Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s latest novel, How Should a Person Be? has been making big waves since its release last fall for its fresh, funny voice, beautiful writing and startling originality. The novel follows Sheila, a writer and recent divorcée, as she struggles with a creative block and the fallout from her failed marriage. These disappointments breed new possibilities as we tag along for Sheila’s sentimental education on how to be a better lover, friend, artist and person.
Back from her recent publicity tour, Cult MTL checked in with Heti by phone to talk about the book and its reception.
Emily Raine: How Should a Person Be? includes conversations and emails from real life, and your protagonist is also named Sheila, so the book is in some way semi-autobiographical. How would you describe the distinction between what’s your life and what’s not?
Sheila Heti: I don’t consider it autobiographical. I don’t use that word for it because I don’t feel like I was trying to write about my story. I was just trying to write about questions that I have. I try to do that in all the books.
The difference between me and the character is the same difference that there is between me and Ticknor in my other novel. Parts of me are in the character, but that’s the same as any character I write. I use my real conversations and my real friends, but when you pull very specific things from the world, that’s not so different from pulling really specific things from your imagination. You can’t pull your whole life and put it into a book, so that process of selection is a way of constructing a brand-new story, a brand-new reality.
ER: How much are your friends privy to their inclusion? How much do they know about how they’re going to be written?
SH: Well, they all read many drafts many years in advance of the book being published, so it’s no surprise to them. I mean, Margaux must have read twenty drafts or something, so by the time the book came out everyone was really used to it. I didn’t tell them in advance, like, “I’m going to write you like this,” but only because I didn’t know until I started writing.
ER: How do you find the process of writing a novel different than shorter pieces?
SH: I spent five years on this book and five years on my last book. For a short piece it’s just an impulse in the moment, and you accept it and you move on. But if you’re working on it for five years, your whole life and your whole self kind of take on the colour of the book that you’re working on, and the book penetrates everything. It infuses everything with whatever the preoccupation is for what you’re trying to work out in the book, so it’s much more total and much more of an absorption.
You have a lot more ups and downs, obviously, if you’re working on something over five years. It’s like a long-term relationship versus a one-night stand. There’s a huge world of difference. And commitment becomes so important, and it gets you through rough patches, like in a relationship. So that’s the thing when you’re writing a long book.
ER: That seems to be a recurring motif in discussions of your work, likening creative work with romantic relationships.
SH: Those are kind of intuitive, sort of profound moments in life, are the relationships one has with other people, and making a creative work. I do see that there are a lot of similarities between being invested in a person and being invested in a creative work.
ER: I’ve noticed that comparisons to Lena Dunham are really ubiquitous in media coverage of the new book. Is there a similarity there that gels or makes sense to you?
SH: Obviously, she’s talking about young women, and I’m talking about young women a lot. Her Hannah character and the Sheila character in the book both want to be writers, so we’re both also writing about young women who want to be artists, or who are artists.
With all the comparisons, I’m getting the sense that mainstream culture hasn’t seen a lot of depictions of a young woman’s reality by young women. I don’t know why else the comparison would be so ubiquitous. It must just feel so fresh and rare, and I know that her show feels like that to me, so I suppose that people reading the book had that same feeling that I have about that show.
ER: What are you working on now?
SH: I like talking about things once they’re in the world, but if I’m just working on it then it’s just for me. There’s no benefit to me talking about it when it’s still so unknown. I don’t even know what I’m going to do before I do it. I mean, I have an idea, I know what I’m thinking about, and I know what I’m interested in, but I don’t know how it’s going to actually look on the page. ■
How Should a Person Be? is available from House of Anansi Press, 320 pgs, $29.95 hardcover, $18.95 paperback.