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Interview With Sheila Heti: 'All the Stories We Tell Ourselves are Fictions'


Photo by Derek Shapton.

Sheila Heti has too many good ideas. She has written three novels, founded the highly unconventional lecture series Trampoline Hall, started a blog to collect dreams about Barack Obama and interviewed artists like Frank Stella for the Believer. She also writes a column about acting for Maisonneuve.

Her newest book, How Should a Person Be?, both is and isn’t about Heti herself. A semi-autobiographical account, it chronicles writer’s block, the wisdom of friends, self-doubt and young divorce.

Tonight Heti launches the book in Montreal at the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore (211 Bernard St. W.) in conversation with her friend Leanne Shapton, who will launch her own book The Native Trees of Canada.

I interviewed Heti for the Oct. 28 issue of the Montreal Mirror. Here, an extended version of that conversation.


Madeline Coleman: You have said that you don’t enjoy book readings and that books are meant to be read, not performed. How do you feel about the fact that now you have do readings yourself? Are they a necessary evil?

Sheila Heti: I don’t usually go to readings myself and I’m not really sure what people get out of them. But people do go to them, so they must get something out of them. I just don’t really know what it is.

MC: What do you hope it might be?

SH: I guess the best-case scenario is that it adds to one’s understanding of the book. That’s probably what I would hope.

MC: And not leave them more confused afterwards?

SH: That could also be good!

MC: Your new book is partly fictional, yet the protagonist is also named Sheila. Was there ever a question of whether you would use your own name in How Should a Person Be?

SH: At one point early on I wasn’t going to have my own name in it, but then I just figured I might as well make it more immediate and more difficult for me, and more interesting for me, and I think I just couldn’t see any reason not to at a certain point.

MC: How would it make it more difficult?

SH: It just feels crazier. The implications—if you have a fictional name then no one’s going to think it’s you, and if you use your own name then people will and that makes it more difficult. If you use your own name, obviously people understand you to be portraying yourself. If you make up a name, no one thinks that. It’s pretty clear what the difference would be for a reader.

MC: There are many parts of the book that didn’t really happen. Did you ever feel a need to find a parallel with real life? Or would that add a false division between fiction and non-fiction in a book like this?

SH: I was just doing everything at once. It wasn’t as if I did the non-fiction, then added the fiction. Like, you tell someone a story, if you’re a good storyteller you’re maybe going to make up some details and make the story better. Or if you’re having a dream and you wake up the next day and you think something in the dream happened but it didn’t happen. It was all very fluid. It wasn’t as self-conscious as all that.

MC: What else are you working on?

SH: I have this book with [Trampoline Hall MC] Misha Glouberman that’s coming out in the spring that’s called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. It’s basically about what Misha knows. Every chapter is him talking about something else that he has an opinion on or knows about. There’s a chapter about how to play various different games in there. He spoke these chapters to me and I typed them. I had this idea that the world should have a book by Misha and this is going to be that book. We’re just going through the final edits on that.

MC: What was it like working with him?

SH: It was a lot of fun and a lot of pleasure. All I did was type and ask a couple questions. I didn’t have to do any thinking—all the thinking was in his head. It was very pleasurable and easy. He would come over in the morning for coffee and we’d do a couple chapters. It was definitely the simplest project I’ve ever done.

MC: You have also done interviews for the Believer, with people like Frank Stella and Charlyne Yi. When you were examining your own life for How Should a Person Be? but also interviewing, where you were trying to extract that from other people—what kind of questions came to mind?

SH: For me, during that period of my life, talking to people was a way of trying to solve certain intellectual or emotional or spiritual or philosophical problems I had. So when I was talking to people, it was always things that I wanted to know that I felt other people knew better than me. So it was very easy to come up with questions—I had nothing but questions! The people that I was talking to were people that I respected in different ways. I always had genuine curiosity and genuine faith that they could actually provide me with answers that would be useful in some ways.

MC: Did you get the answers you were looking for?

SH: No! [Laughs.] No, almost never. I don’t know that anyone could ever give me any answers, ultimately. That doesn’t make asking questions and having people give you answers any less entertaining or interesting or worthwhile. But I don’t think that anything was ever solved for me.

MC: How would you sort out your own life while writing the autobiographical parts of the book?

SH: It’s hard to explain. Five years of work—that’s hard to boil down to an answer. Five years of trying different things, and trying to work in different ways, thinking in different ways. I think if you’re writing about yourself it’s always this mixture of telling yourself the truth and lying to yourself, just the same as anyone who thinks about their own life. You’re always aware that some of it’s a fabrication to make yourself feel a certain way. I think it’s weird the way we tell ourselves stories about ourselves. I think there’s something strange in the fact that we have to do that to live.

MC: And then when you’re getting it out, and getting it on paper…

SH: And trying to arrange it…I mean, all the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives are fictions. I guess it’s just a matter of choosing the ones that you can live by. In this case I wasn’t trying to choose the ones that I could live by, just the ones that I wanted for the book, that made the book most real for me.

MC: It’s like trying to remember something you did as a little kid, and eventually not being able to tell whether you actually remember it, or whether you were told a story about doing it.

SH: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to tell how much of our personality comes from what we remember and how much we tell ourselves about ourselves.

MC: Did the people you talk about in the book read it as you were working on it? Like, your friend Margaux, for example—did she read it?

SH: Oh yeah, many times. I’m sure she was bored by it by the end.

MC: Does it have an effect on your relationships with the people you write about?

SH: Inevitably, yeah. But I think that that’s okay. I think it’s okay for certain relationships to be art friendships. Certainly if you have friends who will live in this way with you, that’s a real gift.

MC: You write a column about acting for Maisonneuve. You mention several times that you had tried to do some acting when you were younger, but felt that you didn’t have the right feelings when you were doing it.

SH: [Laughs.] I was 12 years old, but yeah, that’s how I felt. No one ever told me, “You’re such a great actor.” I was really always aware that no one ever said that to me. When you’re a kid you’re really aware of whether people approve or disapprove of what you’re doing and no one ever overly approved, so I was pretty aware of that.

MC: You ended up going to Montreal’s National Theatre School to study playwriting. What were the kinds of feelings you had about being a writer?

SH: I had written all my life, concurrent with acting—I wrote when I was a child too—and I never felt like a phony like I did when I was acting. When I was acting, I really felt like I was faking something, whereas writing never felt like I was doing something fake. I trusted that.

MC: You felt like you were faking something that really is pretending, anyway.

SH: Yeah, that’s weird, because actors are faking! You’re pretending you’re another person. I think at it’s best acting isn’t just faking—but I was never able to figure out what it was that was going on that wasn’t just faking. I think really great actors don’t feel like they’re faking.

MC: They’re just putting it on, the character.

SH: Maybe it’s more bodily—what do you think it is?

MC: Friends of mine that are actors, even when they’re just describing a part—they become that. The way they hold their face changes, and then they just snap out of it.

SH: So they’re just being different, they’re not pretending to be different. They’re not acting like they’re acting, they’re just acting!

MC: In your column for Maisonneuve’s fall issue you discuss this too, when you’re talking about method acting and finding different ways to do that.

SH: When I wrote that I was really thinking about who are the great artists. I think a great artist is someone who makes the world look different, who makes humans look different. If you’re an actor, who, if I’m watching you, you actually make humans look different from how other actors have, and it’s real—it’s not just something different. What a great artist.

MC: There are many people who get cited again and again as being great contemporary actors. I wonder if we just expect those people to be good and then, when we watch them, take whatever they’re doing for the way it should be done. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been done differently.

SH: It’s hard to do that with actors. I don’t watch a performance and think of how it could have been done differently. I just take it for what it is and it’s either good or bad. I guess if you’re a director and watching actors you have a sense of nuance. Really I think most actors just act the same as each other. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of variation in how people act.—unless you’re in a very strange movie.

MC: Like in those Ryan Trecartin movies you talked about in your column.

SH: Yeah. But I mean, I was just thinking about Paris Hilton—is she always acting or is that just how she is? You know, is it like some Andy Warhol thing where she’s “acting” the same way he was “acting”?

MC: Maybe when you’re looking at the work of others you don’t think how it could’ve been done differently, but do you think that about your own work? What about your new book, for example?

SH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I just finished it so recently. It doesn’t do me any good to keep thinking about that, but my brain hasn’t stopped working on that problem. If for five years your brain is thinking about how to put this thing together, how to put this puzzle together, and then suddenly it’s at the printer—my brain is still thinking about that, even though there’s nothing that can be done about it anymore.

MC: Do you eventually reach a point where your brain stops working on the problem?

SH: Yeah, once you get into a new book!

MC: Only that will be the end of turning over How Should a Person Be?

SH: Yeah, it’s like they say you have to fall in love again, you know? If you’re stewing over an old relationship, everyone’s just like, “Fall in love again!”

MC: But those same people might tell you you need time to find yourself and be alone.

SH: Exactly! Just be alone for a while. Don’t think about the old book.

MC: When you’re touring and interacting with readers, does that add to the work your brain does on the book?

SH: I don’t know. Every time I read out loud from the book it makes it more concrete that this is the book and it’s not going to be any other book. If you’re reading, especially if the book is in the first person, then really what you’re doing is performing a monologue. You switch at that point from being the writer to being the actor. I felt that the other day when I was doing a reading in Waterloo. I had this point onstage where I was like, “Oh, I’m doing a monologue, the same as when I was 11 years old doing a theatre piece,” except I had written it.

MC: Then the people that are coming to the launch hear you read about a protagonist with your name, and to them it’s current.

SH: And that’s the way it should be. That’s absolutely the way it should be. Think about actors doing Broadway shows—they do them for years and years, the same part over and over, and every time it was to be current. Every time has to feel like the first time. That must be such a feat.

MC: Is there any advice you would give to other writers who might take on books about their own lives?

SH: Well, I didn’t start wanting to write a book about my own life at all. It made me feel sick and queasy when I realised halfway through that was the direction things were going in.

When I started out, I had this voice and it wasn’t exactly mine, but it was a voice I wanted to explore. Then because I was taping Margaux, and because I didn’t come at the book with a plot already, then it started taking on the characteristics of the life I was living.

If someone was setting out to write a book about their life, I wouldn’t really know what to say to them. I don’t really think about having advice for other people. I just do what I do, and I think everyone just needs to do what they do. I had to figure this out for myself and I think that’s the way for everybody. I don’t know if you even have to figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing—you just need to figure out how to do it.


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