Interview with Sheila Heti
In 2007, The New York Times Magazine asked a group of young writers for essays about their college experiences. Most of the responses were predictable—addictions to good grades, new horizons abroad, the pleasures and terrors of youth activism. Then there was the piece by Sheila Heti, a Canadian writer who studied playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada before attending the University of Toronto to study art history and philosophy.
Heti wrote about how she had come to the University ready “to uncover the great mystery beneath the surface of everything,” and had spent her first few months confident in her ability to do so without talking to anyone on campus. “That summer I ended a relationship with a guy who was more charismatic than I was, and he kept all our friends. Well, to hell with them.” This, it turned out, was a pretty lonely way of going about things, so instead she began to interview other students for a project, which, she explained, had no purpose. “Suddenly, the yellow-brick road to friendship seemed to unravel before me. I hurried home to the room I was living in near campus and came up with a long list of questions: What lies do you tell yourself over and over? For whom are you performing?”
I remember reading this as a senior in high school and gulping. If college was going to make me a new person, this was the kind of person I wanted to be.
Young writers are often told to craft a “voice” or develop a “personal brand” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) in order to be more attractive to readers. But the most exciting writing gives you a sense of all the contours of a person, not just a well-defined identity. Sheila Heti writes that way. Her work is bold and daring, but it never sounds pushed—as if writing were just another extension of her self .
Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, was published in 2001; Ticknor, a first person narrative based on the relationship between the historian William Prescott and his biographer George Ticknor, came out in 2006. Her most recent book, How Should A Person Be?, is a novel and was published in Canada last year. The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a collaboration with the improvisation artist Misha Glouberman, will come out this summer.
This conversation took place over the phone in two parts. It has been condensed and edited.
How did you write The Chairs Are Where the People Go?
I had wanted to write a book about my friend Misha for a long time. I had written part of a book about him but it was bad. So instead we talked. He talked and I typed. Before that, we had asked friends of ours about things Misha was good at. We came up with a long list. Then we talked about every single one of them. Mostly he just spoke in a monologue and then I edited the book.
Much of your work is very collaborative. For How Should A Person Be?, for example, you interviewed your friends and transcribed interactions with them.
I come from the theater world. I missed theater. I missed the part when you do a play with somebody. I missed how close you get—what happens when they become family. I wanted to think of writing the book in this way.
That must have been a change from writing your novel Ticknor.
I don’t even think I talked to anybody about the book when I was writing it. Writing the book was more like writing about a relationship. All conversations just with myself and I was stuck all alone with my problems. I had to be stuck in my head.
That’s something I want to get away from. It was like writing a biography. I had to become Ticknor. My brain became a book’s brain.
When you are writing about yourself or your friend group, as you do in How Should A Person Be?, how do you distinguish between real Sheila and fictional Sheila?
When I was writing How Should A Person Be? there was a lot of bleeding between myself and the person in the book. A lot of things that were in my personality and in my point of view were only there for the duration of writing the book. I felt like I had to be a certain way. Asking people for advice, for example. I didn’t know what to do, so I would ask people for advice. I wrote about it in the book. That was a part of myself that I thought was a turn off. But it was a temporary thing. When I finished the book, it was gone. There are parts of yourself, when, if you are writing, you feed that part. If I didn’t feel that way, they wouldn’t have been so exaggerated in the book.
What about writing things that were very personal, like people around you? Or like sex?
One is an artist in part to train oneself to see more clearly. If you write about fictional people, you don’t have to account to them. You do have to account to real people. If I write about my friend Margaux [heavily featured in How Should A Person Be?] and I get something really wrong, she can say something about it and be hurt by it. Doing this kind of work tricks you to be a little more conscientious. I don’t have to account to Ticknor. But I do have to account to Margaux.
For sex: I didn’t have it in an earlier draft of the book. But something about the book felt wrong. When I put the stuff about sex in, the book suddenly became whole. I wanted the book to be about the human experience. A person is also sexuality. This is obviously not a new idea. But I think it made the Sheila character more real and the questions in the book more real.
But that’s still just writing. It’s a work of art, it’s not my journal or anything. I don’t feel like anyone knows anything more about me. I don’t feel shame. And I haven’t gotten creepy emails.
Your books often play with the idea of handbooks, or self-help. Is that a genre you know well? Do you think it is more “useful” than the novel?
It’s not that I read them any more than the average person. I read the Alan Carr book on how to quit smoking. And books by relationship experts.
I think that the idea of self-help as a genre—it exists in order to change your life. But the novel is something more active. There is also truth and beauty. And there’s also a certain desperation to it. I like that desperation.
This book that I am reading now is called The Master and His Emissary. It’s about hemispheres of the brain. There are lots of books about hemispheres of the brain. This one is the most convincing. [Because of it,] I am now trying to use my brain in a different way that’s more effective and more suited to the tasks.
Your writing plays on these ideas of self-help and practical philosophy. The Chairs Are Where the People Go is subtitled “How to Live, Work, and Play in the City,” and it’s structured as short thoughts on various topics, much like a handbook.
Yes, I was interested in applied philosophy, and really tried to answer questions about life in that language. Down on the ground. Do you give up your seat on the subway, for example? How do you make friends? Maybe there can be small answers [to big questions]. The thing about the hemispheres, for example. Maybe that can be useful.
When I was younger, I always really wanted to abstract life. More and more as I get older I realize that this abstraction is totally devoid of life. It’s missing something true about life. Every situation is different from every other situation. There is always the temptation to have some big abstract answer, but life is not abstract. That is inaccurate.
We come from the century of big ideas and we’ve all seen how that turned out. Communism and fascism and all the modernisms, with their manifestos—those were big and wide-ranging. I used to love reading those manifestos, the futurist manifestos. I can’t imagine anyone trying to speak in that way anymore. It seems so dangerous.
The first book that is thought to be of the self-help genre, Self Help by Samuel Smiles, was published in the mid-19th century, a time that is generally associated with the novel.
Well, the thing about Self Help is that it is not really like a contemporary self-help book, where you are given instruction. There are ten different men, great men, and you are meant to be inspired to be more like them—to be more loyal or more brave. So to a certain extent, it’s a bit more like the novel in format, and the idea that you can be better by imitation. But it is not that complex emotionally. Everything is so complicated now.
These great men never seemed to struggle to be great.
When I wrote Ticknor, I read the biography he had written of Prescott. He made Prescott seem so great. That doesn’t make sense to our sensibility. It is impossible for one man to look at another man and see only valor. It’s a prejudice of ours to think that darkness adds complexity. I think there are probably other kinds of depth besides perversion and so on. Like bad luck—that could be a form of character depth.
Do you see your work following in any traditions?
There are artists that I have been inspired by and excited by. But I feel that the idea of traditions happens in retrospect, so I wouldn’t put myself in one. And I think those narratives are fantasies anyway. I don’t see histories where there is this line of tradition.
There are people I have been inspired by: Jean Cocteau, Radiguet. I respond to people who are very much doing their thing. Andy Warhol. The Chris Kraus book I Love Dick. The Paris Review interviews. Delacroix’s “Portraits of the Insane.”
Wow, Radiguet. When I was little, my family would go on car trips and listen to audio books. One of them, I remember, was Le Diable Au Corps. I think I was about eight, and I don’t remember understanding much of what was going on, but his strength of person is so forceful in his books, even though he was so young when he wrote and when he died.
What I like about him is that he said that great works of art are great in their failure. That their greatness lies in imitating heroes and failing. So that all great works of art are failures at being great.
I’ve thought a lot about that in my own work. I am interested in the idea of the novel, the idea of the short story. But I have never been able to do either of those very closely—not because I try to do something so different from them. I just don’t think that I am so interested in telling stories. I am interested in structures.
Have there been things that you have tried to do that you have not been able to?
I have written short stories that were plain bad. There are certain things that I try to do that just suck. But that’s not interesting failure. You know it in your bones. I don’t put that stuff in the world.
The other day I was giving a talk and I had a girl come up and say to me, “Everyone wants me to write a blog. I am not good at writing a blog.” I told her not to write a blog. I don’t understand why we so often feel a need to do things we are not good at.
So you have always known that you were good at writing.
I’ve always had people respond to it. I remember being a kid and having to write a short story, thinking, this [story] is the worst possible thing. I did not understand why it was so bad. I was trying to write a story like the ones I had read, but there was nothing of myself in it. I only felt confident about my writing when I was able to write in my own way. It takes a while to get to that point.
You started out writing plays, and you’ve done collaborations with visual artists and filmmakers. Are there ways of art-making that you prefer? Some that you think are more effective than others?
What I like about plays is that there’s not a lot of time spent describing what something looks like. I am not a fan of writing description because I don’t notice things. If you don’t write descriptions, you are relying on the reader.
For me, I have a pretty strong imagination, so it’s kind of stressful to read description. I feel like I am undoing what I already imagined. I like leaving that part to the reader. It’s like a pact with the audience, and the reader has some work to do too.
It’s like: there are some people with whom you can never get a word in. They just talk and talk and talk. They are very ungenerous. There is no room for the other person. There are books that are ungenerous in that way. If I see a book that is 1,000 pages, I think it is not very generous to the reader. They just want to tell you everything.
You mentioned that you like writing that seems to come out of desperation. Is that something you apply to your own work?
I am not in a very desperate situation right now. I am actually figuring out: how do you write when there is not this desperation? How do you write from a place of conscious calmness? Writing needs to be meaningful to the author. There needs to be a reason to write the book—the kind of situation where you need to write the book or you won’t be able to live as well. So much of what I read—it could be written or it could not be written. It doesn’t have that necessity. Some writers have that. Henry Miller—I get the sense that writing is part of living for him. If he doesn’t write, he will not be living fully. I like seeing that in art.
I read in a Paris Review interview with Jean Rhys that she could never write when she was happy, which struck me as a sad fact considering how much she wrote. Is that the same kind of necessity that you are referring to?
No, it’s not about feeling bad. Someone can be writing in a state of great joy. What I mean is that it can’t be like a writing exercise. It has to be more than that. It has to be connected to the writer’s living. I don’t care to be shown off to. I don’t find people impressive because they show me an impressive skill.
Making art is an instinct. As much as sex or wanting to eat. I think it’s a real drive, and it should look like that.