About The Author
Sheila Heti studied art history and philosophy at the University of Toronto. She is the author of several books of fiction, including The Middle Stories and Ticknor, and a book of 'conversational philosophy' called The Chairs Are Where the People Go, written with Misha Glouberman, which was chosen by The New Yorker as a best book of 2011. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, McSweeney's, n+1, The Guardian, and other places. She works as interviews editor at The Believer magazine and lives in Toronto. How Should a Person Be? uses transcribed conversations, real emails, plus heavy doses of fiction to explore such fundamental questions as: What is the sincerest way to love? What kind of person should you be?
Author image courtesy of Sheila Plachy
Questions & Answers
How did your friends feel about being included in a book that was partly fictional and, in fact, where borrowing bits of others' lives is one of your narrative threads and leads to a rift with one of the main 'characters', Sheila's friend Margaux.
It was really painful and really exciting, both things at different times, and both things at once. My friends were afraid for me, and for us, and for what it would ultimately do to all our lives. I didn't think there was any reason to be afraid. But I think that's because you don't really know what you're doing when you're making something new, something you've never made before. There's a part of you that's always really innocent, that misses the big picture. I think if, when you're making something, you can see the big picture, then the picture's not big enough. It has to be way bigger than you, so it's impossible to see it, so it's impossible to be afraid of the things one should legitimately be afraid of. You're forced to look at the details instead, and the details are always things to perfect or work on, not fear. I don't know. It was hard but it was fun.
Much of the book is about Sheila and Margaux' friendship and yet Sheila says, 'A woman can't find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman - not permanently.' Does she discover through her relationship with Margaux that she was actually wrong?
When Sheila said that, it was from fear. It wasn't from experience. Most of the things we think so strongly can just be things we tell ourselves out of fear. Then she goes into that fear - into the relationship with Margaux. She spends all her time with Margaux; they become best friends. But it's not like she learns the opposite. Her fear was founded. The relationship was dangerous. It was dangerous in the sense that it changed them both. She didn't really find rest in the heart of Margaux, or really take up a home in her heart. But what a conservative desire that was, or outcome that would have been! She found something better, I think, something more dangerous than that, but more interesting.
What came first, the fiction or the autobiography, did the book originally start out as one thing and merge into a hybrid or did you conceive it that way?
It started out as nothing, just as notes, me thinking, making transcriptions, looking at the world, looking at the voice of this character ('Sheila') and looking at my imagination. I wasn't thinking: is this fiction, is this autobiography, is this a long essay, non-fiction, journalism, a play, self-help? It was all those things at once. I wanted to bring the best I loved in every form into my writing. I didn't see any reason to leave anything out. I just took what I wanted, what I needed, from what I loved and needed from different forms. I wasn't thinking about the end result, just about moving myself through it, and the best way to do that.
In the book Sheila agonizes over her inability to finish a play; it seems to be a painful and ultimately unrewarding exercise but you have actually written several. Is this one of the ways in which fiction and fact part company, or do you dislike the process and yet feel compelled to engage with it anyway?
It is both agonizing and compelling - writing. It is rewarding and unrewarding. It's everything all at once. My ex-husband once described love to me as 'every feeling all at once', and that has stayed with me. I wasn't sure whether it was true. But writing is certainly like that. It's a relationship with something you're making and the relationship is kaleidoscopic: you love it, you don't enjoy it, it's the most enjoyable thing in the world, it's tedious and frustrating. I love it because it's everything. It's love: it's every feeling all at once.
How did you know when the book was 'finished', and do you envisage publishing another instalment?
I didn't know it was finished. With my other books, I knew they were done, but with this one, because it reflected my evolving understanding of things - well, my understanding kept evolving, which meant the book kept changing. It kept pace with me. I wanted it to keep pace with me and not fall behind. So the question of it being 'done' wasn't separate from the question of when I was 'done' and I was never 'done' and so the book never felt finished. (Or it felt finished 400 times, but then I always found something more to with to it.) Finally I just had to decide: it's finished. Then I published it in Canada. Two years passed before I published it in the States, and I rewrote it - I finished it more for that edition. This second finishing felt more satisfying than the first, because the first was like 'just finish it!' and there was something a bit arbitrary about that stopping point, five years in. But then refining after that stopping point, which happened for the US release - that felt more like an artistic act.
It seems from Sheila's experiences that it's much easier to work out how not to be than how to be. Although Sheila admires certain individual qualities in different people, that doesn't make them fully role models or mean they have worked out how 'to be' either. In fact, aren't those who seem most comfortable with themselves just being, without the questioning?
Yeah, probably. But I'm not that curious about such people. I prefer people who have overcome self-consciousness. It's more interesting, people who have overcome things, than people who never had the difficulty in the first place. Anyway, I think Sheila does figure out some really key and important things about how to be, things even I wasn't aware of till I figured out what those were, writing the book. And now I'm living them.
Can you say more about the allure that celebrity holds for Sheila, a world where 'people would rather be liked for who they appear to be than who they are'?
I don't think celebrity is more alluring to Sheila than it is to most people - celebrity, in our world, it's like some God-ish light on you, almost. Your existence is justified in a world where there's not that great thing - God - to justify every one of us. From the outside, it can seem the protection or benediction of the Gods. I know it's not really that, celebrity, but it can look like that if you just kind of glance at it and don't think of what it must be to inhabit it. And with Sheila - even her question - the problem is an infatuation with surfaces.
As well as this book and several plays, you've also written a book for children and short stories, established the Trampoline Lecture Hall series and you edit and conduct interviews for The Believer, among other things. How do all these come together?
I just do whatever I want to do, and at different points I wanted to do all these things. I think I have always been interested in monologue, interview, voice, personality, acting, what an actor is, the ways we are all actors, and the ways we are vulnerable and can't help but reveal ourselves, even when we want to - and try our best to. We think we're doing a great job of it sometimes, concealing, but another person just needs to glance our way to see 90% of who we are.
Who are your literary influences? And your other inspirations?
Everything I read is either repulsive to me or really incredibly useful. So I can be inspired by many things: by an autobiography of a karate master, by a really smart cookbook, by great literature. I can usually find something in anything, unless it's so horrible I can't read past the first page. If I can read past the first page, there's usually something amazing to think about in there.