In her role as interviews editor with the literary magazine The Believer, Sheila Heti has captured insights from conversations with the likes of Joan Didion, Mary Gaitskill and Sophie Calle. She is also a formidable author in her own right: her five books – two novels, a book of short stories, a work of self help/philosophy and a children’s book – show her to be a writer with an ability to play with genre, willing to push herself and her writing.
Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, was published by McSweeney’s Books when she was just 24 years old and her next novel Ticknor – a fictionalised account of the life of American academic George Ticknor – was praised as ‘deliciously intimate and [as] clue-riddled as a Poe story.’ Her 2011 non-fiction book The Chairs Are Where the People Go – co-authored with her friend Misha Glouberman – was written from a series of conversations held over coffee in Heti’s apartment, and based around various topics – games, relationships, cities – that interested Glouberman. The book has been labelled conversational philosophy.
Her most recent novel, How Should a Person Be?, is a similarly crowd-sourced work but this time with a larger cast of friends. It is inspired by the artifice of reality television, written from transcripts of conversations and carries the subtitle ‘A Novel from Life’.
It is part fiction, part memoir and part self help. It plays with notions of superficiality but is also a necessary meditation on what it means to be a woman, and an artist, and a friend. At the centre of the book are the transcribed conversations between the character, Sheila, and her best friend Margaux. In these conversations they grapple with the titular question as well as examining their anxieties and ambitions. It has been a divisive book, heralded by some as having ‘a startling voice all her own’ and derided by others as ‘hideously narcissistic’.
But Heti seems unflustered by criticism of her work. As the title of her book would suggest, she is interested in posing questions that may not have easy answers. There is an openness to her work that invites conversation. Her opinions shift and change and her interest seems to be in collaboration and discussion. She has begun working on a new project with Leanne Shrimpton and Heidi Julavits called Women in Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear, which will be constructed from interviews and surveys and released by Penguin in 2014.
KYD: I just reread a great passage in The Chairs are Where the People Go, the book of conversational philosophy that you wrote with Misha Glouberman, where Misha is discussing the ‘impostor syndrome’. It’s where you feel as though you will be caught out as being less experienced or less impressive. Is this a feeling that you have ever had while conducting interviews?
SH: No, I don’t think I have that feeling when I’m doing interviews. I write a column for a fashion magazine and sometimes I feel a little bit like that when I’m writing the column but I don’t feel like that in the interviews that I do for The Believer. Sometimes I have that sense with the fashion column because I can feel like a bit of an impostor trying to come up with a conclusion. But if I’m just asking people questions it feels really natural.
KYD: That leads into something else I wanted to ask you about. In a response to a feature in the Globe by John Barber you said ‘what one says in an interview is always used to support the myth the journalist has’. How do you overcome that when interviewing people?
SH: The interviews that I do for The Believer are different. I don’t feel like a journalist in that strict sense because when I’m doing interviews for The Believer I’m not writing commentary, I’m just expressing, just showing what they said. When I’m editing it and formatting it I’m not adding my own commentary to it. Maybe editing is a form of commentary, but it’s a much more faithful form of commentary. It’s a little commentary.
KYD: Are you more comfortable being the interviewee or the interviewer?
SH: I’m comfortable in either position. I prefer interviewing but I’m fine being interviewed.
KYD: [Laughs] I read that you don’t like to interview novelists because you believe the answers are in their work. Do you think it’s possible to discover things from writers in interviews that you can’t get from their work?
SH: I’ve changed a little bit. I think I’m more interested in writers than I used to be. I’m more interested in their process. At the time I wasn’t but I am now.
KYD: At the time of writing How Should a Person Be? you weren’t reading novels. Do you think there was something about fiction and novelists that you were rejecting at the time?
SH: I wasn’t rejecting novels, I just wasn’t really interested in them. I couldn’t summon the interest and I think that there was a good reason for that. I was trying to write a book that wasn’t based on novels, but on other things: reality television, my experience in the world. So in retrospect there seemed like there was something productive about not being interested, but at the time it didn’t feel like it was productive. It just felt like a bewildering feeling of mine. But now I’m interested again. I’m reading novels again.
KYD: So you’ve started reading fiction again, it’s something you’ve returned to?
KYD: And are you still watching reality TV or is it something that you moved away from?
SH: [Laughs] I’ve moved away from it.
KYD: I’m curious about your interest in reality TV and shows like The Hills, and it got me thinking about how you were using your friends’ voices. How conscious were you of being accountable to your friends in a way that perhaps the producers on a show like The Hills are not?
SH: I think The Hills is an exception because I actually talked to one of the people who was an executive producer on the show – I talked to him about a year or two ago – and it seemed like they had an ethical relationship to the actors. Everyone was conscious of what they were doing in an artistic way. It wasn’t like they were trying to exploit these people. Okay, but that aside, I do feel like I had a stake in not exploiting my friends. I didn’t want to. I wanted to maintain my friendships, and everyone was very conscious all the way through the process of what was going on with my book. There were no surprises. Everyone knew that I was writing this book and Margaux read a million drafts. It was built with her participation.
KYD: I’m glad to hear that the The Hills is ethical, because I have a secret soft spot for that show! Did you find it easier to work in a collaborative way rather than shutting yourself away in a room? Perhaps like how you worked on your earlier novel Ticknor and your short story collection, The Middle Stories.
SH: It wasn’t that it was easy. Well, I don’t know. I think it was more fun, so maybe that made it easier. But for the actual work of putting the book together, I eventually had to be alone in a room. I eventually had to sit down, by myself, and do the work of putting the book together and writing it. For the first few years I felt like I was getting away with something. That I had kind of evaded the hard work and that I could continue to. But no. At the end I had to sit down and write it and put it together. But I am still quite drawn to collaborating, because I do think that you get so much from other people. You can get a lot from your imagination, but you can get a lot from other people, too.
KYD: How Should a Person Be? grew from conversations that you taped with your friends, and from experiences that you were having. At what point did you realise you were making a book?
SH: I had a lot of material but I didn’t realise that all the things were connected. It was just different files that were separate from each other in different folders. They didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other. And then, probably about two years in to this – well, what I can now call two years into the book, but at the time it was just two years in – I came home, I’d been out with some friends, and I just sort of assembled it all in one night.
On some level I must have known that all these parts had something to do with one another, but not until I assembled it that night was I conscious of it. And after that it was clear: ‘Oh, I’m writing a book, these pieces all have something to do with each other.’ And they did.
KYD: Because you’ve drawn so much of it from life, how did you know when to finish, when to stop, and when it was done, because it was coming so much from everything around you?
SH: Well, I think I just got fed up at a certain point. I just couldn’t be working on it. My life changed pretty dramatically about three years ago and I started to realise that I was having a lot of new thoughts and feelings that were very different from the thoughts and feelings that went into How Should a Person Be? and it was just time to finish it. This happened because I fell in love.
KYD: That’s really interesting, that love was something that helped you to close that chapter of your life, and in doing so, finish the book. It seems that you’ve tried many different ways of creating art. You’ve had experiences with acting – which you say you didn’t feel you were good at – and you have even danced with dancers from the National Ballet. Do you feel comfortable as a writer? Are you compelled to write? Or do you think there are other art forms you want to explore?
SH: Well, when I danced with the dancers from the National Ballet, it was an experimental piece where I was the ‘non-dancer’ so I don’t think that counts [laughs]. I decided when I was really young that I would write. When I became a teenager, I decided that I was going to only write – not act, not take pictures, not paint, all of which I enjoyed doing – because it seemed like people who did many things were never as good at any of them as people who had chosen one thing. I thought writing was the thing that I was best at and it came most naturally and it felt endless.
When taking photographs, I never had the feeling like ‘this is bottomless and it’s so much bigger than I am and I’ll never be able to master this.’ I didn’t have any of those feelings. Whereas with writing it’s a complicated relationship. I feel I’ll never get to the end of it. It’ll never stop being interesting.
KYD: I suppose there’s a lot of freedom in that, terrifying as well, but there’s always something else that you can be writing about. I wanted to ask a little bit about your writing process. Is writing something that you work at every day or is that something that you think about over of a long period of time, let accumulate and then write?
SH: With How Should a Person Be? it was very much fits and starts. I’d work really intensely for a few weeks, then I wouldn’t work at it for weeks or months. I think I’m probably more erratic. But it’s been different for different books. It’s hard to generalise about my process because every book has been different.
KYD: Do you think your experience with acting colours how you write? Do you think you perform as a character when writing?
SH: I did feel like that with How Should a Person Be? and I’m not sure that I would ever do that again. I think it’s maybe harder or more interesting just to be yourself, than to be a character. And it’s more complex. In How Should a Person Be? I made this Sheila character so awful in so many ways, and a human really is more balanced than that. People were saying, ‘Why would Margaux be friends with this person Sheila?’ I think when you create a character it’s a distortion of a human, and I’d like to get farther and farther away from distortion.
KYD: How Should a Person Be? brings up some interesting questions about the need for women, especially young women, to be likeable and be attractive and to be appealing. How hard is it for you as an artist to expose your ugly side? In the book, the character Sheila finds freedom in ugliness, does this apply to you as well?
SH: It’s not hard in art because ultimately you are detached. My art is close to me, but it’s not me. I find it hard as a human in the world to be ugly, but I don’t find it hard with art. I don’t think anyone is judging me for my art, even though they probably are, but I don’t experience that. The reader is so far away from me as a person. I feel the pressure that anybody does to be present in life, and I feel an obligation and a willingness to go along with being pleasant and appealing in life. That’s just part of being in society. There is a certain point where that desire to be likeable turns over and it becomes something sick, but I’m not sure if that’s a sickness I feel right now.
KYD: And you also write: ‘There are some people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who keep the world ticking. They are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what sort of person we should be.’ Do you ever envy these people? Are you happy to be compelled to create art or do you sometimes wish to be free from it?
SH: I don’t really know what it would be like to have a life that didn’t have art at its centre. I mean, it’s been the centre of my life since I was five years old. It’s the thing that I’ve always cared the most about. I can’t really imagine what other people’s lives revolve around. I guess they revolve around their children and I’m not sure what else. No, I don’t envy them because it’s a great source of pleasure for me, and meaning.
KYD: The character Sheila becomes a hairdresser and finds that to be quite a meditative experience. Is there something that you do in your life that’s like that, that is separate from creating art, but maybe allows you the space to reflect on it?
SH: No, unfortunately. I’ve got a friend who is just amazingly talented at beautifying her environment. And she wears fabulous clothes and her apartment is great. I ran into her the other day and she was getting three pairs of pants made for her in her favourite style of pant, and I would love to be able to do that with my environment but I can’t really. I think deep down I feel like it’s not really important. Well, I do think it’s important, but I don’t think it’s important.
KYD: It was really refreshing to read about an intense female friendship in How Should a Person Be? Was it something that you had intended to explore or did it just emerge as a focus as you were writing?
SH: It emerged. People read drafts of the book and many people said that their favourite parts were the parts that were with Margaux. In early drafts of the book there was just so much other stuff and the relationship with Margaux was quite small. It wasn’t the main thrust. And I felt at the time it was true – that it’s maybe more interesting to see people together than to read a long tract about open source. I decided to make it a little less, I don’t want to say philosophical, but to make it a little less detached from the human. I tried to embody, as much as possible, my ideas in the intimacies of the characters and the interactions. As the drafts went on I put more Margaux and Sheila in.
KYD: I could see myself reflected in How Should a Person Be? and it has become an important book in terms of me defining how I feel about being a woman and my relationship to creating art and feminism. Are there any books that were important to you in terms of defining yourself as a woman and a feminist?
SH: Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was really huge for me and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I read that when I was sixteen. That book was really important to me. It was the book that made me start thinking about feminism for the first time. It was a very popular book when I was in high school. I guess I just read it because everyone was talking about it, but it had a huge impact. And I remember reading Anais Nin and Henry Miller. Even though Henry Miller’s not a woman, there’s still something about his books that were really important to me as a woman. Something about the way he describes what the body does. On some level I think you can politicise everything, but on some level I think you can’t. It’s beyond that. But it’s also important to think about.
KYD: It’s interesting that you bring up Henry Miller. The sex in How Should a Person Be? reminded me of both of Henry Miller and also of internet erotica and fan fiction. There’s something so immediate about it. Did either of those things influence you in how you write about sex?
SH: Henry Miller, for sure. I’m not sure if fan fiction did or didn’t. I haven’t read much of that stuff. But I was thinking about internet porn and the intensity of it and the intensity of the degradation. How important degradation is to so much of it.
KYD: You asked a great question of Mary Gaitskill in your Believer interview and I would like to plagiarise it here… Do you ever feel like you would rather have been born a man, or are you happy to have been born a woman?
SH: Well, I think it’s more interesting to have been born a woman. I’m happy to experience the ways in which it’s hard to be a woman. And as a writer I’m glad to be a woman because I think there is a lot to say and a lot to explore. I’m sure it’s not easier, ultimately, to be a man. I’m sure it’s not easy to be expected to have the whole world under control and to have to appear strong. That might come with its own depressing and awful elements. But I like women and I’m happy to be a woman.
KYD: I just wanted to ask a bit about Toronto. It seems like there’s a really supportive network of artists. Does being part of that network help you as a writer or can it be a little claustrophobic as well?
SH: I pretty much socialise with who I want, so I don’t find it claustrophobic. I don’t do the things that I don’t want to do. Home can be claustrophobic for anybody, but I don’t think that it’s because I’m a writer. I’m grateful for the people I know and the artists that I know here. When I talk to them, I don’t feel like they’re down my throat or anything.
KYD: Do you think it’s freeing to be a writer in a city that’s not considered one of the literary capitals? Is it helpful to be an outsider?
SH: I’m happy to be part of a community that I’ve had a hand in creating, rather than having stepped into one. I’ve had a longing to be in the most exciting places one could be, but it’s really more interesting to have to create your own excitement, rather than stepping into an excitement that’s already there.
KYD: You’ve recently toured Australia, appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. How does your experience of attending festivals compare to your experience of writing? Are you more comfortable in one sphere than the other?
SH: I’m definitely more comfortable in my home working than I am going to festivals. It’s not really why you do it – for comfort. But I usually have a good time and I also usually miss home.
And I’m always glad to have done it because a life just spent sitting at home forever is not much of a life. It may feel good, but you’ll have no memories. It’s not like you’ll remember one writing day, then remember the next writing day and the next writing day. You remember one day that’s made up of six years of the same thing. So, it’s nice to have an experience.
KYD: Yeah…and I imagine in Australia you were introducing the book, which has been out for several years now, to a whole new audience as well and might have to be explaining the background more than at home – I’m wondering if that process puts you at a distance from the work?
SH: It still feels like mine but, I don’t know, I’ve gone through so many stages with it. I’ve been promoting the book for three years, which is a really, really long time to talk about a book, especially when you’re ambivalent about talking about it to begin with. But I guess that it’s just part of my job now [laughs] to talk about this book. It doesn’t distance me from it, it just puts me in a completely different relationship with it, where I have to think about it from the outside, or try to remember what happened. I don’t have a very good memory, and especially when you’re writing something, it’s hard to have an accurate memory of what happened.
In some ways you just end up making up a story about it. When you’re working on something for so long, it goes through so many stages. If you ask me a question about it, I can’t talk about all those six years or seven years of stages, I can’t give that answer. So you end up fabricating some form of story, which is fine. It’s kind of nice in some ways because you still have the privacy of the experience. I don’t like the feeling that I’ve completely given away the experience. But you can’t completely give away the experience because there’s just so much that happened that you’ll never be able to talk about it all.
KYD: And do you have time to think about what you want to do next, when so much of your time is being taken up talking about what you’ve previously done?
SH: I feel like I definitely have moved on to other things. I was nervous that I was behind, because of all this publicity and so on, but when January rolled around this year I realised I’m not behind. I’ve actually been thinking about other things these past three years, I just wasn’t 100 per cent focused on it. It was happening in the background of my thoughts, because I had to do all this other stuff.
But I sometimes think that the beginnings of a book always happens in the background, so nothing is really lost. Even with How Should a Person Be? there were a couple of years where I thought I wasn’t making anything, and I felt really anxious about it, but then one night I realised I had begun. It’s the same now. Last year I thought, ‘oh my god, I haven’t done anything, I’m just talking about this book still’ but I had actually already started other things.
KYD: Thanks so much for chatting with Kill Your Darlings, Sheila. It’s been a real pleasure.