Novelist Sheila Heti isn’t afraid to tackle big subjects like fame, friendship, art and love. And somehow she manages to do it with an approachable, enjoyable touch. Her latest book, How Should A Person Be?, has received lots of acclaim for being a “novel from life” — I first learned of it when Girls’ Lena Dunham recommended it in the pages of Entertainment Weekly.
Heti’s previous books include Ticknor, The Middle Stories and the children’s book We Need a Horse. She is also the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series, at which people deliver lectures on subjects outside their areas of expertise.
What’s your attitude towards reading reviews of your work? Does it feel different at all with How Should A Person Be?, which is so closely tied to your real life?
I read the reviews. But reading reviews of HSAPB feels no different from reading reviews of my other books. All my books are closely tied to me. Also, books reflect the reader, so when I read reviews, I experience the reader. You never really feel like they’re talking about the book you wrote, or at least, the book you wrote in the manner you see it. So there’s no harm in reading reviews. It’s interesting.
How was the editing process of HSAPB different from editing and revising your previous books? (I ask selfishly because I’ve found that it’s harder to revise fiction that’s based on real-life events because it’s difficult to get some distance and say “This was important to me because it happened to me, but it might flop on the page.”)
It was much harder to know when it was done. My experience of life kept changing, so my understanding of life kept changing, and so the book kept changing. I probably celebrated it being done 100 times. Each time I was convinced. I passed up on a road trip to see Obama’s inauguration because I thought I was going to finish my book that week. Well, I did finish it. Then I proceed to finish it five dozen more times over the next three years. I still really regret not having taken that trip. It seems crazy to me in retrospect.
You dedicate the book to your friend Margaux, who is also a prominent character in the book. What books or films do you think most accurately depict close female friendships?
My favorite female friends in literature are Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield in Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, which is maybe my favorite American novel. It’s not that Jane Bowles is so accurate. She’s just so great.
What books, films, etc. inspired you while you were working on HSAPB? Or do you prefer to avoid possible external influences when you write?
With this book, I was inspired by my friends, self-help books, Kierkegaard, the Bible, Open Source, the essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. . . many things.
I love influences of all types. The only thing I don’t like is the influence of Wikipedia. Not on novels. I think more novels should be as dumb as their authors, as mistaken as their creators. Not so right about everything. It feels like the disappearance of languages from the earth.
In what ways are you compelled to point out how you are different from fictional Sheila to people who assume you are one and the same?
I’m not compelled to point out anything in particular.
You write in the book that “the best artists are funny.” Who do you find funny who is also a legitimately good artist?
One of my favorite artists is Darren O’Donnell, whose company is called Mammalian Diving Reflex. He works with life, with people. He comes from a theatre background. His work has great humor in it. In one piece of his, which is meant to point out how little we let children participate in culture and politics — how little we trust them, and how much better the world would be if they were more involved and were allowed more agency — he has a bunch of kids take over a barbershop, trains them, then has them give haircuts to grown-ups. The piece is called “Haircuts by Children.” People find it a thrilling and odd novel.
You’ve discussed fame and celebrity — and your interest in Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan — when you talk about HSAPB. Which celebrities would most compel you to pick up a trashy magazine if they were featured on the cover?
I did look at those magazines a bit when I was writing my book, but I don’t anymore. They make me feel bad. I guess I’m most drawn to Suri’s face — the child of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. I’ve been fascinated by her expression. Her face expresses a condition that seems very unattached to the mind of a child.
What were some of your favorite Trampoline Hall lectures?
My favorite lecture was given by Matthew MacFadzean, about the number 32. We went out one night for drinks to try and come up with a topic for him. I remember going to the washroom and then coming back and saying, “How about the number 32?” He liked it. Our previous ideas weren’t very inspired. I actually didn’t think “32” was very inspired, but what he did with it was incredible. The talk was full of surprise and meaning. That number has felt like a completely different number to me ever since. I had no idea the number had an actual identity, but it does.
What are you reading now?
I just bought Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs. He says in the introduction that he wrote it for money. Even though it’s kind of lazy, he’s still a great storyteller and I love him.
How do you prepare for interviews (as an interviewer)? Where do you start?
I start by reading every interview I can find with the subject. I want to know everything they’ve ever said publicly. I want to see the smallest things they’ve made. If they’re a writer, I’ll read every essay they’ve ever published, all their books. I wouldn’t dare interview a writer if I hadn’t first read all of their books.
A very technical question: What type of recorder do you use?
I have a small, basic Olympus. I just buy whatever is priced in the middle. This one plugs directly into the computer, which I like — I hate searching for a cord when I have to download a file. I use ExpressScribe to play back the tapes. It’s free. They’ve arranged the hotkeys in a very sensible way.
Who would you love to interview but haven’t gotten the chance to thus far?
I don’t have a burning desire to talk to anyone in particular. I find most people really interesting. Sometimes someone occurs to me and I think, “I want to interview them.” But I don’t have a list. I mostly publish my interviews in The Believer, so my choice of whom to interview has to do a lot with the needs of the magazine and the balance of subjects within it.
How does it feel to be the 320th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
I don’t know. How is it supposed to feel?