Sheila Heti on How Should a Person Be?


At Work

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!

I know! It just seemed really relaxing to write a book that was not about feelings and not about people. Of course, what ended up happening was completely the opposite. My friend, the writer Lee Henderson, actually e-mailed me a dream he had after I told him that my new book was not going to have any people in it. He was like, “I had a dream that you wrote your new book and there were people in it.”

Is the question “How should a person be?” a question that really preoccupies you?

It did. But I only realized that when I figured out the title. Then it became even more of a preoccupation. I think I wouldn’t necessarily have put it in those words before that; it was a general feeling, of not trusting myself and anxiety and wondering, and also a feeling that there were these Platonic truths out there, that if only I could have access to …

I see.

I think it was Margaux who said it should be the book’s title when she saw it on the wall in big block letters when she came to visit me one summer at Yaddo. I can’t remember if I was thinking about it as a title or just thinking about it.

Margaux sounds like a terrific friend. Though, of course, I know her mostly through this fictional lens of your novel.

She is. We’re both incredibly bossy, but not with each other.

I loved how stark you were about ambition. But why does the Sheila character desire fame over, say, wealth or power?

I was thinking a lot about Paris Hilton and all those girls like Lindsay Lohan who were in the tabloids. I was wondering what I might have in common with them, to find the seeds of them in me, then think about those aspects, and emphasize those. I don’t see their drive as being riches so much as fame.

Do you think this is a modern obsession of ours?

Renown is something people have always wanted, but maybe what’s modern is that it’s considered a virtue, this desire, rather than a vice. I might be wrong about this.

I think you could be right; that makes a lot of sense. I know that Lena Dunham recently recommended your book in Entertainment Weekly. Have you been watching Girls?

I love it so much. I was on the train down to New York yesterday and I watched episode 6, then watched my favorite scenes from the first five episodes. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before—rewatched scenes from something I’ve liked. It felt like rereading the scenes you love in a book.

Totally! Which scenes?

I love her expression in the sixth episode where she’s watching the dance performance at the benefit; that’s a very subtle expression, looking around at her hometown and evaluating it. I like when Adam admires her pencilled eyebrows in another episode and says, “You look like a Mexican teenager,” and she’s like, “I’m NOT here to talk about that.”

There is a curiosity she has about being wretched, of not desiring the pure or innocent life. And I see that in your book, too.

Yeah. But also, that’s something very normal to go into.

But I think some people are repulsed by wretchedness. Others want beauty. Which I think that doesn’t interest you or Lena as much. But maybe I’m wrong.

But there’s beauty in what’s real. I perceive much more beauty in her show than shows featuring “beautiful people” living “beautiful lives.” Showing that kind of beauty doesn’t create beauty. It creates awful feelings. In my book, Sheila’s big problem is related to that: she wants a perfect, beautiful, ideal self. That turns out to be ugly.

And where does that want come from?

Who knows? It’s partly what the world wants from you, or for you. But it also strikes me as controlling, and fearful, and coming out of a lack of humor or imagination.

Can you articulate the differences between you and alter-ego Sheila?

I don’t think of it as an alter-ego, but yeah, I’ll try to explain how I experience it. Writing, for me, when I’m writing in the first-person, is like a form of acting. So as I’m writing, the character or self I’m writing about and my whole self—when I began the book—become entwined. It’s soon hard to tell them apart. The voice I’m trying to explore directs my own perceptions and thoughts. But that voice or character comes out of a part of me that exists already. But writing about it emphasizes those parts, while certain other, balancing parts lie dormant—and the ones I’m exploring become bigger, like in caricature. That sounds really orderly but I never realize it’s happening, because who is “the first person” becomes confused. Of course, this transformation happens very gradually over many years. Then, months after the book is done, all that falls away—the ways I was behaving and thinking while writing the book—and a different self from the original one is left, with the qualities I was emphasizing much less prominent than originally. But I’ve only realized after finishing this book that it happened with Ticknor and now with this book, too. During the times it was happening, I didn’t realize that was going on.

That makes sense. On page four you write: “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like.” Can you elaborate?

On which part?

Well, I found myself questioning that.

I think it’s a pretty good joke. The next line is “It could be me.”

Well, here I am, very earnestly reading your book.

Sure. I do honestly think there isn’t an archetype. Like, we know what a male genius artist—at least from the 1950s—looks like, right? Wanton sexuality and the like. But what does the female genius look like? Does she have babies? Does she go off alone into the desert? Does she plan secret rendezvous with lovers while showing the world a moral face?

It’s complicated, it’s true. Much more complicated than it is for men. I guess I always saw female genius as something that was enshrouded by men, by marriage.

What do you mean?

Well, haven’t we learned about how many great men were supported by their wives? And how that genius was often a collaboration between the spouses but presented as one name?

So you think Vera Nabokov was a genius?

Not exactly. But I’m not sure it’s fair to credit one person for the genius of Nabokov.

And what about for the women geniuses. Do you see their partners as having functioned in the same, supportive way? Or were they beating them all the time?

I think that if you were a woman you didn’t have that many options. You usually had to marry. If you didn’t want to, you had to be quite independently wealthy—but even then, I gather without certain social standing, it’s an awkward position to maintain. I always thought marriage hurt female genius more than it helped.

We don’t really know, is the thing. There’s this book I love called Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He interviewed many people at the tops of their fields—in science, art—people who pushed their realms forward. And he says most of them, men and women, spent their lives in long, stable marriages. But then you think, He’s talking to people in their seventies. Isn’t that just the world they were raised in? Wasn’t that true of most people? What about today? I was distressed about the lack of models. But now I am not so distressed.

How did you get to the state of being not so distressed?

I now feel like I know so many startling, brilliant, enchanting women, and their particularities satisfy me in a way I think no composite image could.

And as for your quest to figure out how a person should be—you make it clear you’re reading the Old Testament. But were you or Sheila in the novel trying to look at any other texts?

I was reading Kierkegaard’s Either/Or at the beginning. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy was important to me. Art and Artist by Otto Rank. Art as Experience by John Dewey. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. Lots of self-help books, some Alain de Botton, The Second Sex, Julian Barbour’s The End of Time, different things.

Do the ugly paintings really exist?

I was afraid of this question. Sure. But to me, their importance was as a thought. A question. A metaphor for other things.

What do you suppose the metaphor is?

It’s there in the book—Sholem’s approach to making an ugly painting is like Sheila’s attempt to construct a beautiful life—thinking she ought to marry and whatnot; follow the rules of how she thinks she should be, just as Sholem has rules about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly and tries to follow them in his painting.

Sheila Heti, Ryan Kamstra, Sholem Krishtalka, Margaux Williamson. Photograph by Lee Towndrow.

I see. All those “oughts” equal something very different from beauty.

Yeah. Trying to live the image of the life which you have in your head … it’s really hard not to do that, but I do think maybe it’s cheating.

How do you mean?

Cheating life. Cheating yourself out of a real engagement with life, which involves surprise, not just you moving through your environment with this pre-determined idea of what you intend to do with it and how it should react to you. It’s like thinking you’ve been put on this earth to master life and make it submit.

Do you believe in destiny?

Unfortunately yes. I wish I didn’t, because I have no reason to believe in it, no proof, no love of it. I must come from a superstitious line. My brain doesn’t want to believe in it, but my body does. It’s a stupid belief, I’m sure.

But if you’re a writer, you spend your time writing stories, you’re always trying to make everything hang together, so it’s hard not to apply that same thinking to your life. Maybe that’s where destiny-thinking comes in: Ah! this all makes sense! And I can see what’s going to happen next! It’s very hard to limit that to books, and not let it seep into your life. I have found it impossible.

Of course, you could reverse it. We write stories in order to understand the meaning of our own lives.

True. Everyone’s always telling themselves stories about their lives, writers or not. Don’t you think?

Yes, I agree.

That’s part of why people see shrinks, isn’t it? They help you rewrite your story? People should go see novelists instead.

Or maybe a shrink just reassures you that the story will have a good ending. I’m not sure novels always do that.

The novelist would say, Yes, you will ultimately be undone by your flaws. No one wants to hear that! Maybe people shouldn’t see novelists!

It could be very fun, though, if one were up for it. Who would you see?

Jane Bowles. You?

I think I’d see Borges. I admire his tone—it’s like a phony academic. Which is how I would imagine my shrink would talk. Why Jane Bowles?

Because what she would say would be so surprising and unpredictable and not traditionally or predictably moral. Her worlds seem emotional and fun. I think she respected the individual.

Buy a copy of How a Person Should Be? or read an excerpt. And if you’re in New York City, join Sheila Heti at Powerhouse Arena tomorrow night for the book’s launch.