and icons. What happened to me with this book was that creating a fiction could no longer mean creating an icon or idol – a perfect form. Form is always really connected to the emotional or intellectual problem I’m trying to solve in a piece of writing, so answering How Should a Person Be? with a perfect book would have meant I’d have to go forward in life being perfect, and I can’t. 

Photo by Sylvia Plachy