Sheila Heti: "There’s this neurotic relationship between art and life"

The Books Interview.

Sheila Heti at her home in Toronto. Portrait by Reynard Li
Sheila Heti at her home in Toronto. Portrait by Reynard Li

The title of your new book, How Should a Person Be?, reminds me less of the modern cult of self-help than of Michel de Montaigne and an old essayistic tradition.
I love Montaigne. I didn’t study English literature, I studied philosophy at university, so Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – these people are among the most important writers to me. So my interest is in the big questions more than it is in storytelling.

You’ve described the book as a “novel” but it enacts, in the way it’s written, an anxiety about what kind of thing it is exactly.
Right. Is it a play? Is it a novel? Is it a diary? I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word. I’d rather call it a novel than anything else but I wish there was another word I could call it. I love fiction and I’ll write fiction again but when I was writing this I was asking myself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I making up a person and making them do things?” It just seemed so arbitrary to me, what that person was going to do. It felt silly – I didn’t know why I was doing it all of a sudden. It seemed very much as if I was inheriting a tradition but it wasn’t coming out of any need.

The book seems almost to flaunt its assembled character, the fact that it’s knocked together from disparate elements. Is that deliberate?
“Assembled” is a nice way of putting it. But I wrote this book the way I did because I had to. It’s not an injunction to the rest of the world to do things this way. It’s just the way I had to do this particular book.

I think it’s a bit silly to have such strong feelings about how art should be, as someone like David Shields does. That’s the one place where there shouldn’t have to be rules. To bring rules in is a little defensive.

One of things I’d do when I was writing the book was carry around these notecards with me. At one point, in fact, I wanted the book to be notecards that people could carry around with them.

But then I did also figure that I needed a narrative, though I like the idea of a book being unfinished in some sense.

Some reviewers have compared this book with Andy Warhol’s 1968 novel a, which is based on transcribed conversations. Have you read it?
I know that book. But the big difference between it and my book is that it isn’t entertaining – or isn’t interested in entertainment. It’s so banal, so comprehensive, there’s no editing.

It’s really admirable as a work of art and it’s interesting as an experiment, but it doesn’t really give pleasure. And I believe in doing that – even if the pleasure is difficult. I believe in entertainment.

But, like Warhol, you are interested in the public performance of personality, aren’t you?
Yes, how to negotiate all the representations of ourselves. I was talking to my brother about this last night – he’s a stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedians have a very important relationship to Twitter. For them, it’s a place to try out material.

My brother said, “If I reply to people on Twitter then I’m breaking this very defined persona.” He just can’t figure out whether to be himself or to be this persona.

The book is a performance of a particular version of yourself isn’t it? The narrator is called “Sheila”, after all.
There’s been a lot more confusion about that than I anticipated. Because I named the character “Sheila”, people assumed I named her “Sheila Heti”, which I didn’t. I’d never call a character “Sheila Heti”. It’s got to be close but not that close!

Sheila in the novel is deeply preoccupied with questions of artistic authenticity, isn’t she?
A lot of those ideas came from reading Otto Rank’s Art and Artist. He talks about how the problem for the modern artist is that there’s this neurotic relationship between art and life. What I was thinking when writing this book was: how can you bring the studio into your life, or life into the studio?

Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99)