Q&A: Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

(Photo credit: Derek Shapton)

After an accidental six-month hiatus, Q&A returns, triumphantly, with Sheila Heti, author of the delightfully amorphous novel How Should a Person Be?

I wrote a very positive review of the book here yesterday, but I still feel like I didn’t get it right at all. The novel grapples with questions of truth and identity, sex and religion, art and ugliness. It’s narrated by a suspiciously familiar-sounding writer in Toronto named Sheila. To a reader, How Should a Person Be? makes a certain kind of intuitive sense; to a reviewer, who has to try and summarize that energy and raw emotion on the page, it looks an awful lot like quicksand.

So I asked the real-life Heti to shine some light on all this—and her answers were so helpful that I had to go back and adjust my original version of the review before posting it. Here those answers are, in their entirety.

How Should a Person Be? seems to take delight in defying easy categorization. It’s billed as fiction, but much of the book—characters, transcribed conversations, life events—seems almost transparently real. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to provoke readers, or was it simply the most logical way of presenting this material?

Sheila Heti: I wasn’t trying to provoke. I think I’m always trying to represent something to be as close to nature—as close to how I really experience it—as possible. So I wanted to make it life-like; so, for instance, conversation seems to me a big part of life, but not conversations as they appear in novels, usually. There seems to me to be a big difference between how people speak in novels and how they speak in life, so I wanted the characters in my book to speak as they would in life.

I won’t ask you to ruin the illusion and say what’s real and what isn’t (though I do have a few guesses of my own). But have you been surprised at the fictional things people have mistaken for real life, and vice versa?

SH: I’ve been surprised that people have been really respectful or polite or something and haven’t played that game. Besides, there’s nothing to guess about. It’s not like this chapter is real and this one is false, or this person is real and this one is false. It’s all, in its details, more or less real, except for the fact that it’s a novel, which means that it’s a narrative, which is the fiction.

The book is concerned on a very basic, very urgent level with happiness, success, idolatry, and, for lack of a better term, morality. It feels in many ways like a vehicle for catharsis on your part—though not in a strictly navel-gazing way. More like a parallel-universe version of the self-help book. Is that how it felt to the real-life you while working on it?

SH: Definitely I wanted to fix myself in a million ways while I was writing it, and that’s what I hoped the writing of it would do; provoke a catharsis and a change in me and a way of moving beyond the question of the title. Which it did. I like a lot of aspects self-help books; I like the direct address to the reader, which feels very immediate, and that the narrator of a self-help book is not a fictional character but the author, and most of all, the injunction that you have to take what you learned and enact it in the world. The book doesn’t end when you finish reading it. That’s when it begins; when you begin to live differently as a result of having read it. In this way, the novel is actually your life after reading the self-help book. Those three weeks when you live differently and are transformed: that’s the fiction, that’s the novel.

This kind of genre-defying, quasi-factual book is itself a rich tradition. What kinds of books did you take formal inspiration from?

SH: No books formally, but I was really taken by Otto Rank’s idea, in Art & Artists, that we have to move past the psychological age somehow, to return to the beginning of time, when artistic production wasn’t about the neurosis of the artist, but about the artist and their work serving society in a pretty straightforward way.

One of my favourite scenes in the book is when “Sheila” gets into an argument with an amateur Jewish scholar in a rundown stationary store. She also has a fairly terrifying lover named Israel, and keeps finding bits of sand in strange places—perhaps an allusion to Moses in the desert. Can you talk a little about how religion operates in the book? If nothing else, it’s one of the first places people turn to in times of crisis…

SH: I think it operates like other things in the book do—like the sex does. I don’t see religion as something a human being can opt out of. We’re always in some relation to it, just like we’re in some relation to sex; even (especially?) the celibate.

Did writing in this mode open a new world of possibility for you, in terms of what kinds of books you’ll write in the future, or do you think you’ve exhausted it with this one?

SH: My next book is already written. I wrote it—but my friend Misha Glouberman provided all the words. It will be out in the spring and it’s called The Chairs Are Where The People Go. There are a lot of games in it.

Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy How Should a Person Be?Amazon (Canada).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

Previously on Q&A:

DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To

Patrick deWitt, Ablutions

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Molly Young, Troubleshooting

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