Jonathan Mcaloon

Sheila Heti: ‘I did worry putting sex in the book would eclipse everything else’

Sheila Heti: 'I did worry putting sex in the book would eclipse everything else'
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There is a question which writers (and readers) of literary fiction get tired of hearing: which bits really happened? The traditional and respectable answer is that this doesn’t matter. Everything in the book will have been transformed by art, and isn’t something that comes straight from an author’s imagination more autobiographical, more telling, than things that might have happened to them, anyway? But these serious maxims don’t always quell your desire for real-life incident or gossip. Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be, subtitled ‘A novel from life,’ had me googling paintings by Margaux Williamson: Heti’s best friend in real life and a character in her book.

How Should A Person Be? is the story of Sheila, a writer living in Toronto, who believes she might one day be a genius. For now, she’s struggling with inspiration, morality and an obsession with Israel: an artist whose dirty talk is as second-rate as his painting. Having been commissioned to write a play for a feminist theatre company and feeling she ‘[doesn’t] know anything about women,’ she records conversations with her friends to figure out ‘what reality had that my play did not.’ But this, of course, is the play. Written in acts, and borrowing from self help books, HSAPB? is the stand in for the artistic project the narrator has been unable to complete. But this was the project all along.

The games with reality and art didn’t end with the book itself. Having taken years to be accepted by American publishers, and subsequently becoming her most famous and lauded book, HSAPB? fulfilled, then capitalised on, the kind of attention it records: it became a celebrity. The book was reportedly influenced by The Hills – a semi-scripted American reality show – and people have compared HSAPB? to HBO’s Girls, the creators having since nodded to each other in interviews.

I saw Heti in conversation with Adam Thirlwell at the LRB book shop last month. Two days later I interviewed her myself. It was invaluable to see her self-reflexive, reality hungry book in the light of reality, and I would have asked a different set of questions had I not seen her speak. Her book is, among other things, a series of transcribed conversations. Here is ours.

You have said that preceding this book you had a crisis about the conventions and motives of traditional fiction. Can you locate the exact moment of your disillusion, or book that caused this?

The first thing that came into my head, and I don’t know if this is true or not, was a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: do you know this book? It was a really popular sort of self help book for people that wanted to be more successful in business and so on. I was at a writer’s colony called Yaddo in upstate New York and I had brought this, among other books, and there was something so terrible and wonderful about it. It had you do these exercises like think about what you would want people to say about you at your funeral. I was doing this exercise and I went back a week later, read what I had written, and it was so horrible! What I wanted people to say was so revolting to me and it just made me think about this idea of self help, how we’re compelled by it but ultimately how terrible and revolting it is; how it brings up the worst parts of you.

And that was good for writing?

What this book had shown me about myself or the contemporary self was more interesting than what somebody writing about our horribleness in a novel might show. I guess I got interested, not in self help, but in its different relationship to the reader.

There’s a bit in your book where Sheila says to Margaux ‘I like boring people. I think it’s a virtue. People should be a little bored.’ Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah. No one wants to be bored all the time and I think if you’re interested in the world you’re never really truly bored. But there’s something about those books that are always packing in information and packing in exciting, stimulating events; that are always entertaining you; books that are always on, that I find really exhausting. James Wood even wrote about it, what did he call it? Hyper?

Hysterical Realism.

Yeah. It’s as though the book’s duty not to entertain but to hyper-entertain. I don’t think that’s a book’s job.

You’ve mentioned before that you watched the reality show The Hills in order to transcribe dialogue to get a feel of the reality. How much of the transcribed material in the book is invention? My favourite transcripts seem too good to have just happened.

Like the copy shop?

And the two theatre people with their terrible ideas.

All those things are real. I know, it’s amazing: I couldn’t believe it! When I went into that copy shop in New York I turned my tape recorder on – I’d never turned my tape recorder on in any other shop. The art became finding the situation.  With the other books I would try to be sensitive to the moment that I wanted to write and always write in those moments. With this book I’d try to be sensitive to the moment I’d want to record. It was a different kind of discipline and sensitivity to the world.  You know what they say about writers walking around the world with that consciousness of:  ‘I can write about this’? I never had that because things would be too bad to write down or I’d forget them before I got home. For me the recording was a way of doing that in the moment. It was a second consciousness. There was a lot of editing, though I didn’t write anything new. And that’s the reality TV thing of sort of performing in your own life. That fascinated me.

You said in conversation with Adam Thirlwell that ‘if you spend too much time on style, you forget about the meaning.’ I find this a problematic statement in the context of your book, which is preoccupied with unlearning things, unlearning literariness and artistry. Is inhibiting your stylistic faculties not just as counterintuitive as overworking a sentence?

Everything about it felt totally counterintuitive. I was trying to write a book in the way that Margaux [Williamson] might with her aesthetic, which isn’t mine. She is much messier and freer; she’s a painter. I think you can be more precise with language than you can with paint and you can go back to an earlier draft, whereas with painting if you make a line you can’t just go back to an earlier draft: you have to deal with the mess you’ve made. We’ve had this conversation a lot. Margaux thinks the writer becomes neurotic because you can go backwards, and because you can go backwards in your art you can go backwards in your life. With my other books I sort of feel that they’re clean and good and so on, and after I published them the response didn’t make me feel any less clean or good; this book is so dirty. The response to it, and allowing myself to do all these interviews or whatever; everything’s become messy and dirty in my life and in my sense of myself. The book’s effect on my life has been kind of radical in a way that feels counter to my nature and everything.

The other day, you talked a lot about the importance of vulnerability. You have put on lectures where speakers aren’t expert in their topic and therefore exposed; your latest book’s appeal is the vulnerability of its speaker. Yet when asked about the way you wrote sex – the place where a writer is usually most vulnerable – you said there was ‘nothing embarrassing about it.’ Is this not a very vulnerable thing to say?

You think that’s a vulnerable thing to say?

Or defensive.

I did worry putting the sex in the book would eclipse everything else but I didn’t worry that it would reveal anything about me.

Do you not see vulnerability as a key aspect in writing about sex?

I didn’t feel vulnerable when I was writing it: I felt kind of powerful when I was writing it and very assured. The attitude of the sex passages is centred and confident, even though she’s writing about degradation and submission. I was mostly embarrassed by that question because the audience member was saying me and Adam write about sex in the same way –

You don’t

Oh really?

I brought that up because you seem to negotiate the most difficult part of writing literary sex very well, which is the near impossibility of conveying the urgency the characters may feel about it to anyone else. You allow the hypnotic effect it has on your characters while allowing the unoriginality of the sex itself to be visible. Did you have an aesthetic agenda?

I wrote that stuff very quickly, just in sort of one sitting, so there wasn’t a conscious aesthetic agenda. But I’ve always known what I don’t like in sex writing. The way people write about sex isn’t usually the way it feels: it’s something else. They write about the body – I mean it is the body but it’s what you said, the urgency, usually: that’s the exciting or interesting part of it, not the animal part.

For one of the characters in the book, artistic freedom is ‘having the technical capacity to execute whatever he wants.’ Do you think you could have written a formally free book like this without having first written more traditional fiction?   

This couldn’t have been my first book. There are balances, like having enough narrative to draw you along but not having so much that it becomes artificially novelistic, that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve had I not written fiction before, or had I not understood some of the mechanisms of fiction.

Having written this book, I feel much more capable of writing. When I started this project I was a baby or something. And I don’t think I feel like that now.

This book may be a call to arms for young writers who crave a similar kind of immediacy. In Girls, one of the in-jokes is that Hannah, an unpublished author, writes ‘personal essays.’ Would you feel compelled to read potential literary children of HSAPB?: debuts that will inevitably lack formal mastery?

I don’t think that I would be, and I don’t think that I’m that interested now in any of this. You get it out of your system. Actually, I’m afraid of being sent all these books that I’m supposed to like and want to read, and it’s happening! People keep saying, do you want to read this young woman’s autobiographical novel? No! I want to think about other things now.

Like what? Where do you go from here?

I was on an aeroplane a while ago and I realised that I’d never written as me: I’d always written in character. Ticknor’s a character, and this Sheila is a character. That is what I became excited about. It sounds so banal actually saying it out loud, but in reality it’s not banal because it’s much more difficult. That’s a different kind of risk. It’s easier to write like a less sensitive version of yourself, but to try to write with whatever intelligence you were given, to contend with the limitations of what you have and who you are in a different way? Some of the books that I’m working on now are collaborations; some of them are just on my own, but none of them are in character. I wrote a novel that I’m editing, and after these other books I’ll want to go back to fiction, but I feel like I learned some things while writing HSAPB? that I want to deepen.

A full transcript and podcast of this interview can be found on Jonathan McAloon’s blog, here. Jonathan McAloon Tweets @jonniemcaloon.