Culture

Sheila Heti on Her Novel, ‘How Should a Person Be?’

Culture

Sheila Heti on Her Novel, ‘How Should a Person Be?’

Sheila Heti photographed by Ethan Levitas for The New Yorker
+

New fiction tends to follow its own triangle of expectations. For cheap-good-fast, read: entertaining-important-relevant. It seems you can have two of the three, but never quite all three together in any given story. To anyone who cares about ‘the novel’ past and present, this is no less than a crisis, and calls for a drastic kind of revisioning. But of what? Do novels need to be less self-important? Less relevant and more important? More honest? Less entertaining? Do the writers of novels simply need to try harder, or not as hard?

Sheila Heti‘s second novel How Should a Person Be? tackles these problems discreetly, through different approaches to style, form and truth, while asking a number of greater, more pressing questions—of the soul, of art, of friendship—out loud. In it, the character of Sheila and her best friend Margaux navigate their way through the socratic mire of questions both intellectual and practical. Though short, essayistic sections, emails and transcriptions of conversations between friends, a story of friendship and the willful creation of the self in this century emerges resplendent. It’s a novel that makes almost no assumptions and takes almost nothing for granted. Its themes are large, pressing and nonfictional, and in tend to engulf the fiction while simultaneously enriching. Thankfully, this—at this late stage in literary fiction—is exactly what we want in a novel, and it might just be the thing to shatter the triangle of expectations once and for all.

I met Sheila in the West Village where, against the distraction of intense stare-downs with confrontational stoller-bound children, we managed to discuss platonic love, Henry Miller, and feminist sex.

I- SELF HELP

Do you feel like there’s an answer to the question of the book within the book?
There are several things, maybe not answers to the question ‘how should a person be’ but in aid of it. Part of me feels like the question is wrong. Because it presupposes that we know the rules, we understand enough about life, or that we can be one way. ‘How should a person be’ is suggesting we can be like an object. Like ‘how should this bottle be?’ Well, the bottle doesn’t have to change, but humans are always changing. I had this book called Self Help by Samuel Smiles, it’s the earliest self-help book, it’s where the term was coined—it’s from the late 1800s. And the way it’s written is that every chapter is a different great man and his habits. You’re just supposed to emulate them. I think the original idea of self help is to emulate great people and through that you become great, as opposed to contemporary self help which is all about ‘you are great, you just have to unlock it somehow!’

I was interested Sheila, the main character’s, question of ‘what should I be like’. Because that’s always struck me as a queer struggle. People like Andy Warhol, who gets referenced in the very beginning, would build up this personality from scratch and it was kind of a performance, and the prevailing queer form of expression. But with the character of Sheila, the question of how to create herself is just there without that impetus.
It’s interesting because the book is about the love between two women. It’s not necessarily sexual but there’s eros. And Sholem and Jon are also gay. I never thought about that.

I make the assumption that all artists are queer. But I liked this as a platonic love story. Do you feel like there’s a way in which you could feel closer to or more love for a platonic friend than a lover?
Yes. Because I think with a friend you accept what you get, and with a lover you always want to get certain things, and there’s always this distance in your head between what you think things ought to be or what you ought to be getting and what you are. Friendships are more accepting, you don’t take everything so personally.

What’s it like to have your friend become a fictional version of themselves? False Margaux vs. true Margaux?
It was frustrating to not be able to express the complexity of an actual human being. She turns into a character, which is a little more cartoonish than a human being, there are more limitations. I have this question–if you were really able to convey a human being as we are, would it even hold together as a character? Or would it just not seem like one person?

I feel like it wouldn’t. I mean, even the great characters of literature,
Raskolnikov or whatever,

Yeah, they’re a little too neat–a little too contained.
I was also looking at Margaux as a symbol. My intention was to make Margaux as complex a human being as she is in real life, though she did represent something archetypal or symbolic. And that’s a distortion of the truth.

II- SEX

I loved the ‘Interlude for Fucking’ section. It’s so visceral and such a departure. I like that it’s even called an interlude for fucking. It was so strange when I read it, I was like, ‘what is this doing here?’
Without the sex in the book, I felt like it was missing something—missing the body. It was all just so much in the head, and I felt like, it’s not a total picture of a human being without the body. I felt that instinctively.

I feel like it’s hard to write a sex scene that has a feminist sensibility.
I’m glad you found it feminist.

It is. Because you can look at it and go ‘oh how degrading’, but if it’s the kind of sex the character wants, that S/M dynamic—feminism is about women advocating for what they want no matter if it’s viewed as ‘appropriate’. 

That writing originally wasn’t for the book, I had that writing, I’d written it and didn’t know what to do with it. I thought it was its own book that would turn into something else, and I showed it to a friend of mine who’s an artist, she’s not a character in the book, and she’s a feminist and she’s older than me and she’s in her forties. She loathed it, she didn’t find it feminist in any way. She thought it was really—I don’t remember her words but it was not cool with her. And that sort of worried me. But I did have some worries—more because of that person’s reaction. And for myself I thought—you know, I love Henry Miller and I love that kind of stuff. I think you can communicate a lot with sex.

I feel like he writes about sex as if he was a lesbian. He’s a total lesbian.
Really? I’ve never heard that before—how come?

Because the he makes it so much about her, about the woman. It’s so sensual, the way he’s appreciating her, that it’s like he’s looking at a woman with the appreciation that a woman would have for another woman.

That’s totally fascinating.

Yeah, I find it weird when people freak out and use him as an example of misogyny.
I’ve always loved him.

Yeah, because Norman Mailer, those guys in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they were sexist. But Miller is not quite that.

I first discovered Henry Miller—you know that book Sexual Politics by Kate Millet? My parents had that book and I would just read the sex parts, and they had like, D.H Laurence, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and somebody else. I only liked the Henry Miller stuff—I didn’t like anything else.

D.H. Lawrence’s sex scenes are so terrible.
But Miller really does see the woman—it’s not even an ideal woman, it’s just that woman.

III- THE CITY

I feel like maybe living in New York or just a city is—for all that it’s wonderful–makes you paranoid about abstract things.
Like what?

Like the end of the world. Or the end of literacy.

For me, a city doesn’t make me feel apocalyptic. It always makes me think about history more than the end of the world. Humans have always had those feelings that the world is ending, always. It’s like projecting your own mortality, I think. Not to say that things aren’t bad, but I do feel that that feeling is projecting one’s mortality.

In the city it feels heightened.
It’s very stimulating in New York especially. They say that women’s sexual responses in New York City are lessened than in less bustling cities because it’s so overstimulating. In order to feel sexual responsiveness in your body, there has to be space for that, and if you’re constantly being stimulated—I had a friend who moved from Toronto from New York and she was like, “I feel so horny all the time, I feel so aroused!”

Is Toronto that unstimulating?

It’s less stimulating. I mean, when I say ‘they say this about women’, she said her doctor said that. And Marie Stopes, this birth control reformer from the early 20th century, she had this marriage pamphlet about sex, and she would say that women are overstimulated by city life and can’t be in tune with their real sexual sensitivities.

Was she advocating for women to stay indoors?
No, she was just pointing it out. It is what it is.

I always attribute it to like, if you’re walking through New York or riding the subway, it’s impossible to find anyone attractive.
You find it impossible to find attractive people in the city?

Well I mean, I’m sure people are attractive—
But you don’t find them attractive.

Yeah, because faces are just coming at you in this mass. But it’s a shame, because many people are attractive, I’m sure. But there are just things that get in the way of it. Like today on the subway I looked over at someone’s e-reader and it was 50 Shades of Grey. Every time I look over at someone’s e-reader, it’s either The Help, or it’s that book. And it was funny because when she first brought it out it, Jules Verne was on the screen. I was like ‘oh my god, this woman’s reading Jules Verne!’
Well they have those screensavers, right? Where it’s like, Jules Verne—it’s a random series of authors.

Oh god, really? I was like ‘She’s reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea! This woman is my soulmate!’
That’s hilarious.

The tragedy of people reading on the New York subway.
You have to put you saying that into the interview.