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!