By Ella Christoph
In “How Should a Person Be?,” Sheila Heti’s new “novel from life,” Heti tracks the everyday adventures of her eponymous protagonist Sheila, who is recently divorced, struggling to complete a play and unsure how she should go about life. Toronto-based Heti, who shares many but not all the attributes of her character, is interviews editor at The Believer and creator of Trampoline Hall, a lecture series in Toronto and New York featuring speakers who are “nonexperts” on their subjects. By turns wide-eyed, deadpan and titillating, “How Should a Person Be” is unswervingly candid in its portrayal of Sheila’s adventures in figuring out how she should be. I spoke with Heti about self-help, Truth and the delights of interviewing.
“How Should a Person Be?” and “The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work and Play in the City,” your collaboration with Misha Glouberman, are both, in some ways, self-help books, but they are also very different. “The Chairs Are Where the People Go” is more tangible —this is how you set up chairs, this is how you make friends. But in “How Should a Person Be?,” I felt like I was watching the character Sheila figure out how she should be, but it wasn’t obvious how it would inspire the reader to go on her own journey to become a better person.
You’re seeing the things that Sheila is trying to grasp at to help herself, like the stuff she comes to at the end about putting fences around the stuff you love, the stuff you want to keep intact. I do think some ideas are arrived at, but obviously it’s not spoken so directly, “You should do this, you should do that.” It’s more Sheila telling herself, whereas in “Chairs” it’s Misha telling Sheila and the reader.
I definitely was thinking about self-help books and reading self-help books when I was writing this book. What I like about self-help books, why I found them so interesting, is they really involve the reader in this way that seems more like theater or relational aesthetics, where the audience has to put the book into their own life. Like a self-help is telling you really directly to change your life in specific ways, and novels never really do that. With “How Should a Person Be?” one of the interesting questions is whether it can work as a self-help book in that way, where one does live differently as a result. I wrote it so I could live differently as a result. This is a book I’ll be able to look back on for the rest of my life and be able to help myself with. I was trying to look at the things I was really bad at, and come up with a solution for those things.
It seems you really enjoy self-help, but your book reaches so far outside those bounds. Were there aspects of self-help books that you wanted to draw from and incorporate into the way you treated personal growth?
Yeah. I find self-help books interesting, but unfortunately, they’re usually badly written. And for another, they’re usually kind of simplistic, and often you don’t get much of an emotional effect reading them. You feel like your life is going to be different, but one week later you’ve already lost whatever inspiration the book gave you. A novel, on the other hand, a novel which has an emotional impact, that stays with you a lot longer than somebody’s instructions to you in a book. So I do think that there’s a lot that genre lacks. I wish a lot more serious writers would play with that form, because I think there’s a lot that’s really interesting about it. We just dismiss it, even though that’s one reason people really do read—to figure out how to live.
Your book came out in Canada in 2010, and here you are doing a second round of publicity. Do you feel like you have some distance from yourself then, versus the character Sheila, versus yourself now?
After reading a lot of reviews of the book, I’m getting a picture of what this character looks like to the general reader. But I didn’t have that sense, or I had a different sense, of what the character looked like when I was writing the book. So much time has elapsed since I started the book—seven years—and I have to come up with these answers for interviewers, and often I feel like I’m guessing—guessing at what I felt like when I started writing it, or what I thought about then—because now it really is so long ago.
But had you not written the book, which is partly about writing this book, don’t you think your memory of what you felt would have been even more dreamlike?
Yeah, but the book is not really the truth, so instead of remembering the truth, I remember the narrative I created for the book. I have a bad memory to begin with, but this makes it even harder. There’s this big block standing in the way.
It’s like when your parents show you a photo of you when you were little, and you create this memory that you didn’t have before you saw the photo. Except you’ve created this own memory for yourself.
Yeah, exactly—because I’ve been thinking about the book a lot more than I’ve been thinking about what actually happened. You create this text, and think about the text.
You said this book isn’t truth to you, and it reminds me of things I’ve read by John D’Agata. He’s this champion of the unimportance of accuracy and fact, and instead is focused on Truth-capital-T. Are those questions of fact and truth and Truth important to you? Did you want to bring attention to those questions, or is calling “How Should a Person Be?” a “novel from life” a way of sidestepping that controversy?
I think it can be limiting for a writer to have to think about what category they’re working in, so I would champion breaking down those boundaries for writers. But ultimately, if you’re writing journalism, you have to follow the rules of journalism. But if you’re writing fiction, you don’t have to follow the rules of fiction. There are these scandals quite regularly of journalists making up facts, and I sympathize with them. I find it very hard to stick to the facts too. But I don’t call what I do journalism. So I think that the ethics there are different than the ethics of a fiction writer. A fiction writer should just be concerned with using whatever they can and doing whatever they need to do in order to tell the story or to express the conditions they’re trying to express.
Maybe it’s just semantics, but was the term “memoir” too accurate and fact-based to apply to what you were writing? Or did you just not want to have to worry about fitting genres?
I wasn’t thinking about genre when I was writing it, I was just writing. I just called it “Book Three” in my head, and that was the file on my computer, like it wasn’t “Novel Two” or “Memoir One.” I think “book” is a really useful word.
Over the course of your books, it seems as though you get closer to and closer to opening yourself up to the reader. In “How Should a Person Be?” I feel like we get to hear who you really are. Was it difficult to open up and take over the voice of someone else?
Well it wasn’t my voice. I do feel like I took over the voice of someone else. To the reader it looks like me, but to me it didn’t feel like that. I do think there’s the illusion of that, but I do feel like it was a voice that I took, the same way that I took on the voice of Ticknor. It wasn’t hard to do. To me that’s just the job—the job is that you try to express the concreteness of whatever character you’re embodying. So that just feels natural to do.
That seems like a very theater-based concept, of embodying the character. When you’re watching a really amazing actor, you forget that there’s an actor, and they just become the character.
Right. I do feel like it was a role, and it’s a very hard role to shed, because it was close to me, close to my life. But the differences were pronounced enough that it wasn’t. But that sort of made it a little harder to shed, to very slowly and gradually realize I don’t need to ask other people for their advice on what I should do, for instance, which I did a lot of when I was writing the book. It was almost like Method acting, where you never step out of the role, even when you’re not on stage, but the character is something that you build, so gradually, and then to unbuild it is also gradual. And you may have forgotten by that point, six years later, which parts you built for the character and which parts are more essential to you.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten to pick and choose what parts of that character you value and want to keep with you, or do you feel like it’s not really under your control?
I want to keep all the parts that have to do with being a moral person and dispose of the parts that are vain, fame-seeking, insecure. I want to keep the noble parts. Those [negative qualities] are easy to let slide, because I’m not actually a fame-seeking person. You can’t really create, in a condition of scrutiny.
Some parts of your book are written in standard novel-format dialogue, with Sheila’s perspective interspersed with the quoted text, whereas others are written as though it’s dialogue in a screenplay. Did you agonize over what scenes to write which way, or did it come naturally to you?
It wasn’t like I wanted to write a scene and then recorded the dialogue. I was randomly recording conversations, a) not really knowing if it would end up in the book but also b) not ever knowing what the conversation would be about. So sometimes I would just bring my tape recorder and record what was going on, and then I would transcribe, and then those things were just scenes or material that I fit into the book.
It changes the way you read it, with the dialogue. As the observer, you get to make your own judgments about it and you’re less in Sheila’s mind than when you’re deep in how she’s seeing everything.
There were criticisms from friends during earlier drafts where they thought there was too much dialogue, and not enough in Sheila’s head. So I hope the balance is there now.
It could become too much to be always in Sheila’s head.
You need an outside and an inside, right? Like “Ticknor” [her earlier novel] didn’t have an outside, it was just an inside, and now this book has an outside too.
Yeah, it is, but also it’s inside. The whole point was, what does one man think about? What does one man know? I don’t know. I guess I don’t think about that book in terms of outside and inside. The one way I used to think about it, and I do still, is, “What are the boundaries of one person’s mind?” Other people seem to know so much that we don’t know, but there’s also so much limitation. It seems so exotic to listen to another person talk, because of all the things they think and know, but to them, it’s very circumscribed. It was like an experiment: If I take down everything Misha knows, will I soon be able to see the walls and limits? Is there a boundary beyond which you cannot go?
As an interviewer, how does it feel to be on the other side of interviewing?
I prefer interviewing, because I’m interested in other people, and I like to explore somebody else’s character. Being interviewed, you feel a certain amount of caution that you don’t feel as an interviewer. I don’t always feel I know what I’m saying when I’m being interviewed because, to speak in an interview, I can sometimes get self-conscious in a way that prevents me from being very conscious. I mean, it’s harder to think clearly when one is self-conscious. So it can feel risky. But interviewing doesn’t feel risky, it just feels like a game, it feels like playing, it feels like being a bit of a trickster. Whereas being interviewed doesn’t feel like that, at least to me. I’d love to be that kind of interviewee. I’d love to be like Harmony Korine or Andy Warhol or any of those people who really play, but I’m just too honest and literal. I have to just say what I really think.
“How Should a Person Be?”
By Sheila Heti
Henry Holt and Co., 320 pages, $25