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Sheila Heti

Toronto’s literary young turk on missing metaphors and frivolous fiction

Interview taken from the February Issue of Dazed & Confused:

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is a new and terribly exciting kind of novel for our thoroughly bonkers times. It’s narrated by “Sheila Heti”, a charming young bohemian writer on a quixotic quest to finish an unfinishable play, maintain her complex relationships with her intense arty mates and get to the bottom of the niggling issue of how it is a person should be. Written with an occasionally wince-making and thoroughly commendable honesty, and featuring large amounts of ostensibly real, dictaphone-recorded dialogue betwixt “Heti” and her loved ones, it’s a timely, gloriously messy, openhearted, clever and beautiful new thing. We had a word with the real Heti in Toronto and took notes...

There have been some great reviews for How Should a Person Be? but some critics have given it a kicking. Do you go in for the ‘all press is good press’ adage, or do you get horribly bummed out by bad reviews?
Sheila Heti: I don’t get bummed, and I don’t think all press is good press. The press goes about its pressy business while the rest of us go about our lives. I do believe people find their way to the books they need to read. Sometimes it’s due to reviews, sometimes it’s friends, sometimes it’s just that the art gods throw the right book in one’s path. I think the art gods have more to do with it than the press.

Lena Dunham’s blurb about your book is dead nice, but Chris Kraus gave her a slight dig in her quote about HSaPB?, saying it had more in common with Don Quixote than Dunham’s girls. what do you make of all this?
Sheila Heti: I like that Chris said that. I think it’s true. Lena Dunham is great and the show is too, but mostly what our things had in common was that they were about young women. I didn’t even feel like mine was ‘about’ young women, though some of the protagonists are young women. It was like half of the people who made those comparisons had never noticed that young women make art! They do! Lots of them do! It was like we were representatives of some endangered species, and that’s not true.

Do you feel like a ‘somebody’, now that the book’s finished and out there attracting all that praise?
Sheila Heti:I wouldn’t say I feel like ‘a somebody’. How does that song go? ‘You’re nobody till somebody loves you...’ That’s more how I feel. I don’t think people enjoying your work from a distance is at all like the feeling of being loved. I have good friends and love a lot of people and have good people to talk to and correspond with, and if all that ever went away, then I’d feel really bad. I used to think it was the task of the human to be perfectly content, independent of other people and friendships and love, but I don’t have that aim any more: I think we’re made to be with other people. It’s a literary novel, but HSaPB? has elements of self-help about it. Are you into those sorts of books? I like books that address a reader directly. Books can help us with our lives; the best ones do, in really oblique ways, but also really direct ways. The problem with most self-help books is they don’t take into account how complex life is – and often the writing is not great. But I admire and am fascinated with the idea of writing a book that is meant to help people.

David Shields is a big fan of your book. Do you share the apathy for entirely ‘made-up’ stories that he goes on about in reality hunger, his rallying cry against fiction?
Sheila Heti: I don’t share his feelings, not really. I just reread Kafka’s The Castle and that book is not ‘reality fiction’, it’s just mind-blowing. I love Dostoevsky, I love lots of things that are purely fiction. There’s nothing wrong with writing in that way, if you have a good reason to. They did. The problem with a lot of contemporary novels is that you feel they don’t know why they’re making up a story. They’re just making up a story because that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a writer. If someone has a better reason than that, you can feel it, and it’s engaging. Anyway, I did have to make up a story for HSaPB? Life doesn’t just resolve itself in text without a lot of structuring.

You agree with him that fiction ‘has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself’?
Sheila Heti: I’m not sure. I don’t know what the culture’s sense of itself is. People maybe feel like the world has to be dealt with from scratch, so that’s why ‘fiction’ can seem frivolous. But I don’t think fiction is frivolous. I do empathise with the need to look at things head-on in a literal, non- metaphoric sort of way. Metaphors can feel obscuring. They want you to look somewhere else to understand the thing you’re trying to understand, rather than looking directly. Maybe some people think there’s not enough time for that – for metaphors, for looking away before looking back.

Do you feel part of a particular movement or scene?
Sheila Heti: I don’t feel part of a scene. I love a lot of work that plays with reality in the way Shields talks about: Agnès Varda’s films, Werner Herzog’s films. It’s a good space to play in. But the reason I was playing in it wasn’t because I decided to; it’s because at some point I decided to focus on the question of the title – how should a person be? – and I wanted to use everything at my disposal, my life as well as my imagination.

The Toronto scene seems like a good crack in the novel. Do you love it and never want to leave?
Sheila Heti: I’m not so involved in the Toronto scene. When I was writing the book, I would characterise the people around me as very giving of their time and themselves; people here are interested in the work of other artists, not only their own work, which is a very fruitful environment in which to work. I often want to leave, but I never do. There are too many people I care about here.

HSaPb? Seems so thrillingly close to your real life. Why not just publish it as a memoir?
Sheila Heti: Well, it’s really not. There’s too much that’s made up. And ‘memoir’ implies that you’re involved in the task of thinking about your life. But I wasn’t. I was involved in thinking about that question, while using the lens of my life, but also the lens of Moses and many other lenses. I have no interest in confession or in telling people about myself or my life.

Your book’s got all those transcripts of real conversations that you and your pals seem to have actually had in real life, though. Did you edit them like mad?
Sheila Heti: Of course I did. I edited a great deal. You want to make something good, something entertaining, something meaningful. There’s always work involved, seven years in this case. A great deal of selection was involved. Most of what I taped I would not have been able to make relevant in book form. Much of it wasn’t relevant to anyone but me. Sometimes not even to me.

What are you working on now; what’s next?
Sheila Heti: Oh, things.

How Should a Person Be? is out now, published by Random House

Photography by Seth Fluker