Adam Robinson and Sheila Heti on the profound sex and moral imperatives in Heti’s new novel How Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, released June 19th by Henry Holt, is a book that does many things, is many things, fills many spaces, behaves differently than other books. Heti balances the story with art theory and comedy and self help, sociological insight and philosophy, like a Canadian Mark Twain. Her prose is witty, light, and inviting, and the sections of the book—acts, as they’re laid out like a play—change quickly. The structure calls for acrobatic reading, for easy attention that is as nimble as the writing.
The story follows a character named Sheila as she struggles to find authenticity in her art and her relationships. She starts a complex friendship with a brilliant painter named Margaux and entwines herself in a hot and profanely profound sex life with a man named Israel. Her friends have a contest to see who can paint the worst painting. Sheila gets a job at a hair salon, goes to clown school, takes drugs. She travels a lot, and worries that her hopes will leave her forever dissatisfied. Throughout, she tries and fails at writing a play, and reflects on what it means to be great, or good, or whatever it is a person is supposed to be.
Adam Robinson Can I refer to you interchangeably with the novel’s “Sheila” character?
Sheila Heti Sure. I don’t care. They’re not the same thing, but I don’t care.
AR Can you point to some of the ways they are different?
SH That is like seeing a ventriloquist with a dummy on their hand with a hideous plastic face that’s modeled after their face and [asking] the ventriloquist, “In what way are you different from the dummy on your hand?”
AR Whoa. Then why did you give the protagonist your own name?
SH It was just a decision. At one point, I tried to do otherwise and it didn’t feel right. I think it felt scary and more dangerous to [give her the name], which felt right.
AR Okay. Sheila and Margaux become close friends during the story. How does their relationship fit in with an early line in the book, about how women are effusive when they run into each other on the street—so as to say, “Everything is all right between us”?
SH I guess there’s an undercurrent of fear in their relationship. Maybe it’s because they’re women, because maybe it’s the specifics of the kind of people they are, or maybe there’s that in any relationship. I can’t say for sure. Certainly there’s fragility in any non-familial bond. Probably for some people in familial bonds, too. No one wants to be abandoned, betrayed, and that possibility always exists.
AR When Margaux is angry at Sheila, she suggests “you’ve learned how a person should be, you’re done with me,” but I didn’t get the sense that Sheila figured it out. Do you think that Margaux knows something about Sheila that Sheila doesn’t know herself?
SH Not necessarily. I think she’s just afraid—[Margaux] fears Sheila will abandon her after having given over her trust—and that fear turns into a judgment that Sheila accepts because she doesn’t know herself well enough to say, That’s not a fair judgement or That’s not true about me. I think if we don’t know what we’re like, we can be really vulnerable and open to all sorts of criticisms. I don’t know if Margaux’s fear is justified, but both of them accept Margaux’s criticism as reality.
AR Why are their emails numbered?
SH I was thinking of the numbering in Biblical passages.
AR That is great. Chapter and verse. It coincides with Sheila struggling with her “calling,” as she draws parallels to Moses struggling with his. What does it mean, then, that you’ve named a character “Israel”? Are you going to lead him out of some metaphorical slavery?
SH Not exactly.
AR In the book you note your tendency to type “soul” as “sould.” Maybe this is because you type “should” so much. It’s not that you never had a soul to sell, as Sheila fears, but that the soul is affected by all these moral imperatives.
SH That’s smart! I never thought of that.
AR I didn’t notice it until I started typing “soul” during this interview, and every time the “d” just pops up in there, like muscle memory from should/would/could. Anyway, it seems like the book ends with some resignation that there is no should, rather that freedom comes from putting fences around the things you like, the sacks you carry. You include a parable that suggests there is no one spot that is the best spot for a grave. The fact that the ugly painting contest is settled in a game of squash, which neither participant knows the rules to, also seems to substantiate this.
SH I have always liked this idea of putting fences around what you value, which I first encountered when I was studying Pirkei Avot with some women. It talks about putting a fence around the Torah.
The squash scene came quite unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. I suddenly wanted to write this squash scene between Margaux and Sholem, and this other part of my brain was like, “Don’t get up for that. That’s stupid. Why do you write a squash scene?” But I got up and did it anyway, even though I didn’t get it at the time. It wasn’t until a few years later that I thought it could be the perfect ending to the book. I mean, I don’t know if it’s the perfect ending, but it satisfied me.
AR Did you write your way to the resolution—I mean the resolutions that Sheila comes to—or did you start the book knowing where you were going to end up?
SH I had no idea where I was going to end up. I wasn’t writing beginning to end. I was writing all over the place. I was writing in circles. Even after writing those bits that are now “the end,” I didn’t think, Ah! I have the ending! All along I was trying to find some things that were true, some certainties I could come to or places of rest.
AR Do you have a writing routine?
SH I write whenever I want to write. I don’t force myself to write. But I love being in front of the computer, and by this point, writing is such a part of my life that I don’t have to worry that work won’t get done. When I was younger, I was always trying to impose schedules and always failing. I don’t like failing so I don’t make schedules anymore! I don’t make myself write 500 words a day or something like that. That seems artificial to me. Or at least, it would make me feel like I was punching a clock. It would make writing feel like a chore. For me, writing feels like part of thinking, which feels like part of life.
AR The “Interlude for Fucking” is incredible. I feel so conflicted by it. Throughout the book I want to hate Israel, but it doesn’t seem like I’m supposed to. What’s up? I’m fascinated and confused by his role in the book.
SH Well, he’s seen through Sheila’s eyes, and Sheila doesn’t hate him. Is he hateful? I don’t think so. That’s a particular kind of sex, a particular dynamic, a specific kind of bond and hotness and understanding and need between them. Maybe he’d be different with a different girl. Sheila enjoys her infatuation; even hating it is a kind of pleasure, and wanting to not be there but being compelled—that’s a kind of pleasure, too.
AR But she doesn’t follow his instructions when they are apart.
SH She does write the letter. At least she begins to write the letter.
AR I think all of my questions about the interior motivations of the characters come from feeling displaced, feeling part of the action as it occurs. The book is immediate, so I’m as confused by it as I am by life, and I count this a remarkable success. Your prose is light and funny, but the book demands real thinking. Is this your—um—dialectic? Is my response something you intended?
SH I’m really happy to hear that you felt part of the action. I was thinking a lot about relational aesthetics and artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija when I was writing the book. I wanted the book to be a book one could move around in and sort of live in. I was also thinking about Richard Serra, and this idea that he took sculpture “off the pedestal” and made it something you could walk into and through, and it would kind of engulf you, rather than sculpture being something you admired as a thing apart from you. I wanted to write a novel that was similarly “off the pedestal,” and to write a book that could be undergone the way life is undergone; not a book understood by the author and given to you, but undergone by the author and undergone by the reader. So your experience is definitely something I intended. The prose had to be lifelike and simple for all that to work; it had to be superficially easy, or maybe I should say, like talking, not writing.
AR The ugly painting contest—was that something that occurred? I want it to be real.
SH I agreed with my friends that it was probably best not to get into questions of what did or did not really occur.
AR In the story, the play is never finished. Was writing this book as difficult as it was for Sheila to write her play?
SH It was different. With the play, I wrote a draft and then hesitated over that draft for five years. With the book, there is tons of writing that didn’t make it into the book. Writing the book was a question of how to put all this material together, how to generate material, how to craft a narrative, but not so much of a narrative that it felt like a “novel.” With the play, the problem was something completely else: I have this thing, and it won’t budge, and I can’t make it any better or any different, and nobody likes it.
AR Ah, so the play was a real thing you were working on? What happened with it?
SH It was a real thing. It was called All Our Happy Days are Stupid and it had ten songs in it that were written by Dan Bejar. I sent him the play, and he wrote the songs. When it was clear the play was never going to happen, he put a bunch of them on his album. This Toronto director decided he wanted to produce it, so it’s going to have a run in the spring of 2013. I decided to leave it exactly as it was when I abandoned it in 2006, to not rewrite it.
AR Of all the things HSAPB does—story telling, art theory, sociology, statistical geography—is there something you’re proudest of?
SH I’m happy that the prose is not elevated. I wanted not to worry about style in writing this book. I’m not sure what statistical geography means. I don’t know what I’m proudest of. I guess just finishing it.
AR I made up “statistical geography.” The part where you list where Important artists lived, so you can determine which town has the greatest odds of making you an Important artist as well.
AR My advanced copy came with a letter from your publicist practically begging me to take a look at the book immediately, just flip to any page, checkitout this is the era of the blowjob. Score one for the publicists. The letter also asked to help make you famous. Is that something you want?
SH I have to see that letter!
I write in the book that “I” want fame, if fame means that nothing in my life will change. That part of the book really was me thinking about what everyone wants right now, looking at how the culture places so much value on celebrity, more than it being what I want. I’m happy with my life as it is. When I think about what it really means to be famous, I imagine that no one would be natural with you anymore, and I think that would be awful. Some people may, because they hate the world, want to incur its jealousy, as a kind of revenge, but I don’t hate the world.
AR The letter also says you acted in Barbie commercials?
SH Yeah, when I was 11 or 12. I wanted to be an actress.
AR This year I’ve read four new books like yours, about young artists coming to terms with their motivations and, I don’t know, learning to trust themselves. Leaving the Atocha Station made a lot of waves, and Leigh Stein’s novel, The Fallback Plan, even features a girl trying to figure out what to do with her degree in theater. Have you read these books or noticed this trend? Is it a trend?
SH I love Leaving the Atocha Station—it’s a brilliant book. I haven’t read Leigh Stein’s. It may be a coincidence. I’m thinking right now of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—artists have always written about artists. And I think many people write in order to come to terms with themselves.
A lot of things we think of as trends are coincidences. That’s an idea I got from reading Leonard Mlodinow’s amazing book The Drunkard’s Walk. He has this thing about “the law of small numbers,” where we think things are trends but we’re making a mistake because our sample size is too small. Since then, I try not to look for so much meaning everywhere! Like, just because your last six relationships failed, doesn’t mean the seventh will. Six is a pretty small sample size. Those six “failures” could be chance, like throwing heads six times in a row; it doesn’t mean you’re heads. It just fell that way. But you think, “Why am I heads? How did my parents fuck me up? I’ll never be tails . . . ” He talks more about baseball than relationships.
AR HSAPB was released in Canada a few years ago, right? How does it feel different now?
SH Well, I rewrote it somewhat. It feels done now. With that other version, I didn’t have that satisfying “done” feeling when it was published. It wasn’t like they pressured me to publish it, either. I wanted to. Maybe it had to be out in the world as an object, with people responding to it, something I could see, in order for me to be able to see it from the outside and then finish it—as a distinct object apart from myself.
AR What about the book itself—are there any substantive changes?
SH Substantive enough. Not huge, but they make a difference. It’s like the difference between a temporary home and a permanent home. Ha! An apartment and a grave.
AR “A novel from life” is a unique form, at least in your treatment. It puts me in mind of novels that are just called “novels” but may be even more of a documentation of things that actually happened than HSAPB. What are some things that characterize “a novel from life,” for you?
SH I don’t have a lot of thoughts about it. That was something the publisher wanted to append to the title, to help readers. In Canada, it wasn’t called “a novel from life.” I liked the construction and so we settled on it, and I agreed to have it on the cover, in part because I don’t think it helps readers that much. It’s not a phrase that I have a lot of thoughts about. It was a packaging thing. In Canada, we rarely think about trying to help or draw in readers in these basic, marketing ways. We just put a picture of a field on the cover.
AR How should a person be?
SH Oh my god.
Adam Robinson lives in Baltimore, where he runs Publishing Genius Press. He is the author of two books of poetry and plays guitar in the band Coach Taylor.