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Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

Sheila Heti on How Should a Person Be?

June 18, 2012 | by

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy.

If you’ve been loving Lena Dunham’s Girls, you should most certainly pick up a copy of Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be? In it, fictional Sheila struggles to answer the titular question through conversations with her friends (including Margaux, Misha, and Sholem), blowjobs, impulsive trips to Atlantic City and ... a whole lot more. The novel is a blend of the real and the imaginary—and somehow, in the process of recording her life, real Sheila blends into fictional Sheila, creating a work of metafiction that is playful, funny, wretched, and absolutely true. Sheila and I Gchatted not long ago. Sheila is an impressive writer (see her full bio here) as well as the interviews editor at The Believer. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Let’s talk about your process. How did you take your conversations from your life and weave it into fiction?

I don’t know. I did lots of different things. But the conversations were not meant for a book. I was just taping friends. I didn’t have a plan for where I was going.

Did you think you were writing your play?

I wasn’t sure. I’d spent the previous five years working on Ticknor, and I wanted to sort of shake that off me. So all the transcribing I was doing was kind of like drinking a glass of water—it was refreshing, like a palate cleanser—a way of getting out of my imagination. Taping and transcribing was part of looking around to see what things were really like in my environment. I’d been completely in my room, in my head, not looking at anything.

That reminds me of something Tilda Swinton once said about filmmaking—it’s a social way of making art. What do you think happens when you’re working like this?

Well, the writing becomes more like life in that you don’t know where you’re going to end up, and you don’t know what’s going to end up being important. It’s like how in life you can meet somebody and not think much of them, then a few years later you’re married and in love, but the person you were really drawn to and thought, This is it!—you forget about them six months later. When I began transcribing, I was certain that I wanted to write a book with no people in it, about the workings of a supermarket.

That sounds so different than the book you ended up writing!

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Jennifer Egan Fever

July 12, 2011 | by

Photograph by Pieter M van Hattem/Vistalux.

Did you know that Jennifer Egan was robbed by a motorcyclist in Spain at the age of twenty-two? That when she was little, she wanted to be a doctor, but then she tried to be an archeologist? That she’s written exactly one celebrity profile and it’s of Calvin Klein? And that she received a gratuitous amount of CK1, which she wore until it ran out? That her first apartment in New York City was on West 69th Street but she has also lived on East 7th Street (between First Avenue and Avenue A) and West 28th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), but now she lives in Fort Greene? That she wrote her first (and unpublished) novel while studying abroad at Cambridge? That she was a reader for The Paris Review? That she writes her first drafts by longhand? And her second?

I have Jennifer Egan fever. I caught it at the beginning of last year, when I read “Ask Me if I Care,” a short story of hers that The New Yorker had excerpted from her then-forthcoming novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I read the other two stories The New Yorker had published on my iPhone while getting a pedicure. It’s a banal admission only worth recalling because I remember sitting in the salon’s lounge long after the polish had dried and it was time to leave—I had to read it all, right then and there. After that, I read every single story she published, every novel she had written, every interview I could get my hands on. (I knew the obsession was bad when I started picking through the Amazon reviews.)

Egan’s prose is stunning, funny, sexy—cool. Her stories reference Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. She can write about an attractive kleptomaniac on a first date, a topic that seems dangerously cliché, and yet, by the end of opening paragraph, you’re hooked. She’s transparent about her writing process; honest about what she borrows and what she invents. It’s not that she “beat” Jonathan Franzen, though I see why some feel the need to pit the two authors against one another. And it’s not that she’s perfect—I have yet to encounter someone who liked The Keep—but maybe that’s also part of the appeal.

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The Artist in Isolation; Boo-Hoo Books

June 10, 2011 | by

In a 1974 interview with The Paris Review, Archibald MacLeish adamantly insisted that the writer must engage with the world around him in order to create art, not act as a mere outside observer commenting on the play at hand. “The subject of art is life. You learn by living it. And you don’t live it alone ... You live it with and by people—yourself in your relation with people, with and by living things, yourself in your relation to living things.” I wholeheartedly agree with MacLeish but have plenty of writer-friends who insist on separating themselves from the world around them, alone and misunderstood by everyone else. What’s your take on the romantic notion of the artist in isolation? Is a Henry David Thoreau laughable in this day and age? —Kate

Of course writers need solitude—that’s where the writing happens—but I’m with MacLeish: if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you’d better start by taking an interest in other people. That means living among them; sexting doesn’t count. The two big dangers for contemporary fiction, it seems to me, are people not reading enough and people not hanging out enough. These dangers were unimaginable in Thoreau’s time. His solitude is full of remembered texts and remembered conversations. His clean slate is a palimpsest. But to spend your days alone and online isn’t just bad training, it also makes for lousy material.

So, I’m curious—what was the last book that made you cry?
Lily

I got prickly-eyed last night over a history book, of all things, by our sports correspondent Louisa Thomas. In Conscience, Thomas writes about her great grandfather and great uncles, minister’s sons who wrestled with the question of whether to fight in World War I. (The most famous of these brothers, Norman Thomas, later became a hero of the Socialist party.) The moral seriousness of Norman and his brother Evan, in their letters and speeches, is wonderful, at times even preposterous—and those are exactly the moments that get me.

But if you mean crying like boo-hoo, and if you don’t count King Lear (which came to town last month with Derek Jacobi), I think it may have been rereading Mrs. Bridge. Boo-hooing and laughing at once.

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