Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be?, published this month by Anansi Press, is a chronicle of identity. She used five years of her life as source material, and emerged with a portrait of herself. Or, that is, a certain fragment of herself, along with certain fragments of her close friend Margaux, and smaller fragments of other friends and lovers.

It’s the kind of book that envelopes you in the author’s mind, although it’s never quite clear what the author is confessing and what she’s fabricating. But does it matter whether or not something is confession or fabrication? I don’t know. And I’m not quite sure Sheila does either.

There are a few things that are certain – How Should a Person Be? is very fun to read, Sheila’s head is a fun house to hang out in, and Sheila is quite happy being done with figuring out how to be. I sat down with her to talk about some of these things.


You wrote this book based on interviews that you conducted with your friends. I got the impression somewhere that you went into interviews with friends knowing what you wanted to find out. Is that true?

No, that’s not the truth. When I was taping Margaux, it was just a lot of taping. We’d go somewhere and I’d be taping and we’d go somewhere else and I’d be taping, and taping other people too. But there’s not something specific I was trying to get out of it apart from trying to understand how people talk – I was interested in seeing what dialogue really sounded like. So taping and transcribing – I was more interested in that than anything else.

And was that - as the narrative goes in the book - geared towards possible dialogue for a play?

I don’t know why I really started. I was working on a play at the time, but I’m not sure. I bought this tape recorder and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It was just one of those instincts – you don’t know why but it feels right.

Something that constantly tripped me up as a reader and especially preparing for this interview is the line between the persona that you’ve created in the book and the author that you are. This is something that you’ve commented on, saying that this book is entirely fiction, but with a non-fiction truth beneath it – that it shouldn’t be read as a memoir. Could you elaborate on that difference? What’s the dynamic that you’re trying to create between truth and fiction?

Well I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely fiction – a lot of the stuff that happened in the book happened to me but the reason that I keep saying that it’s not memoir is that I think the motivation of memoir is so different from what my motivation was. To me a memoir is someone trying to write about their life with the hope of putting some kind of story together based on their life. When I was writing this book what I was trying to do was understand this question, “how should a person be?” - which was a real question for me at the time - and use my life, look at my life the way that I would look at a character’s life. So that’s my way of understanding the world, through fiction. I used my life as material for fiction in the hopes of being able to live beyond this question. So the actual book itself has fiction and it has non-fiction and it has thinking and dialogues, but it’s really a mix of everything because I wasn’t concerned about creating fidelity or infidelity to my life.

There’s a passage in the book where Sheila is having a conversation with a man named Solomon and the two of you get to the topic of the Israeli constitution, or rather the lack of an Israeli constitution, and there’s a great quote, where Solomon says, “If you don’t write a book by which to rule yourself, you are opening the door to all kinds of things that only God knows.” Is that what this book is supposed to be for you? Is it what it ended up being for you?

Yeah, a little bit. To me, it’s not really clear what are the laws by which you should rule yourself. We don’t have much fidelity to any religion in the kind of circles I run in. You just kind of make it up. I think that it’s worth thinking about it and writing it down, and writing it down for me is narrative, because narrative is a really moral form. And so if I can write down a moral narrative that involves me - as I, in some way, understand myself - then maybe I can live in a more orderly way, according to my deepest convictions. And for me, I learn what my deepest convictions are by writing fiction. I learn what I think is moral by writing fiction. I can’t really just sit down and think “well what’s the most important thing I should have fidelity to in my life?” It has to take five years of work.

How did you learn that? Was it when you were writing stories or writing Ticknor?

It was after Ticknor – a few years after I wrote Ticknor, it was realizing that if I looked at Ticknor or thought about it, I could remind myself of certain ways not to be. At the time that I was writing Ticknor I didn’t understand that, but now I think that if you’re going to be paranoid about people, you’re gonna end up as this miserable, alone man in a room who can’t even go to a party. So then I realized that I can use my own fiction in this way.

When you were writing Ticknor, did you start to relate to that character?

I became that character.

Yeah, I read that you were sort of playing him in your day-to-day life.

We can’t help it because if you’re writing that kind of thing every day, it just becomes part of the way you think. So it’s like an actor who plays a role in a movie – they’re really happy to have that movie done so they can sluff that off. For me it’s the same with writing.

So was creating a character or persona for yourself a way of purging yourself of the character that was not you that was taking over?

That’s interesting – I mean, it was partly me. It’s like when you write a book there’s a part of yourself that you’re emphasizing and you’re thinking about and the other parts become very small, so the “How Should a Person Be?” part of myself became very big. I was very looking forward to the book being done because I know from my experience writing Ticknor, that once the book was done I would be able to move on and change. Cause the thing is when you’re writing a book you can’t change. You’ve got to be the same person five years later who’s the person who started the book or else you can’t finish a book. So somehow if you’re not writing a book, you change at a regular pace – like maybe gradually over five years. But if you’re a book, all those changes kinda get stop-gapped and then once you finish the book then all the changes that would have happened over five years happen quickly – like in six months.

D: One thing that I really admired about the book is that this persona you created for yourself is so different from the personae that come out of popular culture – there’s more of a darker self that people try to hide and you decided to flush that out and bring that part of yourself in to public. One of the things that has been said about the book is that it’s somewhat like reality TV. And there is an element to reality TV where people push their darker sides. Would you say that you lived this character that was a little more malevolent than maybe you intended it?

Umm…No. And I wouldn’t say that it was a character, I would just say that there was a part of my self that I was thinking about more than other parts. I think maybe even I’ve said it’s a character, but hearing you say that, I feel like it’s going too far. I think that it’s just part of myself that’s more alive. You know, if you’re in a relationship with somebody, they activate certain parts of your self, and if you’re in a relationship with another person that activates other parts of your self. So writing this book activated certain parts of myself. But I do think that the malevolent question’s interesting because part of what the book is about is ugliness and how you live with your own ugliness. And for me, I thought that that’s really important. And one of the things that I was thinking about when I was writing it was that, and I’m sure men have their own version of this, but especially women and young women in particular – there’s this need to put on your beautiful side and be likeable and be attractive and to be appealing. To me the question is – how can you live and resist that? How can you resist that in a way that isn’t just rebellion? I like beauty as much as anybody, I like being appealing as much as anybody, so what’s the virtue in being appealing? What’s the virtue in not being beautiful?

So was the ugly painting competition something that came from real life?

Yeah. When that happened in our circle of friends that’s when the book really began for me.

So maybe we can talk a bit more about ugliness. What’s the connection of the personal ugliness that we all have, and creating something ugly and what that means for the characters in the book? What is that interplay between inside ugliness and outside ugliness?

Well I think if you are an artist, then the things that you make are very closely related to you. So if you make something ugly, then that says something about your own ugliness. I think there’s not that much of a divide. For Margaux, she doesn’t even understand what ugly is. So for her, that’s not her question – beautiful and ugly. Somehow she’s way beyond that – she’s thinking about other things. So that’s why the competition doesn’t really affect her in any way.

How did you start to think about relating to Moses? How did that come into the book?

I dunno just very naturally. Moses gets the laws, right? I think in the book there’s this desire to be a leader – to tell people how to live, to show people the best way to live. That was Moses. So there’s a desire to be famous and a desire to be Moses, to be looked at by the world and to save the world.

You mentioned in your interview with Eye Weekly that everyone’s writing a novel about themselves on Facebook. Maybe you could elaborate on your experience with self representation on the web, but more specifically social networking, and what that means for you and your friends?

Well you could either not think about it too much or paralyze yourself with thought about it or have a strategy. I know people who do different things. I’ve got a friend who has a real strategy, she knows who she is online is different from who she is in real life and that’s it. And I would say her facebook page is very entertaining and coherent and exciting and she has a lot of followers. She’s happy and there’s no friction for her. And for me, for a while, I was always trying to figure out, am I being honest? Or, somebody tags an ugly picture you and you’re like if I untag that that’s vanity, but if I leave it up then I just feel like shit, but there’s all these questions and I think it’s the question of somebody who’s trying to create something. Should you be trying to create yourself online? Or should you just let it create itself…? I don’t know that I have an answer to that, I think that’s something everyone is thinking about.

I think it’s a negotiation between the two. Between creating yourself and letting yourself be created for the world around you, which is something that you are doing with this book.

Yeah you have to let yourself be created because otherwise you’ll go crazy. I worked for this senior Canadian artist for a while and he was so… anytime somebody wrote something about him that was wrong he wrote them this long letter and he was really trying to control his image. And this idea of trying to control your image seems very old fashioned – I mean, he’s 80 years old. You can’t do that, you can’t control anything. And I keep thinking about all the bullying that’s going on with the web. Unless we, as a culture, get to a point where we can understand that there’s a real difference between who a person is online and who a person is in their body and their life, then that kind of stuff is just going to be fatal to so many people. Not even in exteremes like suicide but just when you feel humiliated because of who you are online. It’s complicated.

And that’s an issue that Margaux confronts in the book, when you first start recording her, she has this great line that she doesn’t want her words floating around without her body. It kind of leads me to asking you about the typo that comes up in your book, the soul/sould typo. Was that something that sort of came at you or was that something you decided to do?

No, that was real. I still do it when I’m typing. It really was this thing I was like ‘why does this keep happening’. Is it just S…O…U…L… It’s just because you alternate hands. But you alternate hands with lots of words... I don’t know.

And did you ever figure it out? Do you think it means something or do you think it’s just a random typo.

No! I mean it’s gotta mean something if you keep doing it over and over again! (laughs)

Let’s talk about Margaux’s painting for a minute. Some of the painting that she creates which you described in the book are real paintings. The Buddha is real, and the house and the head painting is real. Is that you in “House for a head”?

Yes.

And what does it mean to have a house for a head?

I don’t know. I never figured it out. Maybe I just stay in my house a lot! (laughs) I dunno. You have to ask her.

The big question I want to ask you is really what your process is, in general for starting to write, and then writing and then editing your novel, what the process was for this novel. It’s known that you did interviews, but what did you do with the transcripts afterwards, and how was the process made where you sort of constructed the novel out of those bricks and mortar of your life?

Well, there were like 50 different processes all happening at once. So there were certain things that I did that were random. Things with cards, and there were maps, and there was carrying around cue cards, and there was transcribing, and writing, and so many things all mixed up together and tons of things that I read that I would make into scenes in the book, stuff that I read about open source software, and a million things that didn’t get in, so it’s hard to say now, in any kind of coherent way. It was improvisational, you know? I didn’t really know where I was going exactly.

That’s interesting. And did you feel like you were improvising the entire time? Did you feel like it was very improvisational?

Well I would have felt like that if I knew for sure that I was going to end up with a book, but I didn’t know that, at the time it just felt like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’...

When did you find out that it was going to be a book? When did you come to that conclusion?

Last summer maybe? Because Anansi said they wanted to publish it, so then I said ‘Okay, it’s going to be a book’. But even up until quite recently I didn’t know if it would work as a book.

Could it still be something else? Might you still adapt it?

What do you mean adapt it? Like into another book?

Well into some other medium, like a play or something.

Well, I don’t know. I keep thinking it might be interesting to put all the source files online, and then people could build their own book from all the material that wasn’t used, but I don’t know if anyone would really want to do that. I think that could be interesting. Would anyone do that?

Well when I finished reading it, I really enjoyed reading it, I had a fun time, so I kind of wish it went on longer, I wish that I could just stay in this world and read it when I wanted to. I have this thing, and I think a lot of people do this, where I read books and then don’t want to finish them, because I don’t want them to close. So that would be fun. But then somebody said to me, ‘Well, maybe you wouldn’t actually want to read what else there is because then it would ruin the whole text that was created.

But does it feel like that to you? That there’s this thing and nothing else can come in or go out? Or not? Because I’m not sure if that’s true.

No. It doesn’t feel like that. I wouldn’t say that it’s a book that’s totally solid and nothing can leave. I feel like it’s a book that I’d like to read again because it has a lot of layers of meaning.

Do you think it makes sense to put a hundred files that didn’t get in, or a hundred scenes and transcriptions that didn’t get into the book onto the Internet?

I think that would make a lot of sense actually. I think that would be really great. It would be really fun because it would be great for people who read the book and want more to be able to seek that out. Maybe that’s sort of the compromise between the solid text, as itself, and everything else: to have everything and the ability to seek out more.

Do you think it needs to be interacted with? Or you don’t want interaction you just want to read more... random...

Well I would just sort of want to read more. But interactive might add an extra dimension, but that just takes more work, to create something interactive out of a series of notes. I mean, it could be really cool and a lot of fun to read. Obviously it needs to be accessible in some way, not just a list of files to click on, but... You finished this project and you said, I mean I read that it’s maybe something that you are happy to be done with and move on from.

Yeah, but I could put stuff on the Internet, but then it might be disappointing because maybe the stuff that didn’t get into the book is not as good as the stuff that’s not in the book, I don’t know.

It’s so imaginative and so alive. You’re right it would be kind of like that! Okay so if I put all that stuff on, so the interactive stuff that I was thinking of was... people could take all that extra material and edit together a new version of the book, because I’d be happy to see a better version of this book that I wrote, if that’s possible, I don’t know if that is possible, I don’t mean that...

The reason I am laughing is that it totally fits with the book. If you think you can do... it ties in with the theme of self doubt and the theme of collaboration with society, and I really like that.

Do you think anybody would? I mean if you’re a writer then you want to do your own thing, and if you’re not a writer you might not be interested in doing that.

Well I think there’s a level that, as a reader, you want the story to be there. You don’t want to have to do all the work, but since there is a novel and there is all the source material, I think it works perfectly.

So you’d put up the finished novel, and then like hundred other dialogues and scenes?

Yeah.

It would be kind of fun to do... I’ve been thinking about it for about two years now, and I just... now that the book is in the world I can really think about it, now that it’s done I can think about what next.

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