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. I’ve tried to keep this transcription as raw as something out of the book itself, which nicely matches the quality of the recording, with its occasional roadworks outside the Random House flat. And as Heti is also interviews editor for The Believer, I got the sense, at times, that I was the one being interviewed, or even fictionalised. If you want something neater, you can read my abridged version for The Spectator.

Jonnie

Sheila, you are the interviews editor for The Believer, and have said that interviews attract you as an art form because you like ‘hearing someone speak to themselves.’ Em, has interviewing people taught you how to speak to yourself in books?

Sheila

Erm, I think I said ‘speak for themselves’

Jonnie

Okay, I might have copied that down wrong. But the typo still stands.

Sheila

The typo still stands… Erm, and the question is, whether interviewing has taught me to speak in books? in some way?

Jonnie

Speak to yourself, or for yourself? What have you learnt from interviews in terms of the novel?

Sheila

Well I started doing interviews around the time I started writing How Should A Person Be? so they were kinda simultaneous with each other. Erm, I guess they taught me about, well, that it’s not always the content of what someone says that’s interesting: it’s the way that they express themselves and the way that they form their thoughts and the way they form their sentences and, um, the kind of really quiet things that happen in a conversation that maybe on first read you don’t always notice but that second third and fourth read you do; like, I think that there’s always, you know, the surface level conversation that’s going on and then, but when you transcribe you always see that there’s, you now it’s like, you know the ex – you know micro expressions?

Jonnie

Yeah.

Sheila

Like, so the micro expressions in speech. So, I think doing interviews taught me how to value that, and learning how to edit interviews also helped me like, learn how to edit, you know, the kind of conversations that I used in the book. Um, like there is a form and a flow to conversation that you can see, well, that you can hear if it’s a podcast like this but you can also see if you write it, write it down. There’s ways of like preserving that in the editing and highlighting that I learned.

Jonnie

Cool. Em, you’ve said that preceding this book you had a crisis about the conventions and motives of traditional fiction. Em, can you locate the exact moment or book that caused this, like, what were you reading that –

Sheila

 I, the first thing that came into my head, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but there’s a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Do you know this book?

Jonnie

No, not at all.

Sheila

It’s a really, really – it was a really popular sort of self help book for people that wanted to be more successful I guess, you know like people in business and so on. And I was at a writers’ colony called Yaddo in upstate New York and, uhm, I had brought that book with me among other books, and there’s just something so terrible and wonderful about it, like, it had you do these exercises and one of the exercises was, uhm, think about what you would want people to say about you at your funeral, and you’re supposed to write down what you’d like people to say, and I wrote this down – I was doing this exercise – and, and I went back a week later and I read what I had written, and it was so horrible. And I was like, that’s not – it was just so revolting to me what I’d want people to say, and it made me think about this idea of self help and how we’re compelled by it but ultimately in some ways how terrible and revolting it is, how it kind of brings up the worst parts of you, you know? Uhm…

Jonnie

And that was good for fic – for writing?

Sheila

It just seemed more interesting to me, like what that book had shown me about myself, or even about our – the contemporary – self, seemed more interesting than what somebody writing, you know, about our horribleness in a novel might, you know, show; so I don’t know, I guess I got interested in self help and a different relationship to the reader, from the self help books I was reading. Yeah.

Jonnie

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.’ Em, can you tell me more about that, possibly?

Sheila

Yeah, just, I dunno. I think there’s something about – 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; like, I don’t think I’m ever really truly bored. But there’s something about those books that are always packing in information and packing in exciting, stimulating events, and, that are always entertaining you and books that are always on, that I find really exhausting, you know, so it’s more like a comparison to that, um, those kinds of books, um, I think James Wood even wrote about it, what did he call them? Hyper?

Jonnie

Hysterical Realism.

Sheila

Yeah. It’s as though like the book’s duty is – and I do think that books should entertain, but to hyper entertain, I don’t think that’s the book’s job.

Jonnie

Excellent. Em, Yeah: there’s a section of the book where Sheila and Margaux rate famous philosophers, artists and writers as being ‘funny’ or ‘not funny’, by which you mean a kind of marrow-deep, unintentional comedy in their sensibility. How do contemporary artists and writers figure in this? I’ve got some names, but if you can start off, if there’s anyone,

Sheila

Who’s funny?

Jonnie

Who’s funny or not funny and why.

Sheila

 What’s her name? There was a documentary made about her where she adopts an African baby: she’s a British artist and she has those naked women, like thirty or forty naked, or, you know, women in bras standing in a gallery, what’s her name?  Yeah I think she’s funny even, I think she’s very funny. Well who are some of the names you had? I wish I could remember…

Jonnie

Jonathan Franzen?

Sheila

Not funny.

Jonnie

Not Funny. Elif Batuman?

Sheila

Funny.

Jonnie

Good answer. Zadie Smith?

Sheila

Erm, I haven’t read any of her recent novels, so I’ll take a pass.

Jonnie

Was she funny?

Sheila

Uhm. Not to me, I think other people found her very funny though.  Actually when I was reading her I felt very keenly, like, that we had a different sense of humour, though meeting her I found her very funny, so I don’t know what to, maybe she’s, maybe… I don’t know what to say: as a person yes.

Jonnie

Tom McCarthy?

Sheila

Yeah, very funny. At least – well I’ve only read Remainder but I thought that was very funny. And absurd, you know? And uncanny.

Jonnie

Adam Thirwell?

Sheila

Uhm, I haven’t finished his books yet so I don’t know.

Jonnie

Okay, I’ll leave that one. Geoff Dyer?

Sheila

Funny, I mean I read that book her wrote about D. H. Lawrence, that’s very funny.

Jonnie

Out Of Sheer Rage.

Sheila

Yeah.

Jonnie

 Erm. David Shields?

Sheila

Not funny.

Jonnie

Not funny. James Wood?

Sheila

Well he’s not a – is he a novelist?

Jonnie

Does that matter? He is a –

Sheila

Is he funny? Is he a funny critic? I don’t know if it applies to critics in my, in my head. Do you find him funny?

Jonnie

I find, yeah, I find him funny sensibility wise. I think there’s an awareness of that deep-seated –

Sheila

yeah, what do you think about the people you just – I want to,

Jonnie

Yeah, erm, haven’t read any Jonathan Franzen. Efif Batuman: definitely. Zadie Smith: almost. Erm, haven’t read Tom McCarthy. Adam Thirlwell: clever but no. Erm, Geoff Dyer: very much.  David Shields:  no.

Sheila

So we agree?

Jonnie

 We agree, yeah. We should tally it up – yeah, this is going well. Okay, so do you think How Should A Person Be? is your best executed or most indicative work? If you wanted a reader to get a feel for you, because all your books are quite different, would you recommend this one above other ones?

Sheila

Mmm. I don’t think it’s my best executed because, each book I was trying to do something different, and I feel like, you know, yeah, I don’t compare them, I don’t think this one was – I got closer to it, what I was trying to do than I got in the other ones. In some way I think I got closer in the other ones, maybe, because I knew what I was trying to do, more – well I knew what I was trying to do in terms of the shape of the book. But would I recommend people read this one? I think that I can tell, sort of: this book I would even recommend to people that don’t read literature, you know, or don’t care about art in any way, but I think that Ticknor is something that I would recommend to people who are writers more, because I feel like, I dunno why but just in terms of the response I’ve had I see that people who are also writers prefer that book or have a more special relationship to that book. I’m not even sure why.

Jonnie

You’ve mentioned before that you watched the reality show The Hills in order to transcribe dialogue to get a feel for their reality. I was wondering, not on a level of which bits happened and which bits didn’t, but what ratio of the transcript dialogue in the book is your invention, like, completely, and how much of it is taken. Just ratio. I’m thinking of the technicality –

Sheila

Of the transcripts? I should look at the book. I think that it’s mostly real. I’m trying to think if there was any that I made up in the transcripts. I’d edit them. I’m not sure that any were, I don’t know. Definitely mostly real.

Jonnie

My favourite transcripts are the ones which seem to good to have just happened – seemed like art has played a big part –

Sheila

Like the copy shop?

Jonnie

And the two theatre people with their terrible ideas.

Sheila

 All those things are real.

Jonnie

Oh really? It just seems like impeccably constructed satire.

Sheila

I know it’s amazing. It’s terrific. I couldn’t believe it!

Jonnie

Well I was going to ask you did you ever get a sense that art made a better case for itself in this book that ‘reality’? But –

Sheila

 That was reality, but art is finding the situation I guess. 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 I’d ever been in. What I liked about writing this book was feeling that, you know, for me with the other books I would try to be sensitive to the moment that I wanted to write and always write in those moments, and with this book I’d try to be sensitive to the moment I’d want to record, so it was a different kind of discipline or different kind of sensitivity to the world so, yeah; and as I was recording in the copy shop I had a second consciousness – you know when they say that about writers that they walk around the world with a consciousness of, like, oh I can write about that? But I’d never had that because I have such a bad memory I’d be like, how can I write about that? Or I’d get home and be like, what was I going to write about? So for me the recording was a way of doing that in the moment. But, like I was saying, as I was recording I had a second consciousness of understanding myself in that situation not really to be me but to be this kind of character that I had been writing about in my book and understanding, sort of seeing it on the page as I was interacting, and again there was a lot of editing. I didn’t write anything that he said or anything new that I said. And that’s sort of the reality TV thing of sort of performing in your own life. That fascinated me.

Jonnie

That’s brilliant: the idea of not creating it but editing – planning where to edit the reality. It’s very interesting. You said in conversation with Thirlwell that ‘if you spend too much time on style, you forget about the meaning.’ This for me is a problematic statement in the context of your book, which is preoccupied not only with always relating things as they are, but also with unlearning things, unlearning literariness and artistry: there is the ‘ugly painting competition,’ and your character Sheila borrows heavily from self-help clichés: footprints in the sand, stormy seas, brick walls. Is this kind of thing not as counterintuitive to meaning and your way of seeing things as they are as overworking a sentence?

Sheila

Is what counterintuitive?

Jonnie

Erm, the consciously unlearning and adding the layer of euphemism and cliché from a different medium. Is that not just as counterintuitive to the way you see the world –

Sheila

 Adding cliché?

Jonnie

Well, the unlearning aspect.

Sheila

I don’t know if I understand your question. So you were talking about when I said with Adam that I was trying not to think about style with this book.

Jonnie

Yeah. You were trying not to think about it. But surely because you’re a writer, the way you think is also as a stylist. So sometimes you borrow these self-help images, and there’s all the things about, erm, Sholem saying that you have to unlearn your sense of line.

Sheila

Right. In order to make something ugly.

Jonnie

But is that actually a ‘natural’ way of seeing the world – inhibiting your natural faculties? Is inhibiting those things not counterintuitive?

Sheila

Is it not counterintuitive to inhibit thinking about style? Yeah, totally counterintuitive. Yeah it felt really counterintuitive – this whole thing. Everything about it. That was what was so hard about Margaux and I, like, everything that she believed and thought was exactly the opposite of what I believed and thought, and I was trying to write a book in the way that she might write a book or with her aesthetic, which is not mine, I mean, she is much messier, she’s much freer, she’s not as tight and precise. She’s a painter; it’s different to be a painter and to work with words: I think you can be much 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, like, go back to an earlier draft; you have to deal with the mess you’ve made. And so it was trying to learn how to move. You know, Margaux and I have had this conversation a lot where she 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 – well I’ll take back that thing I just did, I’ll take back that thing I just said. You know? And that’s neuroses. Margaux’s… I’ve never seen her be like, in a neurotic loop, and that’s I think because the discipline of a painter is you have to deal with what you did and move forward. So yeah. Anyway, it was really counterin – yeah, that’s why I think: that’s why I don’t really like the book in terms of, uhm, like, with the other books I sort of, I feel that they’re clean and good and so on, and after I publish them the response didn’t make me feel any less clean or good, and this book is so dirty or whatever, and the response to it, and allowing myself to do all these interviews or whatever, everything’s just become messy and dirty in my life and in my sense of myself, and the effect that the book has had on my life has been, uhm, kind of radical in a way that feels counter to my nature and everything. So, yeah, it’s weird when you do something counterintuitive or you make choices that are the opposite of what your nature would choose. You know I really, uhm. And then the repercussions are much more than I thought. But I think it’s odd in a way because we are so – I think everybody’s really extreme, like every person is a really extreme case. And so to balance yourself with the characteristics of somebody, like in my case Margaux who’s  the opposite extreme, you come to some new place, and what happens is pretty unpredictable as a result.

Jonnie

The other day with Thirlwell you talked a lot about the importance of vulnerability. You have put on lectures where speakers aren’t expert in their topic to encourage an empathic bond with the audience; your latest book’s appeal is the vulnerability of the material and the speaker; and you communicated that admirable, sympathetic vulnerability when you spoke, too. Yet when an audience member asked about the way you wrote sex – the place where most writers would feel most vulnerable – you said there was ‘nothing embarrassing about it.’ Is this not a very vulnerable thing to say?

Sheila

You think that’s a vulnerable thing to say?

Jonnie

Or defensive.

Sheila

I think it’s just true. I mean 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.

Jonnie

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

Sheila

I didn’t feel vulnerable when I was writing it. I felt kind of powerful when I was writing it and very assured. I never felt vulnerable writing it. I mean the attitude of the sex passages is very centred and confident, even though she’s writing about degradation and submission, you know? I was mostly embarrassed by that question because she [audience member] was sort of saying you and Adam write about sex in the same way –

Jonnie

Oh yeah, you don’t.

Sheila

We don’t?

Jonnie

You don’t.

Sheila

(laughs)

Jonnie

Carry on.

Sheila

That’s all I wanted to say.

Jonnie

There’s a funny thing I realised: in a book which deals intimately and unsparingly with your real life friendships, erm, it seems to me you’ve been far more tactful and guarded about sex, because you seem to hide it behind the most obviously symbolic and fictional character: Israel.

Sheila

I also didn’t name my ex-husband. I just felt that certain relationships in my life had this contract in them from the beginning which was that this is – our relationship will involve this art relationship, and in the case of my romantic or sexual life, those relationships didn’t have that contract, so I’m not the kind of writer who’s gonna uhm, abuse the human contract, if the contract’s not there. You know? I didn’t get married with the contract that we’ll write about the marriage, you know? I mean I did write a little bit about it, and so did my hus –  ex-husband in his book, but just in terms of my feelings about it not in terms of anything that ever happened. And also, it’s better to use the name Israel than to use his real name, and then in terms of Margaux it’s better to use her real name than to use a fake name.

Jonnie

Yeah, but you see my thoughts on it, about the tact?

Sheila

Yeah, you see my thoughts on it? (laughs)

Jonnie

Yeah, of course. But do you see my thoughts on it?

Sheila

What are your thoughts? (general laughter) No I don’t see your thoughts on it…

Jonnie

Oh okay. Well I’ll leave that there.

Sheila

Well no I mean that, yeah…

Jonnie

One of the reasons I brought up the whole sex thing is that you seem to write literary sex very well, which is hard, because it seems impossible for writers to convey the urgency the characters may feel about it to anyone else: what you do is allow the hypnotic effect it has on your characters while allowing the unoriginality of sex itself to be perfectly visible in the prose. Did you have an aesthetic agenda to begin with about how you’d present sex, and I know vaguely what you’re gonna say but, did that choice actually change as you wrote?

Sheila

No, I wrote that stuff very quickly, just in sort of one sitting; I didn’t return to it. A lot of the stuff I wrote just in one, it’s like the prologue, I just wrote it in one burst? So there wasn’t a conscious, you know, what did you say? Intellectual agenda?

Jonnie

An aesthetic –

Sheila

Aesthetic agenda? No. But I know what I don’t like, and I’ve always known what I don’t like in sex writing. I just don’t think it’s usually right. It’s not usually the way sex feels the way people write about it: It’s something else. It’s like they write about the body. I mean it is the body but it’s what you say – it’s the urgency, usually, that’s the exciting or interesting part of it, not the animal part of it.

Jonnie

For one of your characters, the artist Sholem, freedom is ‘having the technical capacity to execute whatever he wants.’ And this question plays into something you said before. In this book you wanted the freedom of direct expression or formlessness, but its success for me largely comes from your technical capability to execute that directness and formlessness. Do you think you could have written a ‘formless’ book as effective as this without first training in traditional forms?

Sheila

Well this couldn’t have been my first book because it was just – the hard thing for me was the balance between form and formlessness, and beauty and ugliness, and being a novel and not being a novel. All the editing was about making it seem like having enough narrative to draw you through it but not having so much that it becomes to artificially novelistic and, you know, having it be like life and having it not be like life, so all those balances I think, no, I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not written fiction before, or if I’d not understood some of the mechanisms of fiction. Yeah, I think that was definitely, you have to sort of know, yeah. I feel now after having written this book like much more capable of writing that I did before. Uhm, things are coming, it’s easier somehow, so I feel like I learned a lot, over those years, and I think Margaux feels the same way too about the movie she made during that time, like, now she’s thinking about a second one and uhm, I feel like when we started these projects we’re babies or something. And I don’t think either of us feel like that now.

Jonnie

 You say you wouldn’t have dared this as your first novel, and it seems that this book maybe 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 and unknown author, writes ‘personal essays.’ Would you feel compelled to read the potential children of HSAPB?, which would inevitably be young people’s debuts which aspire to be like it but don’t have your understanding of form?

Sheila

Yeah, probably not. I mean, 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 or something. No, I’m afraid, actually, of being sent all these books that I’m supposed to like and want to read, when you know –

Jonnie

For review?

Sheila

Yeah or whatever, and it’s happening. People keep saying do you want to read this young woman’s like, autobiographical novel and it’s like, no! I want to think about other things now.

Jonnie

You’re saying you don’t have the desire to do something like that again, and it’s made you feel like a better writer. I suppose the place to end would be, what’s next, what kind of thing. You don’t need to tell me what you’re writing next, but what you’re excited by?

Sheila

Well, truthfully I was on an aeroplane a while ago, maybe like a year or two ago, and I realised that I’d never written as me. I’d always written as – in character? So Ticknor’s a character, and this Sheila’s a character, and that’s what I became excited about like, 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.

Jonnie

Being yourself rather than playing yourself?

Sheila

Yeah, it’s a huge difference, and for a reader they can’t tell the difference, but I can tell the difference and, uhm, I think it’s easier to write like a stupid version of yourself or a less sensitive version of yourself. But to actually try to write with whatever intelligence you were given, uhm, is scarier than to try and write a dumbed-down version of yourself, because you have to actually contend with the limitations of what you have and who you are in a different way. So the books that I’m working on now, and some of them are collaborations; some of them are just on my own, I guess they all have that in common, but none of them are characters. And so with HSAPB? I really do think of it as fiction because the narrator is a charcter, so these: I wouldn’t even know if I could call them fiction.

Jonnie

I was expecting you were going to go down a more fictional…

Sheila

Well I wrote a novel that I’m editing, but these other things are more, yeah, are not. But then I think after these are done then I’ll want to do that, but I feel like I learned some things while writing this book that I want to deepen rather than just doing their opposite.

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